Monday, 13 October 2014

Swinburne in the Tuggy hot-seat: there is no "it" when it comes even to mainstream ideas on the trinity.

Please listen here.

"The father doesn't choose to bring about the son, the father would not exist if he did not bring about the son, and so they are both necessary beings..."

"We are a voluntary act. We not exist necessarily."

One of Swinburne's most well-known arguments is that God should necessarily be three.

"...because it's not necessary for the realisation of perfect love to have a fourth being, of course it might be a good thing, but that fourth being does not necessarily exist but as a voluntary act... any fourth being like this that had that divine characteristics wouldn't be created necessarily with the essence of God the Father, and anything that is created voluntarily is not God."

Swinburne's ideas on God's oneness appear to evolve around them being totally cooperative, everything being backed by all three of them, that seems enough...

" that big word with a capital "G", you can use it as a synonym for divines persons, but more naturally as a collective, one power which makes the world. So there is a central oneness. The paradoxical nature of this view is often accentuated by the translations of the Greek creeds into the English language, the Greek word Theos, can be used in 2 divine senses, a divine being, and also the ultimate God, the One and Only.
When we say the creed: I believe in one God. Collective.
"God from God". Theos has these 2 meanings in Greek. Less paradoxical in Greek than it is in English, where in English we suppose that this idea that one meaning to denote a single object. The paradox is because there is not the flexibility of use as there is in Greek."

Let us respond.

Swinburne follows closely some of the logic put out by the early theologians (I have too dappy a memory at this point to name them) who point out that for the Son to have been created at a certain point of time, be that at Christmas, just after creation or just before creation, whenever, then to talk about a time when the son was not is also to state that there is a time when God was not Father, and therefore God fundamentally changed in his nature, something that God can most certainly not do.

Jesus, or rather the Divine Son of God [the Father], was (and is?) necessarily caused by the father; together they necessarily spirate the Spirit. Being three was and is not an optional state of affairs because God is fundamentally good and loving. Being "just" one, is incompatible, in Swinburne's view, with a life of generous love: he uses the emotive word, "solitude". Being two would never have been a possible state of affairs either because, if we were to take the picture of a human couple, their love must benefit another, otherwise it is selfish love, ultimately benefiting oneself. So the third is necessary, and hence the trinity of divine selves.

Tuggy does not want a long debate in his interviews and always moves on quickly, but were he to have poked deeper, he would have no doubt asked some of the same questions he puts out in the episode commenting Ravi Zachariah's talks (some committed, middle-of-the-road trinitarians, have confessed to me that Tuggy totally blew Ravi Zachariah out of the water on this episode, and it remains perhaps one of the strongest ones to date - check it out). His question about the necessity of being three to be a perfectly loving being is very simply: why? He argues convincingly that God would not necessarily have to be three in order to be perfectly loving. But where I find Swinburne decidedly unconvincing here is what seems to be a very human appeal to understanding God in terms of the human family. Is it truly loving to have one and only one child? If you were to ask a social worker, teacher, family counsellor, etc., what they thought about that model, leaving to one side for a moment countless millions of Chinese parents, they might not so happily tick that box.

To sum up, Swinburne's three-self view actually seems to me to be quite extreme in the three-self trinitarian camp (or sub-camp!). It seems that his comments of "three gods" as misleading is mainly based on the way that would have been misconstrued in a context that saw many gods in a competing and uncoordinated way. But basically, besides these misunderstandings, he appears to be very comfortable with the idea of three perfectly harmonious gods.

Most curiously, and even slightly alarmingly for such an acclaimed theologian as Swinburne, he also seems to think that his social trinity perspective is not a recent development from the original creedal positions, but simply restating what they were already saying in a language that has a lot less flexibility than the Greek the creeds were written in. After having drenching myself in Holmes' thought on this, it seems a problematic claim in the face of their insistence on divine simplicity.

Finally to conclude then, it is indeed extraordinary, isn't it?, that we can have two such radically differing views within this creedal heritage we share. We really should think again when we hear ourselves or others referring to THE doctrine of the trinity, or "it". There is no "it" when it comes even to mainstream ideas on the trinity.

This week's trinities podcast has prodded me into doing a post some time soon on the whole project of using words like "cause", "beget", "generate", etc. to describe the life and dependencies in the "godhead". But it would be good to separate that from this response to Richard Swinburne.

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