Is God a Self? – Part 7 – Swinburne

Richard Swinburne is one of the greatest living Christian philosophers, who has made immense contributions to philosophy of religion and philosophical theology. It is only idolatry of the past that prevents people from seeing him as great a Christian intellectual as Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, or Leibniz. In my view, he’s plainly a better, clearer, more well-rounded philosopher than any of them. “A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his relatives and his own family.” (Jesus) Just so, a great philosopher is rarely recognized in his own time (beyond a small circle of peers – here, Christian philosophy professors and students), his books lost in a sea of mediocre and more fashionable ones. In 500 years, people will still read Swinburne.

Having said that, I’m a conflicted fan. I tend to agree with Swinburne on philosophical issues, but not with his take on the Bible, and so, I often find myself disagreeing on subjects like the Trinity and Incarnation. He has very developed views on both, by the way. See the five-part trinities series here, or my summary of Swinburne’s Trinity theory here.

So, Is God a Self? What saith Swinburne? Check out his brief interview by Robert Kuhn here (click the blue “Play Video” button) and then click here for my take ->

In another interview with Kuhn, where the question is “What is God like?”, Swinburne gives a good overview of his conception of the Christian God – at least, in the context of his works in natural theology and philosophy of religion: God is “a personal being… someone with whom we interact… a person is someone with powers”, and eternal being who is omnipotent, omniscience, omnipresent, perfectly free, and perfectly good. Kuhn points out towards the end of the interview that the idea here is that the concept of God here is that of  a very special person/self. Swinburne says he’s describing “the simplest sort of person there could be”.

Here, he repeats all of this, about the Christian God, that “He’s a person”, as are we - “person” here meaning not a human being, but rather a self – a being with powers to intentionally act, and so beliefs and motives. God is a non-physical self. He goes on to say that fundamentally, God is a being with unlimited intentional power, and moreover, he’s the simplest sort of self there could be.

Great – it seems that the answer to our question is an unqualified “Yes”. But, what does the name “God” refer to here? Swinburne surely isn’t equivocating. He must, in these discussions, mean some one being by the name “God”; he must be using that term in a consistent way. In a Christian context, there are pretty much four possibilities:

  1. the Father
  2. the Son, Jesus
  3. the Holy Spirit
  4. the Trinity

Can’t be 2, as he says without qualification that God lacks a body.

Doesn’t seem to be 3 – nothing he says indicates this.

He must mean 1 or 4. Which?

In this context, he’s talking about the Christian God, or God as understood by mainstream, small-c catholic or small-o orthodox Christianity. Most would say that “God” for such Christians names the Trinity. So, it must be 4, right?

Wrong. For Swinburne, the Trinity is not a self. It is composite substance, composed of three selves, but it isn’t itself a self. It has no first person point of view, performs no intentional actions. He’d add that it (the Trinity) could be said to do such things, simply because its parts do. (Compare: a group of people “deciding to eat cheeseburgers”.)

The only option left is 1 – he’s talking about the Father when he talks of “God” here, right? This is a natural interpretation, as this is how the writers of the New Testament mainly use “God” (Gr. ho theos). The Father, for Swinburne, is all those things described above. And yet, this can’t be right, can it?

Here’s a different way to put what’s bothering here. Consider this inconsistent triad:

  • The Christian God is a self.
  • The Christian God is the Trinity.
  • The Trinity is not a self.

If you assume any two of these, it logically follows that the third is false. Go ahead – try all the combinations… I’ll wait. (For those trained in standard logic, the three would be: Sg, t=g, and -St – convince yourself that all the arguments are valid.)

Swinburne clearly affirms the third. So, he must give up one of the first two. But which will he give up?

Here, it seems, not the first. But then, he must deny the second. The Christian God is the Father, and the Father isn’t the Trinity, so the Christian God isn’t the Trinity. In short, he’s a unitarian – someone who thinks the one God just is the Father.

But wait, he’s a trinitarian, right – a social trinitarian? Mustn’t he thus affirm the second, and deny the first? But there’s no hint of that here.

What gives?

About Dale

Dale Tuggy is a Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Fredonia, where he teaches courses in analytic theology, philosophy of religion, religious studies, and the history of philosophy.

8 Responses to Is God a Self? – Part 7 – Swinburne

  1. Dave Burke says:

    A poignant analysis.

    Swinburne’s position is as confusing as it is inconsistent. The classic self-contradiction arises yet again:

    * Swinburne consistently refers to God as “He” (note the singular pronoun)
    * Swinburne says “God is a person” (my emphasis; note the use of a singular)
    * Swinburne confesses God as three persons, not one

    How many times have we seen this before?

  2. Dale says:

    All social trinitarians I’m aware of continue to talk of God continually as a “He”, except sometimes when their Trinity doctrine is directly in view. Their only defense, I believe, is that on their view the God-community is somewhat like a self. There’s no problem, of course, with people using analogies and metaphors, when appropriate… except when this practice misleads. Here, arguably, it does.

    I’ve been reading Moltmann lately, a font of much of this. He denounces monotheism (!) as unchristian and tied to political oppression. He makes clear that the Three are so many selves, and are united simply by their personal relationships. The one “God” is just the process of these three living together in community. Yet it’s “he” and “himself” etc. throughout.

  3. Dave Burke says:

    He denounces monotheism (!) as unchristian and tied to political oppression. He makes clear that the Three are so many selves, and are united simply by their personal relationships.

    Wow, that’s some radical theology there! Yet it does make a certain kind of sense, since a rejection of monotheism is arguably the logical conclusion of any Trinitarian model which denies that God is a “self.”

    If God is not a single person, and if the relationship between the three persons who allegedly comprise God is impossible to express without compromising monotheism, surely it’s better to admit that monotheism just isn’t compatible with Trinitarianism.

  4. Scott says:


    When you use the phrase “a self” what, exactly, do you mean? Is there an explicit Biblical discussion of this? It would seem to be a presupposition to make sense of things …. But then again, we’d have to argue for a particular interpretation of what we mean by “a self”. I suppose the issue of personal identity is close to this, though not exactly.

  5. Dale said, “I’ve been reading Moltmann lately, a font of much of this. He denounces monotheism (!) as unchristian and tied to political oppression.”

    Dale, could you please cite where Moltmann “denounces monotheism (!) as unchristian and tied to political oppression”?

  6. Dale says:

    The Trinity and the Kingdom ch. 5-6. I don’t have my marked up copy with me right now, or I’d serve up some quotes.

  7. Dale says:

    When you use the phrase “a self” what, exactly, do you mean? Is there an explicit Biblical discussion of this?

    Hi Scott, I’m talking about what’d I’d call the common sense conception of a self, a thing capable of intentional action and knowledge.

    No, I don’t think the Bible discusses selfhood. It doesn’t need to, the concept being built in, as it were. Yeah, the whole discussion of “personal identity” (i.e. how it can be that persons remain numerically the same through time and change) presupposes this concept.

  8. Pingback: Further thoughts on Swinburne’s God-talk (Dale) » trinities

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