The Trilemma – How Old?

The trilemma argument goes something like this:

Jesus claimed to be God. Therefore, either Jesus was in fact God, or else he was a liar or a lunatic. But clearly Jesus was neither a liar, nor a lunatic, so he must in fact be God.

C. S. Lewis presented the trilemma argument in a 1943 BBC radio program, and in 1952 he published the argument in his widely read book Mere Christianity. The Christian apologist Josh McDowell promoted this argument further in 1972, in his bestseller Evidence that Demands a Verdict (see Chapter 7 in the revised edition). The argument is still widely used by Christian apologists, and was recently defended by the Christian philosopher Stephen Davis.[1]

According to Wikipedia, this argument goes back at least to the mid 1800s:

The earliest use of this approach was possibly by the Scots preacher “Rabbi” John Duncan (1796-1870), quoted in 1870 as a saying used by him during his preaching career:

“Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable.”

The trilemma appears, however, to be a bit older than this. I did some searching on Google and found an instance of an apologetic argument that is very similar to the trilemma in a book published by John Leland in 1733, a century before the preaching of John Duncan:

And there is as little Pretence for fuppofing that he [Jesus] had a Defign to impofe upon others, or to put a folem Cheat upon Mankind, as there is for imagining that he himfelf was impof’d on. [3]

To “impofe upon others” means to deceive others, and what Jesus being “impof’d on” means is clarified on the page prior to the above passage:

… there is not the leaft Shadow of Pretence for fupposing that he was impos’d upon himfelf by the Warmth of his own Imagination, or in other words, that he was a meer Enthufiaft or Vifionary, that took his own Fancies for divine Infpirations. He appears from the Account given us of his facred Life, to have been calm and fedate, not fir’d by an intermperate enthufiaftic Heat; … judicious Thought runs thro’ his admirable Difcourfes, and a calm Prudence reign’d in his Deportment. He declar’d indeed that he was extraordinarily fent of God… [4]

What it means for Jesus to have been “impof’d on” is that Jesus was deceived in some way (either by others or by himself because of a lack of rationality).

Note that this apologetic argument is not focused specifically on “Jesus’ claim to be God” so it is slightly different from the trilemma presented by Lewis and by McDowell. However, the focus on Jesus’ claim to be “extraordinarily fent of God” comes close enough to the mark to consider this to be an early form of the trilemma. In any case, the basic logic is the same. Jesus was either telling the truth, was a deceiver, or was himself deceived about what he claimed. He was not a deceiver, nor was he deceived, so he must be telling the truth.

The same sort of logic was used in the very first work of historical apologetics, but it was used to defend the truthfulness of the apostles, especially the truthfulness of their claim that Jesus had performed miracles and had risen from the dead.

to be continued…

1. “Was Jesus Mad, Bad, or God?”, in Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, Gerald O’Collins, The Incarnation: an interdisciplinary symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God (Oxford University Press, 2004), p222-3.
2.’s_trilemma, viewed 1/15/09.
3. An Answer to a Late Book Intituled, Christianity as Old as the Creation: In Two Parts. By John Leland, p.43. Published by printed by S. Powell, for Abraham Bradley, 1733.
4. Leland, p.42.

Geisler & Turek Rebuttal, Part 7: Chapter 8
Apologetics Infographic #1: Atheism and Nothingness
G&T Rebuttal, Part 6: Chapter 7
What if you Saw a Miracle?
About Bradley Bowen
  • snafu

    Reference #2 – you’ve linked to the Isle of Lewis.

    Lovely, but not relevant to the article.

  • Frank

    Fundies who just read Josh McDowell’s book are always eager to try out the “Trilemma” on an unbeleiver. It’s short and easy to remember “Lord, Lunatic, or Liar”? I always pose a different one… “Man, Myth, or Misunderstood.”

  • Victor Reppert

    The argument has a Latin name, “aut deus aut homo malus”, which suggests it has been around longer than even Wikipedia suggests. However, I have asked Purtill, and Kreeft, and Beversluis if they know anything about its origin, and they don’t know. I would have expected it to be an Arian-bashing argument, but I know Athanasius didn’t use it.

  • Bradley Bowen

    response to Victor…

    I'm fairly certain that the latin sentence you quote is not ancient, because I cannot find any citing of that latin sentence prior to the 20th century (in Google searches), but I have found several references to similar latin sentences in the early 1900s and the 1800s:

    "aut Deus aut homo non bonus"
    The Second Coming of Christ: An Essay in Interpretation
    By Sherburne Povah Tregelles Prideaux
    Published by E.P. Dutton, 1918

    "CHRISTUS aut Deus aut homo non bonus."
    The Incarnation, p.28
    By Herbert Vincent Shortgrave Eck
    Published by Longmans, Green, 1907

    "Aut Christus Deus, aut homo non bonus est."
    The Gospel for an Age of Doubt, p.62
    By Henry Van Dyke
    Published by Macmillan, 1899

    "Christus aut Deus aut non bonus."
    The Doctrine of the Incarnation, volume 1, p. 69
    By Robert L. Ottley
    Published by Methuen & co., 1896

    "Christus, si non Deus, non bonus."
    The Divinity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ: Eight Lectures Preached Before the University of Oxford in the Year 1866, on the Foundation of the Late Rev. John Bampton, 2nd edition, p. xiii
    By Henry Parry Liddon
    Published by Rivingtons, 1868

    "non bonus" rather than "malus" appears to be used in the older instances of this latin sentence.

    I have not been able to locate any versions of this latin sentence from books published in the 1700s or 1600s, so I'm skeptical about it being medieval or ancient in origin.

  • Amnesiphobia

    I can help you with a couple of things. The essential argument has been around in general terms for a long time; I’ve not found a version early than the Leland one you have pointed out. But Liddon’s 1866 Bampton lectures on the divinity of Jesus were highly influential. He may have invented the Latin tag. Charles Gore (The Incarnation, 1891) says he asked Liddon where he got the Latin phrase from, but he did not remember. Gore was another highly influential figure, who popularised the “aut Deus aut homo non bonus” version in his 1891 Bampton lecture. Lewis read Gore’s work, so he more than likely got it from him – he gives the phrase in a slightly different version in a 1945 talk quoted in “God in the Dock”. But the ‘lunatic’ angle seems to have come from G. K. Chesterton’ Everlasting Man. I agree that it does not seem to be genuinely medieval or ancient.

    Incidentally, until the 18th century it was common to have a ‘long s’ in printed books (and in handwriting). It looks like an ‘f’ but if you look closely, it isn’t. It misses the little bit sticking out at the front. So it’s actually incorrect to transliterate it as ‘fuppofing’, ‘Defign’, ‘himfelf’, etc. It’s just an odd form of the letter ‘s’.