The Coherence of Theism

Second Edition

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Richard Swinburne
Clarendon Library of Logic and Philosophy
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book is not “The Coherence of Theism for Dummies.” It is a complex, intricately argued defense of one version of theism by one of the world’s greatest philosophers of religion. It will be accessible to and appreciated only by analytic philosophers of religion, those who have followed the relevant literature. Richard Swinburne presents us with a second edition of his 1977 classic, updated by considering some of the philosophical literature since then and making some switches in his views. It is a formidable achievement, worthy of careful, detailed study and evaluation.

For Swinburne, that theism is “coherent” means there is a version of theism that involves no logical or metaphysical impossibilities (53), both defined ultimately in terms of not leading to contradiction. Swinburne argues that some versions of theism enjoying popularity among Christian philosophers, are indeed incoherent.

Swinburne does not deal with the problem of evil, apparently thinking that problem not internal to theism, but arising between theism and the world—“evil” does not even appear in the index. That does not seem right. Theism includes the recognition of evil, God forgives evil, and God desires that we act against evil. Given that a perfectly good God creates and rules the world, and that evil exists are both part of theism, the coherence of theism should depend on solving the problem of evil.

Starting with five chapters on the nature of religious language, Swinburne defends the ordinary meaning of words in most theological discourse, argues that statements about God are meant to be true—about a real existent reality—and are not just attitudinal. When ordinary language is “stretched” to talk about God, that stretch can be explained by ordinary language.

Swinburne covers the topics of divine omnipresence, divine freedom and creation, omnipotence, omniscience, perfect goodness, eternity and immutability, God’s necessary properties, God as necessary being, holiness, and being worthy of worship. Here I focus on only a few aspects of this rich book.

That God is omnipresent means, for Swinburne, that God can cause effects at any place by a basic action, that is, an action not the result of any prior action—such as my raising my arm, just like that—and that God knows what is going on everywhere directly, not through a causal chain (113). His argument for the coherence of this notion, as elsewhere in the book, is that since all the words he uses to explicate this attribute are “informative designators,” the coherence of an omnipresent spirit follows (125). This kind of argument requires supplementation, as the combining of informative designators can sometimes result in a contradiction. Most likely, Swinburne means to argue that given that the terms he uses are all coherent, there follows a prima facie case for the coherence of omnipresence, so that the burden of proof now shifts to the objector.

When dealing with “omniscience” Swinburne aims to solve the problem of God’s knowing the truth of sentences that God cannot, as it were, formulate for himself. He switches from the standard formulation of “For every true proposition God knows it is true, to “For every true proposition, God knows about it that it is true.” For example, God cannot know the proposition that I am in pain, when about me. It is a different proposition from—pointing at me—and saying that he is in pain. For Swinburne, God knows about the proposition that I am in pain and knows that it is true. Such knowing is sufficient for Swinburnian omniscience.

Swinburne provides a new, complex definition of omnipotence (172), which he claims solves the philosophical objections to omnipotence. His definition includes both God’s omniscience, as well as that God acts rationally. This “rationality” of God begs elucidation.

For Swinburne, God is not eternal, above time, but everlasting, “in time,” from moment to moment. Time always has and always will exist, he argues. However, Swinburne makes a quick distinction between the topology of time—one period simply followed by another—and the metric of time, the measure of such periods, one year, two years, etc. Swinburne says that periods of time can succeed one another without having a metric. That is, periods could be successive without one period lasted longer, being shorter, or the same length as the others. These would conditions that are not possible for clocks to measure the periods. So, no metric. This is a difficult position to accept. Even if there were periods of time without a metric, there would still be an infinite number of successive periods of time in the past. This raises the problem of how we could ever get to the present moment, since there would have to be a traversing of an actual infinite of time. We could never get to here. Secondly, that conditions are not such that a clock could be constructed to measure a period does not imply that the period has no metric. Since God exists in time, for Swinburne, God could have his own internal metric—his own internal clock—granting a metric to all periods in which God exists. This is especially plausible since God is a personal being for Swinburne, and presumably would be conscious of passing events and their having a metrical duration, as do personal beings.

Swinburne argues that God cannot be a logically necessary being, since no contradiction can follow from denying his existence. Yet, God’s necessity is more than merely being everlasting. God’s existence is necessary, for Swinburne, in, roughly, there being a built-in property in God that causes God to exist. God’s having that property and God existing are simultaneous. This is “ontological necessity” (275).

Perhaps the most interesting position in the book is Swinburne’s holding that God is both personal and a form. In saying this, Swinburne is “stretching language.” He means to say that God is more like paradigms of personhood rather than like what does not have personhood. And God is more like paradigms of forms rather than what are non-forms. God is like a person—perfectly morally good, acting with good intentions. Yet, God is like a form in being identical with God’s attributes. Anybody who has those just attributes is God. God has no “thisness," only attributes. There could not have been somebody instead of our God with those same attributes, for that somebody just would be God, our God. This is like a form in being similar, say, to the property of redness. Nothing other than redness could have been redness instead of it. That’s because redness has no “thisness” other than its being redness. Like forms, God has no thisness. This description of God is not clearly coherent.

Questions arise concerning Swinburne’s type of arguments. Swinburne claims that when using ordinary language there is no reason to suppose any incoherence. So, for example, if it is coherent to say that a person knows one thing, it is also coherent to say a person knows everything. This example has been the subject of much debate and Swinburne owes us more of a defense here. Another is that, if it is possible to construct an argument that it is probable that X exists, then it is possible that x exists. So, if, as Swinburne believes, it is possible to construct an argument that it is probable that God exists, then it is possible that God exists. This is too quick. After constructing a probability argument, I might, on reflection, come to realize that what I have found probable is impossible. Finally, Swinburne seems to think that showing each of the components of his theism coherent implies that his theism is coherent in toto. However, each of these ways of arguing can be excused, since there is no way of proving theism to be coherent, of proving that there is no contradiction deeply embedded in theism waiting to be discovered. One can only establish a case for the prima facie coherence of theism, shifting the burden of proof to the dissenter. In this masterful book, Swinburne’s arguments go a long way in doing just that.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jerome Gellman is emeritus professor at Ben-Gurion University.

Date of Review: 
May 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard Swinburne has taught at many universities in the UK and in various foreign countries, and continues to give lectures abroad frequently since his retirement. From 1972 to 1984 he was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Keele, after which he was Professor of Philosophy of Religion in the University of Oxford. He has written many books and papers on many areas of philosophy, especially philosophy of religion, and is a Fellow of the British Academy.



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