Assumptions and a priori probabilities. As with all of his books, Swinburne presupposes conclusions arrived at in earlier works. Here he is not concerned so much with merely assessing the Christian religion in a worldview vacuum, but rather assumes that there is at least some significant prior probability that the God of classical theism exists.[i] Given that God exists and that he is perfectly good, it is likely that he would give us a revelation. This expectation means that the evidence required for us to justifiably believe in a revelation is less than it would otherwise be (that is, if we did not already have some evidence that there is a God who would be likely to give such a revelation).
The criteria for judging revelations as having come from God. Swinburne argues that any purported revelation must meet four explicit criteria before it is plausible to suppose that the revelation in question comes from God. First, the content must be intrinsically plausible. For example, is it the kind of revelation that would be expected of a perfectly good God? Second, the veracity of the revelation must be given a divine imprimatur via a miracle-meaning, of course, the Resurrection.[ii] Third, the original revelation must be interpreted in a plausible way[iii] by a church founded by the prophet (Jesus) who delivered the original revelation. Fourthly and finally, the content of the interpreted revelation must also be plausible.[iv]
The criteria applied to the Christian revelation. The first criterion is fairly easily met: Swinburne argues persuasively that the content of the original revelation[v] is such as is consistent with proceeding from a good God. The second criterion is also met well, albeit this discussion is rather cursory as Swinburn deals with the resurrection in other works. Meeting the third criterion requires more groundwork, and I’ll return to further discussion of some controversies raised by that criterion in a moment. Here let me simply point out that this criterion requires more unpacking because it involves an examination of how to interpret Scripture as well as proposing criteria to determine who is the original church. (I’ll subsequently refer to these two components as the ‘interpretation problem’ and the ‘Church problem’.) By and large I think Swinburne succeeds, although he also raises some profound and troubling questions for believers to ponder. In meeting the fourth criterion, Swinburne discusses some matters not often raised in academic philosophy of religion—for example, he attempts to defend the reasonable nature of strictures against homosexual relationships, adultery, sex outside of marriage, and a few other issues. Again, I think Swinburne’s defense is plausible, as he raises ‘religiously neutral’ philosophical arguments as to why a good God might lay down such strictures.[vi]
Having laid out a preliminary sketch of the work, it’s time to return to the controversial third criterion: the original revelation must be interpreted in a plausible way by a church founded by the prophet (Jesus) who delivered the original revelation.
The interpretation problem. Early on in the book, Swinburne discusses a handful of interrelated concepts which he then applies to this problem. Among those concepts he discusses are genre, analogy, metaphor, and presuppositions. Rather than given precise definitions to these concepts[vii], I will attempt to give the reader a rough sense of what Swinburne is up to. First, Swinburne notes that presuppositions occur in all genres (from the most literal, historical, factually-minded account to something that is avowedly and intentionally metaphorical). That is, the writer (and quite probably the writer’s audience and/or culture) have preconceived ideas of things which are nonetheless often not the central point of a statement or work. Swinburne provides various illustrations of presuppositions. For example, if I say to you “I see that you agree with your cousin”, most people, he thinks, would judge the statement true if you do agree with person X, whether or not person X is in fact your cousin. That may be an erroneous presupposition on my part. Further, given that God may often ‘meet us where we are at’, he will choose to speak to a culture through their presuppositions. It is then up to the reader to take into account what those presuppositions are.[viii] In discussing metaphor, analogy, and types of genres Swinburne makes the point that what it means for a work or passage to be true varies. Put another way, the intent of the passage is all important.[ix] All of this leads into a fascinating discussion of how willing various Church fathers were to interpret vast stretches of Scripture in non-literal (i.e., metaphorical or analogical) ways. So far, this seems relatively uncontroversial. Where controversy comes in is when Swinburne mounts an argument that modern day Protestants are very ahistorical in their interpretation of the Bible. That is, they insist on reading the Bible in a very literal, ‘wooden’ way compared to Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.[x]
The church problem. Next there is the problem of how to identify what is the real church. Swinburne proposes two sub-criteria: continuity of organization and of doctrine. This itself raises issues, and he seems in the end to say that the real Church is not functioning: that is, there are central doctrines which are held in common by the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant branches which seem to be what the ‘real’ Church would affirm. But obviously there are doctrines which those branches of Christianity don’t share in common (and hence there is a lack of continuity of doctrine as well as of organization. Hence all should pray for unification.
Conclusion. So where does that leave us? This has been one of the most frustrating works of Swinburne’s to read, I must say. It is clearly laid out, meticulously argued—but in the end raises some troubling questions. These questions, I suspect, will loom larger for non-Catholic and non-Orthodox readers than otherwise. This work will, however, do something very worthwhile: it will make those readers re-examine their own interpretative traditions and wrestle with some of the deepest questions in life.
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.
[i] Based on arguments from natural theology. See his The Existence of God and Is There a God?
[ii] Argued for more fully in his Was Jesus God? and The Resurrection of God Incarnate.
[iii] Meaning that the interpretation is seen as logically, smoothly, and naturally connected to the original interpretation. At a minimum this means that there cannot be outright contradiction in core doctrines between the original revelation and the interpretation of that revelation.
[iv] Meaning, again, that the content must be such as to comport with what a good God might be expected to deliver as a revelation. This means that harmonization of Scripture must take place. In other words, Scripture needs to be interpreted in light of other Scripture. More controversially, Swinburne also advocates that Scripture must also be interpreted in light of other truths we know, e.g., from science, human reason, and history.
[v] Largely, but not entirely, focused on the New Testament. This is because, as we will see, Swinburne is willing to interpret large parts of the Old Testament in a non-literal (i.e., analogous or metaphorical) sense.
[vi] Whether or not other readers find these strictures plausible or not is probably highly correlated with their rejection or acceptance of theism.
[vii] One rough and ready way to understand the distinction between literal, analogical, and metaphorical is to picture them along a continuum. Literal is a straightforward factual account, analogical involves applying synonymous terms to otherwise dissimilar objects, and metaphorical is more akin to a story conveying an overarching moral or metaphysical truth. Put another way, analogical works are closer to literal works than are metaphorical ones.
[viii] Presuppositions also occur in theological terms, as Swinburne illustrates with various words from the Nicene Creed. See Chapter 9.
[ix] Swinburne cites various Biblical examples of this interpretative process. First, Christ himself sometimes spoke in parables, the literal meaning of which he discussed privately with the Apostles. Secondly, there are Pauline instances in which Old Testament passages are given a different interpretation (often one of ‘foreshadowing’ more directly revealed New Testament doctrines).
[x] I fully expect this argument to be hardest to swallow by American Protestants—of which I myself am one. Lest the reader wonder, Swinburne also takes to task what he calls ‘liberally-minded’ theologians who want to ‘de-mythologize’ the Bible and remove all non-naturalistic elements. Swinburne most certainly does not endorse that. He is a full-blooded supporter, for example, of the Incarnation and Resurrection, the full deity of Christ, and philosophically plumps for Cartesian dualism when it comes to human beings.