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The Trilemma Re-visited 

This is the text of a paper I delivered at the C. S. Lewis conference hosted by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina on October 26 & 27, 2007. . . .

Perhaps the most oft-quoted statement from the pen of C. S. Lewis is this one from 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 a 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.1

Lewis referred to this argument for the divinity of Jesus as "aut Deus aut malus homo"2 and maintained that the whole case, on a popular level, was well put by G. K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man.3 Lewis utilized this argument on numerous occasions.4 Lewis's argument has, since his time, been popularized by Josh McDowell in the form "Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?".5

Lewis's argument has been criticized by those who think that Lewis did not consider the possibility that Jesus' claims to divinity were legendary. However, Lewis clearly addressed this objection and rejected the legend option for at least two reasons:

The Jews were the most unlikely people to make up such a legend. Lewis writes: "This is difficult because His followers were all Jews; that is, they belonged to that Nation which of all others was most convinced that there was only one God - that there could not possibly be another. It is very odd that this horrible invention about a religious leader should grow up among the one people in the whole earth least likely to make such a mistake."6

The Gospels do not have the mythical or legendary taste. Again Lewis says: "Now, as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing. They are not artistic enough to be legends. From an imaginative point of view they are clumsy, they don't work up to things properly. Most of the life of Jesus is totally unknown to us, as is the life of anyone else who lived at that time, and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so."7

I had heard numerous people criticize Lewis's trilemma as too simplistic, but I had never heard anyone explain why or how it was too superficial until I read a paper by N. T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, England, presented at the annual meeting of The Society for Biblical Literature in Washington, D. C., in 2006. This paper appeared in the March 2007 issue of Touchstone magazine under the title: Simply Lewis. Wright's critique of Lewis's trilemma reads as follows:

But of course the real problem is the argument for Jesus' divinity. And this problem actually begins further back: 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 which, 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 how you explain the gospel to outsiders. I think this is simply mistaken. Every step towards a deJudaized 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 the well-known slogan ?Liar, Lunatic or Lord', he argued that Jesus must have been mad or bad 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.

As I've shown elsewhere, understanding Judaism's incarnational principle doesn't undermine the eventual claim, nor does it short-circuit it. It places it in its proper historical context and enables it to be at once nuanced into a proto-Trinitarian framework, employing and appropriately transcending the messianic category ?son of God', which simultaneously settles down into first-century Judaism and explodes beyond it. Lewis's overconfident argument, by contrast, does the opposite: It doesn't work as history, and it backfires dangerously when historical critics question his reading of the gospels.8

So, let us take up Wright's critique of Lewis, point by point.

Putting Jesus in his Historical Context

First of all, Wright claims that Lewis failed to put Jesus in his proper historical context as a first century Jew. Of course Wright has a valid concern. At the same time that Lewis was delivering his broadcast talks, which eventually became Mere Christianity, there were so-called Christians in Germany, even theologians, trying to present the world with a de-Judaized Jesus. This is certainly wrong.

But we must also remember Lewis's context and what he was trying to accomplish in his broadcast talks. Perhaps Lewis tried to accomplish too much. In his first ten broadcast talks he covers the waterfront: considering first how the existence of concepts of morality point to a mind behind the universe, then considering all the rival conceptions of God, and finally bringing us to the Christian viewpoint. Lewis tries to cover all of this in ten, fifteen-minute talks! And so when he finally gets around to introducing Jesus, in "The Shocking Alternative", talk eight out of ten, Lewis dives right in. He tells us that God has done three things about the human sin problem. First of all, he left us conscience. Secondly, he gave to the world what Lewis calls "good dreams" or myths, especially the myths of the dying and rising god. And thirdly, God selected one particular people, the Jews, and spent centuries hammering into their heads what sort of God he was. The Old Testament, Lewis says, is an account of the hammering process. It is at this point, within this Jewish context, that Lewis introduces Jesus:

Then comes the real shock. Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now let us get this clear. Among Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say that he was a part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it. But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world Who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.9

Thus I am not sure that Lewis completely failed in regard to placing Jesus in his historical context as a Jew. Is Lewis doing this in a very highly condensed manner? Certainly he is. Has Wright, as a theologian and New Testament scholar done a better job at putting Jesus in his Jewish context? Yes again. But when one takes into account that Lewis was neither a New Testament scholar nor a professional theologian, and when one considers what Lewis wrote about Jesus in other contexts,10 it must be admitted that Lewis had a fairly full-orbed Christology as well as a healthy understanding of the Jewishness of the historical Jesus.11

Jesus' Offer of Forgiveness as a Temple Alternative

Secondly, Wright maintains that Jesus' offer of forgiveness was not a direct claim to deity but rather a claim to replacing the Temple which was, indirectly, a claim to deity. Let us hear, once again, what Lewis says on this subject:

One part of the claim tends to slip past us unnoticed because we have heard it so often that we no longer see what it amounts to. I mean the claim to forgive sins: any sins. Now unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic. We can all understand how a man forgives offences against himself. You tread on my toe and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men's toes and stealing other men's money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offences. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivaled by any other character in history.12

Does Lewis miss the Temple connection? Yes, completely. Again, Lewis is not a New Testament scholar, nor does he, in any of his books, wrestle very directly with various New Testament texts. What Wright says is, I think, true: Jesus was offering himself as an alternative to the Temple ritual.

But Lewis's argument, that Jesus' claim to forgive sins was, indirectly, a claim to deity, seems to me still very strong. Certainly the reaction of some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law was that, by claiming to forgive sins, Jesus was blaspheming.13 The Pharisees didn't say to themselves, "Oh well, Jesus is simply claiming to be a Temple alternative." No, they recognized, quite instantaneously, that Jesus was claiming to be God. Would that people today would recognize Jesus' inherent claim as clearly and immediately as the Pharisees recognized it.

Lewis's Short Circuited Argument

Thirdly, Wright questions the underlying assumption of the "Liar, Lunatic, Lord" argument, that assumption being that Jesus straightforwardly claimed to be God. Wright maintains that Jesus' claim is much more indirect than Lewis makes it out to be.

It should be noted that Lewis does not use the slogan: "Liar, Lunatic or Lord". Wright is mistaken in calling this Lewis's slogan. This is the slogan of Josh McDowell, who further popularized Lewis's argument in his book More Than a Carpenter, published in 1977.

It should also be noted that Wright accepts the deity of Christ. As anyone who knows Wright's work will confess, he is clearly not trying to maintain that Jesus was just a good, moral teacher. Nor was Jesus simply a prophet.

What does Wright say about Jesus' identity and his claims? First of all, Wright correctly points out that if we are going to identify Jesus with God we must first ask: Which God? Wright notes that what most people today mean by god is the god of Enlightenment Deism. And there are plenty of other gods on offer today, but do any of them have anything to do with Jesus?

If we are going to identify Jesus with God Wright maintains that we must first ask and answer the question: What did first century Jews mean by the word god? In his book The Challenge of Jesus Wright shows how the Jewish idea of "God" was quite different from the distant god of Deism as well as being different from the immanent gods of ancient and modern paganism and pantheism. The Jews believed in YHWH, "the One Who Is," the Sovereign One. They believed that there was one God, who created heaven and earth, and who remained in close and dynamic relation with his creation; and that this God had called Israel to be his people. Furthermore, during the second-Temple period there was the expectation of the return of YHWH to Zion after his abandonment of Jerusalem at the time of the exile. And there was the idea that YHWH would be enthroned along with someone else who would share that throne. Wright states:

There is a complex range of Jewish texts from different periods that speculate about the exaltation and the heavenly enthronement of a figure who may be either an angel or a human being. These speculations grow from meditation upon and discussion of certain key texts such as Ezekiel 1, in which the prophet receives a vision of YHWH's throne-chariot, and Daniel 7, where "one like a son of man" is presented to "the Ancient of Days" and shares his throne. . . .

How far these speculations were taken is a matter of continuing debate. But the point should be clear: things like this were thinkable; they were not obviously self-contradictory, nor were they regarded as necessarily a threat to what second-Temple Jews meant by "monotheism."14

Secondly, Wright shows how the early Christians picked up these threads of second-Temple Jewish belief and applied them to Jesus. As Wright says,

All the signs are that the earliest Christians very quickly came to the startling conclusion that they were under obligation, without ceasing to be Jewish monotheists, to worship Jesus. . . . From here on, we must say that if trinitarian theology had not existed it would be necessary to invent it. That, in fact, is effectively what the first generation of Christians did, worshiping Jesus within the framework of Jewish monotheism.15

But did this worship of Jesus by the early Christians stem from something Jesus had claimed regarding himself? Wright answers this question positively:

Central to all that follows is the argument that Jesus, at the very center of his vocation, believed himself called to do and be in relation to Israel what, in Scripture and Jewish belief, the Temple was and did. If, therefore, Judaism did indeed have a great incarnational symbol at its very heart, namely the Temple, then for Jesus to upstage the Temple, to take on its role and function and to legitimate this with Davidic claims, meant that Jesus was claiming that he rather than the Temple was the place where and the means by which the living God was present with Israel. . . . Jesus was taking the huge risk of acting as if he were the Shekinah in person, the presence of YHWH tabernacling with his people.16

Did Jesus then know himself to be God in the flesh? Wright answers that question in this way:

I do not think Jesus "knew he was God" in the same sense that one knows one is hungry, or thirsty, tall or short. . . . It was more like the knowledge that I have that I am loved by my family and closest friends; like the knowledge that I have that sunrise over the sea is awesome and beautiful; like the knowledge of the musician not only of what the composer intended but of how precisely to perform the piece in exactly that way-a knowledge most securely possessed, of course, when the performer is also the composer. It was, in short, the knowledge that characterizes vocation. As I have put it elsewhere: "As tested in confrontation, agonized over in further prayer and doubt, and implemented in action, he [Jesus] believed he had to do and be, for Israel and the world, that which according to Scripture only YHWH himself could do and be."17



So where does that leave us? In this encounter between C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright does Lewis's trilemma come out in tact? Not exactly. Wright offers a far more subtle argument for the divinity of Jesus, but in the end it is also a far more historically reliable and Scripturally rooted argument as well. Does this mean that we should discard Mere Christianity and suggest that people read Simply Christian instead? Even if some of us were to follow this course of action I doubt it would affect the sales of Mere Christianity that much. The last time I checked Publisher's Weekly, Mere Christianity was the number five bestseller in religious paperbacks-quite an amazing accomplishment fifty-five years after its first publication. As Wright says in his article, Simply Lewis:

. . . the bee flies, and gets the honey. Credit where credit is due. Lewis himself would have been the first to say that of course his book was neither perfect nor complete, and that what mattered was that, if it brought people into the company, and under the influence (or "infection") of Jesus Christ, Jesus himself would happily take over-indeed, that Jesus had been operating through the process all along, albeit through the imperfect medium of the apologist.

C. S. Lewis didn't bring me under the influence of Jesus Christ, but reading Mere Christianity when I was a questioning college student did a lot toward keeping me under the influence. And now, twenty-five years later, the work of N. T. Wright is having a similar effect. Should we discard one in favor of the other? Why not read both, and recommend both to other seekers?

  1. C. S. Lewis. Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1984) p. 56.

  2. Either God or a bad man.

  3. See C. S. Lewis. God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) p. 101 and Chesterton, G. K. The Everlasting Man (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993) pp. 196-198.

  4. See C. S. Lewis. God in the Dock, pp. 156-160, 180; C. S. Lewis. Christian Reflections (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1967) p. 137; C. S. Lewis. Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958) pp. 135-136; C. S. Lewis. Miracles (New York: Macmillan, 1978) pp. 108-109; C. S. Lewis. The Weight of Glory (New York: Macmillan, 1980) p. 91; C. S. Lewis. The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1986) pp. 23-24; C. S. Lewis. Collected Letters Volume II (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2004) p. 375.

  5. See Josh McDowell. More Than a Carpenter (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1978) pp. 25-35.

  6. C. S. Lewis. God in the Dock. p. 158.

  7. Ibid., pp. 158-159.

  8. N. T. Wright. Merely Christian? Reflections on C. S. Lewis's Apologetic after 60 Years. A paper at the Annual Meeting of the SBL. Washington, DC, 19 November 2006.

  9. C. S. Lewis. Mere Christianity. pp. 54-55.

  10. See Will Vaus. Mere Theology: A Guide to the Thought of C. S. Lewis (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) pp. 79-90 for a summary of Lewis's understanding of Christology.

  11. See C. S. Lewis. Reflections on the Psalms. pp. 5-6 for an example of this.

  12. C. S. Lewis. Mere Christianity. p. 55.

  13. See Matthew 9:3; Mark 2:7; Luke 5:21.

  14. N. T. Wright. The Challenge of Jesus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999) p. 105.

  15. Ibid., pp. 106, 107.

  16. Ibid., pp. 111, 114.

  17. Ibid., pp. 121-122.

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