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Swinburne on God and Morality

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Last week I attended a lecture on the campus of Calvin College given by Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion, University of Oxford. His lecture was titled, “God and Morality,” and was the fourth in a series of lectures for a summer seminar, “Science, Philosophy, and Belief.” The seminar was focused on the development of Chinese professors and posgraduate students, and included lectures by Sir John Polkinghorne, Alvin Plantinga, and Owen Gingerich.

Swinburne, who is a convert from Anglicanism to Orthodoxy, has recently turned his attention to questions of morality, having previously dealt with most every aspect of the philosophy of religion. I will not attempt a summary of his presentation here. The lecture has been digitally archived on the seminar site (downloadable MP3 here), and the comments and critiques I offer below will best be understood after having listened to the presentation yourself.

Swinburne’s list of publications includes a forthcoming article, “What Difference Does God Make to Morality?” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough?: A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics, ed. R.K. Garcia and N.L. King (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), scheduled for release in October of this year later this month. This article will presumably present a similar case as appeared in Swinburne’s lecture.
I must say that the fact that I feel I have to construct alternative readings of Swinburne’s case is rather disappointing. This need may simply be attributable to my own failings, in which case the readings I explore below are unlikely to be helpful. But I do think it is the case that Swinburne’s presentation was unclear, in the sense that his terminological usages were often equivocal and there was not a consistent line of reasoning, as far as I could see. That is, the ways in which he attempted to support the five basic claims of his argument sometimes had no clear relation to the claims themselves. This will become more clear as I explore the alternative reading to Swinburne’s first claim.

It seems to me that there are two basic ways to understand Swinburne’s argument as presented in this lecture. The first is the one that I believe makes the most sense, but alas, I do not believe for reasons I will highlight below that this simpler reading captures the extent of what Swinburne intends. After I outline this first, more convincing but less likely, reading, I will outline what I believe Swinburne is actually attempting to claim.

This first reading is more convincing in part because it does not claim as much as the alternative reading. Rather, on this reading I understand Swinburne to be making primarily, if not solely, epistemological claims about our knowledge of God and morality. Thus, when his first claim is summarized as, “God makes no difference to what are the necessary moral truths,” we could gloss that as meaning, “Our belief in the existence of God makes no difference as to whether or not we believe there are necessary moral truths.” This seems to fit with the sort of evidence Swinburne marshals in support of this first claim, because he chiefly talks about how we come to know moral truths (through moral formation and instruction via authority), and concludes that whether or not our parents, for example, instruct us as theists or atheists, they instruct us to believe in moral truths.

On this epistemological reading, as I shall call it, Swinburne proceeds to fill out what epistemological difference a belief in God makes regarding our conception of moral truths. Thus, his second point, “God makes a great difference to what are the contingent moral truths,” can be read as meaning that whether or not we believe in God will have a great consequence for what we conceive contingent moral truths to consist in. Further, his third point, “God makes a great difference to the seriousness of morality,” would mean that our belief in the existence of God (or lack thereof) has a necessary impact on how weighty certain moral values are to us.

Swinburne’s fourth point is the most clearly epistemological, as it has to do with the relation of revelation to our understanding of the grounding of morality. Essentially Swinburne claims that a prophet whose revelation has been legitimized by some miraculous sign will become an authoritative source for imparting knowledge about the moral order. Swinburne concludes by offering some suggestions as to why God might issue particular moral commands.

As I said earlier, I believe this reading is both more convincing and that it presents a less controversial claim than the alternative reading I will present below. I also believe that the internal evidence and the flow of the argument points to the likelihood that this second reading is closer to what Swinburne actually intends.

This alternative reading understands Swinburne to be chiefly attempting to make ontological claims about the status of the moral order in relation to God. Thus, when he claims in his first section that “God makes no difference to what are the necessary moral truths,” we should read this rather straightforwardly as claiming that the existence of God makes no difference with regard to the existence of necessary moral truths. In some sense, these necessary moral truths, by virtue of their necessity, exist independently from God. If all we had to go on was Swinburne’s defense of this claim in the first part, we would most certainly be pressed to understand it as an epistemological (the first reading) rather than an ontological (the second reading) claim.

But in his explanation of his second claim, Swinburne seems to clarify the earlier claim by noting that it is particularly God’s will that makes “no difference to what are the necessary moral truths.” In this second part I believe Swinburne, intentionally or not, is positioning himself within an intellectualist stream of metaphysical thought. Indeed, if his overall argument is read as making ontological claims, then it resembles in many ways the so-called “impious hypothesis.”

The most famous instance of the impious hypothesis occurs in the prolegomena to Hugo Grotius’ De jure belli et pacis, where he writes concerning his articulation of the natural law, “What we have been saying would have a degree of validity even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness, that there is no God, or that the affairs of men are of no concern to Him” (§11). This saying has been attributed to Grotius as an innovation, and used as a basis for historical arguments for secular versions of natural law. This historiographical trend continues to the present day, and can be found in works like Randy Barnett, “A Law Professor’s Guide to Natural Law and Natural Rights,” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 20 (1997): 659.

More careful historical research has shown that this impious hypothesis is not an innovation in Grotius, but rather part of a longer tradition of argumentation, dating at least back to the later middle ages, and is generally characteristic of an intellectualist account of natural law as opposed to a voluntarist account. See, for instance, the summary comments of Francis Oakley, “Grotius’s impious hypothesis can be seen to witness less to any great secular novelty than to the continuing dialectic between two distinct theories concerning the metaphysical grounding of natural law which the early modern natural law thinkers had inherited from their medieval and late medieval predecessors” (Natural Law, Laws of Nature, Natural Rights: Continuity and Discontinuity in the History of Ideas [New York: Continuum, 2005], 66).

N. E. Simmonds gives a good account of the impious hypothesis in his article, “Grotius and Pufendorf” in A Companion to Early Modern Philosophy, although as my colleague Stephen Grabill has noted, his emphasis on Suarez as an immediate source for Grotius’ theory bears little direct evidence in Grotius’ own writings. And, indeed, it may be that Suarez’s influence was mediated through some other figure, perhaps Arminius, who was himself influenced by Suarez in no small measure.

In any case, to return to the matter at hand, to my eyes Swinburne’s case echoes in great part the impious hypothesis, which cannot be read as merely making an epistemological claim. We might also note in passing that Swinburne refers to the Euthyphro dilemma, which is a commonplace reference used to raise the ontological question of the grounding of the moral order, whether in natural law or divine command. See Nathan Gilmore’s astute observations about the facile move between the polytheistic situation in Euthyphro’s dialogue to its relevance to a discussion in classical monotheism.

I’ll conclude by noting that the particularly epistemological character of Swinburne’s fourth point regarding revelation makes it seem more plausible that he means to make ontological points in the other sections. On this second and alternative reading, then, Swinburne, whom another colleague has characterized a holding to a tritheistic Arian position (see Nathan Jacobs, “On ‘Not Three Gods’–Again: Can a Primary-Secondary Substance Reading of Ousia and Hypostasis avoid Tritheism?” Modern Theology 24, no. 3 [July 2008]: 345), is arguing for something like an intellectualist account of God and an eternal moral order that is somehow and in some sense independent of at least the divine will, and perhaps even God himself.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Robert Garcia

    For readers interested in reading a further critique of Swinburne’s perspective on God and morality, William Lane Craig has offered some critical comments in the book Jordan mentions above: *Is Goodness without God Good Enough?: A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics*, ed. R.K. Garcia and N.L. King (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). The book will be available sooner than Jordan mentions however. It should be off the press by the end of July. There are also essays in the book by Louise Antony, John Hare, Donald Hubin, Stephen Layman, Mark Murphy, and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong.

  • Dear Robert,

    I’ve updated the text of the post to reflect the correct release date. I’m looking forward to the book’s release.