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Just a decent English gentleman

30 September 2008

This philosopher understands God a little too easily, Andrew Davison discovers

Was Jesus God?
Richard Swinburne

DURING a career in academic writing, Richard Swinburne has pro­duced the definitive exploration of Christian doctrine from the perspective of analytic philosophy: three volumes on theism in general, then four on assorted Christian doctrines. Now he has returned to this material with a popular reader­ship in mind — first, in 1996, with Is There a God? and now with Was Jesus God?

Well, is Jesus God? Those familiar with Swinburne’s approach will guess his answer: very probably. This book and its predecessor are Swinburne’s forays into apologetics. They aim to reassure the suspicious contemporary rationalist that Chris­tian belief and thought are sensible.

His method in this book is, first, to establish that we can know how a rational God would behave (which must mean that he would behave like an educated human being), and then to show that this is exactly the way things have turned out in his­tory. Consequently, at the end comes Swinburne’s great flourish: the figure of Jesus lines up so per­fect­ly with how a sagacious God would act that it must be more than 25 per cent probable that God exists (the book’s working hypothesis), after all.

Structurally, the first half of the book is a commentary on the Nicene Creed, although not without quirks. To give a few examples, he passes over the general resurrection, largely ignores grace, and casts salvation as God’s reward of a happy afterlife for people who have behaved well — there is no hint of adoption or deifi­cation.

This goes to show that the book is more the work of a philosopher than a theologian. Consequently, it jars theological nerves. Whether one admires Swinburne’s project or despairs of it, it is disconcerting that he has so little sense of how out­land­ish the entire exercise must seem from a theological perspective. Theological traditions (as diverse as Thomism or Calvinism, for in­stance) have held that we can know that God exists by reason, but have agreed that what God is (the Tri­n­ity) and how he acts freely towards the world (incarnation, redemption) must burst upon us in Christ as a divine surprise.

Swinburne will have none of this; and there is nothing about God which he will not lay bare to ab­stract speculation. In short, Swin­burne gives us philosophical theo­logy oblivious of the 20th century’s most significant theologian, Karl Barth, and Barth’s cry that we must measure our notion of God against Christ, not the other way around.

In this easy-to-read book, and in the life’s work of which it is a summary, Richard Swinburne has turned his considerable intellect to the task of understanding God, but the God he describes lacks grandeur. He is a decent English-gentleman figure, doing the best he can in the circumstances; or else he is a little sinister, imposing “bad things” on us to “deepen” our responsibilities (but he is then “obliged” to share a human life of suffering).

All the time, in the background, we might hear the echo of St Augustine of Hippo: si comprehendis, non est Deus — anything you can understand cannot be God.

The Revd Dr Davison is Tutor in Christian Doctrine at St Stephen’s House, and Junior Chaplain of Merton College, Oxford.

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