Sunday Toons: Liars, Lords, Lunatics and Ghosts

For our Sunday morning toons this week, let’s have a look at Holding’s attempts to rescue his own attempt to rescue C. S. Lewis’s famous “Liar, Lord or Lunatic” argument (aka “the Trilemma”). Holding seems to be replying to an earlier post of mine entitled “Tekton Apologetics on the ‘Lord Liar or Lunatic’ Argument,” even though he entitles his page “On ‘Compromising God’,” referring to a different and unrelated post. He begins by accusing me of trying to change the subject to something “outside the scope” of the trilemma argument.

The main way used to defuse the trilemma is to try to add to it. As I have noted, these efforts are misguided. Dumplin’ whines (as do other) that the trilemma leaves out stuff like, “How do we know Jesus did say these things?” Actually, it doesn’t; that is just outside its scope. The Trilemma does assume that Jesus’ words are recorded accurately; but positing that they weren’t does not dissolve the Trilemma; it goes outside of it.

Notice that Holding assumes that I am trying to argue that the New Testament documents are unreliable records of what Jesus actually said. That is indeed a valid concern, however that was not the point I was trying to make, nor does my post anywhere raise that particular issue. Holding claims I tried to refute the trilemma argument by asking how we know Jesus said such and such, but I never raised any such objection nor did the idea figure in my argument at any point. So right off the bat Holding is attacking a ghostly straw man, a mere figment of his own imagination.

Next, Holding tries to prove me wrong by admitting that he didn’t understand what I wrote.

Dumplin’ claims that I create “a series of false dichotomies that fail to accurately represent the realities involved.” Really? How so? His example is a convoluted one of little coherence, to say nothing of little grasp of exegetical realities. He appeals to the incidence of John 10 in which Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.”

To answer Holding’s question (i.e. the “Really? How so?” bit), let’s look at one of the more popular passages in which Lewis defined his original trilemma argument, in Mere Christianity.

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 a man who says he is a poached egg – or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.

Notice, in defining what the trilemma is, and how it argues for the deity of Jesus, Lewis claims that Jesus has not left open the possibility that he was merely a great (non-divine) teacher. But is that really the case? Lewis said that if Jesus claimed to be God, and wasn’t, then he must either be a liar or on the same level as a man who says he’s a poached egg. But does it have to be an egg? Would he also be on the same level as a man who says that he is a gate for sheep to go in and out of? or that he is a vine? or that bread is his body and wine is his blood?

The problem is, Jesus liked to teach in parables and to use figurative language even when speaking to his disciples. Even if he did say, “I am God,” would that be meant literally? Let’s look again at Holding’s first dichotomy. “Either Jesus claimed to be divine, or He did not” (emph. Holding’s). The first question is, did Jesus claim to be literally divine? This is the first dichotomy in Holding’s argument, and it also reflects Lewis’s claim that Jesus has not left open the possibility that he was merely an inspired non-divine teacher. This question is the core of the trilemma argument, because if Jesus was not intentionally trying to convey the idea that he was God the Son Incarnate, all the subsequent dichotomies become moot.

In this context, it’s highly relevant to look at the case in John 10 where Jesus claimed to be one with God. Is that a claim to be genuine deity? Jesus was accused of claiming deity for himself, but his defense was to cite an Old Testament precedent in which God Himself allegedly used “elohim” to refer to ordinary mortals. Now, I’m just a poor dumb skeptic, but it sure sounds to me like Jesus is making the argument that it is legitimate to use “elohim” to refer to people who are not literally gods, and therefore it was not blasphemous for him to claim unity with God. Does that sound to you like Jesus is not leaving open the possibility that he might be merely an inspired teacher?

When we look at Psalm 82 itself (as I did in my original post), it becomes even more clear that a reasonable interpretation needs to be a bit more nuanced than simply forcing it into an “either true or false” binary choice. Jesus’s interpretation was that God refered to mortal men as “gods.” If we take the dichotomous approach, we ought to say (to be consistent with the logical structure of the trilemma) that either the men are gods, or they are not. From a Christian perspective, however, neither alternative is very palatable, because if you say that it’s true that men are gods, that sounds too polytheistic, but if you say that it’s false even though God stated it as true, then God must be either lying or mistaken.

The more nuanced approach is to acknowledge that there’s a certain amount of latitude in how you interpret what it means to “be gods” in that context—which is precisely the point I was making in regards to the trilemma argument. Applying the trilemma’s exegetical principles consistently to Psalm 82 results in a conclusion that is absurd (from a Christian perspective), thus showing that this particular hermeneutic is fallacious. The fix is to amend the hermeneutic to take the nuanced interpretations into account, as even Holding acknowledges.

Actually, Ps. 82′s true, intended meaning is best arrived at by exegetical scholarship; and in that sense, there’s a couple of issues at stake. First, “gods” (elohim) meant more than simply the one God of Judaism (see here, it is above Dumplin’s head of course).

In other words, the problem with trying to turn Psalm 82 into a dichotomy is that the word for “god” or “gods” can mean different things in different contexts, and theologians need to dig a little deeper than the Lewis/Holding dichotomy of “either true or false.” Holding has one more argument to try and make me sound wrong, however.

Second, Dumplin’ is confusing interpretation with determination. Whatever Ps. 82 means (I discuss this in detail in my book on Mormonism), it is obviously relating something true or false; and if false, either because the source of the claim (whether God or whomever) is lying or somehow deluded to some degree (whether by means of a mistake or because of mental illness, at the extremes).

The problem is, the determination is dependent on the interpretation, or more precisely, the accuracy of the determination is dependent on the accuracy of the interpretation. It’s all well and good to try and protect God by distancing what He allegedly said from what He allegedly meant, but that only makes the trilemma an even weaker argument for the deity of Jesus. Even if Jesus was absolutely 100% correct when he claimed to be “one with God” (in some sense), the assumed truth of that statement contributes nothing to the argument that he was genuine deity unless the interpretation (that he was claiming divinity) is also correct. Inaccessible truth is theoretically possible but practically useless, and our only access to the truth (or untruth) of Jesus’s claims is through human interpretation of his words. And those words must be interpreted exegetically, not by simplistic, artificial dichotomies.

Thus, by reducing the initial assumption to a naive dichotomy between whether Jesus did or did not claim to be divine, and by failing to take a more nuanced, exegetical approach to what Jesus might have meant by being “one with God” (and other oft-cited passages), the Lewis/Holding trilemma oversimplifies the theological issues involved, and reduces a complex theological question to a false dichotomy between mutually exclusive binary absolutes, neither of which necessarily describes the real-world context of the question.

Which is what I said in the first place. He who has ears to hear… ;)

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Posted in CAMWatch, Sunday Toons, Unapologetics. 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “Sunday Toons: Liars, Lords, Lunatics and Ghosts”

  1. mike Says:

    Why do you even bother engaging in a dialog with someone who uses the rhetorical tactics of a 9-year-old?

  2. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Actually, I have one “good” reason, and several selfish ones. The “good” reason is that my goal is to target Christianity at a level that matches where the bulk of Christian thought resides, and the vast majority of Christians (regardless of their personal intellectual development) engage Christianity at the level of child-like faith, as in “suffer the little children to come to me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Holding is actually a pretty good instance of this type of Christian experience; for all his self-styled scholarship, when it comes time to apply what he has learned, it’s back to the grade school playground.

    The selfish reasons are a bit easier to describe: my Tekton posts get a lot of readers, and whenever Holding posts some new screed against me on his own web sites, I start seeing the phrase “evangelical realism” showing up in the search engine queries in my blog stats. Holding avoids linking to me directly, so people have to do the search, which drives up my Google rating—another benefit.

    Also, I like to kick back a little on the weekends, and the Tekton posts are kinda low-hanging fruit, if you know what I mean. The name calling and bluster only make it easier to reply, since they’re irrelevant noises. And it’s interesting to work with what Holding thinks are the important points. I already know why I think the trilemma is rubbish, but if I want to address the way Christians think about it, it helps to have a Christian who will not only give me the original material to critique, but who will keep responding to my posts. In his replies Holding is either going to give me more material I can use for my blog, or he’s going to give up and just make faces at me. He might even teach me something I didn’t already know.

    Either way, it’s a fun and easy post for me, especially since Holding has already committed himself to the position that I’m “stupid.” If it sucks to have someone point out the flaws in your apologetic, it’s got to really suck to have an apologetic that even an idiot can find flaws in. ;)

  3. B8ovin Says:

    I wonder if this has previously been discussed in the other entries on this topic, but it seems glaring that Lewis purposely limited the possibilities to avoid having to argue obvious flaws in his thesis. Jesus could have assumed his godly nature without it being true, and convinced others. This is not delusion of grand nature, indeed, we all make such assumptions about ourselves, perhaps not deification. Mr. Tekton considers himself a wit and a logician. Many palm readers and telepaths consider they possess real powers, but are otherwise normal.
    There is also the distinct possibility that Jesus never thought of himself as a god, nor ever said such a thing. We might even argue that the entire Bible is rife with mythologizing by later scribes, who gave Jesus a greater inventory of characteristics than he possessed; or even that Jesus never existed except in the minds of later Christians who report their beliefs as facts. It seems Lewis by posing Jesus was a madman, a liar, or the son of God did not wish to entertain the wider range of possibilities that would make Jesus subject to more skeptical, or at least, more critical scrutiny. Why would that be?