The Catholic Trilemma

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It is an odd thing to find yourself within a society as schizophrenic as ours. A society which worships at the altar of science while simultaneously denying the existence of absolute truth. A society with an intense craving for “spirituality” and yet one that dismisses out of hand anything that cannot be materially proven. Truth claims – especially claims of absolute truth – are considered to be the height of arrogance – a perspective previously unknown within human history.

All of the ancient Greek philosophers believed that truth corresponded with an objective reality. Aristotle, for instance, wrote in his Metaphysics, “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.”

Aquinas restates Aristotle rather elegantly, stating simply, “Truth is the conformity of the intellect to the things.” In more modern times Steven Robiner has said, “What is absolutely true is always correct, everywhere, all the time, under any condition. An entity’s ability to discern these things is irrelevant to that state of truth.”

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Therefore truth claims, absolute or otherwise, shouldn’t be greeted with hostility, but rather with a simple question, “Does this claim conform to reality?” – Tweet This

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The Trilemma is a Christian apologetics argument, made popular by C.S. Lewis, which examines the truth claim made by Christ in regards to His divinity. Many Christians are at least generally aware of this argument which is also sometimes referred to as the Liar, Lunatic, or Lord argument. For those who haven’t encountered it before here is the relevant quote from Lewis’ masterpiece 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. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”1

It should be pointed out that for many years Lewis was an atheist. But, rather than taking offense at the truth claims of Christ, he examined them to see if they were true. To see if they corresponded to reality. And let’s make no mistake about it; Christ didn’t claim to be just a way, or a truth; but rather He claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life, stating that no man comes to God but by Him. Arrogant? Exclusivist? Hostile? – Or just the truth?

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Lewis’ argument is far from perfect, but I would argue that it was never meant to be an airtight proof, or the penultimate logical exercise. Get Off the FenceRather, I believe that it was designed to force people off of the fence. To prevent anyone from, as Lewis put it, “…saying the really foolish thing that people often say about [Christ].”

His argument is merely designed to illustrate the foolishness of trying to straddle the fence when confronted with a claim of absolute truth.  Absolute truth is exclusive – both sides can’t be true. We can’t simply cop-out when confronted with a claim of this nature – we must either accept it or reject it. Christ is either God, a poached egg, or the Devil of Hell. He cannot be merely a good man. He cannot be merely a wise teacher.

We cannot comfortably straddle the fence without abandoning logic and reason completely. Without ultimately abandoning truth itself.

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I said all of that to say this…  The same is true of the Church which Christ founded.

Much like her founder, the Catholic Church also makes truth claims of an absolute nature. She claims to be the Church founded by Christ. She claims to have direct succession from the Apostles. She claims divine authority. She claims to have infallibly canonized the bible. She claims to have an infallible teaching authority. She claims to be able to forgive men’s sins. She claims the authority to dispense the Sacraments.

She claims the very authority of Christ, and that it was Christ Himself who gave this authority to her. She claims that the fullness of the Christian faith is contained in her.

Many people respond by accusing her of arrogance, hostility, or exclusivity. For those people I would like to suggest a different response – that of the simple question from above, “Do her truth claims conform to reality?”

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Study the historical record and the writings of the early Church fathers – disciples who were themselves instructed by Christ’s disciples. Men like Polycarp, Iranaeus, and Clement (two of the Church’s earliest popes are actually mentioned in the New Testament writings – Linus and Clement). Read their words for yourself and ask the question, “Do these claims conform to the historical reality?”

Read the catechism of the Catholic Church with your bible open in your other hand. Look up every cross reference and ask yourself, “Do these claims correspond with the teachings of Scripture?”

If you study the Catholic Church’s claims to truth without hostility and defensiveness you may be surprised by what you find. [Tweet This]

Many others straddle the fence saying, “Well, the Catholic Church is a church to be sure…just not the Church.” Or, “She may contain some truth, but certainly not all truth.” Or even, “All paths really lead to the same place, any brand of religion is as good as any other.” In other words, they seek to straddle the fence.

To these people I would like to say that I am trying here to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish things that people often say about Christ’s Church…  😉

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I would like to offer an excerpt from an excellent article by Dr. Peter Kreeft, himself a convert to Catholicism. Dr. Kreeft is an author, and a professor of philosophy at Boston College, and in his article Hauled Aboard the Ark, he extends the logic behind Lewis’ trilemma argument, applying it to the question of the truth claims made by Catholic Church.

I thought, just as Jesus made a claim about His identity that forces us into one of only two camps, His enemies or His worshippers, those who call Him liar and those who call Him Lord; so the Catholic Church’s claim to be the one true Church, the Church Christ founded, forces us to say either that this is the most arrogant, blasphemous and wicked claim imaginable, if it is not true, or else that she is just what she claims to be. Just as Jesus stood out as the absolute exception to all other human teachers in claiming to be more than human and more than a teacher, so the Catholic Church stood out above all other denominations in claiming to be not merely a denomination, but the Body of Christ incarnate, infallible, one, and holy, presenting the really present Christ in her Eucharist. I could never rest in a comfortable, respectable ecumenical halfway house of measured admiration from a distance. I had to shout either “Crucify her!” or “Hosanna!” if I could not love and believe her, honesty forced me to despise and fight her.

But I could not despise her. The beauty and sanctity and wisdom of her, like that of Christ, prevented me from calling her liar or lunatic, just as it prevented me from calling Christ that. But simple logic offered then one and only one other option: this must be the Church my Lord provided for me—my Lord, for me. So she had better become my Church if He is my Lord.

I have linked to his full article below, it is well worth the read if you have the time.

Truth is a tricky thing, especially in our day and age. Christ himself was met with both hostility and incredulity, both defensiveness and accusations of arrogance, when He made His claims all those long centuries ago. He forced people to get off the fence; to either acknowledge Him as Lord, or crucify Him as a blasphemer. We must take seriously the claims of both Christ and His Church. We must dispassionately examine them, and then make a decision – we must get off the fence.

“He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.”2 ~ Jesus

Hauled Aboard the Ark ~ Dr. Peter Kreeft

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  1. Lewis, C. S., Mere Christianity, London: Collins, 1952, pp. 54 – 56. (In all editions, this is Bk. II, Ch. 3, “The Shocking Alternative.” 

  2. Matthew 12:30 

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