Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Steve Davis on the origin of the trilemma

Hi Victor, several years ago, I e-mailed two prominent patristic
scholars who are friends of mine, and neither was aware of anything
like the Lewis trilemma argument in the church fathers. And I'm reasonably
sure it is not found in Luther or Calvin. Maybe Chesterton made it up;
I just do not know where it came from.


Anonymous said...

Didn't you post a sermon by some guy in the early 1900's who you said used a version of it? I can't remember his name, but I did read the sermon, in which he said something like, "I didn't used to believe that the Bible was the Word of God, nor that Jesus was the Son of God, but I would like to explain to you today what has convinced me that these things are, in fact, true."

Anonymous said...

Whoops...I could have just looked that up under the tag 'trilemma.' It was R.A. Torrey. In that comment section there was other speculation.

As for my own speculation, I think it goes back to a certain John the Evangelist. Read carefully John 8:48-58 and tell me if you agree.

Jason Pratt said...

Incidentally, Edersheim notes that the mid-19th century sceptical textual/narrative critic Keim acknowledged and made use of the trilemma. I just happened to remember this today, but considering how vast Edersheim's volume collection is it'd take me days to try to find the exact reference. Sorry. {s} I remember thinking at the time, though, that outside the Gospels themselves, Keim's form was close enough to the Chestertonian/Lewisian form that one or both men might have picked it up from him in their anti-Christianity days.)

And I agree with Anon, of course, that the debate goes back to the canonical stories at the very least (thus, if historical, back to the days of Jesus Himself.)


Edward T. Babinski said...


[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," http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=20-02-028-f