The History of the Liar, Lunatic, Lord Trilemma
by Kyle Barton
Who is Jesus? In which category of humanity do we place Him? Great teacher? Counterculture revolutionary? Beatnik pacifist? Liar? Lunatic? Or a class of His own—Lord?
The liar, lunatic, Lord trilemma is typically attributed to C. S. Lewis. I first read it in Watchman Nee’s Normal Christian Faith, my sophomore year in high school. The argument has a long history with many reference points in Christian teaching, really dating all the way back to the New Testament text. The trilemma is found in situ in the Gospel of John, although scattered and disjointed. And so, over the years, out of the text itself, it was excavated, collected, arranged, presented, refined, and wholeheartedly adored by the Christian community.
My guess is that C. S. Lewis’ rendition of the trilemma has received the most adoration because it is recent, witty, and approximates literature more closely than the others (for instance, “poached egg”). Great literature, however, is no replacement for great preaching, and a sermon’s effect on a congregation is not directly proportional to its literary genius.
A while back Kevin De Young gave this famous paragraph a comprehensive analysis. It’s a worthwhile read.
Below, I try to trace the development of the liar, lunatic, Lord trilemma throughout church history. I know there’s a lot more out there (I purposely stopped at Lewis), but this is just a brief survey. The development noticeably picks up steam in the 19th century and moves beyond the simple aut Deus aut malus homo formulation.
There are some amazing quotes below, and I invite you to check out the sources for yourself…
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