St. Augustine's Precursor to the Lewis Trilemma

Many people are familiar with the philosophical argument called the Lewis Trilemma. Also known as the Lunatic, Liar, or Lord argument, the Lewis trilemma is a response to those who think that Jesus was just a wise human. Here is how C.S. Lewis put it:
C.S. Lewis - 1952 A.D. - “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about [Jesus]: 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.” (Mere Christianity Book 2 Chapter 3)
Three notable features within this argument are that it answers the claim that Jesus was just a great moral teacher, it bases itself on His claim to be God, and it reasons that a Good person would not say this unless it was true.

C.S. Lewis did not come up with this argument. G.K. Chesterton was one of his many precursors:
G.K. Chesterton - 1925 A.D. - “Normally speaking, the greater a man is, the less likely he is to make the very greatest claim. Outside [Jesus], the only kind of man who ever does make that kind of claim is a very small man; a secretive or self-centered monomaniac. … Nobody can imagine Aristotle claiming to be the father of gods and men…[or] Shakespeare talking as if he were literally divine… It is possible to find [people] who make this supremely superhuman claim…[but only] in lunatic asylums… But this is exactly where the argument becomes intensely interesting... For nobody supposes that Jesus of Nazareth was that sort of person. ... Upon any possible historical criticism, [Jesus] must be put higher in the scale of human beings than [a lunatic]. Yet by all analogy we have really to put him there or else in the highest place of all.” (The Everlasting Man Part 2 Chapter 3)
One notable aspect of this version of the argument is that, in context, it responds to a common criticism. Critics often say that this argument wrongly assumes that Jesus actually claimed to be God. Instead, the Gospel writers might have just made that up and put words in Jesus’s mouth that He never said. Some critics say that, and Chesterton responds: “[Our conclusion] is [not] avoided by denying that Christ did make this claim. ... Even if the Church had mistaken his meaning, it would still be true that no other historical tradition except the Church had ever even made the same mistake. Mahomedans did not misunderstand Mahomet and suppose he was Allah. Jews did not misinterpret Moses and identify him with Jehovah. Why was this claim alone exaggerated unless this alone was made. Even if Christianity was one vast universal blunder, it is still a blunder as solitary as the Incarnation.” (The Everlasting Man Part 2 Chapter 3)

We’ve looked at C.S. Lewis’s version of the Lewis Trilemma and an important precursor in G.K. Chesterton. However, there is another important precursor: St. Augustine. St. Augustine developed several parts of this argument, including these: he addressed those who say Jesus was just a man and He tried to show that Jesus really did claim to be God. He also used a powerful argument to show that Jesus’s disciples cannot have just made this up.

The following is St. Augustine’s precursor of the Lewis Trilemma, chopped up because it is too long otherwise. First, he addresses those who think that Jesus was only a wise man:
St. Augustine - 400 A.D. - “[Some] pagans…allow [Jesus]—only as a man, however—to have been possessed of the most distinguished wisdom. … [But they] assert that the disciples claimed more for their Master than He really was…[when they] affirmed that He and God are one. … For they are of opinion that He is certainly to be honoured as the wisest of men; but they deny that He is to be worshipped as God.” (Harmony of the Gospels Book 1 Chapter 7)
Next, he defends the Church’s doctrine that the Gospels are accurate and Jesus really claimed to be God:
“Well, I ask them [this] in turn[:] why, in the case of certain of [their] noblest...philosophers, [do] they [accept] the statements [of] their disciples [about them], while these sages themselves [wrote nothing]? … believed to have written absolutely nothing… Socrates…[wrote] the fables of Aesop in [a] few short verses... But this was all. … What reasonable ground, therefore, have they for believing, with regard to those sages, all that their disciples have [written] in respect of their history, while at the same time they refuse to credit in the case of Christ what His disciples have written on the subject of His life? And all the more may we thus argue, when we see how they admit that all other men have been excelled by Him in the matter of wisdom… [Have] His inferiors...had the [ability] of making disciples who can be trusted in all that concerns the narrative of their careers, [but] He failed in that capacity? … [T]hat is a most absurd statement to venture upon… [Therefore] all that belongs to the history of [Jesus] to whom they grant the honour of wisdom, they ought to believe…[based on] what they read in the narratives of those who learned from [Him].” (Harmony of the Gospels Book 1 Chapter 7)
This argument is clever because it turns the premise of his opponents against them. They believe that Jesus was wise and His disciples messed up His message. But St. Augustine points out that if Jesus was really wise, His disciples wouldn’t have messed up His message. And he gives two examples: Pythagoras and Socrates wrote very little, but we know what they taught and did because their disciples wrote about them. Jesus’s disciples did the same, and we should trust them at least as much.

Then St. Augustine answers another charge: that Jesus worked His miracles by magic, and that He wrote down some books about these magical arts.
St. Augustine replies: “they assert that they [have] books which [were] written by Him... [T]hey ought to produce them for our inspection. For assuredly those books (if there are such) must be most profitable and most wholesome, seeing they are the productions of one whom they acknowledge to have been the wisest of men. If, however, they are afraid to produce them, it must be because they are of evil tendency; but if they are evil, then the wisest of men cannot have written them. They acknowledge Christ, however, to be the wisest of men, and consequently Christ cannot have written any such thing.” (Harmony of the Gospels Book 1 Chapter 8)
Notice here the use of a dilemma: the people who claim that Jesus was only a wise man also claim that He wrote some bad books with evil magic. If the books are full of evil, though, they cannot be a wise man’s work. This is similar to Lewis’s claim that Jesus can’t be both a liar and a wise man.

Thus we have in St. Augustine’s argument several several items that are precursors to the Lewis Trilemma: he addresses people who think Jesus was just a wise man, He defends the view that Jesus really claimed to be divine, and he argues that a wise man would not have taught anything evil. These arguments were all re-used and developed and put into a new form, once by Chesterton, and later by Lewis.

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