Richard Granville Swinburne was born on 26 December 1934 at Smethick, Staffordshire. After school at Charterhouse, he did his compulsory national service in the Navy, becoming a Russian interpreter. He went up to Oxford as an undergraduate in 1954, reading for a B.A. in philosophy, politics and economics. After getting first class honours, he read for the B.Phil. in philosophy, which he obtained in 1959.
Although not very sympathetic to the then-current style of ordinary language philosophy, Swinburne felt that the clarity and rigour of argument characteristic of Oxford philosophy would be of great use in clarifying and justifying the traditional claims of Christianity. He felt that Oxford philosophy of the 1950s was failing to connect seriously with the contemporary worldview, especially in the way that it ignored the achievements of science. Financed by two research fellowships—a Fereday Fellowship at St John’s College, Oxford, and a Leverhulme Fellowship in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Leeds—Swinburne devoted three years to learning much about the history of the physical and biological sciences and beginning to philosophise about them. As he was then intending to become ordained in the Church of England, he attended St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, and while there, obtained the University Diploma in Theology with distinction. He subsequently abandoned his plans for ordination partly in order to devote his full time to philosophical work.
Swinburne became a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Hull in 1963. Almost all his work for the next nine years was concerned with the philosophy of science. He felt that a true metaphysical system, which he believed the Christian system of theology to be, must be based on the achievements of the sciences. His first book, Space and Time, was published in 1968 and sought to give an account of the nature of space and time, taking into account the detailed achievements of Relativity theory and cosmology. His next large-scale book was An Introduction to Confirmation Theory (1973).
His move to Professor of Philosophy at the University of Keele in 1972 coincided with a shift of academic focus to the philosophy of religion, on which so far he had only published one small book, The Concept of Miracle (1971). The next twelve years saw the publication of his trilogy on the philosophy of theism: The Coherence of Theism (1997, rev. 1993), The Existence of God (1979; 2nd ed., 2004), and Faith and Reason (1981; 2nd ed., 2005). The central work, Existence of God, sought to re-establish natural theology by providing probabilistic arguments from the general features of the world to the existence of God.
Swinburne’s work in the early eighties was on the relation of mind and body on which he gave the Gifford Lectures in 1982–1984. This work saw published form first in Personal Identity (coauthored with Sydney Shoemaker, 1984); and more fully in The Evolution of the Soul (1986; rev., 1987). In 1985 he became Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of Christian Religion at Oxford and has subsequently written work focused on the meaning and justification of claims of Christian doctrine: Responsibility and Atonement (1989); Revelation (1992); The Christian God (1994) and Providence and the Problem of Evil (1998). Epistemic Justification, an examination of what constitutes the justification of a belief, was published in 2001; and The Resurrection of God Incarnate, an examination with the aid of all his past work on what is evidence for what, of the evidence for the bodily Resurrection of Jesus. As the Resurrection of Jesus provides the substantial ground for believing many of the detailed claims of Christian doctrine, this was a necessary final piece of his apologetic programme.
He was made a fellow of the British Academy in 1992. He has been visiting professor at various American and other overseas universities and lectures very widely in many foreign countries. He joined the Orthodox Church in 1995.
Since his retirement from the Nolloth Chair in 2002, most of Swinburne’s work has been devoted to producing second editions (largely rewritten and updated) of previous works: The Existence of God (2004), Faith and Reason (2005) and Revelation (2007).