Monday, August 18, 2008

What my book says about the trilemma

A redated post.

Here's what I wrote about the LLL argument in my book. pp. 13-14.

Perhaps Lewis's most famous argument is what is known as the Lewis trilemma. It is unreasonable, Lewis says, to say that Christ is a great moral teacher but not God, because he claimed, both implicitly and explicitly, to be God. If he wasn't God, he either had to be lying, which would make him wicked, or he had to be deluded, which would make him insane. Since these two alternatives are implausible, Lewis says he must be telling the truth and really be God.

Many others have repeated this argument in their own apologetics. The argument makes four assumptions, however, and critics of the argument have challenged all these assumptions.

1. Jesus' claims in Scripture are best interpreted as not merely as claims to be the Jewish Messiah, but as claims to be God.

2. The Gospels are a reliable historical record of what Jesus said and did.

3. No sane person can form the false belief that he himself is God.

4. The claim "Jesus is God" is more antecedently probable than the admittedly antecedently improbable claiim that Jewus was a great moral teacher but and either a liar or a madman.

Lewis supplies some argumentation in defense of all of these claims in various parts of his writings, and it seems to me that there is a good deal to be said on both sides of each of these claiims before a final assessment can be reached. If all these assumptions are defensible, then the argument is a good one. But rather than debating these assumptions, apologists have simply repeated the mantra "liar, lunatic or Lord," while opponents have cried in response "false dilemma." Neither of these responses, in my estimation, does justice to the complex issues the trilemma raises.


Mike D said...

To make the trilema relevant today, you have to add a fourth L, "Legend." This provides a category to discuss the historical record. The trilema assumes the reliability of the Bible and the historicity of Jesus. It is most powerful with people who already have some foundations in a Christian world view.

Jason said...

Actually, Lewis was well aware that a discussion of the fourth "L" was relevant in _his_ day, too. After all, much of his own previous discount of the texts was anchored in that understanding of them. Almost rabidly so. References to the implications of the texts if they were only legend, are scattered pretty liberally throughout his work.

Relatedly, Lewis' on-going attitude toward myth and fable after his conversion remained extremely positive throughout his life. (As the recent Narnia film is likely to remind people, perhaps a bit uncomfortably so... {g}) This excerpt from early in his career as an apologist is very typical: "I can't say for sure which bits came into Christianity from earlier religions. An enormous amount did. I should find it hard to believe Christianity, if that were _not_ so." [my emphasis]

The more pertinent question is why he omitted the fourth L when bringing up the trilemma. I suspect he omitted it when he thought it didn't fit the topic of the work he was working on. Nevertheless, he _did_ sometimes make reference to that kind of judgment, too, in works where he references a version of the trilemma.

In his Easter 1945 address, read to an assembly of Anglican priests and youth leaders at the 'Carmarthen Conference for Youth Leaders and Junior Clergy' of the Church in Wales (which can be found reprinted as "Christian Apologetics" in the collection _God and the Dock_, essay 10, 1st section; p 101 in my edition), Lewis immediately follows a brief mention of the trilemma with an equally brief paragraph concerning his judgment as a professional literary critic on the question of legend or history. He doesn't go into real detail, probably because there would be no point to doing so in that address.

The late 19th and early 20th century, were (we are now re-discovering) a time when historical criticism of the texts were becoming exceedingly finely detailed--and increasingly more favorable to historical accuracy in their resulting conclusions. (The two world wars appear to have interrupted this development.) It is not feasible to imagine that Lewis would have been ignorant of all this, especially since it fit very closely into his day-job. Trying to reproduce the relevant arguments, though, would have required proportionately exceeding detail in order to make his case (fun experiment: try pertinently summarizing the work of Harnack or Sherwin-White in three brief paragraphs or less...)--and this, to an audience largely composed of people whom Lewis found (as he says in the address from which I've quoted above) to be composed of "almost total sceptic[s] about History. I had expected [such a person] would disbelieve the Gospels because they contain miracles: but he really disbelieves them because [the Gospels] deal with things that happened 2000 years ago. He would disbelieve equally in the battle of Actium if he heard of it."

What _would_ be the point of doing anything more than providing a simple assurance from his own status as a professional literary critic, to audiences composed of that sort of person?

Another example from shortly afterward, same address: "[The uneducated Englishman] has a distrust (very rational in the state of his knowledge) of ancient texts. Thus a man has sometimes said to me 'These records were written in the days before printing, weren't they? And you haven't got the original bit of paper, have you? So what it comse to is that someone wrote something and someone else copied it... Well, by the time it comes to us, it won't be in the least like the original.' This is a difficult objection to deal with because one cannot, there and then, start teaching the whole science of textual criticism."

This sort of thing probably accounts for the apparent omission of the fourth "L" in Lewis' own presentations of the trilemma.

Jason said...

Not that Lewis would have confuted textual criticism with historical criticism--I can think of another address, about a decade later, to _another_ group of young Anglican clergy, where he specifically castigates his opponents for doing just that. But the topics are related, and there is every reason for the principle of application to have been similar, in what Lewis chose to talk about and when. (It just occurred to me that someone might think _I_ had been identifying them as each other... {g})

Jim Lippard said...

To augment your third assumption--it is also assuming that no insane person could act sane in enough contexts to do the things Jesus did. Some people have remarkably insane beliefs in narrow contexts, yet still manage to function productively in society. I've personally interacted with some (and read about many more) high-functioning individuals who believe themselves to be messiahs, ultra-powerful beings, or members of alien races. Some of them have managed to establish cult followings of considerable size.

Victor Reppert said...

The essay which most goes into the issues posed by Bible scholarship is "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism," in Christian Reflections. There he offers some discussion of, among others, Rudolf Bultmann, whose name we don't hear so much anymore, but I suspect his influence on the Jesus Seminar crowd is pretty considerable. It is a little surprising the IIE accused him of ignorance of biblical scholarship without taking into consideration his critique of the entire enterprise.

Steven Carr said...

My personal reaction to a person who tells me that the Queen of Sheba will rise from the dead to judge me, is to think that that person is one disciple short of a Last Supper.

Jason said...

Well, there were certainly enough people who thought much the same (if not in so many words) at the time, according to the canonical accounts. {s!}

And technically, Jim is right about his qualification to point 3, too.

I think it's important for anyone (pro or con) to check how Lewis himself uses the argument in his disputations, though. He tends to use it in two distinct ways.

1.) he renders _his own_ opinion on the matter, and is careful to say that this is his own opinion;


2.) he brings up the topic in order to defuse a particular claim among a particular class of opponents.

The particular claim Lewis is combatting with the trilemma (when he's in combatant mode), is specifically restricted to this: Jesus was _only a nice man_ who went around doing things we'd expect nice men to go around doing (except more effectively so, maybe).

The details of the story (even outside the canonicals!--perhaps excluding GosThom, which perhaps helps explain its popularity in some circles) do not effectively leave us that option, though. When he isn't rendering his own opinion, Lewis is careful to say that people _can_ and even _should_ end up on one of the other two horns of the trilemma (or a combination of them) if they cannot accept the 'Lord' claim.

In other words, he makes it clear he wouldn't have problems with someone honestly arriving at conclusions of the sort represented by Jim and Steven. On the contrary, he could vigorously insist that a person who arrives at that conclusion _ought to_ spend his life combatting the (apparent) humbug (Lewis' word) of the third horn.

That's a lot more charitable to the opposition than most Christian apologists would be willing to be. But then, Lewis had spent a long time very vigorously opposing that 'humbug', himself--and continued to admire some people who never stopped opposing what they believed to be the 'humbug' of Christianity, too.

(Anyone recall IIE below making note of any of this? My memory's a bit hazy... {g})

Jason said...

And, btw, the Queen of Sheba remark was intended to be a _LOT_ more affrontive to the audience to whom Jesus is reported to have said it, than it would be to someone in Steven's position. (Roughly speaking, it would be the same as Jesus telling the Southern Baptist Convention that Monica Bellucci and the cast of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" will rise from the dead to judge them... {wg!})

Edward T. Babinski said...


N.T. WRIGHT: [In C. S. Lewis's apologetics]there is virtually no mention, and certainly no treatment, of Israel and the Old Testament, and consequently no attempt to place Jesus in his historical or theological context. (One of the “Screwtape Letters” contains a scornful denunciation of all such attempts, and lays Lewis wide open to the charge of ignoring the historical context of the writings he is using—-a charge that, in his own professional field, he would have regarded as serious.)

I am well aware that some in our day, too, see the historical context of Jesus as part of what you teach Christians later on rather than part of how you explain the gospel to outsiders. I think this is simply mistaken. Every step towards a de-Judaized Jesus is a step away from Scripture, away from Christian wisdom, and out into the world of . . . yes, Plato and the rest,
which is of course where Lewis partly lived. If you don’t put Jesus in his proper context, you will inevitably put him in a different one, where he, his message, and his achievement will be considerably distorted.

This deficit shows particularly in Lewis’s treatment of incarnation. Famously, as in his well-known slogan, “Liar, Lunatic or Lord,” he argued that Jesus must have been bad or mad or God. This argument has worn well in some circles and extremely badly in others, and the others were not merely being cynical.

What Lewis totally failed to see—-as have, of course, many scholars in the field—was that Judaism already had a strong incarnational principle, namely the Temple, and that the language used of Shekinah, Torah, Wisdom, Word, and Spirit in the Old Testament—the language, in other words, upon which the earliest Christians drew when they were exploring and expounding what we have called Christology—-was a language designed, long before Jesus’ day, to explain how the one true God could be both transcendent over the world and living and active within it, particularly within Israel.

Lewis, at best, drastically short-circuits the argument. When Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven,” he is not claiming straightforwardly to be God, but to give people, out on the street, what they would normally get BY GOING TO THE TEMPLE [caps were originally in italics in the original article]. [...]

Lewis has indeed built a fine building with lots of splendid features, and many people have been properly and rightly attracted to buy up apartments in it and move in. Some parts of the building have remained in great shape, and are still well worth inhabiting. But I fear that those who move in to other parts will find that the foundations are indeed shaky, and that the roof leaks a bit.

Someone who converted to the Christian faith through reading Mere Christianity, and who never moved on or grew up theologically or historically, would be in a dangerous position when faced even with proper, non-skeptical historical investigation, let alone the regular improper, skeptical sort. Lewis didn’t give such a person sufficient grounding in who Jesus really was.

Similarly, I don’t know how his line of argument in the first part would stand up against the rigorous and relentless assault from the determined atheists of our own day. He was well used to arguing with their predecessors, of course, but I don’t think the first section would be seen in such circles as anything more than arm-waving about moral perceptions and dilemmas that today’s robust cynic would dismiss as atavistic fantasy.

SOURCE: N.T. Wright, "Simply Lewis: Reflections on a Master Apologist After 60 Years,"

Edward T. Babinski said...

Lewis, like Chesterton, seems to have taken for granted the historicity of all of Jesus's words in the fourth Gospel, but such statements are a major point of contention among scholars.

Moderate Evangelical theologian James D. G. Dunn doesn't buy a word of the statements attributed to Jesus in the fourth Gospel. While more conservative Evangelicals buy into all the statements in the fourth Gospel. Most modern scholars have a lot of doubts concerning the historicity of statements attributed to Jesus in the fourth Gospel.

Victor Reppert said...

Steve Davis has an interesting approach to this; he claims that you can generate the basis for the trilemma by appealing only to statements given high ratings for authenticity by the Jesus Seminar.

D.J. Lower / KKairos said...


Freshman year I diagrammed the LLL argument logically (the way I did it, it came to about 12 steps, and it seemed valid); one of the philosophy professors at my university and I then spent a lunch period at the philosophy table debating the truth of the premises. So there are people out there. I'm not saying we argued on the highest level possible, though.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Steve Davis probably ignores the fact that you can have a statement with high authenticity according to the Jesus seminar, but then you have to interpret the saying, and without the fourth Gospel's prologue and "I am's" you're left trying to squeeze or interpret Jesus's self-claims to "divinity" out of purely indirect passages in the synoptic Gospels. James D. G. Dunn explains why this cannot be done. So does Robert M. Price.

In fact per the synoptics the emphasis is on hearing the word of the Lord and doing it.

Neither are phrases like "messiah" nor "son of man" nor even "son of god" claims to being "God."