This is my my last of three blasts-from-the-pasts dealing with fundamentalist, or conservative evangelical, forms of Christianity, this time addressing the claims often made (first by C.S. Lewis, who was decidedly *NOT* a fundamentalist) that since Jesus called himself God, he either was a bald-faced liar, a raving lunatic, or the Lord of the universe. No other option. Or … is there?
Do you think Jesus was a great moral teacher? If you think this is the case would you mind blogging about it? Fundamentalist are using C.S Lewis approach in this matter. Apparently they are happier if people call Jesus a lunatic vs. a great moral teacher.
In my last post I indicated what I think about Jesus as a great moral teacher: yes he was one, but completely and irretrievably in an apocalyptic context that we no longer share with him. In a future post I may deal with the question of whether it is possible to transplant ethical teachings of one context into a completely different one, without remainder.
In this post I want to take up the question about C.S. Lewis. Lewis was a great scholar of 17th century English and obviously a popular author of children’s books and Christian apologetics. He was certainly no fundamentalist himself, although fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals today continue to adore him and his work. I did too, for many years. I read virtually everything he wrote, in many cases (space trilogy; Narnia; Mere Christianity; Great Divorce, and others) multiple times. I was completely bewildered and puzzled when, at Princeton Theological Seminary, my philosophy professor dismissed Lewis as a complete amateur. But now I understand. When it comes to philosophy and theology, he really was an amateur. That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t smart and extraordinarily clever. But he was not a master of every field he wrote in.
This post is not about his philosophical abilities in general, however, but about one of his most commonly adduced claims. Since Jesus called himself God, then he was either telling the truth or not. If he was not telling the truth, he either knew he was not telling it or not. And so there are only three choices. Jesus either was a Liar, a Lunatic, or the Lord. (A liar if he was not telling the truth and knew it; a lunatic if he was not telling the truth but thought he was; and the Lord if he was telling the truth.) Moreover, given Jesus’ great ethical teachings, it is completely unreasonable to think that he could have lied about the most important facet of his proclamation, his own identity; and given the tenor of his life as we have it recorded in our early Gospels, he was nothing like a lunatic, but was exceedingly clear and level-headed and thoroughly sane. The only logical and sensible conclusion then is that he was who he said he was. Jesus really was God. He must have been. There is no other choice.
When I was a young evangelical this view seemed so logical to me, so clear, so certain. There was no way around it! It was only when I got an education that I realized why it was thoroughly problematic.
The problem is that …
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The problem is that in addition to not being a philosopher or theologian by training, Lewis also was not a biblical scholar. And any biblical scholar on the planet who is not a fundamentalist or conservative evangelical will tell you that the problem with this “proof” is its major premise – namely, that (“since”) Jesus “called himself God.”
The problem is that the only Gospel of the New Testament where Jesus makes divine claims about himself is the Gospel of John. In the three, earlier Gospels you do not find Jesus saying things like “I and the Father are One,” or “Before Abraham was, I am,” or “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” These sayings are found only in the Fourth Gospel, as are all the other “I am” sayings, in which Jesus identifies himself as the one who has come from heaven to earth for the salvation of all who believe in him.
One needs to ask why Matthew, Mark, and Luke never portray Jesus as calling himself God, or equal with God, or one with God. They certainly portray Jesus teaching a lot – for example, about God, and about the coming kingdom of God, and the apocalyptic crisis that is soon to appear, and what people must do in preparation for it to avoid the coming destruction. But he doesn’t ever teach about his divine identity in these Gospels. But how can that be? If Jesus really was God, and if he knew he was God, or if, at least, the Gospel writers believed that he knew (or thought) he was God – wouldn’t they say something about it? Did they just forget that part? Surely it would be THE SINGLE most important thing to say and know about Jesus. How could they possibly leave it out?
The most common way that scholars have explained this almost inexplicable omission in the Synoptic
Gospels is simply that their authors did not think of Jesus as a divine being who was equal with God and pre-existed his birth, who became incarnate as the God-Man. They had different understandings of who Jesus was, for example, that he became the Son of God when God adopted him at his baptism (possibly the view of Mark) or that he became the Son of God when he was born of a virgin (which is the moment when he came into existence, as in the Gospel of Luke).
If this view is correct – I agree with it completely – then the earliest Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – did not understand Jesus to be a divine being who pre-existed his birth and was equal with God from eternity past. Nor did the sources for these three Gospels (Q, M, L) understand Jesus this way. Nor did the oral traditions lying behind these sources understand Jesus this way. This way of understanding Jesus is only on our latest Gospel, written some 60 years after Jesus’ death. It was a view that almost certainly developed within the Johannine community (this, again, is the majority view among scholars who are not fundamentalists and very conservative evangelicals). And the ultimate pay off is that this view of the Fourth Gospel is not the view of the historical Jesus himself. It is a later view put on his lips by the author of John or his sources.
And so there is an easy response to the false conclusion that because Jesus called himself God, he *must* be a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. The response is that the premise is false. The idea that Jesus called himself God is not historical. It is a Legend. And so the choices are Liar, Lunatic, Lord, or Legend. Not that Jesus himself was a legend. Far from it! But the idea that he called himself God is a legend.