Trilemma or Quadrilemma? Answering the “Legend” Critique of Lewis’ Lord/Liar/Lunatic Argument
by Tom Gilson
I’m missing the opening of The Hobbit tonight, so I’ll spend some time thinking of one of Tolkien’s great friends, C.S. Lewis. Lewis’s famous Liar/Lunatic/Lord trilemma has been criticized for leaving out a fourth option: Legend. His statement of the trilemma may be found in his classic 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 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 patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
What a master of word Lewis was! I’ve tried to echo some of his phrasing below, and I’ve had to give up. Still, not all have founded this argument of his to be compelling. Criticisms have been raised especially against Lewis’s assumption here that Jesus existed, and that he said what the New Testament (NT) claims he did. What if there was no Jesus, or what if he didn’t say what was ascribed to him?
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The complaint is misdirected in the first place, since the trilemma is specifically aimed at shutting out the possibility that Jesus was just a great moral teacher. Of course it assumes that the NT record of Jesus’ teachings is generally accurate: it is addressed to an audience that shares that assumption, and was intended to address an objection specific to that group.
So it seems the possibility remains that Jesus’ life and words were legendary. Or does it? There’s a growing body of research leading scholars to consensus not only that Jesus lived but that he was a teacher and miracle worker. No less a skeptic than Jesus Seminar leader John Dominic Crossan has said,
I hold, in summary, that Jesus, as a magician and miracle worker, was a very problematic and controversial phenomenon not only for his enemies but even for his friends.
Of course Crossan would not see Jesus’ miracles as evidence of deity, but as “some kind of socioreligious phenomenon.”
Yet I think there is yet another reason to reject this strange beast’s fourth horn, the Legend tusk that has sprouted along with Liar, Lunatic, and of course Lord…
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