Reason and Faith: Themes from Richard Swinburne

Written by Michael Bergmann and Jeffrey E. Brower, eds. Reviewed By Greg Welty

Reason and Faith: Themes from Richard Swinburne consists of ten papers presented by distinguished philosophers of religion at a conference held in September 2014 at Purdue University, in order to reflect upon Swinburne’s work and honor him on the occasion of his eightieth birthday. The collection is edited by two distinguished philosophers on faculty at Purdue. Richard Swinburne is one of the two most influential philosophers of religion in the past fifty years (the other being Alvin Plantinga). He served as the Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oriel College, University of Oxford from 1985–2002, and continues to maintain an international presence in lecturing and teaching. A steady stream of substantive monographs on just about every important topic in the philosophy of religion and philosophical theology has issued from his pen, including works defending the coherence of theism, the existence of God, the compatibility of faith and reason, the relation between body and soul, and the Christian doctrines of responsibility and atonement, revelation, the Trinity, the incarnation, the resurrection, and the moral perfection of God in the face of evil and suffering. Indeed, since 1968 he has published 16 monographs (13 with Oxford University Press), and 159 articles in leading academic journals of philosophy. As Swinburne himself remarked during the conference (which I attended), “One difficulty I have in defending myself from criticisms is that I have written so much, and I sometimes forget exactly where I said something!”

The papers cover seven distinct areas of philosophical inquiry: faith, theistic arguments, and divine power (two papers each, grouped under “natural theology”), and atonement, liturgy, immortality, and body and soul (one paper each, grouped under “philosophical theology”). The contributors are themselves published experts in the topics they address, and make it known how their work is profoundly influenced by Swinburne’s own contributions to their subject, even when they sharply disagree with him (as they do at many points).

Jonathan Kvanvig scrutinizes “The Idea of Faith as Trust: Lessons in Noncognitivist Approaches to Faith.” In the course of examining views of faith as “trust” and “belief” (including Swinburne’s trust account), he argues for an alternative, much more “active” understanding of faith as the orientation of a person in the service of an ideal, which involves a disposition to actively pursue the goal to which you are attracted. However, one cannot undercut the cognitive element of faith—as Kvanvig seeks to do—by saying that “Abraham, Moses, Job, and even the Apostles” wouldn’t have believed the Athanasian Creed (p. 7), since clearly they believed something about God that distinguished them from unbelievers. The Hebrews 11 account of the faith of Old Testament saints specifically refers to its cognitive content (cf. vv. 3, 6, 19, 20, 21, 26, 28). In all these cases their faith was trust in divine promise with respect to their situation, and that involved belief in what God had said (cf. v. 1, faith as “assurance” and “conviction”).

John Schellenberg, in “Working with Swinburne: Belief, Value, and the Religious Life,” articulates an account of religious faith that endures without belief in religious truths, precisely because the emotional and evaluative side of religious faith comes to the fore and sustains a vibrant, constant religious practice. This is set in contrast to Swinburne’s account of religious belief as involving a judgment about the relative likelihood of creedal alternatives. Left unstated is why I would continue to love the religious goals I am pursuing, or think them worth loving (p. 41), if I have no beliefs on these topics?

Paul Draper discusses “Simplicity and Natural Theology,” and argues that the criterion of simplicity—famously used by Swinburne to assess the inductive probability of causal explanations like theism—is grounded in a prior criterion of coherence, and this dependence is said to undermine Swinburne’s whole program of natural theology. On Draper’s view, necessary truths are maximally coherent whereas necessary falsehoods are maximally incoherent, but between these extremes there can be degrees of coherence, since “there may be inductive support relations between the parts of a hypothesis . . . that hold independently of data and background information” (p. 53). That seems right, but if our inductive judgments proceed according to a criterion of simplicity (as Swinburne and many others have argued), then Draper’s criterion of coherence presupposes the application of the criterion of simplicity, in which case Draper’s argument proves the opposite of what he wants.

In “Swinburne’s Aesthetic Appeal,” Hud Hudson endorses the (now popular) skeptical theist strategy of responding to the problem of evil: just because we can’t discern God’s likely reasons for permitting evil, is no reason to think God doesn’t have such a reason. Arguing that “skeptical theism is a double-edged sword” (p. 69), Hudson articulates a “near relative” to it (“aesthetic skepticism”) that threatens to undermine any arguments for God from the aesthetic fine-tuning of the universe. This parallels the application of skeptical theism to block theistic arguments from fine-tuning for embodied, conscious, intelligent, sentient life. (It should be noted that Swinburne would part ways with Hudson on the cogency of the skeptical theism strategy, for reasons he gives in chapter one of Providence and the Providence of Evil [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998]).

Dean Zimmerman takes a turn at “Defining Omnipotence,” offering not only a major review of the relevant literature from the past fifty years, but also making a substantive contribution to it. Inspired by Swinburne’s careful treatment of the topic in The Coherence of Theism [Oxford: Clarendon, 1993], Zimmerman develops a “range-theory” of omnipotence and defends it from a barrage of counterexamples along the way. He gives special attention to challenges posed by the libertarian free will of creatures, and by the possibility of radically weak persons (such as the venerable “McEar” and his close cousin “Negative Nelly”). Zimmerman’s contribution is one of the best in the volume, exemplifying how Swinburne’s method in philosophy of religion—and not just his specific conclusions—has proven to be immensely influential on the next generation of religiously-interested philosophers.

Alvin Plantinga examines “Law, Cause, and Occasionalism,” arguing for a “weak occasionalist” understanding of God’s causal relation to the universe, according to which God is the only causal power in the universe, with humans who agent-cause their choices being the only possible exception to this. Along the way Plantinga accounts for the necessity of the laws of nature from a theistic perspective, and distinguishes between three ways of relating God to the laws of nature (secondary causalism, decretalism, and counterfactuals of divine freedom). While the presentation is quite accessible and loaded with insight, one central contention seems implausible: the idea that we have a clear conception of divine causality but (following David Hume) a “wholly obscure” conception of creaturely causality. If the standard for a clear conception is that it involves “just logical necessity” (p. 140), then with this notion we can construct just as serviceable a conception of creaturely causality: necessarily, if the creature wills p, then p occurs, except if God wills notp.

In “Love and Forgiveness,” Eleonore Stump argues against Anselmian “satisfaction” theories of atonement, which endorse the idea that Christ’s life and death on the cross are needed in order for God to forgive us. She appeals to some intuitions in moral psychology and to Aquinas’s account of love, to make the case that “love is necessary and sufficient for forgiveness” (p. 156n16). On Swinburne’s view, it is good for God to only forgive in response to the sinner’s repentance, reparation, apology, and penance, and Christ’s death is the needed means of our penance (as we offer the life and death of Christ to God on our behalf). But on Stump’s view, it simply follows from God being loving that he forgives everyone, no further conditions needed. While many readers will not agree “that we still lack a workable explanation of Christ’s role in solving the problem of human sinfulness” (p. 169), Stump gives an extensive and convincing argument to the effect that divine hatred and wrath, even if it leads to retributive punishment after death, can be a form of God’s love to the impenitent sinner.

Nicholas Wolterstorff examines “The Liturgical Present Tense,” the fascinating phenomenon of past historical events being described in Christian liturgy by way of present-tense language. (Three examples include: “Christ is born in Bethlehem,” “O sacred head, now wounded,” and “Christ the Lord is risen today.”) Wolterstorff considers and rejects the idea that this linguistic tendency reveals the worshipers’ belief that these events are being literally “reactualized” in the present (or, following Mircea Eliade, that some remnants from archaic rituals about “mythical time” are influencing Christian worship). The reactualization view is argued to be literally false, and perhaps even uncharitably attributed to the liturgical sources in which it is (allegedly) found. Rather, the “liturgical present tense” is a figure of speech, an instance of the “as-if” trope in language use, because there is a resonance to using present-tense language to describe past-tense events that captures their relevance for us today. In the end, we Christians value immediacy when it comes to singing about Christ’s birth or resurrection, and the “as-if” trope makes these events present to us rather than distant from us, even if they do not make them present again.

In “The Rev’d Mr Bayes and the Life Everlasting,” Peter van Inwagen examines whether Doomsday reasoning—a form of Bayesian argument that concludes it is unlikely our species will survive for a long time—can be adapted to argue against religious views of an afterlife (of infinite or at least very long duration). He concludes that it is impossible to complete the calculations if the argument is about eternal life, since it will require division by zero. And if the argument is instead about a “vast but finite afterlife” (p. 213), then a crucial assumption of the argument is false: I shouldn’t regard the present moment as a moment chosen at random from the years of my existence, since the moment at which we consider these kinds of arguments is likely to fall within the first century of our existence. The chapter uses probabilistic Venn diagrams, the Mean Value Theorem, and a dose of real analysis in mathematics, perhaps putting it outside the expertise of the average philosopher of religion. (Thankfully, the whole business is summed up at the end by way of an entirely accessible parable in the style of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.)

“What about Hylomorphism? Some Medieval and Recent Ruminations on Swinburne’s Dualism” affords Marilyn Adams opportunity to apply her considerable proficiency in medieval metaphysics to the question of human nature. According to Adams, medieval hylomorphism (in which the soul is the form of the body) enjoys several theoretical advantages over Swinburne’s substance dualism (in which the soul is a substance distinct from the body). She expounds and contrasts the views of Avicenna, Aquinas, and Scotus (on the one hand) with the views of Swinburne and reductive materialists (on the other). Despite their obvious differences, the latter two groups share the conviction that there could be no natural explanation of how the mental relates to the physical, whereas the medieval hylomorphists grant a functional integrity to the body/soul composite and a metaphysical necessity to the natural kind “rational animal.” In addition, Adams argues that substance dualism makes the problem of evil worse, since if God could create us without the body and its attendant sufferings, why didn’t he?

As Eleonore Stump mentions in her own contribution, no other contemporary philosopher besides Swinburne has attempted the massive project of defending all the central doctrines of Christianity, and these papers are testimony to the influence he has had by way of content and method. The fact that so many philosophers of religion can write so substantially and profitably on diverse themes articulated by a single philosopher is confirmation of Swinburne’s importance to the discipline. The authors disagree with him more often than not, but it is with a united voice that they say “Thank you” on this birthday occasion.

Greg Welty

Greg Welty
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina, USA

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