Saturday, 16 November 2013

the trilemma

A couple of quotes from Alex MacDonald's article on CS Lewis in the November Monthly Record.

Talking about the 'mad/bad/God'/'liar/lunatic/Lord' options presented in Mere Christianity: 'This argument, which Lewis did not invent but developed and popularised, is sometimes referred to as "Lewis' trilemma". The earliest use of this approach was probably by the Free Churchman "Rabbi" John Duncan (1797-1870), quoted in 1870 as a saying used by him during his preaching career (Colloquia Peripatetica): "Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable."'

Nothing new under the sun, of course. And wouldn't be surprised if someone had made the point long before that too.

Alex goes on to say that some argue against it by saying that Jesus didn't in fact claim to be God - he did - or that he was simply mistaken (though how a mistake of that nature is supposed to be different from 'mad' I don't know).

'However, it is common today to speak of a fourth option to the trilemma - that Jesus was a legend, or at least supernatural aspects of the Gospels are mythical - and it is customary to criticise Lewis for not taking this into account. This is unfair, as in a popular apologetic work such as Mere Christianity he did not delve into questions of literary criticism. However, elsewhere he did, particularly in the delightfully entitled Fern-seed and Elephants.
'There he picks a statement from a liberal commentary where John's Gospel is called a "spiritual romance", "a poem not history". Lewis retorts: "I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this." In his opinion there were only two possibilities - either the author was reporting what happened, or else someone neary 2000 years ago suddenly invented modern, novelistic, realistic narrative (which is literarily and historically inconceivable). He says that if a biblical scholar tells him that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, he wants to know how many legends and romances he has read, not how many years he has spent studying that Gospel and what others have said about it. This is still a point of fundamental significance today. I recently heard a scientist on radio dismissing the Bible as myth. We are entitled to ask not how well qualified he is scientifically, but how well qualified he is to speak about myths.'