Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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2. Swinburne’s theory
Richard Swinburne (1988) has argued for a Trinitarian theology according to which the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are numerically distinct from one another and each of them is a God – each is a necessarily existent, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good being who is the creator of whatever world there may be, and who has each of these attributes essentially. Swinburne’s theology, moreover, represents the Father as the creator of the Son. He does not, however, freely choose to create the Son, as he freely chooses to create a physical world. He is, rather, constrained by his own nature – by his perfect goodness – to create the Son (that is, he is constrained to create that very being, as opposed to being constrained to create some being or other who has certain properties that in actuality belong to the Son). ‘There being a God and there being no physical world’ and ‘There being a God and there being a physical world that is “very good”’ are morally or ethically indifferent states of affairs, and a God’s perfect goodness does not, therefore, constrain him to prefer either to the other: which of these states of affairs obtains is a matter of the exercise of divine free will. But the two states of affairs ‘There being only one God’ and ‘There being more than one God’ are not morally or ethically indifferent; the second is better than the first, and the Father is, therefore, constrained by his own perfect goodness to prefer the latter. He therefore creates – eternally, of course: not at some point in time – the Son. Although Swinburne does not explicitly say this, it would appear that the individual essence of the Son must be supposed to include the property ‘being created by the Father if any divine being is created by the Father’; if this were not the case, there would be no ontological ground for the fact that the Father creates the Son and not some other divine being. The Son is therefore a necessary being: he exists in all possible worlds, for the Father exists in all possible worlds, and, in every world in which he exists, he is constrained by his essential nature to create the Son. The necessity of the Father and the necessity of the Son may, in consequence, be contrasted by using a pair of phrases that Aquinas used in respect of a different kind of necessity (imperishability): the Father has his necessity of himself, but the Son receives his necessity from another.
The state of affairs ‘There being more than one God’ is better than the state of affairs ‘There being only one God’ because it is better that there should be a plurality of Gods who form a community of love than that there should be a solitary God. Swinburne argues, moreover, that it is better for a divine community of love to contain more than two Gods than to contain only two, for it is good for two beings to cooperate to benefit a third, and such cooperation could not exist within the divine nature if there were only two Gods. Hence, the Father and the Son are constrained by their moral perfection to cooperate to create a third God, the God called the Holy Spirit. There is, however, no good that requires the existence of more than three Gods, and the ‘process’ of the successive creation of Gods stops at three. (The ontological priority of the Father, Swinburne argues, gives him an authority over the Son and the Spirit, with the consequence that – of necessity – they conform their wills to his in matters about which a solitary God would have a free choice. The wills of the three Gods, therefore, can never be in conflict.)
Can Swinburne plausibly contend that his account of the Trinity is orthodox? There would seem to be two points on which Swinburne might be charged with unorthodoxy. There is, first, the fact that both the Creeds of the Church and every Trinitarian theologian whose writings have not been condemned have insisted that (as the Nicene Creed puts it) the Son is ‘begotten, not made’ (genitus, non factus). And, historical orthodoxy insists, although the word ‘begotten’ is not used of the Holy Spirit, he too is ‘not made’. Second, one might well ask Swinburne why he should not be called a tritheist: after all, he says that there are three Gods, and tritheism is the thesis that there are three Gods. As to the first point, Swinburne contends that in the vocabulary of traditional theology, ‘create’ (creare) and ‘make’ (facere) have been used to express relations that God bears to finite, contingent creatures, and that traditional theologians would have objected to the words ‘Pater filium creavit’ only because they would have understood those words to imply that the Son was a finite, contingent being. If, however, the word ‘create’ is used in the very abstract sense of ‘eternally bring about the existence of’ – there being no implication that the being whose existence is brought about be contingent or finite – nothing contrary to historical orthodoxy is implied by ‘The Father created the Son’. On the second point, the charge of tritheism, Swinburne has chosen his words very carefully:
A substance is not unnaturally understood as an individual thing which does not have parts capable of independent existence. Now the three persons are such that of logical necessity none can exist without the other…. They are therefore not unnaturally said to form one ‘first substance,’ and we may follow a natural tradition in calling that substance ‘God’.
The sense of this passage seems to be this: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are parts (albeit parts that are not ‘capable of independent existence’) of a composite being, and it is therefore natural to apply the name ‘God’ (derived from the general term ‘a God’, whose extension is the three divine parts of the composite being) to this composite being. If this is a correct interpretation of this passage, it seems unlikely that St Augustine or the framers of the Athanasian Creed would agree that Swinburne’s theory adequately captured the sense in which it is true of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit that ‘all are one God; and each of them is a full substance, and at the same time all are one substance’ (Augustine, De doctrina christiana I, 5, 5).
Whether or not Swinburne’s theory of the Trinity can plausibly be identified with the historical doctrine of the Trinity, it is clear that it faces none of the logical difficulties that the historical doctrine seems to face, for there are, according to Swinburne, three metaphysically simple beings to which the general term ‘a God’ applies, and one composite being to which the name ‘God’ applies. None of these four beings (of course) is numerically identical with any of the others, and each has – as their non-identity allows – properties that the others lack. Swinburne’s purpose was not simply to solve the logical problems that the historical doctrine seems to face, but to provide and argue for the truth of a comprehensive account of the ‘internal structure’ of the Trinity.
The other recent attempt to solve the logical problems raised by the doctrine of the Trinity is that and no more; the philosophers who have contributed to this attempt have been concerned only to show that the doctrine can be stated without internal logical contradiction, and they have said very little of an ontological nature about the Trinity.
van Inwagen, Peter and Dan Howard-Snyder. Swinburne’s theory. Trinity, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K105-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/trinity/v-1/sections/swinburnes-theory.
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