Wednesday, December 14, 2005

C. S. Lewis replies to Ed Babinski on the trilemma

Last month I got this reply on the comment line from Ed Babinski.

Lewis fleshed out Chesterton's previously fallacious argument that Jesus was divine because he said so in the Gospel John, and hence Jesus would have been a liar, a madman or "worse" [Chesteron] to have lied about such a thing. False trilemma. Both Chesterton and Lewis skipped right over any and all specific questions that theologians have regarding whether Jesus ever said such things. Have you read Is John's Gospel True? by Maurice Casey; or Howard Teeple's The Literary Origin of the Gospel of John? Or take James D. G. Dunn's latest two works on Jesus in which he likewise comes down against Jesus having said the things found in the fourth Gospel. Dunn is a well known theologian (and a moderate with some liberal tendencies) who concludes with other moderate and liberal scholars that Jesus never said a word in the Gospel of John. There are many specific arguments, but one thing to note is that Jesus in the fourth Gospel doesn't utter a single parable and speaks to people constantly about himself, using an "I am" formula time and again, and even disagrees with what he said in the other three Gospels about direct forgiveness in the Our Father, and about how to inherit eternal life. Instead, in the fourth Gospel Jesus changes his tune in a secret nightime meeting with Nicodemus, and introduces a new word about the absolute necessity of having to be "born again" and to believe such and such about Jesus, or be "damned already." Chesteron and Lewis were both ignorant of such questions, and and simply assumed the fourth Gospel picture of Jesus of Nazareth was true, even central! Thus they ignored the questions that even in their day were being asked, and that continue being asked today. See Peter Amue's list of theological works on the Gospel of John from major university presses:

Interestingly enough, this is one of Pittenger's complaints against Lewis, and Lewis answered it as follows in God in the Dock (Eerdmans) p. 180. He was aware of higher-critical views on the Fourth Gospel and he offered reasons for why those reasons were inadequate. He didn't just assume that the Fourth Gospel is reliable, as Babinski claims. He also points out that the case for the trilemma does not rest exclusively on the Fourth Gospel. He writes:

I confess, however, that the problem of the Fourth Gospel raises in me a conflict between authority and private judgment: the authority of all those learned men who think that Gospel unhistorical, and my judgment as a literary critic whcih constrains me to think it at least as close to the facts as Boswell's Johnson
. If I venture here to follow judgment in the teeth of authority, this is partly because I could never see how one escaped the dilemma aut deus aut malus homo by confining himself to the Synoptics. Moderns do not seem started, as his contemporaries were, by the claim Jesus makes to forgive sins; not sins against Himself, just sins. If Dr. Pittenger told me that two of his colleagues had lost him a professorship by telling lies about his character and I replied, "I freely forgive them both', would he not think this an impertinence (both in the old and the modern sense) bordering on insanity? And of course all three Synoptics tell the story of One who, at his trial, sealed His fate by saying He was the Son of God.


Steven Carr said...

Lewis wrote 'I confess, however, that the problem of the Fourth Gospel raises in me a conflict between authority and private judgment: the authority of all those learned men who think that Gospel unhistorical, and my judgment as a literary critic whcih constrains me to think it at least as close to the facts as Boswell's Johnson'

'The *authority* of all those learned men'?? Did Lewis never bother to read the *arguments* of all those learned men?

Why did Lewis try to reduce it to one authority against another, rather than a case of evaluating evidence? He was intelligent enough to know that arguments from authority are fallacious.

Because he had no evidence, but he knew he had some authority with his readers....

It is also the judgement of literary critics that e=mc2 is a sexist equation.

So much for the findings of literary criticism.

Did Lewis really have nothing better in the way of arguments than declarations that he was right, and that other people were wrong?

Jason said...

Good grief, Steven. Lewis respects the men by acknowledging they have 'authority' in his culture, and from this you conclude that he never paid attention to their arguments??

You _do_ remember that Lewis had spent roughly half his life as a vocal atheist, paying _very_ close attention to 'authorities' of _that_ sort, don't you? (So had Chesterton, in his day, though he was more of an anti-church agnostic than a militant atheist.)

Again, in another essay (to which Victor has referred elsewhere), the clergy whom Lewis is addressing are young Anglican seminarians whom he and the Principle of their house both understand did largely accept the arguments and conclusions (and thus the authority) of the scholars in question (Loisy, Schweitzer, Bultmann, Tillich, Vidler). He doesn't only talk to Lewis fanboys. In that case, he's talking to scholars in training, who, on the balance, he expects to be his opponents. (And in his essay he treats _them_ with respect as up-and-coming authorities-to-be, too.)

And, btw, the kind of "literary criticism" _you're_ talking about, is something Lewis deplored, and wasn't shy of saying so either. Those would have been the people he derided in his day job, and he would have considered them to have been merely playing at being literary critics. (In his Riddle Lecture addresses, comprising _The Abolition of Man_, he expounds strongly against the teaching of _that_ sort of literary criticism in schools.)

If you happen not to know these sorts of things, at least have the courtesy to learn them when someone bothers to reply.

As to the remark from Lewis which Victor is quoting in this post, here is the larger context:

Lewis is writing a response, for publication in the _Christian Century_--a forum which has always trended toward accepting conclusions more along the line of Schweitzer, Bultmann, etc., than Lewis. (They're a bit more theologically conservative nowadays, but they still trend left of moderate.) The periodical also markets itself toward people who 'think critically'--which in Lewis' day was heavily salted toward meaning the sort of vague doubletalk which Dr. Pittenger was offering. (See below.)

This is precisely why the Century had accepted and originally published an article from Dr. Pittenger, broadly criticising Lewis' theological writings across the board.

So, in this case Lewis is _also_ _not_ writing for people whom he might expect to cow with his awesome authority over against the mere 'authority' of all those other scholars. (Even though Dr. Pittenger apparently considers himself to be a faithful Christian, it is manifestly _not_ the same kind in content, and he himself was writing as an accepted authority. That's why he wrote the article criticising Lewis to begin with.)

Given the broad scope of Dr. Pittenger's remarks, Lewis replies broadly in kind, restricting to a couple of paragraphs on each topic. Victor quoted most of the second paragraph on Lewis' reply to Pittenger's criticism of how Lewis treats GosJohn. The preceding paragraph begins as follows:

"I [Lewis] turn now to the more difficult and interesting question of the Fourth Gospel. It is difficult because, here again, I do not quite understand what Dr. Pittenger writes. He blames me for putting all four Gospels in the same category [specifically in what work of Lewis', is not cited in Lewis' reply] and especially for believing that Jesus claimed deity because the Fourth Gospel says He did. But this does not mean that Dr. Pittenger rejects the fourth as simply untrue. According to him it gives that 'interpretation' of our Lord's 'significance' which the early Christians 'found', and 'rightly' found, 'to be true'."

In the remainder of the paragraph, Lewis has some fun parsing out various permutations of meaning from this, and comparing this to his own claim that the Fourth Gospel gives what Jesus really meant (the upshot being that if the early Christians rightly found the true significance of Christ, and reported this right and true interpretation in GosJohn, then why does Dr. Pittenger blame Lewis for accepting it?) From this, he moves into the paragraph Victor has quoted.

Lewis' rejoinder, therefore, is

a.) not addressed either specifically or generally to an audience that is simply prepared to naively believe him on some mere perception of his own 'authority';

b.) not addressed to an audience, especially Dr. Pittenger himself, that was simply ignorant of the negative criticism of their day;

c.) not intended (due to constraints of the forum of reply) to be an establishment of the historical accuracy of the material;

but _was_

d.) intended to address the sort of literary criticism which Dr. Pittenger himself had been applying (which Lewis would consider inept)--the sort which Lewis at the end of his rejoinder describes as "facing both ways, sitting on the fence, offering at one moment what [is withdrawn] the next, and generally trying to trick [the audience]." (His actual presentation of this is more polite, but the rebuke is there.) Much of Lewis' reply to Pittenger on all points, hinges on critiquing Pittenger's ability to read Lewis with understanding. (This is the article which features Lewis' classic retort: "How many times does a man need to say something before he is safe from being accused of having said exactly the opposite?")

As I noted earlier, when Lewis references the trilemma (as he does in the second paragraph, provided by Victor), you can safely bet he isn't going after dedicated unbelievers--or even trying to buck up dedicated believers, either. He's aiming against the vague half-positions, which he represents Dr. Pittenger as being among. (Victor's link to Andrew Rilstone's article, gives a sharper criticism of the difference between Lewis' use of the trilemma and Josh McDowell--the modern apologist who coined the term. Much of the oppositional criticism against Lewis on the trilemma is purely misguided, and relies on importing _other_ apologists' use of his work back onto him.)

In passing, Lewis' remark about a conflict between 'the authority of all those learned men' and his own 'private judgment', is almost certainly a tacit preliminary rejoinder against Dr. Pittenger's derisive claim that Lewis only based his faith on the authority of the Church (selectively misquoting Lewis from _The Problem of Pain_.) On the page following the quote Victor excerpted, Lewis ripostes that Dr. Pittenger specifically accepts authority, too--the main difference being that Lewis' is "discoverable". (This is supposed to be sarcasm; Pittenger had written in distinction from Lewis that his own authority is "the total consentient witness of all Christians [since] the Apostles' time." As Lewis caustically answers, the great majority of Christians have died, and are still dying, without recording their witness--how does Dr. Pittenger consult his sources? Of course what Pittenger meant is that he accepts the authority of writers such as Bultmann, etc.--as Lewis would have been well aware. Pittenger's remark had been a tacit charge that Lewis rejects the revisioners purely due to faith in the Church.)

Now, if one tries to find a treatment of the Gospel texts in Lewis' body of work, similar to his analyses of medieval literature elsewhere, one had better get used to disappointment. They aren't there. At best there will be fragments. But someone who concludes from the fragmentary evidence that Lewis had no relevant knowledge of the opposition's arguments (or even no relevant knowledge on the pro-historical side--of which there were significant entries in his recent history), will simply be overlooking Lewis' own history as a thinker. He used to _dote_ on those kinds of arguments; they were once very important to him, as a highly opinionated anti-believer. How he treated them after his conversion remains largely a matter of speculation and fragmentary reconstruction (because he never gave a detailed writing on it), but it's ridiculously implausible to say he simply forgot what he once knew and ignored it afterward.


Steven Carr said...

Hi Jsaon,
Thanks for confirming that Lewis never come up with good evidence that John's Gospel is historically accurate

Jason said...

You're welcome.

Relatedly, you may also be relieved to hear, that I know of no surviving indication that Lewis ever wrote a systematic argument for believing that Shakespeare actually wrote his plays, though he wasn't shy of vocally rejecting claims against this which had been popular in his day. I half-recall him using that as an example in the Fernseed and Elephant address, come to think of it; though if he did he had considerably less to say about that than about GosJohn (a text he used to vociferously, not to say viciously, deny the reliability of).

Doubtless, this means he had no evidence, and never read the arguments of the Shakespearean critics whose mere 'authority' he was defying. So you can sleep soundly with that reassurance, too.