The Quintilemma

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.

8 thoughts on “The Quintilemma

  1. Philip

    The obvious fourth possibility is that Jesus did not claim to be God and the “I am” and similar statements were attributed to him 50 years later when John’s gospel was written. If we are to insist that all the words of Jesus in the gospels are fully authentic then we cannot simply completely ignore those statements from Jesus that he is not God e.g. ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (John 20:17), “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46), “I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.” (John 8:28), “Father, take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36), “I can do nothing on my own initiative; … I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.” (John 5:30)

    If Jesus was openly claiming to be God in the fiercely monotheistic climate of first century Israel, why wasn’t he stoned to death for blasphemy? They stoned Stephen for saying merely that he saw Jesus at the right hand of God.

    The suggestion that Jesus knew that he was God and went round claiming to be God rather blows apart the doctrine that Jesus was fully human as well as fully God. How could Jesus be fully human and share all our experience, if he had the power, wisdom and foreknowledge of God and used them? What could he know possibly of delight, fear, disappointment or wonder, if he knew what was to happen and was aware that he would shortly be back in heaven receiving the worship of angels? Surely the only way that Jesus could be perfectly human and perfectly divine would be if he retained his divine essence but gave up all his divine powers. That would make sense, for example, of Gethsemane, if he couldn’t see past a painful death, and of the temptations, if he didn’t know himself to be above temptation, but it would certainly not be compatible with telling people he was God. If we look at the other temptations that Jesus resisted, surely he would also have resisted telling people that he was God.

    What about the disciples? If Jesus told the disciples that he was God, how did the trilemma work for them? Did they believe him that the Jesus they saw praying to God regularly was actually God himself, or did they think him mad or an evil blasphemer? Gospel reports of their behaviour and Peter’s Pentecost sermon in which he describes Jesus as “a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him” suggests that none of these reactions happened

    The disciples’ response to Jesus’ words makes more sense, if we consider a fifth possibility that Jesus felt himself to be, and spoke to his disciples of his being, the chosen one of God, the one adopted by God as his son and filled by the spirit of God at his baptism – the Son of God in the Old Testament sense (cf Palm 2:7). This is the message put forward in e.g. Matthew 12:18, Luke 9:35, Acts 4:27, Acts 3:22.

    A sixth possibility is that the post-resurrection explanations of Jesus to his disciples have been read back by gospel writers into his pre-crucifixion teaching. The message given in the earliest Christian sermons was that Jesus was raised to divine sonship in the same act that raised him from the dead (e.g. Acts 2:22, Acts 2:33-36, Romans 1:4). So it is his post-resurrection statements about himself that the disciples are remembering.

    A seventh possibility is that Jesus, as a prophet, was voicing the words of God, just as other prophets said, “Hear the word of God,” and then spoke in the first person – “I will do …” Heralds, when they spoke on behalf of the king, used the first person too. “We demand …” (The royal “we”.)

    A eighth possibility is that Jesus believed himself to be part of God in the same way that all things are part of God, that all humans contain a spark of divinity which if allowed to burn brightly enough can raise them to a higher spiritual plane. As a spiritual master and adept, Jesus would be able to draw on great power and insights. (This is sometimes known as the llama or guru possibility.)

    A ninth possibility is that although Jesus was a real historical figure, he became the stuff of legend. All kinds of powers and statements were attributed to him over the years (as happened to a number of the saints.) After all, the gospel authors were writing not as accurate historians but as witnesses to the risen Jesus, wanting to convince others; and so the gospels are not so much biographies as theological interpretations of Jesus’ life.

    Possibility 10 – Jesus was a semi-divine creature like the Nephilim (see Gen 6:4), the son of a divine father and a human mother – half-human and half-divine, sometimes speaking as one and sometimes as the other.

    There are no doubt other possibilities. You might not like any of them, but that doesn’t mean the possibilities don’t exist.

    None of this means that Jesus isn’t God. But that is something you know in your heart, not something you can prove by carefully selecting the evidence and ignoring conflicting texts and then only offering two far-fetched alternatives.

  2. admin Post author

    “You might not like any of them, but that doesn’t mean the possibilities don’t exist.”

    Are you referring to me here? It isn’t clear to me that you’ve read the above post.

  3. Philip

    No, the two far-fetched alternatives are the other two branches of the trilemma. The “you” is general.

    What I object to in the trilemma is not the conclusion that Jesus is God (though I’d want to debate what we mean by ‘divine’) but the approach which is an attempt to bounce people into a particular belief by insisting there are only two unrealistic or unpalatable alternatives. Let me give an example of the technique being used.

    Jesus told the disciples that they would sit on 12 thrones and judge the 12 tribes of Israel There are only three possibilities: The 12 disciples are actually sitting on thrones in Heaven and every time a Jew dies he goes to be judged by one of the disciples. Jesus said it but it hasn’t happened, so you can’t trust Jesus’ promises to his friends. Jesus didn’t say it and so you can’t trust a word the bible says. Nonsense, of course,. It’s not just simplistic, it’s dishonest argument. But so is the trilemma.

    As you said in your piece, there are at least two very clear alternative possibilities. I’ve suggested that there are probably more. At least one outreach course in the USA moved from its original claim of the trilemma to the quintilemma in the second edition. In the UK, the very popular Alpha course persists with the trilemma.

  4. admin Post author

    Yes, what I am saying is that Kreeft and Tacelli are presenting a ‘false quintilemma’. There are more options, such as what you listed above.

    The trilemma can be useful, though – it can get people to start seriously thinking about the options, for example.

    I also think it comes closer to being a true trilemma if the target audience does accept the canonical Gospels as authoritative, and the term ‘Lord’ is understood expansively (not exclusively in a trinitarian way). I believe Lewis’ target audience consisted of the former.

  5. Philip

    The Alpha course, which drew heavily on the trilemma, has been of enormous benefit to a lot of people – though I think the fellowship approach rather than the theology was the reason for that. I failed the Alpha course, however. The trilemma was to me such an obviously false proposition and a dishonest way of trying to bounce people into a belief that I could put little trust in the rest of the course. I was not helped by the fact that what was advertised as a discussion course was led by a cleric with an authoritarian, didactic approach who was unwilling to tolerate any other points of view.

    What the Alpha course did for me was to make think that there must be a lot more to Christianity than biblical literalism and a belief in blood sacrifice or penal substitution for it to have survived so long, spread so widely and to have pre-occupied some of the most intelligent people of their generations. it led me to do a lot of reading and to take my own faith to a new level.

  6. admin Post author

    “though I think the fellowship approach rather than the theology was the reason for that”

    A motif of my line of thinking here is that when theologians are allowed to take the ball and run with it, they tend to cause more problems than they solve. It becomes particularly problematic when their theories about this or that are allowed to harden into ‘what Christianity is’. Getting from theory -> truth is helped greatly by robust testing within the relevant domain, and most theological theories don’t admit of that (i.e., it’s tough to test these things). Therefore, they basically have to remain epistemically tentative. This includes things like penal substitution theories of the atonement, trinitarian theories of God, and so on.

    “there must be a lot more to Christianity than biblical literalism and a belief in blood sacrifice or penal substitution”

    Yes, some people are shocked when finding out what kind of diversity of thought there is within Christianity! Much less that what they took Christianity to be are often minority positions, nowadays or historically speaking.

  7. Philip

    In his Stages of Faith James Fowler suggested that the few who attain the highest levels of faith have realized is that faith is about far more than assuring one’s own survival and salvation and gaining God’s favour during this life; that in a true relationship of love, one is more concerned about what one gives than what one receives. They have recognized that it is more important that someone’s beliefs are inclusive, life-affirming and healing and that they live these out and allow God to work through them than that they share our beliefs.

    Those first Christians who had a strong enough faith to die in the Coliseum had never heard of the Trinity or the Nicene Creed and many were illiterate and never read any of the books that would later be included in the bible. But their trusting relationship with God and their loving compassion, not only within their own fellowship but to all those in need, showed that they had a faith worth having.

    The rock on which faith is built isn’t intellectual agreement with religious propositions about God; it’s the heartfelt commitment to a life of love and service which comes from knowledge of God’s love and creative power that one feels from the very centre of one’s being. That’s what people of faith need to share. If they do share that confidence through their own commitment, they’ll understand what St Paul meant when he wrote: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

  8. admin Post author

    Yes, some have co-opted the word ‘faith’ to mean ‘belief in certain intellectual propositions about God’ instead of ‘a trusting, lived relationship with God’. For example, when people say ‘Catholic faith’ they are usually referring to the former. I think this is, basically, a mistake, and Christians would be behooved to stop doing it. It’s similar to conflating science-as-a-process with science-as-a-specific-set-of-beliefs.


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