Is There a God? (Richard Swinburne)

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Swinburne, Richard. Is There a God? New York: Oxford, 1996.

Richard Swinburne doesn’t so much argue for the existence of God. Rather, he posits God as the only viable cause for the universe. The intellectual rigor in this book is top-notch. (There is a reason the New Atheists do not go after Swinburne). I will disagree with some of his conclusions at the end, but this is a useful text that is worth your time.


Swinburne outlines the doctrine of God in its classical terms, though he will balk on issues like eternalism and foreknowledge. If we say that God is a person/personal being/One God in Three Persons, then we need to have some idea of what a person is. A person is “an individual with basic powers (to act intentionally), purposes, and beliefs” (Swinburne 4).

Swinburne begins well by noting that God is an omnipotent, omniscient, and free person (6). Further, God can’t do the impossible. So far so good. Unfortunately, Swinburne says it is impossible to know what a free creature will do tomorrow (7). Omniscience for Swinburne simply means that God knows everything which is logically possible to know. We’ll come back to this claim.

He also rejects divine eternalism. God, for Swinburne, is everlasting but not timeless. He does not simultaneously cause the events of 587 B.C. and 1995 A.D., since that would interfere with the future free actions of his creatures. Rather, God exists in each moment of time. There is an obvious problem: Is God limited by time? Does God exist outside of time in any way?

The rest of the chapter on God is fairly good, especially his defense of divine essentialism (i.e., God has all of his essential properties necessarily).

How We explain things

Swinburne argues that the best explanation for an event is:

(1) It leads us to expect many and varied events which we observe.

(2) What is proposed is simple.

(3) It fits well with background knowledge (but only when background knowledge is available).

(4) We would not otherwise expect to find these events.

With these criteria, Swinburne argues that only God understood in the classical sense can make sense of the universe. Materialism cannot, since it can’t explain abstract objects, mental states, etc. A finite god cannot, since it would need to be explained by something else (hence violating (2) above).

The World and its Order

While he gives an unfortunate defense of Darwin, Swinburne does raise some problems for Hawking and Dawkins. If time is really cyclical, and if, ex hypothesi, we could leave 1995 and eventually come back to 1994, then the following bizarre results entail:

* My acting can be the cause of my not acting (64ff).

How the Existence of God Explains the Existence of Humans

Good defense of substance dualism. Substances have properties and particular relations to other substances. A mental event, as opposed to a material object, is that which the subject has privileged access (72).


His argument for limited omnipotence comes at a high cost. One response to it is that even on Arminian grounds, models like Middle Knowledge at least attempt to preserve God’s knowledge of future free actions. I do not hold to MK, but there is a respectable amount of top-level literature making the case. Swinburne makes no such attempt.

But there is an even easier response. The Bible makes numerous predictions about the future free decisions of moral agents. Did Mary and Joseph have human freedom? Yes. Did Mary freely choose to remain a virgin before Jesus was born? Yes. Could it have been otherwise? It’s hard to imagine that it could have been. And that’s only one of many.

I think we can end on one more interesting angle. Can God have false beliefs? Obviously not. Can God have false beliefs about the future? I think every theist has to answer no. However, God appears throughout Scripture to make a number of statements concerning the future, and it is safe to say He at least thinks He has knowledge about them


About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Book Review, Philosophy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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