Lewis’s “trilemma” revisited

Alan Jacobs takes issue with Anthony Kenny’s discussion of C. S. Lewis’s famous “trilemma” argument in Mere Christianity for the divinity of Jesus. Here’s Kenny:

One line of argument he made popular went like this. Jesus said that he was God. Jesus was neither a deceiver nor deceived. Therefore Jesus was indeed God. Mocking the idea that Christ was simply a great moral teacher, Lewis wrote that a man that said the sort of things Jesus said “would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell”. Yet even most conservative biblical scholars today think it unlikely that Jesus in his lifetime made any explicit claim to divinity, so that the argument fails to get started.

Jacobs responds:

Lewis’s trilemma argument does indeed have a serious weakness, and Kenny gropes towards it: Lewis’s argument depends on the assumption that the Gospels faithfully record Jesus’s words, but if you doubt the reliability of the Gospel accounts, then you can easily believe that Jesus was a “great moral teacher” who had certain words put in his mouth by later disciples. This is the assumption that underlies most skeptical redactions of the Gospels, from the Jefferson Bible to the work of the Jesus Seminar. But the great majority of biblical scholars today, as throughout the history of the Church, do indeed believe that the Gospels faithfully record Jesus’s teachings, which puts the trilemma into play.

While I agree with Jacobs that many (if far from all) biblical scholars hold that the gospels (or at least the synoptic gospels) faithfully record the spirit (if not the letter) of Jesus’ teachings, Lewis’s argument still faces some serious obstacles. The biggest problem, in my view, is that Lewis and those who follow him tend to read a full-blown doctrine of the Incarnation back into the gospel texts, and sometimes put questionable interpretations on ambiguous passages. Many of the proof-texts sometimes used to show that Jesus claimed to be divine are susceptible of much less exalted readings.

That said, I do think many contemporary scholars would accept that the historical Jesus claimed a special or unique role for himself in God’s unfolding plan. Many statements of Jesus in the gospels, while falling short of straightforward claims to divinity, do express the sense that one’s response to Jesus is determinative for one’s standing in God’s kingdom. This makes some on the liberal end of the spectrum uncomfortable, in part, I suspect, because it conflicts with the portrait of Jesus as a benevolent sage preaching a message of inclusive tolerance. (See the final chapter of Michael McClymond’s Familiar Stranger for a good discussion of this issue.) So if Jesus viewed himself as the agent of God’s inbreaking reign, even if he didn’t claim to be divine in Nicea-compliant terms, a modified version of Lewis’s trilemma argument could perhaps get off the ground.

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18 thoughts on “Lewis’s “trilemma” revisited

  1. Camassia says:

    The main problem I always had with the trilemma is its naive assumption about what constitutes a ‘lunatic.’ The line between the sane and the insane isn’t all that clear-cut, especially when you’re talking about a culture that assumed that spirits were all over the place. If I remember correctly, Jesus wasn’t even the only person wandering around at the time claiming to be the Messiah — and being credible enough to gain followers — so I really don’t think that was on the level of claiming to be a poached egg.

  2. Interesting that Lewis wants to take literally the bits in the gospels where Jesus says he is God but he doesn’t seem to take literally the things Jesus seems to have said about hell (I’m thinking of Lewis’ idea that people go to hell because they choose to do so and it’s not such a bad place).

  3. One might wonder how a “straightforward claim to divinity” could be made at all. Any statement attributed to Jesus Christ in the Gospels in reference to “himself” must be taken as a statement of a different type than any other statement ever made..

  4. So Lewis leans heavily on the fact that, according to the gospels, Jesus claimed the authority to forgive sins. Only God, Lewis says, can forgive sins (at least when the forgiver is someone other than the injured party); so in claiming the authority to forgive sins, Jesus was, at least implicitly, claiming to be God.

    This strikes me as a bit too hasty. It seems that Jesus could’ve thought that he was authorized (deputized, so to speak) by God to forgive sins as part of his role as herald of God’s kingdom. As I said in the post, this still gets you a Jesus who thought he had a unique role to play in God’s plan, but I’m not convinced it gets you a Jesus who “claimed to be God.”

    • Camassia says:

      That’s a good point, especially since the risen Jesus is shown deputizing the apostles to forgive sins in exactly this way, without implying that they are now divine. It’s true, though, that you need SOME supernatural element for Jesus’ dispensing of third-party forgiveness to have any meaning, which is important because that’s one aspect of the message that almost everybody likes. I do think the trilemma is effective at tweaking people who want to keep the warm-fuzzy parts of the gospel while jettisoning the supernatural aspects, but some Lewis fans do make it carry more of the burden of proof than it can bear.

    • Well, let’s just say that somewhere in the Bible, Jesus of Nazareth was quoted saying, “I am God.” Full stop. What would that mean? That the body of Jesus of Nazareth was God? That God was in Jesus of Nazareth’s body and nowhere else? That Got had taken possession of the body of Jesus of Nazareth and was now speaking through him? What about yesterday or a few hours from now? I think these questions just scratch the surface of the problems of any such identity statement. It’s already hard enough to determine what “I” when spoken by any of us can possibly mean, or what the antecedent for the first person singular pronoun is or is thought to be.

      Since Jesus of Nazareth is nowhere reported saying “I am God,” but instead makes numerous statements that seem to point to ambiguities, metaphors, un-clarities, difficulties, and multiple ways of looking at the identity of God and the possible relationship of an identify of God and an identity of human individual or human destiny or human subjectivity – three different things – then the Christian message immanently is of a simultaneity of multiple concepts of identity of God and the or an individual. Or, put differently, the destiny of Jesus of Nazareth remains a positive statement the simultaneity of the infinite and the particular, or of the impossible coming into time and making a new time, and new times, possible.

  5. I think all of these criticisms are guilty of ignoratio elenchi; they lose sight of the fact that Lewis wasn’t constructing arguments in a void, and that the trilemma is never in any place put forward by him as a stand-alone argument, but as a response to a certain kind of position he thought was very common — one which he explicitly summarizes as ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ It’s hardly bad practice to show that the background assumptions of an opposing argument run into problems; and it’s not a reasonable criticism to attack such a response for building on the assumptions of the argument it opposes.

    Of course, this doesn’t extend to all uses of the trilemma after Lewis; but if we fault people for how others abuse their arguments, no one will end up standing.

    • Camassia says:

      Personally I haven’t met anyone who accepted Jesus merely as a great moral teacher but believed that he actually claimed to be God. They always believe he was misquoted or misinterpreted. Maybe Lewis did know people who said that, which is indeed a weird statement, but perhaps they wrote the God complex off as the spirit of a crazier age.

      • Lewis is not the only person to mention people saying such things (even someone as different from Lewis as Bertrand Russell mentions it), so it’s well attested. I think precisely the point is that it is not really a weird statement, and that our tendency to think so says more about us than about the people who said such things, since the only foundation for taking it as strange at all is the very point Lewis is making. Put yourself back in an England where theosophy and anthroposophy are at least a common sidestream even if not fully mainstream, where even a lot of atheists and agnostics tend, George-Eliot-like, to see religion as picture-thinking about ethics that has been mistakenly taken literally, where claims about the underlying unity of all the world’s religions have widespread sympathy and support, where you can find people who, not believing a single miracle and completely agnostic about the nature of God, nonetheless think the C of E an essential institution for general moral reasons and are firmly in favor of cultural Christianity. In such a context, how could it possibly seem strange?

  6. Brandon, you’re right that Lewis’s argument is ostensibly directed against the person who is willing to accept Jesus only as “a great moral teacher,” and in that light it’s fairly effective, I’d say. But it also seems clear that he thinks it shows much more than this, as evidenced by his conclusion that “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.”

    • But the conclusion you are pointing to is, in context, just a restatement of the trilemma, and therefore can only be “much more” if you are already interpreting the trilemma as if it were not a response to a specific argument.

      Further, there is no ‘ostensibly’ about it; every single time Lewis himself raises the trilemma argument, it is in the context of responding to this claim or to one that can be understood as equivalent. (There is one ambiguous case, but it’s one where he’s only alluding to the argument and we don’t actually have the full context of his remark.)

  7. I don’t want to belabor this point, but despite the fact that Lewis presents this as a response to the “Jesus as moral teacher” stance (I’m happy to strike “ostensibly”–that was sloppy word choice on my part), I’ve always read it as an attempt to establish that Jesus “was and is God.” After all, Lewis indicates that he thinks he can rule out the other two horns of the trilemma (can trilemmas have horns too?) when he says “it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend,” thus leaving “Jesus was and is God” as the only option standing.

    • Right, but we’re still dwelling in the house of language. If He says he is the Son of God, the Son of Man, or “I am the way,” or “I was before Abraham” or simply “I am” (echoing “I am that I am”), these are all different statements from each other and also different from “This guy here talking to you, yeah him, is God.” We still don’t really know what any particular statement “means in itself” because there is no “meaning in itself” (unless “meaning in itself” is a property of the divine – a possibly related inquiry, I think). Meaning exists as its implications within the double system of signifiers vs. other signifiers, and signification vs. signified (i.e., “reality”). We can speak of mystical or ultimate understandings according to which all of these superficially divergent statements are really one statement, or simultaneous facts of a singular truth, but that singular truth is somewhere beyond or larger than a (supposedly) straightforward identity statement. If you introduce yourself, “Hi, I’m Lee,” you’re not making a complex statement about what you really “are,” your destiny, your eternal soul, your subjectivity, etc.: “You” are simply offering to take a position in a common discussion. “Your” apparatus can be called on by the name “Lee.” All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Jesus of Nazareth according to the Gospels in different ways testified to his divine destiny, or his unique situation within a structure or concept of divinized existence/existence of the divine. The religious impulse for us, and generally, tends to be identified with a magic word of some kind, a creedal statement that takes on talismanic properties according to the selfsame creed. This is not a “normal” function of descriptive language either.

      • Yeas, and I think it’s worth asking whether historic Christianity would actually affirm the claim “Jesus is God.” It seems to me the language that has traditionally been used has been a bit more qualified than that.

    • Yes, but, again, that’s just to restate that it’s a standard trilemma in response to an argument; all you’ve done is describe the structure of the argument given its context, not given a reason to determine how restricted its domain is. The mere rejection of two of the horns of the trilemma doesn’t tell us anything about the status of the conclusion; that’s merely what you usually do with a trilemma when using it to respond to an argument, unless you are using it simply to pose an apparently insoluble puzzle. What would be needed to generalize the way you are doing is to show that the reasons given for rejecting the rejected horns are explicitly or necessarily intended to apply to any position across the board, rather than just the immediate ones being addressed. I see nothing in the texts on which such a conclusion could be based.

      All the typical criticisms given of the Trilemma are playing on the logical fact that trilemmas, like dilemmas, are domain-sensitive. They consist of taking a domain of possibilities and dividing them into groups for purposes of eliminating them, either to leave one standing or to create a puzzle or skeptical problem by showing that there are good reasons for eliminating them all. Because of that crucial first step, the Trilemma necessarily cannot survive any change of domains that would require a significant shift of possibilities — e.g., if we take it as a possibility that we don’t actually know what Jesus taught. This is a very basic logical point, and it is this that all the criticisms are building on.

      But one cannot make these criticisms and also treat its explicit original domain of possibilities as not necessary for interpreting the original argument, because that’s a logical double standard — one is treating the domain of possibilities as necessary to the argument when it suits the objection and not necessary when it doesn’t.

  8. I get what you’re saying, I think, but don’t you think Lewis probably regarded it as true that (1) Jesus claimed to be divine and (2) the three horns of his trilemma jointly exhaust the (plausible?) explanations for why he made that claim? Part of the reason I’m pushing on this is that the argument–while a response to a specific claim as you say–occupies a pretty pivotal place in the overall structure of _Mere Christianity_. At the very least, I think the casual reader could easily come away with the impression that the argument aims to show more than you think Lewis is necessarily trying to show. (I should probably go back and re-read the relevant parts of MC–I’m largely working from memory here.)

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