Was Jesus God? By Richard Swinburne


Pp. 175 , Oxford University Press , 2008 , £9.99/$25.95 .

This present volume follows as a natural sequel to the author's previous work Is There a God? (OUP, 1997), in which he argued for high probability of there being a God given the general character of the world. Swinburne builds upon this foundation in attempt to demonstrate if God exists then he is most probably exists as a Trinity. In fact, he attempts to prove all of the central Christian doctrines, as defined in the Nicene Creed, including the Incarnation, the Atonement, Christian Morality and heaven as the reward for believers. In this sense the title, ‘Was Jesus God?’, is somewhat of a misnomer since the focus of book is not strictly on the nature of Jesus. Yet in as much as Swinburne sees the Incarnation as central to our understanding of God and the resurrection of Jesus as the verification of these doctrines, the title is apt.

The book begins with Swinburne's definition of God and a brief summary of his argument of probability of God's existence. The rest of the book is divided into two sections to support the Christian doctrines, Part I presents the ‘prior’ (logical) evidence and Part II present the ‘posterior’ (historical) evidence. These two sections are entitled ‘God Loves Us’ and ‘God Shows Us That He Loves Us’ respectively, which indicates the basis of Swinburne's argument.

Part I is clearly and lucidly reasoned. God the Father, as a person of perfect love must of necessity have caused another person to come into being whom he could love from eternity (i.e. the Son). The Father's love for the Son necessitates that he assist the Son in causing a further person with whom he could share love hence God must, of necessity, have been Trinity from eternity. With regard to mankind, since God allows humans to face the possibility of suffering, God is obligated to share our suffering by sharing our nature and, since God is loving, it is possible that he would use his incarnation as an opportunity to make atonement for mankind. Swinburne even manages a reasonable explanation of how God could take on human nature and still be God (essentially by suppressing his omniscience to allow himself to experience human limitation). However, despite the apparent reasonableness of these arguments, one is left suspecting a host of unstated assumptions. For instance, why suppose God to be necessarily loving, other than that we have defined him in that way? Why must love be shared to be perfect and why with an equal? (Is it not greater love demonstrated to one who cannot return in kind?) Why is it necessary for the Son to share his love with a third person, but not for the Spirit to share his love with a fourth? With regard to the incarnation, Swinburne's precept that you are obliged to share suffering that you are indirectly responsible for rests, not upon an exhaustive examination of moral obligation, but on a single analogy.

Part II is far more disappointing. Swinburne's posterior evidence that Jesus was God appeals to the familiar proof-texts (Matt 28:19, Mark 2:7, John 10:33, 20:28) without any consideration given to apparently unitarian texts, though he acknowledges their existence (p. 163). He then presents a brief summary of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus which he takes to be the signature, or verification, of all (!) the Christian doctrines he is defending (p. 87). His final two chapters take the form of mini-apologies for the Bible and the Christian Church since, he reasons, God must have provided some consistent propositional revelation to make explicit his demonstration of love through the incarnation (p. 77).

Perhaps the greatest weakness of the book is the emphasis placed upon the Nicene Creed. Time and again Swinburne refers to the Creed and attempts justify its phraseology in the light of his own deductions (pp. 26–7, 34–38, 47–52, 58–60, 75–77, 156ff). This leaves the reader suspecting that the author intends an apology for the Creed (and the Church as a whole) rather than a strictly impartial examination of the nature of God. This, presumably, is the explanation for the author's whitewash of early Christian history, which presents the Ebionites as the only early Christians who denied the divinity of Jesus (p. 163) and claims that Arianism ceased to exist shortly after the Council of Constantinople (p. 26).

In sum, this book is readable, lucid and reasonable. Nevertheless, given the logical gaps in the prior evidence, Swinburne's presentation of the posterior evidence needed to far more rigorous to hope to be convincing.