Saturday, December 01, 2012

Book Review: Was Jesus God? by Richard Swinburne

In Was Jesus God? Richard Swinburne presents a unique cumulative case for Jesus as God incarnate. The case can be seen as linking together the answers to the following questions: (1) Why think there is a God? (2) What might we expect God to do in response to evil and suffering? (3) Do we have evidence that God has made a response?

Why think there is a God? Swinburne presents the barest outline of his arguments for God’s existence and refers the reader to other books[1] for arguments leading to the conclusion that a divine person exists. He notes however that his arguments from natural theology yield only the conclusion that God the Father exists. Christianity, of course, posits that the Godhead is triune. Swinburne then presents an ingenious argument suggesting that because God the Father is a perfectly good being, there would be two other divine persons.[2] He notes that if his argument is correct, then the existence of two further divine persons is a necessary consequence of God’s essentially good nature. Therefore, Christian theism cannot be accused of violating Ockham’s Razor. In any case, the doctrine of the Trinity has been consistently and almost universally expounded by the Apostolic Church, which (as he will later argue) serves to further underwrite its plausibility.

What might we expect God to do in response to evil and suffering? Good parents, Swinburne argues, will sometimes share in suffering they have justly imposed on their children—and take pains to ensure that the children are aware of their co-suffering. For example, if persons are drafted in a just war, a parent might insist his son join the Army but also do so himself to express solidarity with his son. The father would also make sure that the son knows he has done so. Analogously, a perfectly good God might be expected to join in our suffering by adopting a human nature and sharing in our suffering. Such suffering might be expected to end in a painful, unjust death[3] to fully express God’s solidarity with us.[4] God Incarnate might also be expected to claim to be God and atone for our sins, present plausible moral teaching[5], live a perfect life, and found a Church which would proclaim his message to all humans. Further, a perfectly good God would make his approval of the prophet and his message via a super-miracle.

Do we have evidence that God has made a response? Swinburne then turns to the historical evidence regarding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. First, he argues that the New Testament has earmarks of authenticity (e.g., the criterion of embarrassment being met through reporting women as eyewitnesses of the empty tomb and Jesus having been baptized by John the Baptist despite his supposed sinlessness), independent attestation that is both early and multiple, mention of persons and events which can be verified in non-Biblical sources, and so forth.[6] Second, Swinburne argues that Christ argued at least implicitly pre-Resurrection for his divinity, and more openly following the Resurrection[7]. Swinburne finds this pattern unsurprising, as the Jews of the day would have understood claims of divinity as claims to be the avatar of a pagan God. Third, Swinburne argued that Christ claimed to make atonement for our sins and gave us plausible teaching as revelations from God. Fourth, Swinburne argues that Christ lived a perfect life, citing such features as his accompaniment of the oppressed and despised, his public teaching to all who were willing to hear him. Fifth, Swinburne argues that Christ founded a Church which has, for the last two millennia, proposed plausible interpretations of his teaching to the world. Sixth, Swinburne argues that there is good historical evidence that the Resurrection (God’s ‘stamp of approval’ on the life and teaching of Jesus) is well attested historically.[8]

Swinburne then argues that Jesus is the only serious candidate in human history who lived the right kind of life and whose work was capped by a well-attested super-miracle. Many other prophets did not claim to be divine, and many religions may claim miracles but provide much less evidence for their actual occurrence. Still, because it is logically possible (though, he judges, improbable) that Jesus was not God Incarnate, he notes that (a) the real-but-not-yet-happened incarnation would have to provide massive amounts of evidence to outweigh the evidence that we already have. This, Swinburne suggest, might reach such a level of undeniability that man’s free will would be violated, and might excite the selfish motivation of avoiding the consequences of angering a holy and omnipotent God.

In the final chapter, Swinburne notes that there are still unresolved questions regarding some doctrines.
But given that there is a significant prior probability of the existence of God, and that the historical evidence about the life and resurrection of Jesus which was God’s signature on his teaching (and that of the apostolic church) is as strong as I represented it, any other doctrine taught by the church will be made much more probable by the very fact of its being taught by the church. (pp. 169, Kindle version)
Summary. Swinburne’s approach is fascinating and illustrates the impressive (and sometimes daunting) systematic nature of his approach to philosophy of religion. His approach is quite different from the ‘minimal facts’ approach and should be more widely known among evangelicals. This is yet another work which illustrates why Swinburne is considered one of the greats in philosophy of religion.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Latter Day Inkling is a U.S.-based research psychologist for the military. He is especially interested in epistemology and natural theology.

[1] See his The Existence of God and Is There a God?
[2] Pp. 28-31, Kindle version
[3] Swinburne argues that the sacrifice of a perfect human life is a fitting atonement for the good lives we should have offered to God but haven’t. Further, for God to truly share our suffering he would have to undergo the fate which awaits most humans—death.
[4] This raises the inevitable question: is it coherent to suppose that a divine nature can be conjoined with a human nature? Swinburne argues that we have hints of how two natures can be combined in certain humans who behave on the basis of different sets of beliefs. A similar account of the Incarnation is given in Chapter 30 of Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland.
[5] Swinburne argues that providing moral teaching by example, especially of supererogatory acts (which are relatively rare occurrences among our species) would be of great benefit to us. He also argues that the moral teachings in the Old Testament (e.g., the Ten Commandments) and those presented by Jesus (divorce, after life, premarital sex, heaven, hell) are either necessary moral truths or moral truths which comport with our basic moral intuitions.
[6] Swinburne invokes the Principle of Testimony (PT) which states that, in the absence of counterevidence, we should believe the testimony of others. The PT plays a large role in Swinburne’s argument from religious experience—see Chapter 13 of The Existence of God.
[7] The charge of blasphemy lodged against Jesus, Swinburne argues, is most plausibly seen as the charge that Jesus was adopting divine prerogatives.
[8] Swinburne cites familiar pieces of evidence for the empty tomb, the post mortem appearances, the significance of women eyewitnesses to the tomb, and the unexpectedness of the Resurrection given the Jewish context. He also points out the importance of the early adoption of the Sunday Eucharist.


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