Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Lewis' Trilemma Strikes Again

Well blow me down with a feather duster.  After not hearing Lewis' Trilemma (the "lunatic, liar or Lord" argument) for years, I hear it twice in a fortnight.

I couple of weeks ago I told you how I heard it from the pulpit in my own church.  Fair enough, our rector is a busy working pastor and doesn't have time to think through the fine points of every sermon.  Then last Thursday a good friend graduated from the Queensland Theological College and I went along to clap as he got his hard-earned piece of paper.  There it was again, popping up its three ugly heads at the close of Douglas O'Donnell's guest speech.  I hope the theological graduates were shaking their heads at the faux pas.

It slightly spoiled what was otherwise an intriguing address.  O'Donnell's subject was the Sermon on the Mount, and his point was that the central theme of the sermon is Jesus' authority.  In support of this idea he cited four pieces of evidence.

The first was the setting of the sermon on top of a mountain.  This, like the other mountaintop scenes in Matthew, suggests a parallel with Moses ascending Mount Sinai and returning with the words of the Torah written on stone tablets - except that instead of stone writings Jesus delivers his own words.

Second is the formula which recurs through the body of the sermon.  Jesus says "you have heard that it was said..." and quotes or paraphrases a verse from the Torah.  Then he goes on, "...but I say to you..." and outlines his own intepretation or reworking of the cited verse.  Adultery is reframed as lust, murder as anger, and so on.

Third is the closing words of the sermon, in which he uses the image of wise and foolish builders to exhort his hearers not just to hear his words, but to obey them, and promises to disown those who don't.

Finally there is the reaction of the crowds, who "were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes".

As if to finish with a flourish, this is where O'Donnell quoted Lewis' words from Mere Christianity.

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

It did indeed provide a rhetorical flourish to close a well-constructed sermon.  Lewis is a master of English prose, his choice of words and the cadence of his sentences contibute as much to the power of his argument as the logic of his proposition.  Indeed more.  I won't repeat what I said in my earlier post, you can read it here.  Suffice to say there are a lot more than three options.  If you don't want to take my word for it, have a look at this fascinating re-presentation of the question, complete with thoroughly subjective assignments of mathematical probability.

Ultimately O'Donnell's faux pas highlighted the weakness of his own argument.  He is undoubtedly correct that the Sermon on the Mount incorporates a claim to authority by which Jesus radically rewrites the Mosaic Law.  To say this authority is the subject of the sermon, however, is like saying the subject of a court order is the power of the court to give orders.  Jesus' authority represents the context of the sermon.  Its content is the rewriting of the Law itself. 

A king who sits in his castle year after year and issues no decrees is a king in name only.  We may tip our hats as we pass his door, but he has no real impact on our lives.  A king who issues oppressive or foolish decrees will excite our rebellion and disobedience.  No matter how well founded his claim to authority, he will not hold it for long and will never have our love. 

We don't accept Jesus' authority simply because he claims it, or because of some piece of seemingly unassailable logic.  We accept it because of what he said and did, because of the stunning insight of his moral teaching and the example of his self-sacrificial love.  This is a king we want to follow, and so we do.

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