Lewis's trilemma

Lewis's trilemma

Lewis's Trilemma (or the Lewis Triumvirate) is a syllogism intended to demonstrate the logical inconsistency of both holding Jesus of Nazareth to be a "great moral teacher" while also denying his divinity. It was popularised by C. S. Lewis in a BBC radio talk and later in his books.

The trilemma is often summarized either as "Lunatic, Liar, or Lord", or as "Mad, Bad, or God". The premises are as follows.

:(P): Jesus claimed to be God.

:(Q): One of the following must be true.

:# "Lunatic": Jesus was not God, but he mistakenly believed that he was.:# "Liar": Jesus was not God, and he knew it, but he said so anyway.:# "Lord": Jesus is God.

From these premises it follows logically that,

:(C): If not God, Jesus is either not great or not moral.

Lewis' argument has often been adapted for apologetic use in the form,

:(A): If the records of Jesus' teaching are accurate, he is Lunatic, Liar or the Lord he claims to be.


The earliest use of this approach was possibly by the Scots preacher "Rabbi" John Duncan (1796-1870), quoted in 1870 as a saying used by him during his preaching career: [William Knight, "Colloquia Peripatetica", 1870.]

"Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable."

Other preachers who used this approach included Reuben Archer Torrey (1856-1928) [ [http://www.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/docs/torreysermon.html Undated sermon by R. A. Torrey, Billy Graham archives] ; see also [http://www.wholesomewords.org/etexts/torrey/deity2.html Deity of Jesus Christ, by R. A. Torrey, 1918] ] and W. E. Biederwolf (1867-1939). [W. E. Biederwolf, "Yes, He Arose", in "Great Preaching on the Resurrection: Seventeen Messages", ed. Curtis Hutson, Sword of the Lord Publishers (1984), page 29.]

Lewis' formulation

C. S. Lewis was an Oxbridge medieval historian, popular writer and Christian apologist. He first popularised the argument outlined above in a 1943 BBC radio broadcast; and it later formed the basis of his book "Mere Christianity."

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God." [Lewis, C.S., "Mere Christianity", London: Collins, 1952, p54-56. (In all editions, this is Bk. II, Ch. 3, "The Shocking Alternative.") Forty years earlier, G. K. Chesterton used a similar argument about someone else in his "The Napoleon of Notting Hill" (1904), where Adam Wayne is described this way: "He may be God. He may be the Devil. But we think it more likely as a matter of human probability that he is mad." See Cecil Chestrton, "G. K. Chesterton: A Criticism" (Seattle: Inklng, 2007), 26.]

Lewis's trilemma is based on the mainstream Christian and scholastic understanding of the New Testament—that Jesus both claimed and intended to demonstrate himself to be God.Fact|date=June 2008 For example, in "Mere Christianity", Lewis refers to Jesus' claims:
*to have authority to forgive sins—behaving as if he really was "the person chiefly offended in all offences." [C S Lewis,"Mere Christianity", Simon & Schuster. p. 55.] [Compare G. K. Chesterton, "The Everlasting Man"] [Mark 2:1–12 is the most common of several passages interpreted this way by mainstream New Testament scholars.]
*to have always existed, [John 8:58 (especially in its context) is the classic proof-text for this claim according to mainstream New Testament scholars throughout history. See, for example: Origen, "Contra Celsum" 8:12 ("c". 225 AD); John Calvin, "Commentary on John", (Geneva, 1553); Leon Morris, "The Gospel According to John", 2nd ed., (Eerdmans, 1995), p. 473.] and
*to intend to come back to judge the world at the end of time. [Lewis, C.S., "Mere Christianity", London: Collins, 1952, p51. ]

It is these claims, Lewis argues, that logically exclude the possibility that Jesus was "a great moral teacher". No one claiming what Jesus claimed could possibly be rationally or morally reliable. That is, unless he was who he claimed to be. Elsewhere, Lewis refers to this argument as "the old "aut Deus aut malus homo" ("either God or a bad man"), [C. S. Lewis, "God in the Dock: Essays on theology and ethics", 1945, Eerdmans, p101; letter to Owen Barfield, c. August 1939, printed in Walter Hooper (ed.), "The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 2", Harper Collins (2004), page 269] which may have been a reference to a work by the medieval pope Innocent III. [according to Walter Hooper in "The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 2", Harper Collins (2004), page 269: Innocent III, "De miseria condicionis humane" (On the Misery of the Human Condition), Chapter 36; ]

Influence and criticism

The trilemma has been further popularised in Christian apologetics since Lewis, notably by writers like Josh McDowell. Peter Kreeft describes the trilemma as "the most important argument in Christian apologetics" [Kreeft, Peter (1988). "Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics", p. 59. San Francisco, Ignatius Press. ISBN 089870202X. [http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/christ-divinity.htm Chapter excerpted online] , accessed 13 April 2007.] and it forms a major part of the first talk in the Alpha Course and the book based on it, "Questions of Life" by Nicky Gumbel. Ronald Reagan also used this argument in 1978, in a written reply to a liberal Methodist minister who said that he did not believe Jesus was the son of God. [Helene von Damm, ed., "Sincerely, Ronald Reagan" (New York: Berkley, 1980), 90] Kreeft and Tacelli have expanded the argument into a 'quadrilemma' (Lord, Liar, Lunatic or Myth)—to address criticisms which suggest additional options such as that Jesus was a mythical character—or a 'quintilemma', accommodating the option that Jesus was a guru, who believed himself to be God in the sense that everything is divine. To the last they answer that the Jesus of history is a monotheistic Jew. [Kreeft and Tacelli, "Handbook of Christian Apologetics", (Madison, 1994), 161-174.]

Claims of divinity attributed to Jesus

The trilemma rests on the New Testament authors' depiction of Jesus. In the Gospels Jesus refers to himself as "Son of Man" (albeit obliquely, speaking in the third person, e.g. Mark 2:27-28). The title "Son of God" is applied to Jesus by his biographers, especially John and Paul (see also titles of Jesus).

There has been some criticism of Jesus calling himself the "Son of Man," Lee Strobel writes in his book "The Case for Christ." In his book, he also interviews Craig Blomberg, Ph.D., concerning the term "Son of Man" applied to Jesus. Dr. Blomberg argues that Jesus calling himself the "Son of Man" is a reference to Daniel 7:13-14: [Strobel, Lee (1998). "The Case for Christ". Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan. 36]

text=I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the "Son of man" came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.
sign=Daniel 7:13-14 (King James Version)

As "The Wycliffe Bible Commentary" reads concerning this passage, the scene in Daniel 7:9-14 is "fully elaborated in Revelation, chapters 4-20. . ." [Pfeiffer, Charles F., & Harrison, Everett F. (Eds.). (1979). "The Wycliffe Bible Commentary". Chicago, Illinois: Moody Press. p.790] This reference to the Revelation is key, as Jesus is to be taking a key role in the events in that book. Thus, by Jesus calling himself the "Son of man," he was directly implying that he was going to be a key player in the final judgment. Also, it should be noted that in at least one instance where Jesus was told he was the Son of God, he did not deny it:

text=He [Jesus] saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
sign=Matthew 16:15-17 (King James Version)

Mark claims that when Jesus met the man possessed with demons, he called Jesus, "thou Son of the most high God." (Mark 5:10) The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-15), Jesus says "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." (Luke 4:12) This could be construed as a claim to divinity, as only God would have power over the devil.

The divine status of Christ was a topic of centuries of dispute between various schools of Christology.
*Justin Martyr accepted "Christ the Logos" as a "second god" subordinate to God the Father, identifying God the Son and the Holy Spirit as a single nature, yet different from God the Father. In this view, it would be true to say that Jesus was "divine", but it wouldn't be correct to identify him as "God" without qualification.
*Monophysitism is the position that Christ had a divine nature only, in the sense of a Hindu Avatar being literally God incarnated, clearly opting for the "Lord" option. This doctrine survives among some churches of the West Syrian Rite. Docetism in particular teaches that Christ was not in fact incarnated, but that his body was an illusion while in reality he remained an incorporeal spirit.
*Miaphysitism posits that Jesus had a single nature which was both human and divine at the same time. Miaphysitism would also take the "Lord" option, but unlike Monophysitism would answer the question "was Jesus human" with "yes" at the same time.
*Dyophysitism is the position that Christ had two natures, one human and one divine. This position led to the Nestorian Schism in 431, and came to be adopted by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and has been position embraced by mainstream Christianity since that time. From this point of view, Jesus could truthfully say that he was God and that he wasn't, depending on which nature he was speaking for at the time.
*Unitarianism adopts the position that Jesus had only one nature, and that this nature was human, not divine. Unitarianists subscribe neither to the "Liar", nor to the "Lunatic" nor to the "Lord" option of Lewis' trilemma, but reject the proposition that Jesus ever did claim divinity.
*Adoptionism postulates that Jesus was born fully human and adopted divine nature at some point during his biography. In this view, the truth of a claim to divinity by Jesus would depend on at what time in his life the claim was made.

Apologists Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli list 21 examples in the text of the Gospel that report what they believe are claims to divinity made by Jesus. Examples include:
*Gives eternal life (Jn 3:16)
*One with the Father (Jn 10:30)
*Omnipotent (Mt 28:18);
*Omnipresent (Mt 18:20)
*Accepts worship due to God (Mt 14:33)

Benedict XVI referred to Rabbi Neusner, a believing Jew, whose analysis of the Gospel texts shows, he believes, that Jesus claimed to be God by asserting himself to be a higher authority than the Jewish Law which was given to the Jews by God through Moses.Those who reject the divinity of Jesus argue among other things that Jesus rejected being called so little as good in deference to God, in the story of the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-18; Matthew 19:16-17; Luke 18:18-19), disavowed omniscience as the Son, "learned obedience" (Hebrews 5:8), and referred to ascending unto "my Father, and to your Father; and to my God, and to your God" (John 20:17).

The argument itself is often criticized by people who believe in the divinity of Jesus as well as those who do not. Stephen Davis, a supporter of Lewis and of this argument"In this chapter, C.S. Lewis’ famous trilemma argument in favour of the divinity of Christ (Jesus was either mad, bad, or God) is developed, and a version of it is defended.","Was Jesus Mad, Bad, or God?", Davis (2006),Stephen T, "Christian Philosophical Theology", Oxford University Press, Abstract,Ch.9,p149f.] , points out that this form of argument is almost totally absent from discussions about the status of Jesus by professional theologians and biblical scholars. ["Was Jesus Mad, Bad, or God?", in Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, Gerald O'Collins, "The Incarnation: an interdisciplinary symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God" (Oxford University Press, 2004), p222-3.] . Nevertheless Davis says 'I ... claim that the MBG argument, properly understood, can establish the rationality of belief in the incarnation of Jesus.'(p.150)p.150]

Logical soundness

One point of criticism has been Lewis's use of logic. Philosopher John Beversluis [see [http://www.butler.edu/philrel/?pg=972 Butler University Faculty & Staff] ] describes Lewis as "textually careless and theologically unreliable" and criticises his use of logic in arguments: "He habitually confronts his readers with the alleged necessity of choosing between two alternatives when there are in fact other options to be considered. One horn of the dilemma typically sets forth Lewis's view in all its apparent forcefulness, while the other horn is a ridiculous straw man." [John Beversluis, "C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion" (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), p43.] Philosopher, theologian and Christian, William Lane Craig gives it as an example of an unsound argument for Christianity, citing what he says is its false premise that no alternatives are available. [William Lane Craig, "Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics", Crossway Books (1994) pages 38-39.]

Accuracy of the gospel account

Another frequent criticism is that the basic assumptions of the trilemma, as the critics understand them, are false. Craig L. Blomberg observes, "The problem with this argument is that it assumes what is regularly denied, namely, that the gospels give entirely accurate accounts of the actions and claims of Jesus". [Craig L. Blomberg, "The Historical Reliability of the Gospels".] A. N. Wilson, who wrote a popular biography of Lewis, claimed that Lewis had read almost no works of biblical scholarship and the previous hundred years of Form criticism and Redaction criticism of the New Testament appeared to have passed him by. [A. N. Wilson, "C. S. Lewis: A Biography", p.166.] In a criticism of Lewis's approach in his bestselling 1963 book, "Honest to God", John A. T. Robinson, then Bishop of Woolwich, questioned the idea that Jesus intended to claim divinity: "It is, indeed, an open question whether Jesus claimed to be Son of God, let alone God." [John A. T. Robinson, Honest to God, 1963, page 72.] . John Hick, writing in 1993, quoted Anglicans Michael Ramsey (1980), C. F. D. Moule (1977), James Dunn (1980), Brian Hebblethwaite (1985) and David Brown (1985) in support of a claim that New Testament scholars do not today support the view that Jesus claimed to be God. [John Hick, "The Metaphor of God Incarnate", page 27: : "A further point of broad agreement among New Testament scholars ... is that the historical Jesus did not make the claim to deity that later Christian thought was to make for him: he did not understand himself to be God, or God the Son, incarnate. ... such evidence as there is has led the historians of the period to conclude, with an impressive degree of unanimity, that Jesus did not claim to be God incarnate."]

ee also

* Trilemma
* Nontrinitarianism


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