Saturday, January 2, 2010

Aut Deus Aut Malus Homo revisited


On occasion I find some individuals objecting to CS Lewis' famous Aut Deus aut malus homo ("Either God or a bad man") argument by claiming it does not consider other options.  It seeks to argue that Jesus did not have to be a bad man and still did not have to be God either.  (Actually, Lewis popularized the argument, but it goes back much further).


The problem with the objections is it shows some do not understand the intention of the argument.  They think it falls short because they think it overlooks other options.  So let's go over the main points first.

Aut Deus [which I will use from now on to abbreviate the title] is commonly called a "trilemma" but this is inaccurate.  It's actually a "quadrilemma" but in which one of the four solutions is impossible.

The Basic Argument

CS Lewis described the situation as follows in 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. (Book II: Chapter 3. Page 52 in my copy)

So to pick and choose what elements of what Christ said is true to call Him a wise man or a moral teacher, while denying the claims He made about His divinity is to choose an option which does not follow.  If He did in fact say these things, then we must either accept Him as God or reject Him.

[For those who deny Christ said what is attributed to Him, this is looked at in PART II in this article]

Establishing the Categories

We need to consider this by establishing two groups of two.

In the first group, we need to divide humanity into two groups:

  1. Those individuals who are considered wise, sagacious men (such as Socrates, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Aristotle etc.)
  2. Those individuals who are not (the rest of us)

[By wise, and sagacious, we generally do not mean technical knowledge, but a person with insights into the condition of the human person.]

In the second group we divide humanity into two groups:

  1. Those who claim to be God
  2. Those who do not (again, most of us)

[Now the second group does not only include Christ.  There are many insane individuals who claim to be God.  Also keep in mind, this is a group where the individual claims to be God… not that the followers later "divinized" a person who did not claim to be God, as some groups have]

With this in mind, we have four groups of people:

  1. Those who are neither considered wise nor claim divinity
  2. Those who are not considered wise and claim divinity
  3. Those who are considered wise and do not claim divinity
  4. Those who are considered wise and do claim divinity.

Those who fall into each group

Now, let us look at who falls into each of these groups.

The individuals who fall into group one are most of us.  We may have more or less intelligence than the norm, but we do not consider ourselves to be one of the great minds of the world.  We do not consider ourselves to be divine either.

Those who are in group two are people who are not considered wise, but do claim to be divine.   The idea of "the divinity complex" falls in here.  They tend to be shallow individuals, monomaniac in nature.  Generally they do not live for others, but others are expected to live for them.  Their "wisdom" tends to be platitudes, not any real insights.

[If you are one of the "new age" types who claim divinity, I recommend reading St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Contra Gentiles book I to understand what it means to be "God."]

Those individuals in group three are considered wise men, but do not claim to be divine.  The ancient philosophers such as Socrates, Aristotle; or the ancient holy men like Moses are considered to be in this group.  They do have insights into the human condition, but do not consider themselves to be God.

Finally, we have group four, which is made up of those individuals who are considered wise and also claim to be divine.  To be honest, only one historical individual has been considered wise and has also claimed divinity, and that is Jesus Christ.

Since Jesus claimed to be God and He was not considered a bad man, then it seems to follow that either He was God or else one has to establish that He was a bad man or to admit he was God.

What this set of divisions means

Before individuals start accusing me of overlooking other claims [which I will deal with later on in the section "Part II: Challenges to the premises Aut Deus"], let us first finish this point.  CS Lewis and Peter Kreeft have used the Aut Deus argument, not to say "This proves Jesus is God" but to say "You can't say Jesus was merely a wise man if you accept what is in Scripture."

A person who claims he is more than he is is not a good man or a wise man.  To claim to be more than you are is to be arrogant, a liar or insane.  These are character flaws which show that goodness and wisdom is at least deficient.

Getting Personal

If, for example, I claimed to be a great writer and a wise man, I am sure most of you reading this would consider me to be arrogant.  This would be a flaw in me which detracted from what was good in me.

If I claimed I was a greater theologian than Thomas Aquinas, a man wiser than Socrates, I am sure some of you would be wondering if I was insane, and the rest of you would be certain I was an insufferable man of arrogance who grossly overestimated his self worth.  It would be a strong argument against any claim I had to being good.

If I claimed to be God, with all knowledge and power over the universe, with the ability to forgive sins and to pass judgment on the world I am sure ALL of you would think me insane or a liar (or both).

The point is, by claiming to be more than I am, it would show I was not a "good man" or a "wise man."

Aut Deus aut homo malus

This is where the "Either God or a Bad Man" argument comes into play.  Everyone tends to acknowledge that Jesus was a good person and a wise person, but we have these claims He made to be God.  Now a good man and a wise man does not claim to be more than he is, and a man who does claim to be more than he is would generally not be considered good or wise.

So whatever one thinks of Jesus, they cannot consider him to be merely a good man, because men who are good do not consider themselves to be God.  Either He was right to call Himself God, or He was a bad man (morally or intellectually).


For those who were objecting I had not covered all other conclusions, there are two other common options which are sometimes mentioned as a way out of the quadrilemma.

Some people don't like the conclusion which follows from the evidence and seek to change the conditions.  Most of the modern objections do not want to argue Jesus was a bad man.

(In the times of the Roman Empire, some critics of Christianity tried to do exactly this [move Him into group 2: People who were not wise but claimed to be God] but failed to convince even their fellow pagans because there was no credible evidence as to why one should consider Jesus a bad man.  As far as I know, nobody really tries to argue this any more so I am leaving this out.  If you really want me to discuss this, let me know and if there is enough interest I can work on an article).

Now I can't anticipate every objection but the ones I have found tend to fall into two categories in an attempt to move Jesus into group 3 [wise men not claiming to be God]:

  1. Deny Jesus did in fact claim divinity and these claims were added later
  2. Claim that the Disciples misunderstood what Jesus meant.

These two claims have a common root, and take it two different ways.  The common root is the claim that Jesus did not say what Christians believe He said and meant.  The reasoning is, if Jesus did not say what is attributed to Him, then one can safely make him like any other sage (group 3) and can be excluded from group 4.

The divergence on these two claims is over whether the so-called false information was due to malice or ignorance by His followers.

Let us take a look at these two options.

The Denial that Jesus said what was attributed to Him (and it was added later)

in the divisions of Aut Deus, this is an attempt to move Him into group three by saying "He was wise yes, but only later did people think He was God."  In modern times this has been popularized by the wretched novel The Da Vinci Code.  The claim is that Jesus taught wisely, but accounts of His life were edited by unscrupulous people somewhere along the way, adding claims of divinity and accounts of miracles.

The problem is, this is remarkably similar to the Manichean argument that Christians changed scripture because it could be used against the Manicheans.  In such a case, St. Augustine's objection remains valid:

[A]t this time the words of one Helpidius, speaking and disputing face to face against the said Manichaeans, had begun to move me even at Carthage, in that he brought forth things from the Scriptures not easily withstood, to which their answer appeared to me feeble. And this answer they did not give forth publicly, but only to us in private,—when they said that the writings of the New Testament had been tampered with by I know not whom, who were desirous of ingrafting the Jewish law upon the Christian faith; but they themselves did not bring forward any uncorrupted copies. (Confessions.  Book V, Chapter XI Section 21)

In order for a claim of "Scriptures were tampered with" to be considered as a viable theory as opposed to an opinion based on "Well Jesus couldn't have been God" we need to see what sort of proof there is.  Do we have documents to show Jesus denied saying He was God?

We don't.  Now we do have a theory of a "Q" source which is alleged to be the original accounts of what Jesus really said and did, from which the Synoptic gospels were derived.  The problem is, the Q theory is based on the unproven assumption that simpler accounts must come before the complex… which overlooks the literary talents and insights of each author.  If a man with talents which are superior writes before one who has lesser talents, the more complex writing can come first.

There is another problem with the Q theory.  We do have early Patristic writings about the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  We don't have any references to other gospels which they accepted as valid.  There were later gospels written by Gnostics (some 100-200 years after the originals were written), but these were never accepted as valid.  Indeed, reading these false gospels [which are rather dreary and boring] one sees that the "new" material they claim are clearly additions and contradictory not only to the four actual gospels, but with each other as well.  The early Christians rejected them because they came later and because they were written by people pretending to be someone else.

So while someone is free to believe the words were tampered, there is no evidence to justify the theory, and without the evidence this does not work as a rebuttal to Aut Deus.

The Claim that Jesus was Misunderstood

This claim tends to come from those influenced by Eastern mysticism, and claims that Jesus taught in a way which did not intend to say He was divine in the sense that the Jews understood "divine" to be.  The argument claims that Jesus' disciples got it completely wrong and for two thousand years people believed the wrong thing until someone figured out what He really meant.

The attempts to put Jesus into Group Three on this ground.  The problem is, if true, it actually excludes him from this group, because He would have been a poor teacher and therefore not a wise man.

The Scriptures show us that when the Disciples misunderstood Jesus, He corrected their misunderstandings.  He did not leave them in error.  If He had taught using language which was not clear, and did not clear up their misunderstandings, He would have been a poor teacher who failed to teach.

The result would be a personal who could not be considered a wise man or a moral teacher, because what He intended to teach failed to be taught, and the contrary was in fact passed on.

Getting Personal Part 2

If I attended a class for chemistry and stated that the teacher taught me the formula for water was H3O, the teacher would be obligated to correct me to understand that water was in fact H2O.  If he was aware of my error, and allowed me to remain in my error, he failed to teach what he was intending to teach.

The Telephone Game

A variant of this objection uses the analogy of the telephone game.  In this, a person whispers to another and so on until the original message was changed.  They claim that the message of Jesus fell victim of this sort of distortion and what we have now was not what was said then.  St. Augustine's objection remains valid here to ask "On what basis can you say it was distorted?"

The ancient copies we have of the Gospels have been found in diverse places across Europe and the Middle East, and with the exception of a few copyist errors which do not change the meaning of what was said we have a strong consistent set of documents written fairly close to the time of the originals.  So if there was corruption, it had to be passed on from the very beginning (the Apostles misunderstanding Christ) because there was not enough time for this sort of distortion to be happen naturally).

In comparison, copies of secular documents of this time in the Roman Empire we have fewer existing texts which were written far later, yet the concern of "the telephone game" is not used here.  Moreover, the writings of Eastern Philosophers and eastern Religious texts are not given this level of scrutiny either.  Nobody asks whether the Analects of Confucius were really written by Confucius or whether later texts completely changed the meaning of what Confucius really said.

The Underlying Assumption and an analysis of its logic

The assumption of these claims (That Jesus did not claim to be God) is that:

  1. the Supernatural [A] Is Not True [B]. (No [A] is [B])
  2. Some Scripture [C] Says the Supernatural [A] Is True [B]. (Some [C] is [A])
  3. Therefore Some Scripture [C] Is Not true [B]. (Therefore Some [C] Is Not [B])

(This is essentially how the arguments which deny the supernatural aspects of Scripture boil down to).

The logical form is indeed valid.  If No [A] is [B] and Some [C] is [A] then Some [C] is not [B].  So the question here is whether the major premise is true.

Now, if the major premise is true, then the conclusion does follow.  However if we know the major premise is false OR if we do not know whether the major premise is true, then the argument is not sound and the conclusion is not proven.

The problem is the premise "The Supernatural does not exist" is needs to be proven true.  For the conclusion to be true, the Major premise must be shown to be true.  The problem is the first Proposition says There is No [A] in [B].  This requires full knowledge of what is true [B] to know that there is no Supernatural [A] in it.  If we do not know everything about [B] We cannot say there is no [A] in it, and the major premise cannot be proven true.  Because we cannot know the major premise is true, we cannot prove the conclusion from this argument.

Since we cannot prove the major premise [No Supernatural is true], we cannot claim that the conclusion [Scripture which speaks of the supernatural is not true] is proven or reasonable.


I don't claim that this article "proves" Christianity true.  This was not the intent, after all.  Rather it demonstrates why certain objections to Aut Deus (on grounds of Jesus not actually saying what was attributed to Him) do not in fact break the argument down.  One can of course still believe that Jesus never claimed to be divine.  One can claim He was a madman or a liar as well.  But before insisting everyone accept that conclusion, we want some sort of evidence.

We who are Christians believe the testimony passed on is reliable.  Not everyone will agree with us.  However, whether or not this disagreement is anything other than ipse dixit depends on the evidence one can put forward for the claim that Jesus was something other than we believe Him to be.

If there is no evidence to show the testimony we believe in is actually false, Christians are not irrational for believing our faith is true.

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