Thursday, November 4, 2010

Reflective Reviews: John Beversluis' "C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion," Part 2

In looking over the balance of CSRR last night, I discovered that most of what was left (beyond Ch 5) involved subjects beyond my scope. They are, however, within the scope of my ministry partner Nick Peters, so once I am done with CSRR, I will be passing it on to him for him to continue this series.

But that will be a few days yet, because as it turns out, Ch 5 has so many errors in it that I may be busy for a while.

Ch 5 is about the famous “Trilemma” argument, and regular readers will remember that this is a topic I have gone into some depth on. I will be the first to say that most formulations of it are not detailed enough, and that includes Lewis’ version, and even the Kreeft-Tacelli adaption. This is clearly one of those areas where Beversluis isn’t going after the “rigorous” stuff.

Indeed, he devotes rather too much time – which would have been any amount of time – to ransacking Lewis for having what he reads as several different versions of the Trilemma argument he presented over the years. [111f] Beversluis frequently adopts a tone of scolding triumphalism whenever he finds Lewis in a perceived inconsistency; in this way I can understand why other Lewis biographers and hagiographers found him wanting. But the tone itself would be fine, in my view, if Beversluis’ ducks were in a row. They aren’t.

For example, he makes much over Lewis arguing in one case for Jesus as “God” but in another version as “Son of God,” as though these were two entirely different arguments (in his words, “two very different claims”). In reality, they are not. Lewis was speaking in popular terms, using the popular language in which addressing Jesus as either “God” or “Son of God” would have been regarded as correct.

I am not saying this language is actually, technically correct, of course: it is too imprecise for that, and rests in the main on modern confusion which has turned theos (God) into a proper name, when it was not (rather, it was an abstract noun, like “deity”). Jesus is properly called theos is that sense.

In addition, “Son of God” has by popular usage come to be a divine title that means much the same thing. In the NT, however, it refers only to the incarnate Jesus. Lewis’ dual use of the designations is flawed to the extent that it is imprecise; but that imprecision reflected concepts and ideas his audience, and many churchgoers today, still have. It is all the more remarkable, then, that Beversluis is apparently unaware of this and thinks they are “very different” claims: In popular, modern parlance, they are not. (In that vein, Beversluis is also in error to object to Lewis’ use of the word “precisely” [114] to describe the nature of Jesus’ claims. Jesus’ claims were indeed precise; popular usage, however, is not.)

Further compounding this error, Beversluis professes to find yet another difference in Lewis’ designation of Jesus being “one with God” or the Son of Man. [114] Both of these claims are essentially the same as what is claimed of Jesus as “God”, the former reflecting Wisdom Christology, and the latter reflecting the unique identity of the Danielic Son of Man figure. Apparently Beversluis’ study of Chrstological terms was severely limited.

All this preemptory posturing by Beversluis aside, we move now to Beversluis’ attempts to actually defuse the Trilemma as an argument. His first move is as predictable as it is pedantic: Beversluis raises the objection that Lewis merely took for granted that the Gospels accurately recorded Jesus’ words and intentions.

Well, of course he did. “Jesus said X and Y” is an entirely separate argument from “Jesus was Lord/Liar/Lunatic when he said X and Y.” Lewis would undoubtedly freely admit that he took the Gospels for granted, but that has nothing to do with the Trilemma argument in and of itself.

It is rather like the YouTube atheist who began to address my arguments on the doctrine of the Atonement by remarking that I was taking for granted that God existed. Well – yes. I could hardly be arguing about the Atonement otherwise. Lewis’ argument was never intended to be a journey from point A to point Z; it is a journey from point Q to point T, and it is pointless carping to object that he didn’t start at point A when that was not his intention.

Relatedly, Beversluis objects that we do not have most of the actual words of Jesus anyway, since Jesus spoke Aramaic and the NT Is written in Koine Greek. [117] This too is a pointless objection. For this to be a problem, Beversluis would need to demonstrate that there was serious lack of skill in the NT authors when it came to translating Aramaic into Greek; or he would need to show that there was some ambiguity inherent in one or both languages that made it likely that Jesus’ words would be rendered incorrectly, allowing, his request for a cheese sandwich in Aramaic to be mistranslated into a claim to be the Son of Man in Greek.

Beversluis, however, makes little effort to argue for any such confusion; in a note he switches over to an objection that no one could have known what Jesus said to Pilate, an argument we have answered before here (see very first section). He later offers three arguments, which we will see are rather vague and misinformed.

Beversluis then goes on to rely upon the assessments of John Hick for an argument that the Gospel documents are not reliable reports, nor are any from eyewitnesses. He is content to rest in this view as “mainstream New Testament scholarship” speaking and so makes no effort to interact with contrary views, much less set up an epistemology for determining who has written and ancient document. In other words, Beversluis is content to rest on his (or Hick’s) laurels and will not offer any serious arguments to show that the Gospels relate inauthentic material. (Though again, blaming Lewis for not engaging this issue is itself misguided.)

Kreeft and Tacelli’s arguments for lack of fabrication are then engaged [118f]. I will say that I do not find their arguments persuasive either; rather, I simply say that the burden is on those like Beversluis and Hick who would deny authenticity to formulate and defend an argument against it. Beversluis does not do this, and so has not fulfilled the burden of the critic, nor thereby required an answer. He only vaguely offers suggestions of words being “embellished” or “misunderstood” and a broad parallel to cult figures who have been revered by followers (and that in answer to one of Kreeft and Tacelli’s arguments, which I disagree with). There is absolutely no effort by Beversluis to offer an epistemology for determining whether indeed some specific words of Jesus were “embellished” or “misunderstood.” For someone who criticized Lewis for not dealing with the issue, and taking some position for granted, this seems a remarkable hypocrisy.

In the end, Beversluis only offers three vague, unsupported reasons for thinking such things may have happened. [120] One is that he merely (and barely) denies that the Gospels were by authentic eyewitnesses, or informed by them, with, as noted, no argument to speak of. Second, he wonders why the claims were related so “various and ambiguously.” But as we have noted, the ambiguity rests in Beversluis’ own lack of familiarity with the subject, and he says very little to show otherwise, not even knowing how such titles as “Son of Man” operated.

Finally, he points to the relative ignorance of the disciples as portrayed in the Gospels, as they are “always saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing, asking obtuse questions,” etc. From this he claims it is “high comedy” to suggest that such men would “arrive at a reasonably clear grasp of Trinitarian theology.” [121] However, this rather bigoted assessment merely reflects Beversluis’ own poor grasp, as a modern, of Trinitarian theology; the basis for it – Jewish Wisdom theology – was part of the “mental furniture” of the day, and would have been as familiar to the disciples as the Aramaic language.

Moreover, blunders in one area do not equate with blunders in all: If that were the case, Beversluis’ many unqualified remarks on textual criticism and Christology – as well as many more to come – would lead us to suggest that he could not possibly understand philosophy, even as a professor of philosophy. Further, what can then be said of educated men like Matthew, Luke, and Paul, whose own affirmations are of what Jesus’ identity was are no different?

The depth of Beversluis’ ineptness here is shown in that he relies not on serious scholarship, but the assessments of Thomas Paine(!) regarding the Gospels. Paine is quoted in notes regarding such things as differences in the Resurrection accounts (see this series for our rebuttal); even more damning to Beversluis is that he admits that Paine’s comments on this subject have made an “indelible” impression on him – such that he apparently thought Paine, who had no serious qualifications on the subject, ought to have been the “last word.”

Paine is further quoted in notes as saying that it is a simple matter to hypothesize how the truth could “progress” into becoming untruth. Paine’s simplistic hypothesizing, however, is not an argument, much less one that can or is applied to any particular passage in the Gospels.

Paine is also relied upon for “argument from incredulity” in which Beversluis merely lists Biblical miracles and deems them incredible, but provides no argument for why other than alluding to a classic “silence” argument.

We will continue with observations on Ch 5 tomorrow.

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