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Wednesday, February 03, 2010


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Mr Orsak's remarks immediately called to my mind Lewis' essay "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism," in which he responds to exactly this sort of thinking. An excerpt:

"The undermining of the old orthodoxy has been mainly the work of divines engaged in New Testament criticism. The authority of exerts in that discipline is the authority in deference to whom we are asked to give up a huge mass of beliefs shared in common by the early Church, the Fathers, the Middle Ages, the Reformers, and even the nineteenth century. I want to explain what it is that makes me skeptical about this authority . . . First then, whatever these men may be as Biblical critics, I distrust them as critics. They seem to me to lack literary judgment, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts that they are reading. . . . If tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavour; not how many years he has spent on that Gospel. But I had better turn to examples. In what is already a very old commentary I read tha the Fourth Gospel is regarded by one school as a 'spiritual romance', 'a poem not a history', to be judged by the same canons as Nathan's parable, the book of Jonah, Paradise Lost 'or, more exactly, Pilgrim's Progress." After a man has said that, why need one attend to anything else he says about any book in the world? . . . [examples from the Gospel of John omitted] 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. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage - though it may no doubt contain errors - pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn't see this has simply not learned to read."

I'm sorry for the length, but it seemed very relevant.

Yes. Scott Carson made a similar point when I linked to Bill's post at FaceBook: "Another possibility that Lewis seems not to have considered is that the accounts of Jesus' life, written down for us by folks who were not themselves eyewitnesses to the events (though in the case of Mark and John there are certainly good scholarly reasons to believe that the accounts written down were derived from eyewitness reports) may represent the details of Jesus' life in ways that are not, strictly speaking, historically accurate. This is not, in itself, either "fraud" or "deception", as some would claim, but merely seeing things with the eyes of faith and reporting what one "sees" as one "sees" it."

I'm a fan of CS Lewis, but he's just wrong on this point. And the quote doesn't amount to some kind of analysis or argument, it is just a dismissal. The idea that ancient writers didn't know how to produce realistic narratives is just untrue. There are plenty of Buddhist texts about Siddhartha that read in a similar way. What's more, he is oversimplifying the proposed relationship between history and myth, as John pointed out. The narrative structure may be grounded in historical fact. There's little doubt that it IS. But the substance of what Jesus says of Himself in John just doesn't cohere with what He says of Himself in other Gospels. In fact I think Lewis' claim here to be so off-key as to be indicative of some kind of self-delusion on this point. Jesus' speeches in John are actually nothing like the way people really talk. The Bread of Life discourses are a prime example. The whole thing is so weird, so much more like a theological text than a retold story.

In any event, the Biblical historians who make these claims give plenty of substantive reasons for their reconstructions. I'd point anyone who really wants to make a judgment for themselves to the aforementioned Sandmel book, or EP Sanders' THE HISTORICAL FIGURE OF JESUS


I'm curious of one thing. Your argument really seems to hinge on the idea that, while the narrative structure may be grounded in historical fact, Christ didn't actually say what He's reported to have said.

Whether that's true or not, I have to ask: What if Christ really did say what He's reported to have said? (The bread of life, etc.) Would you agree that the "liar, lunatic, or Lord" trilemma would be apt then?

As a Hindu, I beg to differ with Mr Orsak. There are no Hindu texts in the style of Gospels. That includes the texts about Buddha. They tend to be full of strange miracles--miracles that go against the spirit of Buddha's teachings.

Though to me, Gospel of John seems odd one among the four Gospels, style wise.
It is more Eastern of the four.


Dr Tim McGrew and Dr "Spur" argued about Lewis's trilemma and biblical criticism to a considerable depth at Bill's old blog at the late maverickphilosopher.powerblogs.com:


Very relevant.

No, I wouldn't say so. I think even as given, Vallicella's original point on the "Trilemma" would stand. Bart D. Ehrman argues that identification of Jesus with God relies primarily on misinterpretations. The point being, one can reasonably assume the Gospels to be mostly accurate to what Jesus believed and still hold other views than the ones Lewis suggests. I don't want to commit myself to the view "Jesus didn't say what the Gospels say He said". I think that we are dealing with translations of orignally oral material, some of which no doubt indeed contains Jesus' original views of Himself, but also with theological reflections intermixed with the historical facts. One can, through reflections categorize the sayings as more or less likely to be grounded in the words of the historical Jesus. Take Jesus' words on the cross, "My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?". Those words problematize the Gospel writers' apparent attempt to associate Jesus closely with God. They are likely included because they are in fact grounded in historical fact. Or take the story of the Good Samaritan. It's power cannot be understood unless you are a person deeply entrenched in the conflicts between Samaritans and Jews in the 1st century. There is good reason to think that is a story that comes all the way from Jesus, and so on. Now I'm also not a person who thinks that the subsequent theological reflection on who Jesus was is irrelevant. Jesus self-understanding is not the end of our ability to think about who Jesus was. Our encounter with the Risen Christ informs our understanding of the significance of the historical Jesus. Some of my favorite passages in the Bible include Revelations 5:12-14 and Revelations 13:8, where Jesus is envisioned as the Cosmic Christ, where His suffering Love is envisioned as the very Nature of God. I believe those things. I think these theological visions are vital to understanding, for instance, the problem of evil, and how Christianity solves those problems. What they all mean exactly, I can't say. To me all this stuff is like a child with fingerpaints trying to model the universe. I would identify myself as a Trinitarian, but I don't even know how to begin explaining it in terms of substance or anything like that. The myths, the stories, the reflections, they are all an important part of our attempt to relate to, and understand, Jesus Christ.

On the issue of other texts that have a similar structure to Jesus, I was thinking of the non-cannonical (but ancient) Buddhacarita. Certainly the text relies less on miracles, but if anything that gives it more a sense of historicity, not less. There are a lot of conceits that arise in scholarship about the Bible. Some try to paint primitive peoples as completely incapable of sophisticated theological reflection. So, for instance, they treat Genesis as a simple attempt at ancient science, and throw it away as useless. This ignores the mountain of evidence that within the stories are deliberate attempts to say very mature things about human nature, religious experience, morality and so forth. Others try to act like they were incapable of making stories sound real-to-life. So there is an attempt to say that anything that sounds real must be real, because somehow ancient peoples didn't have this kind of literary skill. BOTH conceits to my mind have been shown to be false.

Dr. Vallicella,

Mr. Orsak’s letter is a concise and devastating rebuttal to Dr. Novak’s position.

How any person who is informed regarding New Testament studies
(and is not a dismissive fundamentalist regarding critical studies)
over that past few centuries could make the assumptions he does about “the data” is just beyond me.

Lewis’ trilemma is a false trilemma, based upon scholars’ careful considerations of the new Testament texts and the literary issues and options underlying those texts.

Warmest regards,

Mark Whitten

Well, I' think I will probalby refrain from responding to Mr. Orsak's posts, mostly because most of what I would like to say has already been expressed in much more clear, knowledgeable and gentlemenlike way by dr. Tim McGrew in the excellent discussion referenced above by Vlastimil. But just in short:

Obviously there are two questions:

  1. Given that the Gospels are basically historically true, is Lewis's dilemma valid?
  2. Are the Gospels basically historically true (or are they myths, romances etc.)?

    I will leave aside (2) for now. Regarding (1), one of Orsak's main objections is that it is not clear that Jesus made God of himself. As a proof he points to His words "My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?", which, according to Orsak, "problematize the Gospel writers' apparent attempt to associate Jesus closely with God".

    I find this objection extremely weak, for two reasons. First, this is just one of the SO MANY places in the Gospels where Jesus speaks to God as though he was different from Him. They all are well known to the orthodox exegets and prove nothing concerning Jesus's divinity, since they can be related to his humanity. Of course, if Jesus could as a man suffer physically, he could also, as a man, suffer mentally. But of course, "critical exegesis" will utilize anything that can be used in any way to divorce the "historical Jesus" from the Jesus of the orthodox faith.

    Second, this seems to be really very badly chosen example even for the purpose mentioned above. For these words are the opening words of Psalm 22; it is clear that Jesus wanted to pray this psalm. If you read it, you find out not only that it has 2 parts: a desperate calling of a suffering one to God, and Gods response and subsequent praise. Thus the final meaning of the prayer is not that of absolute forsakenness, but quite the opposite, the fact that God will save his suffering servant. The utterance of this psalm is highly symbolic in this place: Jesus applies it to the present situation, makes us aware that HERE and NOW is just happening the archetypal situation described by the psalmist:

    the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet. I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me. They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture."

    And, what is more important, that the promises of the second half of the psalm are to be fulfilled:

    All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee. For the kingdom is the LORD's: and he is the governor among the nations. All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul. A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation. They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.

    So by saying these words, Jesus was not just expressing his suffering. He was giving a clue to the Jews concerning its salvatory meaning.

    Of course, this eplanation only works on the assumption that Jesus was God, that he knew it and knew his task. A modern "critical exegete" will probably say that the words were put into Jesus' mouth with certain theological or mythological intention after decades of reflection... etc. and that we have not the slightest reason to think that he really pronounced them.

    Which reminds me: Recently a friend made me aware of this absolutely breathtaking exemplar of the results of the most rigorous and revealing historico-critical exegesis as applied to... have a look yourself:



I can actually agree with a lot of what you're saying. For one, the idea that the bible isn't as simple as a neverending march of strictly literal claims and ideas. Yes, it really is far more complicated than that at times. And I'd also agree with the idea that the Bible attempts to draw attention to important ideas and concepts that we can learn from, even while truly and completely grasping is out of the question. Learning our place in the scheme of things is a lesson itself.

That said, I now wonder if there's an additional difficulty with the trilemma - as well as the responses to it - that is not being considered.

Now, I do think the argument could be made along Lewis' lines, but it's simply not going to be all that powerful - the bar to get out of the trilemma is "come up with a reasonable alternative", "reasonable" will lead to endless discussion, etc. And while I think there's something to Michael Sullivan's quote of Lewis, I want to put aside that specific trilemma for now.

My understanding of Lewis' trilemma is that he offered it specifically in response to the idea that Christ could be considered someone who was a great moral teacher, but not God. If it's believed by someone that Christ is claiming to be God, it does seem hard to both say "Well, Christ is not God, but he was a great moral teacher anyway". The response here has been that, well, we don't necessarily have to take Christ as claiming He was God. Maybe he meant He was the Son of God. Maybe he was a mystic, and most everyone just got confused.

Fine, let's go with that. The problem as I see it is that saying someone was a mystic doesn't get them off the hook of being a madman. And the mystical claims that Christ seems to be speaking of are not on the level of claiming He IS God - but they certainly lead to some deep theology and statements about reality all their own. And that seems to land us right back at Lewis' original argument, at least in large part: Call Christ a mystic, and we're stuck with having to accept or reject those mystical claims. And it doesn't seem easy to reject those mystical claims and retain "great moral teacher".

If that's correct, it seems like Lewis' trilemma remains, but is modified. Instead of liar, lunatic, or Lord, it's liar, lunatic, or mystic - with "mystic" including the option Christ claimed He was God, or that He was making other substantial claims about himself, about God and necessarily His relationship with/to God, etc.

My problem with the "trilemma" is not just that it is wrong, it is that it shows a wrongheaded approach to doctrine. Doctrines are not hard and fast, all-at-once developments.

Take "the Kingdom of God" the early Hebrews were semi-nomads with no conception of kingship. After they encountered near east monarchies and one developed within Israel itself, they started to think of God's activity in terms of a Kingdom. Originally, that Kingdom was all of creation. The earliest Psalms, especially the royal psalms, betray a view of the entire world as "The Kingdom of God". Over time, as Israel went into decline and Babylon and Assyria began to threaten its very existence, the "Kingdom" became more and more identified with the State of Israel and later with a worldwide empire centered IN Israel. As the prophets adopted an ever more pessimistic view of the world and human nature, that "Kingdom" became more and more supernaturalistic in tone and scope, with a transformation of all creation, and a general identification with the afterlife and a kind of 'heaven'. Eventually we get such an elastic understanding of the concept that Jesus can say something like "The Kingdom of Heaven is within you".

The point isn't that doctrines are bad or that you can believe whatever you want. But rather that the Bible, New Testament included, contains a myriad of positions on very specific questions. "What is the nature of the political power?" "What is Jesus' relationship with God?" "What is salvation?" These are the questions the New Testament asks and gives some attempts to answer. It is the questions, not the answers, that restrict what could be a meaningful response. Rodney Stark argues that religions thrive best in a free market of religious ideas, where evolutionary competitiveness forces innovation and change. It is not given to us to just arrest that process at some personally appealing point, but to make a case for our own answers to these questions, answers that speak to the widest range of human experience, the encounter with scripture and whatever reason has to contribute as well.

Jesus Himself, I think, is more a figure of someone who struggles with questions than has all the answers. Jesus, in my reading of the Gospels, strikes me as a person who is convinced that He is indeed the messiah, and subsequently struggles with the question 'if I'm the Messiah, well what does it mean to be messiah? What does it mean to be savior?' and so on. And His positions on these matters, I believe, changed over time as well. I think that you can link the temptations in the desert, for instance, with other themes in the Gospels and see indications that Jesus was TEMPTED to give in to political and military visions of messianism, but ultimately rejected them as Satanic. My point is that the Bible is much more a series of conversations about specific questions arising from one people's ENCOUNTER with the Divine than some set of doctrines dictated from on High. God enters the world, and its like a hurricane, a pure experience, and we're 'left to pick up the pieces'. The experience, the questions, restrict the scope of the conversations but they don't delineate exactly what answers can be given.


But I don't see Lewis intending his trilemma to really be an "approach to doctrine" in the way you're taking it here. As I said previously, my understanding was that Lewis was speaking against a particular (and seemingly more secular) view - that Jesus was a great moral teacher, and that's all. And I think the large thrust of Lewis' criticism remains *even if* we amend this to "liar, lunatic, or mystic". We're still left with Christ making some extraordinarily bold claims about Himself and about God (claims of knowledge, not idle speculation) even if we broaden the possibilities with the "mystic" designation.

Lewis, when giving this trilemma, said "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." I think that's an important line when it comes to seeing where Lewis was going with his trilemma.

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