Interpretation of McDowell’s Trilemma

I summarize the premises of the Trilmma argument in Evidence that Demands a Verdict as follows:

1. Jesus claimed to be God.
2. If Jesus claimed to be God, and Jesus was not God, and Jesus knew that he was not God, then Jesus was a liar.
3. If Jesus claimed to be God, and Jesus was not God, and Jesus did not know that he was not God, then Jesus was mentally ill.
4. It is not the case that Jesus was a liar.
5. It is not the case that Jesus was mentally ill.

The conclusion of McDowell’s Trilemma argument is deceptively simple:

6. Jesus was God.

I use the past tense here instead of present tense for a couple of reasons. First, the basic factual premise upon which this conclusion is based is stated in the past tense: “Jesus claimed to be God.” Second, if the conclusion were stated as “Jesus is God” that would imply that Jesus is still alive or in existence, but the argument does not specifically deal with Jesus’ alleged resurrection. So, this seems to be a stronger claim than what the argument is intended to prove.

I suppose if one could prove that Jesus was God at some point in time about 2,000 years ago, one could go on to argue that Jesus must still exist, since God is, by definition, eternal and immortal. But McDowell does not present any such reasoning, so I think it best to limit the conclusion to the narrower claim about the historical Jesus.

What did McDowell mean by this conclusion? What does the word “God” mean in (6) and in premise (1)? Does McDowell mean that Jesus was “a god”? Does he mean that Jesus had developed a close spiritual relationship with the personal God of Western theism? Does he mean that Jesus had achieved mystical union with the Absolute, with the divine as understood by Eastern mysticism? I don’t think McDowell had any of these ideas in mind when asserting the conclusion of the Trilemma. I think he intended something like this:

(6a) The historical Jesus was literally the personal God of Western theism.

If this interpretation of (6) is correct, then premise (1) should be interpreted similarly, in order for the argument to be logically valid (to avoid the logical error of equivocation):

(1a) The historical Jesus claimed to be God (meaning that he was literally the personal God of Western theism).

That this is what McDowell had in mind can be seen most clearly in his short book, More than a Carpenter (hereafter:MTC). The Trilemma argument is presented in Chapter 2 of MTC. In Chapter 1, McDowell argues that Jesus claimed to be God, premise (1) of the Trilemma. So, we can see what McDowell had in mind by (1) and (6) based on comments he makes in Chapter 1 of MTC. Here are some key points from that Chapter:

· Jesus ‘ claim to be God distinguishes him from all other major religious leaders, including Buddha. (p.10)
· Jesus claims about himself described him as being “more than just a prophet or teacher.” (p.10)
· The word “God” in this context means the “inifinite and perfect spirit in whom all things have their source, support, and end”. (p.10)
· In Western theism, “God is personal and…the universe was planned and created by him”. (p.10-11)

Since Buddha claimed to have achieved a connection or oneness with the Absolute, as understood in Eastern religion and mysticism, and since McDowell asserts that Jesus’ claim to be God distinguishes Jesus from Buddha, we can reasonably set aside the interpretation that Jesus was claiming to have achieved a connection or oneness with the Absolute, as understood in Eastern religion and mysticism; this is not the claim that McDowell is making in the conclusion of the Trilemma.

Furthermore, we can set aside the interpretation that Jesus was merely claiming to have achieved a close relationship with the God of Western theism, because according to McDowell, Jesus’ claim identifies him as being “more than just a prophet or teacher”. A prophet claims to have a very close relationship with God, one in which God communicates advice and wisdom clearly and directly to the prophet, unlike how God relates to ordinary believers. Jesus, according to McDowell, is making a stronger claim than that.

Because McDowell clarifies the meaning of the word “God” in the context of clarifying the meaning the claim that Jesus was God, it is clear that the meaning he spells out is intended to clarify what the word “God” means in the conclusion of the Trilemma argument and also in premise (1).

By “God” McDowell means the “infinite spirit in whom all things have their source, support, and end” and who “planned and created” the universe. Thus, the conclusion of the Trilemma should be understood as implying that Jesus is the infinite spirit in whom all things have their source, support, and end, and the personal being who planned and created the universe. This meaning is captured by my paraphrase of the conclusion:

(6a) The historical Jesus was literally the personal God of Western theism.

Western theism, as McDowell correctly points out, posits the existence of a personal being who planned and created the universe.

One final bit of evidence provides additional support for this interpretation of the Trilemma. In Chapter 1 of MTC, McDowell comments that the scriptures attribute characteristics to Jesus that belong only to God, and in listing some of the attributes, McDowell also clarifies what he means by the word “God” in the context of the Trilemma:

The Scriptures attribute characteristics to him [Jesus] that can be true only of God. Jesus is presented as self-existent…omnipresent…omniscient… [and] omnipotent… (p.11)

These characteristics constitute standard conditions that philosophers often use to define the word “God” in terms of Western theism. McDowell could hardly be any clearer than this, implying that the concepts commonly used to define the word “God” apply to Jesus. Any person who is self-existent, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent can honestly and correctly claim to literally be the personal God of Western theism.

Based on McDowell’s comments in Chapter 1 of MTC, a Chapter that focuses on establishing the key premise of the Trilemma (i.e. “Jesus claimed to be God.”), a Chapter that immediately precedes a Chapter that lays out the Trilemma argument, it is clear what the word “God” means in the Trilemma argument, and it is clear that my proposed interpretation of the conclusion is in keeping with the intended meaning and purpose of the argument.

Because the conclusion makes this strong claim about Jesus, the first premise should be interpreted similarly, otherwise the argument would commit the fallacy of equivocation, and the argument would be dead on arrival.

The basic idea of the Trilemma is that Jesus claimed something about himself, and that we are forced to conclude that this claim is true. The conclusion of the Trilemma is that Jesus was literally the God of Western theism, so the claim made by Jesus about himself has to be the same or an equivalent claim:

(1a) The historical Jesus claimed to be God (meaning that he was literally the personal God of Western theism).

If (6a) correctly interprets the meaning of the conclusion of the Trilemma, then (1a) is the best interpretation of the first premise.

Jesus: True Prophet or False Prophet? - Part 1
Jesus: True Prophet or False Prophet? - Response to Eugene
The Logic of the Resurrection - Part 7
Jesus: True Prophet or False Prophet? - Part 2
About Bradley Bowen

CLOSE | X

HIDE | X