Further thoughts on Swinburne’s God-talk

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In this 2010 post I reacted to an interview by social trinitarian Richard Swinburne. My concern was that Swinburne has a theory on which the Trinity is not itself a person, but in answer to the question “Is God a self?” He answers affirmatively. What gives?

Recently a reader e-mailed me with this link (thanks, Anthony). If you look at around 14 minutes, you’ll hear him make abundantly clear that he thinks God is a self, that he just is a certain perfect person. From the official transcript:

In the view of all that is the theory that theism, the theory that there is a God, is that a  simple explanation of the universe? …God is supposed to be a personal being. What is a person? A person is a being with certain powers to move their arms or whatever, certain beliefs and certain purposes which are formed by their desires so they have inclinations to do things, desires, powers and beliefs. We are persons in that sense but we of course have finite powers, God is supposed to be limitless in his power. We have some beliefs true, some false and plenty of things we do not have beliefs about. God is supposed to have all true beliefs to help be omnipotent and omniscient and God is supposed to be perfectly free in the sense that he is not in anyway influenced by desires. We have some desires which influence us and on the other hand we see certain things as good to do and that influences us. But we have views about what is worth doing which are quite out of line with our desires to do things and therefore we are subject to irrational desires. God is supposed not to be subject to irrational desires and in that sense he is perfectly free hence being omniscient he will see what is good and having no inclination to do anything else if you recognise  something as good you have an inclination to do it. So he will inevitably do what is good.

So this is a very simple kind of person unlike us who are complicated persons in being mixtures of desires for the bad, perception to the good, limited powers and so on. He is a simple person in the sense of my definition. He is one person, he has only got three properties, he has got an infinite degree of each or rather, as I have described it so far, two properties and one absence of a property. That is to say he does not have desires for irrational ends. (p. 5)

“God” here, given his own trinitarian speculations, can’t be the Trinity. In my post linked above,  I lay out this inconsistent triad:

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

And I say that Swinburne is committed to the third, so must – but does not clearly – give up one or both of the first two. Anthony’s email prompted me to break out one of Swinbure’s recent treatments – his Was Jesus God?

In Was Jesus God? he makes clear that he is not defending monotheism, but rather theism.

What I mean by my claim that there is a God is that there is (at least) one divine person, who is essentially omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free, and eternal. I shall call this claim ‘theism.’ (p.5)

Right. “Theism” means: either monotheism or polytheism. (I think this is a good usage; one should be aware, though, that many Christian philosophers use “theism” as a synonym for “monotheism.”) He continues,

I shall assume for the rest of this chapter that – as Judaism and Islam claim – there is only one divine person, and I will call him ‘God’.  (p. 5)

What? Why? Anyway, forgetting his definition of “theism”, a few pages later:

The way I have spelled out the hypothesis of theism… has the consequence that theism is a very simple hypothesis. It postulates the existence of one entity (one god, not many gods), with very few simply describable properties. (pp. 18-9, original emphasis)

Hold on… if “theism” is that there is at least one God (either one or more), then it is not clear how simple it is! It could turn out on a such a theism that there are 17,912 gods. He’s stipulated as an assumption that there is at most one God… but that tells us nothing about theism as defined.

Why not propose monotheism instead?

Answer: because he thinks it is false! But if it is, as he holds, demonstrably false, then this ruins it as a theory, right, despite its evident simplicity. It seems to me that he can’t ignore the (alleged) impossibility of monotheism while doing natural theology – that is surely a relevant fact, if it is one. He should set as his goal defending the simplicity of tritheism (of his special sort) vs. naturalism. On the face of it, though, that is harder to do.

In chapter two, he clarifies that the God he’s talked about so far (in the context of natural theology) has been the Father. (So, I was right in my earlier post.) He says,

In effect Judaism and Islam believe only in God the Father. But Christianity claims that there are three divine persons who depend totally on each other and act together as one ‘personal being’, a Trinity. (p. 28)

Those quotes are important; for him, the Trinity is not a self, though it can be compared to one. He then argues that “A solitary God would have been an ungenerous god and so no God.” (p. 29)  In other words, he urges (very quickly here, and not convincingly) that monotheism – the existence of one God is necessarily false, since if there is one God, he must, of necessity, eternally cause another to exist, who must co-operate to eternally cause a third, but no more.

It seems to me that Swinburne doesn’t even try to maintain monotheism while being trinitarian. Monotheism, he holds, is a necessary falsehood, like the claim that there’s a thing which is at one time bigger than itself. He’s clear about what a god/God is, and he’s just as clear that he’s got three of them. The work together in such a tight way that the collective, the Trinity, can be thought of as a God – that is, can easily be personified as if it were a divine person – but it is not a god at all, though Swinburne is happy to label it – misleadingly – “God.”

I think I finally know what he’d say about my inconsistent triad above. He’d affirm the third, and deny both of the first two. Both, he would (or should) say, falsely assume that there is one God according to Christianity. Rather Christianity says – on his very contentious, social trinitarian views – that there are exactly three gods, forming a collective entity which isn’t a god, but which may be called “God.”

He’d do better to urge that “God” – even applied literally – is ambiguous, and that it one sense there’s only one God (the Father) and in another sense there are three. This is what the pre-Nicene catholic “fathers” do. In fact, he’s already got the machinery to do this; in his view only the Father has “ontological necessity.” Why not say that being divine in the highest sense requires this, which only the Father has?

But as things stand, he just hands a victory to Islamic critics: the implications of his view are clear – “Yes, we are tritheists – of course not any old sort of tritheists, for with think the three gods are necessarily unified in will and action. But yes, we think monotheism is false.”

The best thing I can say in his defense is that at least he doesn’t obfuscate what a god/God is supposed to be, or what “the Trinity” is supposed to be. His theory stands naked in the sun, where most stand naked in the thick cloud of smoke, from which they yell out about their fine attire. There is something honorable about this sort of bold failure… but honor can’t substitute for fit with the Bible, which calls the Father, aka Yahweh, the one true God.


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.

4 Responses to Further thoughts on Swinburne’s God-talk

  1. Kenny says:

    In The Christian God, pp. 181-191, Swinburne says that theos and deus, as used in the creeds, are ambiguous in just the way you suggest: they sometimes refer to the Trinity and sometimes to one of the individual persons. There Swinburne seems to think that the Trinity is God (capital ‘G’) and each of the persons is a god (small ‘g’).

  2. Hi Dale,

    I guess the blurry photo of the nude man who streaked and punched out auto windshields has no real tie-in to your article. Or did I miss something?

  3. Oh, I missed this connection the first couple of reads: “His theory stands naked in the sun, where most stand naked in the thick cloud of smoke, from which they yell out about their fine attire.”

  4. Sorry about my initial misunderstanding. All missing the connection was on the behalf of this reader and in no way the writer.

    In any case, I hope Richard Swinburne replies to Dale’s post and I will hold judgment until he does reply.

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