bookmark_borderInterpretation of McDowell’s Trilemma

I summarize the premises of the Trilmma argument in Evidence that Demands a Verdict as follows:

1. Jesus claimed to be God.
2. If Jesus claimed to be God, and Jesus was not God, and Jesus knew that he was not God, then Jesus was a liar.
3. If Jesus claimed to be God, and Jesus was not God, and Jesus did not know that he was not God, then Jesus was mentally ill.
4. It is not the case that Jesus was a liar.
5. It is not the case that Jesus was mentally ill.

The conclusion of McDowell’s Trilemma argument is deceptively simple:

6. Jesus was God.

I use the past tense here instead of present tense for a couple of reasons. First, the basic factual premise upon which this conclusion is based is stated in the past tense: “Jesus claimed to be God.” Second, if the conclusion were stated as “Jesus is God” that would imply that Jesus is still alive or in existence, but the argument does not specifically deal with Jesus’ alleged resurrection. So, this seems to be a stronger claim than what the argument is intended to prove.

I suppose if one could prove that Jesus was God at some point in time about 2,000 years ago, one could go on to argue that Jesus must still exist, since God is, by definition, eternal and immortal. But McDowell does not present any such reasoning, so I think it best to limit the conclusion to the narrower claim about the historical Jesus.

What did McDowell mean by this conclusion? What does the word “God” mean in (6) and in premise (1)? Does McDowell mean that Jesus was “a god”? Does he mean that Jesus had developed a close spiritual relationship with the personal God of Western theism? Does he mean that Jesus had achieved mystical union with the Absolute, with the divine as understood by Eastern mysticism? I don’t think McDowell had any of these ideas in mind when asserting the conclusion of the Trilemma. I think he intended something like this:

(6a) The historical Jesus was literally the personal God of Western theism.

If this interpretation of (6) is correct, then premise (1) should be interpreted similarly, in order for the argument to be logically valid (to avoid the logical error of equivocation):

(1a) The historical Jesus claimed to be God (meaning that he was literally the personal God of Western theism).

That this is what McDowell had in mind can be seen most clearly in his short book, More than a Carpenter (hereafter:MTC). The Trilemma argument is presented in Chapter 2 of MTC. In Chapter 1, McDowell argues that Jesus claimed to be God, premise (1) of the Trilemma. So, we can see what McDowell had in mind by (1) and (6) based on comments he makes in Chapter 1 of MTC. Here are some key points from that Chapter:

· Jesus ‘ claim to be God distinguishes him from all other major religious leaders, including Buddha. (p.10)
· Jesus claims about himself described him as being “more than just a prophet or teacher.” (p.10)
· The word “God” in this context means the “inifinite and perfect spirit in whom all things have their source, support, and end”. (p.10)
· In Western theism, “God is personal and…the universe was planned and created by him”. (p.10-11)

Since Buddha claimed to have achieved a connection or oneness with the Absolute, as understood in Eastern religion and mysticism, and since McDowell asserts that Jesus’ claim to be God distinguishes Jesus from Buddha, we can reasonably set aside the interpretation that Jesus was claiming to have achieved a connection or oneness with the Absolute, as understood in Eastern religion and mysticism; this is not the claim that McDowell is making in the conclusion of the Trilemma.

Furthermore, we can set aside the interpretation that Jesus was merely claiming to have achieved a close relationship with the God of Western theism, because according to McDowell, Jesus’ claim identifies him as being “more than just a prophet or teacher”. A prophet claims to have a very close relationship with God, one in which God communicates advice and wisdom clearly and directly to the prophet, unlike how God relates to ordinary believers. Jesus, according to McDowell, is making a stronger claim than that.

Because McDowell clarifies the meaning of the word “God” in the context of clarifying the meaning the claim that Jesus was God, it is clear that the meaning he spells out is intended to clarify what the word “God” means in the conclusion of the Trilemma argument and also in premise (1).

By “God” McDowell means the “infinite spirit in whom all things have their source, support, and end” and who “planned and created” the universe. Thus, the conclusion of the Trilemma should be understood as implying that Jesus is the infinite spirit in whom all things have their source, support, and end, and the personal being who planned and created the universe. This meaning is captured by my paraphrase of the conclusion:

(6a) The historical Jesus was literally the personal God of Western theism.

Western theism, as McDowell correctly points out, posits the existence of a personal being who planned and created the universe.

One final bit of evidence provides additional support for this interpretation of the Trilemma. In Chapter 1 of MTC, McDowell comments that the scriptures attribute characteristics to Jesus that belong only to God, and in listing some of the attributes, McDowell also clarifies what he means by the word “God” in the context of the Trilemma:

The Scriptures attribute characteristics to him [Jesus] that can be true only of God. Jesus is presented as self-existent…omnipresent…omniscient… [and] omnipotent… (p.11)

These characteristics constitute standard conditions that philosophers often use to define the word “God” in terms of Western theism. McDowell could hardly be any clearer than this, implying that the concepts commonly used to define the word “God” apply to Jesus. Any person who is self-existent, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent can honestly and correctly claim to literally be the personal God of Western theism.

Based on McDowell’s comments in Chapter 1 of MTC, a Chapter that focuses on establishing the key premise of the Trilemma (i.e. “Jesus claimed to be God.”), a Chapter that immediately precedes a Chapter that lays out the Trilemma argument, it is clear what the word “God” means in the Trilemma argument, and it is clear that my proposed interpretation of the conclusion is in keeping with the intended meaning and purpose of the argument.

Because the conclusion makes this strong claim about Jesus, the first premise should be interpreted similarly, otherwise the argument would commit the fallacy of equivocation, and the argument would be dead on arrival.

The basic idea of the Trilemma is that Jesus claimed something about himself, and that we are forced to conclude that this claim is true. The conclusion of the Trilemma is that Jesus was literally the God of Western theism, so the claim made by Jesus about himself has to be the same or an equivalent claim:

(1a) The historical Jesus claimed to be God (meaning that he was literally the personal God of Western theism).

If (6a) correctly interprets the meaning of the conclusion of the Trilemma, then (1a) is the best interpretation of the first premise.

bookmark_borderThe Trilemma – How Old? part 2

I have not been able, so far, to find any references prior to the 1800s to a Latin sentence presenting a dilemma (e.g. aut deus aut homo non bonus – either God or a bad man) that could have been the original basis for the Trilemma. Because of this, I am skeptical that the Latin statement of the dilemma is of medieval or ancient origin. I don’t know the origin of the Trilemma, but I have a plausible hypothesis about how it came to be.

First, a very brief summary of historical apologetics, derived from a book by William Craig (Apologetics: An Introduction; hereafter: AAI). In the 5th century, Augustine defended the authority of scripture based on “empirical signs of credibility, mainly miracle and prophecy.” (AAI, p.130). In the 13th century, Aquinas followed Augustine on this point, but for Aquinas “miracle is the most important sign of credibility.” (AAI, p.130). Jesus’ miracles confirmed his teachings and his divine power. This makes the historical question, “Did Jesus really perform the miracles reported in the Gospels?” of critical importance, but Aquinas “just leaves the historical question unanswered.” (AAI, p.131).

The protestant reformation helped to foster historical consciousness and development of historical methodology, because protestants, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, made historical arguments that the Catholic Church had departed from the original teachings and practices of the early Christians, and defenders of Catholicism also engaged in historical arguments to refute these protestant objections and to show that the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church were in keeping with those of the early Christians (see AAI, p.132).

The rise of historical consciousness and historical methodology allowed for the development of historical apologetics. According to Craig, “Hugo Grotius was the first to provide a developed historical argument for Christianity in his De veritate religionis christiannae [1627].”(AAI, p.133).

Here is a summary of how Grotius defended the central miracle of the resurrection of Jesus:

…the apostolic testimony to the event of the resurrection can only be denied if the apostles were either lying or sincerely mistaken. But neither of these are reasonable. Therefore, the resurrection must be an historical event.
(AAI, p.135)

Grotius argued for a trilemma about a claim made by the apostles:

(1) One of the following three statements is true:
The apostles were lying about the resurrection of Jesus.
The apostles were sincerely mistaken about the resurrection of Jesus.
The apostles’ claim that Jesus rose from the dead was true.
(2) The apostles were not lying about the resurrection of Jesus.
(3) The apostles were not sincerely mistaken about the resurrection of Jesus.
Therefore:
(4) The apostles’ claim that Jesus rose from the dead was true.

This is the same logic that is used by C.S. Lewis and Josh McDowell in the Trilemma argument for the divinity of Jesus. The person making the claim is Jesus rather than the apostles, and the claim is that Jesus is God, rather than that Jesus rose from the dead, but making those substitutions yeilds the familiar Trilemma argument:

(5) One of the following three statements is true:
Jesus was lying in claiming to be God.
Jesus was sincerely mistaken in claiming to be God.
Jesus’ claim to be God was true.
(6) Jesus was not lying in claiming to be God.
(7) Jesus was not sincerely mistaken in claiming to be God.
Therefore:
(8) Jesus’ claim to be God was true.

So, my hypothesis is that someone following in the footsteps of Hugo Grotius (sometime after 1627) modified his argument for the resurrection into an argument for the divinity of Jesus. Since I have found an early version of the Trilemma that was published in 1733, there is about a 100-year window when the Trilemma argument was invented (1627-1733).

bookmark_borderTrilemma Revisited

My old friend J. P. Holding thinks I have committed a category mistake and provides a counter-argument of his own:

Peter claims that Jesus was God incarnate. He makes this claim based upon what he considers to be justifiable evidence. Jesus told him that He was God incarnate. Further, Jesus has fond memories of being God and when asked, His mother supports Jesus’s claim. Jesus even passes a lie-detector test when asked whether or not He is God. Peter is also convinced that Jesus is a sane person and not prone to telling lies. Therefore, Peter’s third-person claim to knowledge demonstrates that Jesus is (1) telling the truth, (2) not purposefully lying, and it is clear that (3) he does not misunderstand Jesus’s assertion. Unfortunately, Jesus was actually Zeus incarnate rather than God incarnate. Jesus was actually descended from Zeus and His mother does not want Him to learn of His true origins.

Thus the analogy does not hold, and the problem remains: How could one be mistaken about being God incarnate? The very thing that needs to be answered is not even touched upon! The character and nature of the claims of Jesus are such that proof of being mistaken would all too easily come to pass! Still’s comparison is completely irrelevant.
Incredibly Holding cannot imagine that someone with aspirations of divinity could be mistaken. Presumably they must either be lying through their teeth or certifiably insane. Was David Koresh insane to believe himself to be the Messiah? I wouldn’t say so. Sadly mistaken with visions of grandeur certainly but not insane. There’s also the late Grand Rabbi Menachem Schneerson who behaved the way the messiah should and did nothing to dissuade the Chabad-Lubavitch community in Brooklyn and around the world from believing otherwise. Or how about Sun Myung Moon who proclaimed in the 2002 Clouds of Witnesses statement that he is the “Savior, Messiah, Second Coming and True Parent,” i.e., God, of all humanity? These are just three of our contemporaries. There have been dozens of such figures throughout history–just like these three and Jesus–who believed themselves to be sons of gods, messiahs, demi-gods, or the Big Guy himself. I’m quite sure that many of these characters really were con-artists or just plain wacky. These are the people that C. S. Lewis no doubt had in mind when he formulated the trilemma. Like Holding and many others, Lewis gave too much benefit of the doubt to Jesus and too little to all others. But the truth is not so simple. Among the very devout there have been numerous serious, committed, sober and sane religious leaders who firmly believe themselves to be divine incarnations of one or another deity. Jesus joins that proud line of would-be saviors.