C.S. Lewis argued for a ‘trilemma’ (‘three-options’) when it comes to Jesus of Nazareth, summarized as ‘Lord, Liar, or Lunatic’. However, some have noted that this is not a true trilemma, as there are other seemingly plausible options. Kreeft and Tacelli (Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 1994, p. 165) expand this to a ‘quintilemma’.
The quintilemma as given is ‘Lord, Liar, Lunatic, Myth, or Guru’.
Although they seem to mean ‘guru’ to be interpreted expansively (“They are gurus, yogis, roshis, “spiritual masters,” “enlightened” mystics.”) the treatment is largely confined to Eastern, and in particular Hindu, ‘gurus’.
There are two problems here.
First, they do not spend much time getting clear on just how Jesus is depicted as understanding his divinity. Since the ‘guru’ option is distinguished from the Trinitarian option in terms of how divinity is to be understood, it would help to get clear first on how Jesus is portrayed as understanding his relationship to God in the Gospels, say. I will return to this shortly.
Second, and related, there aren’t just two options – Eastern or Hindu guru on the one hand and person of a triune God on the other. If Jesus were a spiritual master (and certainly he was that – the question is to what extent he was unique in that role), he might have developed not in the Hindu tradition (which Kreeft and Tacelli rightly cast doubt on), but rather have been influenced by various traditions, or simply been spiritually highly intuitive (and he certainly was that). In other words, Kreeft and Tacelli are creating a false dilemma within the fifth option of their quintilemma.
Let’s return to the evidence for Jesus’ divinity, and how he understood that. Kreeft and Tacelli give a list of 21 points that they believe is scriptural data in support of Christ’s claim to divinity. Again, the question here isn’t whether Christ was divine, the question is how to understand that precisely (in a Trinitarian formulation as a person of a triune God, say, or in some other sense). I will address what I think are the two most important points.
2. The title “Son of God” (“Son of” implies “of the same nature as.”)
The problem here is that Jesus taught that we are all sons and daughters of God. There is a reason why the prayer he gave in the sermon on the mount starts ‘Our Father’. If God is one’s spiritual Father, then that implies that one is God’s spiritual son or daughter, and hence that one is ‘of the same nature as’, as Kreeft and Tacelli point out. This leads to the opposite conclusion they want to draw – that Jesus’ nature was divine, but also that he believed all humans share in a divine nature.
15. One with the Father.
The question is, in what sense? Was he one in purpose and will? Was it that he felt a strong connection to God (which seems broken shortly before his death, “Why have you forsaken me?” before being resumed with “Into your hands I commend my spirit”)? On the other hand, he clearly distinguishes himself from the Father in aspects (“The Father is greater than I,” “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father,” and so on), which is why the standard view of Jesus is that he is a person of a triune God (there are obvious differences between him and God the Father, and so there must be something to account for that).
In conclusion, here is another option that breaks from Kreeft and Tacelli’s false dilemma. Jesus had an extremely close connection with God, had aligned his will completely with God’s, had a very strong inner spiritual life – probably largely as a result of intuition, and felt he had a unique mission from God to transform Israel (or the world). The action of the Holy Spirit flowed through him to a degree that was probably unmatched before or since. He taught that God is immanent (“Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.“) as well as transcendent. He thought all people were of a divine nature (“Our Father”), had the potential to be perfect (“Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”), and thought his teachings and actions contained the keys by which people could embark upon that transformation (‘the Way’).
Does this interpretation work flawlessly with the Gospels or the standard Christian canon? No, but virtually no interpretation does, including the standard Trinitarian one. The question is which one makes the most sense.