A Catholic Trillema: Why the Church Can’t Just be a “Good Denomination”

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)

C.S. Lewis famously argued that given what Jesus claimed about Himself, He was either Lord, liar, or lunatic — that if He wasn’t God, He couldn’t be considered merely a good man or a moral teacher. Lewis explained in Mere Christianity why this argument is important:

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 claims 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 a 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 on 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 patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

While Lewis’ trillema (as this argument has come to be called) has come in for a fair amount of criticism, it strikes me that a very similar argument may be used within Christianity by Catholics.  Specifically, the Catholic Church is either the Divinely Instituted Bride of Christ, or an utterly delusional Church, or something of satanic origin.

I. The Catholic Church’s Trilemma

St. Peter’s Basilica

Like Her Lord, the the Catholic Church makes some incredibly bold claims.  For example, She claims to be of Divine origin: to be that Church Christ spoke of establishing in Matthew 16:17-19, and that St. Paul called the pillar and foundation of Truth in 1 Timothy 3:15.  She claims to be the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit (CCC 807-809).  She even claims to be absolutely necessary for salvation, and says things like this (CCC 869):

The Church is apostolic. She is built on a lasting foundation: “the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev 21:14). She is indestructible (cf. Mt 16:18). She is upheld infallibly in the truth: Christ governs her through Peter and the other apostles, who are present in their successors, the Pope and the college of bishops.

Repeatedly throughout Her history, the Church has claimed to speak on behalf of the Holy Spirit in settling a particular dispute or defining a specific dogma.

So the Catholic Church emphatically denies being just another denomination — in fact, She denies being a denomination or sect at all.  She claims to be the sole Bride of Christ.  And as I noted above, She believes that “Christ governs her through Peter and the other apostles, who are present in their successors, the Pope and the college of bishops.”   Thus, She is led either by the Lord (acting through the visible leaders of the Church), or by a bunch of liars or lunatics.  Because if the Catholic Church’s claims about Herself are false, Her leaders are either dangerously delusional, or manipulative to a breath-taking degree.  And She’s not a good-but-imperfect denomination, as something like Methodism might be; She’s either the one true Church, or a danger to the souls of Christians.

So to paraphrase Lewis, let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about Her being a great human institution. She has not left that open to us. She did not intend to.

II. Is the Church led by the Lord, or by Liars and Lunatics?

Given what I just said, the question then becomes: well, which is She?  And how can we know?  And I think that this is one of those instances in which the evidence is right there for any thoughtful Protestant to recognize.  Let’s consider just two major ways that we can know this: first, by the fact that the Catholic Church has saved Christianity repeatedly; and second, that She has proclaimed the same Gospel consistently. To see this, I want to look at three different areas: the Trinity, Christology, and the Bible.  All three of these are complex issues on which it’s easy to get things wrong.  And yet on all three of them, even Protestants have to concede their utter dependency upon the Catholic Church.

(1) The Catholic Church Preserved the Doctrine of the Trinity

Almost every Protestant denomination today believes in the Trinity: that there is One God who is Three Persons; that each of these Three Persons are fully God, and yet not separate gods; that Each of these Three Persons have existed for all eternity; and that Each are of equal glory and majesty.  There were countless heresies that arose, often quite popular or supported by powerful factions or by the State, yet each time the Catholic Church won out.  And each time, the Catholic Church won out by defending (without compromise) the curious notion of the Trinity.

From a Protestant perspective, the shocking thing ought to be that the Catholic Church was right every time.  When the Assyrian Church of the East broke off from the Catholic Church, the mainstream Protestant sides with the Catholic Church.  Same with the Oriental Orthodox Church, or a myriad more heresies or schisms. In fact, when some element of Trinitarian doctrine was denied, no matter how small, it always was the visible, institutional Church that finally laid the heresy to rest.

Had the Catholic Church budged, and given any to any of the shifting winds of non-Trinitarian heresies, the doctrine of the Trinity would almost certainly have been lost forever.  What Christian, after all, has ever deduced the full doctrine of the Trinity from private reading of Scripture?

(2) The Catholic Church  Preserved the Doctrine of the Dual Natures of Christ

Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo, Transfiguration (c. 1530)

Almost every Protestant denomination professes faith in the Dual Natures of Christ: that Jesus is fully God and fully man; that He has two Natures, one Divine and one Human; yet that He is only One Person. This is the hypostatic union, which I’ve discussed recently.  Once again, there were countless heresies (including Docetism, Adoptionism, Nestorianism and Monophysitism), and many of them seemed quite convincing.  Yet the Catholic Church stuck to Her guns, defending the curious notion of the hypostatic union, and consistently won at.  Once again, it was the visible, institutional Church that laid heresy after heresy to rest, and each time, the Catholic Church was right.

Again, it’s astonishing enough that the Catholic Church was right every time, but recognize also that had the Catholic Church not been around, it’s exceedingly unlikely that an ordinary layman reading the Bible would ever have figured out the hypostatic union (feel free to mention any exceptions to this in the comments below).

(3) The Catholic Church Saved the Bible

Caravaggio, St. Jerome (1606)

Finally, every Protestant denomination (that I know of) believes in at least 66 of the Books of the Catholic Bible.  What’s striking isn’t that they reject the Deuterocanon.  What’s striking is that from their own viewpoint, the Catholic Church didn’t lose a single Divinely-inspired Book over the course of well over a millennium.  All Sixty-Six Books of the Protestant Bible were preserved whole and inviolate for countless centuries by the Catholic Church.

This is more incredible when you consider that some of the earliest heresies that the Church faced (including Gnosticism and Marcionism, and later, Manichaeism) taught the same thing: that the God of the Old Testament was different than the God of the New Testament, and that the Old Testament God was evil.  They, obviously, wanted the Old Testament destroyed, or at the least, not included in the canon of Scripture.

If Catholicism had lost, and something like Marcionism had won out, imagine the resultant Bible.  That’s easy to do, actually, since Marcion was clear that he thought only Eleven Books belonged in the Christian canon: a version of the Gospel of Luke that he edited, and ten of Paul’s Epistles.  Had he had his way, the rest of the Bible would have been immediately lost to history.  That is, you can’t get Luther’s Bible, or the modern Protestant Bible, without inheriting the Bible from the Church first.

Add to this that the Catholic Church remained incredibly consistent, and incredibly evangelical: She has proclaimed the same Gospel for centuries, and to the ends of the Earth.

III. Conclusion

So on the most critical issues facing Christianity, the Catholic Church was (a) consistent, and (b) correct.  I don’t know of any Church or denomination that comes close to this kind of track record.  There are a few possibilities for why this could be:

Velasco, Pentecost (1535)
  • God worked through the Catholic Church, in spite of Her being a false Church: this option doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Why would He repeatedly vindicate the Catholic Church’s claim to be the Bride of Christ if She wasn’t?  If Catholicism isn’t the true Church, why wouldn’t He preserve the Gospel through some other institution?  At the least, why not permit the Catholic Church to fall at least once so obviously that any fair-minded Christian could see that the Church was full of contradictions and heresies?  The idea that God would repeatedly present the true Gospel through a false Church seems incomprehensible, and even deceptive.
  • The Devil propped up the Catholic Church by permitting Her to get core doctrines right: this option basically supposes that a good lie contains a little truth. But it’s even less convincing than the first idea, since it would involve the devil preserving the very Gospel that defeats him.  All he would have had to have done to triumph over Christianity would be to let Her go astray on any of these core doctrines.  So it doesn’t make sense to claim that the Catholic Church is demonic in origin, since She’s been responsible for both preserving the Gospel, and spreading it to the ends of the Earth.
  • St. Athanasius
  • Mere men just got lucky, repeatedly:  this is the idea that the theologians of the Catholic Church were just consistently that good, and that consistent (for centuries!), without Divine aid.  But the odds of this are staggering.  If the Church wasn’t being led by God or the devil, but was a merely human institution, we should see the sort of abrupt reversals in statements of belief that we see elsewhere.  For example,  the Anglican Communion affirmed one set of beliefs under Henry VIII, another under Edward and Cranmer (which quite intentionally contradicted the first), and has no clear cohesive set of beliefs today: their primate has denied the orthodox Christian understanding of both the Incarnation and the hypostatic union, affirming something like Nestorianism instead.  To say that Cranmer’s Anglicanism was true, you’d have to say Henry’s Anglicanism was wrong, and vice versa: to affirm the Anglicanism proclaimed by Williams, you’d have to deny teachings Henry and Cranmer affirmed.  Nothing of the sort is required within Catholicism: right or wrong, She proclaims the same Gospel consistently.  This doesn’t appear to be merely human in origin.
  • The Church is Who She says She is: Ultimately, this strikes me as the only really credible theory of Christian history.  The visible institutional Church has always claimed to be led by the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28), and has consistently acted in such a way that this claim appears to be true.  And it’s nonsensical to think that God would work through Her if She wasn’t the truth Church, since He would be leading His people into heresy.
Obviously, there’s much more that can be said.  But I think that in the end, the argument boils down to this.  The Catholic Church cannot be treated as simply one good denomination among many, and more than Christ can be treated as simply one moral Teacher among many.  She’s either of God, of deluded men, or of the devil.  And Her continual defense of orthodoxy throughout history, Her incredible ability to always be on the right side of the major controversies of the day, doesn’t credibly lend to the explanation that She’s run by deluded men or controlled by the devil.  Which leaves us, quite simply with this: the Catholic Church really is Who She says She is. And we, as Christians, need to respond to that in faith.


  1. Another apologist- I embarrassingly forget which one, but it’s probably Hahn or Akin- said that any organization that’s had the amount of serious PR problems the Church has (heretical/immoral leaders, scandal, attack, etc) would have folded ages ago… but “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” so even in and through the most difficult circumstances, Holy Church prevails because she is who she says she is.

  2. “C.S. Lewis famously argued that given what Jesus claimed about Himself, He was either Lord, liar, or lunatic — that if He wasn’t God, He couldn’t be considered merely a good man or a moral teacher.”

    That was clearly on the assumption that the gospel of John represents actual history because only in John does he claim to be God. Based simply on the Synoptic gospels, we can say that if Jesus is not God he can still be considered a good man or a moral teacher. C.S. Lewis’ false-dilemma require absolute faith in John to work.

    Yet we know John doesn’t belong with the other gospels, or at least that it isn’t as historical as they are. Aside from John alone making Jesus claim to be God, we see how it disagrees on how, when, and where Jesus called his disciples.

    In the synoptics, Jesus call his disciples. In John, they just sort of join up with him without being called.

    In the synoptics he calls them AFTER John Baptist is cast into prison. In John, BEFORE John Baptist is cast into prison.

    In the synoptics, Jesus calls them by the SEA OF GALLILEE. In John, by the RIVER JORDAN.

    In Matthew, Jesus says to Peter “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you” (i.e. that I am the Messiah). In John, Peter’s flesh and blood brother, Andrew, calls Peter to be a disciple saying “We have found the Messiah.”

    John is not historical and therefore C.S. Lewis cutesy false-dilemma falls apart.

  3. As for your supposition that the Catholic church has always gotten core doctrines right, I call your bluff. Look, go read Ezekiel 18. It makes it very clear that we don’t inherit our parent’s guilt. “The soul who sinned shall die: the son shall not bear the guilt of the father.” This makes ‘original sin’ impossible. As a result, Paul himself (if in Romans 5 he is really teaching original sin) is proven by the Old Testament to be a false teacher. Which means not only did the Catholic church mess up big time in accepting ‘original sin’ but also in adding Paul (or at least Romans) to the canon. After all, in retrospect, seeing how the Protestants are so able to use Romans to their advantage against the Catholic church due to Romans’ teachings on justification by faith alone (Romans 4) and such-like, why not be honest with yourself and admit that you *know* the Catholic church screwed up in canonizing Romans??!!!??!?!

  4. Michael P,

    Virtually all Protestant denominations claim to be exactly what they are: human societies of like-minded Christians seeking to honor God, and forming a common enterprise to assist one another on life’s pilgrimage. In that sense, they’re not dissimilar from something like a Bible study or a prayer group or a religious order.

    So, for example, John Wesley didn’t claim that Methodism was the Divinely-instituted Bride of Christ. If he had, we’d have to regard him as either delusional or nefarious. And frankly, that’s how most Christians view someone who does make those bold claims, like a Joseph Smith or a Mohammed or an Ellen G. White.

    In other words, the sort of trillema I’m proposing wouldn’t really work for any of the mainstream strands of Protestantism, nor would it work for a specific Catholic religious order, or a specific theologian’s theories, or anything else where it’s understood that the person or institution is simply doing their best, without claiming special Divine assistance.



  5. Joe…but each Protestant claims to be Divinely assisted when interpreting Scripture, even at the risk of contradicting another “Divinely” assisted Protestant. Each individual claims to be what the Catholic Church claims to be. That “personal relationship” with Christ has taken on an appearance of wedlock with the Savior, Himself, apart from the Church. They must be correct, delusional, or tricked by Satan in one way or another. I think the analogy can be flipped, but in light of your response, it would have to be flipped on each Protestant and not the established Protestant denominations.

    Am I still off-track here?


  6. Beowulf,

    The idea that only the Gospel of John presents Christ as God is an easily-debunked one.  Let’s take the Gospel of Matthew, for example. In Matthew 2, the Magi come to worship the Christ Child (see Mt. 2:2, Mt. 2:11, and yesterday’s post on the topic). Various other people worship Christ throughout this Gospel as well: a leper (Mt. 8:2), “a certain ruler” (Mt. 9:18), a Canaanite woman (Mt. 15:25), the mother of James and John (Mt. 20:20), the disciples who witnessed Jesus walking on water (Mt. 14:33), the women who see the Resurrected Christ (Mt. 28:9), and many members of the crowd to which He appears in Mt. 28:9. In exactly none of these cases does Jesus “correct” the acts, which, if mistaken about His Divinity, would be blasphemous.

    There’s plenty more where that came from, too.  For example, “the Son of Man” is a Divine title, which is made transparent by the interaction in Mt. 26:62-65, in which the high priest condemns it as blasphemous.  The fact that Jesus uses it repeatedly, throughout all four Gospels (see, e.g., Mt. 11:19; Mk. 2:28; Lk. 22:48; Jn. 3:13) only supports the notion that Christ claimed to be Divine.

    But again, that’s just Matthew.  We could also look to the writings of St. Paul, where he describes Christ as being equal with God, and having the very nature of God (Phil. 2:6), a passage which Paul concludes (in Phil. 2:10-11) by applying the words of Isaiah 45:22-23 to Christ.  Read Isaiah 45:22-23, and you’ll see why that’s important.  Likewise in the Letter to the Hebrews, the angels are commanded to worship Christ (Heb. 1:6).

    There’s much, much more that could be presented here, but the claim your Lewis’ trilemma requires “the assumption that the gospel of John represents actual history because only in John does he claim to be God” is pretty plainly false.



    P.S. By the way, what religious perspective (if any) are you coming from?  That might help make sense of some of the arguments you’re raising, like your idea that Paul didn’t really write Romans.

  7. Having quickly read Ezekiel, I think the guilt implied here is the guilt of personal sins of the father, not original sin. The Church also does not teach that I am guilty for my father lying, for example. Furthermore, the idea of being born with guilt can also be found elsewhere in the Old Testament, in Psalm 50(51):5 “in guilt I was born, a sinner was I conceived”. Original sin also does not imply that we bear the guilt of the sin of Adam but rather the sin affected human nature by depriving it of original holiness and justice. See the CCC 395 – 421

  8. “The idea that only the Gospel of John presents Christ as God is an easily-debunked one. Let’s take the Gospel of Matthew, for example. In Matthew 2, the Magi come to worship the Christ Child…” (Joe Heschmeyer)

    First, my point was that Jesus never makes the claim (C.S. Lewis’ dilemma requires that Jesus himself made the claim) in the Synoptics, not that the authors never do, but I think that point will hold too, as I will show.

    Its not convincing, because the Magi have clearly come to ‘worship’ him not as God but as a King. Besides, we are dealing with a translational issue, and its probably more accurate to render it ‘honor’ in this instance, since they explicitly refer to him as ‘King of the Jews’ but not as God.

    “Various other people worship Christ throughout this Gospel as well”

    Again, ‘worship’ is probably an intensified translation. The intention seems clear enough that these people are honoring Jesus as Christ or as a Prophet, but there is no hint at any time that any of them think he is God.

    “the Son of Man” is a Divine title

    It really isn’t, since it is used in the Old Testament when God or an angel speaks to the prophets and call them “son of man.” For example, Ezekiel 2:1 “He said to me, Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” It is used this way all throughout Ezekiel.

    In Daniel 8:17, Daniel is called “son of man”, where Daniel says “As he came near the place where I was standing, I was terrified and fell prostrate. ‘Son of man,’ he said to me, ‘understand that the vision concerns the time of the end.'”

    The reason you think it is a divine title is because of Daniel 7:13, but notice that it is not actually used as a title there: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven.” Here it merely means that the being who was seen looked human — son of man just means human.

    Jesus uses the term simply as a way to refer to himself in the third person, perhaps as a way to indicate that he sees himself as a prophet like Ezekiel and Daniel, but not as a divine title.

    “But again, that’s just Matthew. We could also look to the writings of St. Paul, where he describes Christ as being equal with God,”

    We’re not bringing Paul into this for the simple reason that the question is not about what some theologian says about Jesus but what he said about himself while he walked the earth. That’s the formulation of C.S. Lewis’ challenge ‘Christ claimed to be God — therefore, either he is God, or he’s a liar, or a lunatic.’ But if we exclude John which is clearly unhistorical, and look only at the Synoptics, Jesus never makes this claim.

  9. sprachmeister, As to Psalm 51:5 you have two problems to deal with.

    (1) Translation. The passage literally says “in sin I was conceived” not “I was conceived as a sinner” — the sin clearly refers to the parents not the child.

    (2) The fact that earlier in the Psalm David told a bold-faced lie to God in prayer, speaking of his sin in committing adultery with Bathsheba by saying “Against Thee only have I sinned” as if he had not sinned against Bathsheba in causing her to sin, or against her husband in impregnating his wife, nor against the child who would be born a bastard. Verse 5 serves to rectify this lie. “Behold, I was conceived in sin” is the voice of the child rebuking David’s lie. The next verse “Behold, Thou hast taught me wisdom from the private parts” is David praising God for having the unborn child rebuke his lie. This is the only sensible interpretation of the passage; otherwise we would have to interpret it that God approves of us lying and saying that after committing adultery and murder we have sinned only against God. That is absurd. Furthermore, to make verse 5 teach original sin require twisting it around backwards grammatically, and that is unacceptable.

  10. Beowulf,

    It sounds like you’re conceding that St. Paul believed Jesus to be God, and described Him as such in his writings. Granted, this is different than Jesus claiming to be God, but it’s still a nail in the coffin of the idea that Christ’s Divinity is a later addition dreamed up by John. The fact that the earliest Christian writers uniformly believe Jesus to be God is significant.

    Same goes for the treatment by the Synoptic writers. You fall back on “translational issues,” which is a very weak argument for the reasons I outline here. In a nutshell, though, this is the word used for “worship” in New Testament Greek. And it’s clearly used that way in other places: in Acts 10:25-26 and Rev. 19:10, two Apostles and an angel refuse to be worshiped in this way (which debunks your argument that this is something that would have been appropriate a mere Prophet). The Synoptic writers clearly present Christ as worshiped.

    And while you dismiss “son of man” as meaning simply “human,” St. Matthew’s account in Mt. 26:62-65 makes clear that Christ’s claim to be “The Son of Man” is a title that, if not true, is blasphemous. Literally, this is the claim He makes about Himself that results in His Crucifixion. The idea that He meant simply “I’m a human being!” is beyond ridiculous. Nobody undergoes Crucifixion for claiming to be a human. Nobody, in fact, goes around speaking of them as a human being in the third person.

    In any case, the Synoptics report Jesus as making all sorts of other Divine claims, like saying, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5; Mk. 2:28).

    I think it’s clear at this point that (a) New Testament writers other than John present Jesus as Divine, and (b) these writers quote Jesus in support of this proposition.

    Finally, you never answered the question in my post-script above.



  11. “It sounds like you’re conceding that St. Paul believed Jesus to be God, and described Him as such in his writings. Granted, this is different than Jesus claiming to be God, but it’s still a nail in the coffin of the idea that Christ’s Divinity is a later addition dreamed up by John. The fact that the earliest Christian writers uniformly believe Jesus to be God is significant.”

    By every estimate of the date of these documents I’ve ever seen, John was written after Paul. It can be concluded, then, that Paul was the first to think of Jesus as God. That Matthew, Mark, and even Luke did not…and then Paul came up with the idea. Not saying that is what happened. Frankly, it is irrelevant who came up with the idea or when. The point is that in the synoptics Jesus never says “I am God.” Therefore to say that Jesus was either God, liar, or lunatic, is a false-dilemma. We cannot hold Jesus accountable for what Paul thought of him.

    “In any case, the Synoptics report Jesus as making all sorts of other Divine claims, like saying, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5; Mk. 2:28).”

    Here, contextually, Jesus just got through saying that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. In that context, I can see “the son of man” here as meaning men in general and not necessarily himself. I.e. “A man is Lord of the Sabbath” — because the Sabbath was made for men. Even if he means it as only referring to himself, it need not imply divinity, but merely that he was given authority as Messiah to be Lord of the Sabbath.

  12. Beowulf,

    I recognize that “John was written after Paul.” My point was exactly that Paul was the first New Testament author to write. He doesn’t just predate John. He predates the Synoptics.

    The reason that this matters is that there’s a popular theory within liberal Biblical scholarship that the earliest Scriptural evidence presents Jesus the Teacher, and that He is later inflated to Jesus the God. This theory seems to be where you’re getting the claims you made in your first comment (although you don’t actually point to anything to support these claims). In any case, since our very first encounters with Christ (chronologically) are accounts that describe Him as God, this theory is falsified.

    The second reason that it’s important is that if Christ is understood by the Synoptic authors as God (which I think is easily proven, was proven above, and has not been addressed), then there’s literally no reason to believe your characterization that the Synoptic authors present Christ as “honored” but not “worshiped.”

    This, in turn, is relevant because Christ doesn’t stop people from worshiping Him with the sort of worship man cannot pay to Apostles or angels (again, see Acts 10:25-26 and Rev. 19:10). So even if you find phrases like “The Son of Man” and “The Lord of the Sabbath” to be vague as to whether they’re Divine titles or not, Jesus’ conduct (permitting Himself to be worship) eliminates any ambiguity.

    Given that, your claim that Lord of the Sabbath need not imply divinity can’t be correct. In any case, you provide exactly no support for the idea that it could mean “merely that he was given authority as Messiah to be Lord of the Sabbath.” The Sabbath is Divine in origin, and set aside for God. Read the Old Testament. If Christ is Lord of the Sabbath, He’s God, period.



  13. “I recognize that ‘John was written after Paul.’ My point was exactly that Paul was the first New Testament author to write. He doesn’t just predate John. He predates the Synoptics.”

    In form maybe but not necessarily content. In fact, I think the Synoptics existed as literary documents before Paul. They were only revised after Paul to make them conform more to Pauline doctrine.

    For example, in Matthew 19, the story of the rich young ruler. Some manuscripts say “Why do you ask me what is good? One this is good: and if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” This actually answers the man’s question. However, it runs afoul of the Pauline doctrine from Romans 3 that men cannot be good. So it was updated to “Why do you call me good? None is good but one, God! But anyway, if you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” Other examples of this can be found, and there is manuscript evidence, even if it is late evidence. What it shows is that not everyone got fully onboard with editing the gospels to conform to Paul. There is further evidence in the writings of Ireneaus to pre-Pauline readings in the synoptic gospels that do not survive in manuscript evidence.

  14. “In fact, I think the Synoptics existed as literary documents before Paul. They were only revised after Paul to make them conform more to Pauline doctrine.”

    You do realize that runs against what most, if not all orthodox biblical scholars have found and believe right? Paul wrote his letters starting in the 50s AD; the gospels weren’t written until much later because everyone thought that Jesus’ return was going to happen very soon (Thessalonians illustrates this problem). It was most likely that the gospels were written in the latter 1st century AD. I’m curious how you come to your conclusions or what support you have for such arguments?

  15. Joe H, Beowulf2k8 and Matt,

    Excuse me for pursuing a bit of a tangent regarding the dating of the Gospel of John. I have read (I think I know where and will try to find a citation – well qualified source) that up until the reformation the Gospel of John was traditionally thought to have been EARLY and even before the synoptics. That during the reformation Protestant Scholars in the process of basically creating the historical-critical method (and not particularly liking John Chapter 6 in particular) developed the modern position that is admittedly widely accepted. The reasoning for the late date of John is the theological sophistication. Because John is theological sophisticated with highly developed theology of Christ’s divinity, the Eucharist etc. it must therefor be late.

    There are some modern and solid Catholic Scholars I believe that are taking another look at this assumption. Does the theological sophistication argument actually beg the question? I will seek it out, but I believe there is some good arguments based on new methods that postulate that John was indeed early.

  16. Following up on my pervious. I’m still looking for my reference, but a quick internet search reveals there isn’t much need – other than I think I was reading BXVI’s take on the issue.

    It seems to be generally conceded that one of the primary arguments for LATE John is the Christology. So to some extent at least the argument that John’s Christology doesn’t support the argument that Jesus himself said he is divine is circular. If you want to make that argument you need to argue it on other criteria alone to avoid the circularity and the case can be made but it is widely acknowledged that the cased ins’t conclusive.

  17. Paul in the GNW,

    A pair of books you should look into are:

    “Redating the new Testament” by John A. T. Robinson. In which the author argues for the Gospel of John being written first.

    The other one is “Jesus and the Eyewinesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony” by Richard Bauckham. In that one he argues that the four gospels were probably written a lot earlier than modern scholars suspect, and that the language in them has more in common with people literally talking about what they saw rather than later authors compiling a collection of stories.

    Now, more on topic:

    I don’t know how anyone can join a “denominational” church. In Latin it literally means “from the name” ie: something that has broken off from the main whole.

    In Galatians 5:20 St. Paul lists “sects” and “dissensions” (http://www.newadvent.org/bible/gal005.htm) as being sinful.

    Even a “non-denomination” is itself a denomination, they just can’t decide on what to call themselves. They are also Protestants, whether they want to call themselves that or not. If they do not believe that the Church should be One then that is a heresy against unity.

    If one believes that the Bible is truly the word of God, then any and all named, and unnamed groups founded in the last 500 years should automatically be off the table, and one should search high and low for the one Church found in the Bible that Jesus founded.

  18. Paul,

    The Gospels were historically believed to have been written in the order they appear in the New Testament: Matthew, then Mark, then Luke, then John.  In particular, John’s Gospel was seen as a gap-filler of sorts, addressing those areas that the Synoptics hadn’t.  Patristic support for this can be found, for example, in Book III, Chapter 24 of Eusebius’s Church History, from the early fourth century:

    “Nevertheless, of all the disciples of the Lord, only Matthew and John have left us written memorials, and they, tradition says, were led to write only under the pressure of necessity.

    For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue, and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence.

    And when Mark and Luke had already published their Gospels, they say that John, who had employed all his time in proclaiming the Gospel orally, finally proceeded to write for the following reason. The three Gospels already mentioned having come into the hands of all and into his own too, they say that he accepted them and bore witness to their truthfulness; but that there was lacking in them an account of the deeds done by Christ at the beginning of his ministry.”

    Irenaeus also appears to endorse this chronological ordering in Book III, Chapter 1 of Against Heresies back in 180 A.D.  On the other hand, Tertullian makes a comment in the first decade of the third century that is quite interesting: “John and Matthew first instill faith into us; while of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards.”  I may be reading too much into that, but it certainly sounds as if he’s saying that John is the first to write (or at least earlier than Mark and Luke).  Of course, Tertullian isn’t the most reliable source, but it’s intriguing nonetheless. Hope that helps!



  19. Michael P,

    I suspect most Protestants would object to the idea that “each Protestant claims to be Divinely assisted when interpreting Scripture.” Outside of certain Evangelical and charismatic groups, I think the only time most Protestants would argue for something like that is if they were backed into a corner on the canon question, and were seeking to explain why they accept or reject particular Books of the Bible.

    So I’m still not convinced that the trillema would work well. As for testing the claims of those claiming particular charismatic gifts of Scriptural exegesis, we’re solidly in 1 John 4:1 territory.



  20. Joe, Thanks, I will continue to look for the passage I was reading. Unfortunately I think it was hard-copy BXVI but it sounds like I must be confusing something in my memory.

    Perhaps it was more in regards to Authorship by John directly and also a relatively early date but not necessarily earlier but nearly contemporaneous with the synoptics.

  21. @Joe, Tertullian could be referring to John’s Epistles or Revelation which predated the Gospel by a good margin (20 years if I remember Dr. Warren Carrol correctly)

  22. Great post Joe. I think this is a very appropriate message to Catholics who have fallen away from the Church.

    In regards to the lively debate that took place in the comments. I don’t see how one could negate C.S. Lewis’ trilemma after admitting that one of Christ’s closest disciples acknowledged Him as God. The proposition can still stand by adjusting the structure.

    Jesus was either Lord, lunatic, or liar by allowing his followers to recognize Him as God.

    Also the same could be applied to the disciples. Were they telling the truth about Him, or were they liars or lunatics.

    It’s hard to believe they were liars with such sacrifice, or lunatics with such Truth in their words. I’ve always agreed with Mr. Lewis,

    “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”

    In Christ,

  23. Some Protestants (I think Jack Chick is one of them) would believe the option “The Devil propped up the Catholic Church by permitting Her to get core doctrines right”

    Essentially they say that the Catholic Church is right enough to deceive 1 billion people but contains strategic errors that would cause you to lose your salvation. Essentially, it’s the perfect trap.

    Of course this raises the question, how could the Devil be more powerful than God? And even more importantly, how could Jesus fail within 500 years but Martin Luther and Calvin succeed after 500 years?

  24. As to the historicity of John…. who claims that it is supposed to be? There are books in the Canon that are historical, mostly in the Old Testament. But many of them are not. In what way is the Book of Psalms historical, other than that they where written within a chunk of time. If historicity were the criteria for acceptance, then 1&2 Maccabees would be in the Protestant canon.
    If we accept that certain books of the Old Testament are historical, or allegorical or books of “wisdom”, then why do all books of the New Testament need to be only historical? They don’t. It is not a criterion. Recall that, while the story of Salvation is cohesive and runs throughout all of Scripture, the Bible is a “collection of books, a library” that is the word of God.

    The point I am trying to make is this: I am not arguing the historicity or non-historicity of the Gospel of John, because that simply doesn’t matter. Historicity is not the benchmark of Truth.

  25. Deacon Bill,

    The author of the Gospel of John is pretty adamant that what He is writing is based on the historical events, such as in the opening where he says they were witness to the incarnate Word, and the emphasis that the writer was present at the foot of the cross during the crucifixion.

  26. True, John does assert that the events are historical, and I do not argue that there is no historicity. However, he does take a poets freedom in explaining the events. My point still remains that the accuracy of events in a historical framework is not crireia for canon or for truth. Laxer nonunion – dcn Bill

  27. “The reasoning for the late date of John is the theological sophistication. Because John is theological sophisticated with highly developed theology of Christ’s divinity, the Eucharist etc. it must therefor be late.” (Paul in the GNW)

    I think its also the ending where the editors are all like the beloved disciple was supposed to live forever but hey he just died and we’re now publishing his gospel.

  28. “The point I am trying to make is this: I am not arguing the historicity or non-historicity of the Gospel of John, because that simply doesn’t matter. Historicity is not the benchmark of Truth.” (Deacon Bill O’Donnell)

    Historicity IS the benchmark of truth when the truth you are looking for is what Jesus historically claimed about himself or how and where he really called his disciples. The discussion on this began with C.S.Lewis’ rather silly false-dilemma that since Christ claimed to be God he is therefore either liar, lunatic, or Lord…..but if John isn’t historical, as you admit, then there is nothing to demonstrate that HE made this claim rather than that the disciples made it after he was no longer on earth.

  29. Beowulf,

    I actually agree with you that historicity does matter, although the rest of your comment is already-refuted bunk, but your latest comment seems brazenly disingenuous.

    Deacon Bill wrote:

    I am not arguing the historicity or non-historicity of the Gospel of John, because that simply doesn’t matter.

    And in his next comment:

    John does assert that the events are historical, and I do not argue that there is no historicity.

    Here’s how you describe what he said, in your response:

    if John isn’t historical, as you admit

    That is, you claim that he said the exact thing he said he wasn’t saying (twice, and clearly). I can’t tell if you’re being sloppy or dishonest, but either way, it’s bad form.



    P.S. I notice that you ignored all of the direct questions and comments raised to you above.

  30. He did deny saying that John is not historical, and yet also said “As to the historicity of John…. who claims that it is supposed to be?” A part of being able to understand what people really mean is being able to harmonize their obfuscations with their true statements to find what they really mean. Without being able to do this, one will never be able to mine the truth from the fathers, or the biblical canon, but will believe the surface propaganda without question. This obviously is your problem, and one which you will apparently never recover from.

  31. beowulf2k8

    I agree we have to try to understand each other and get to real meaning IF that is what you were trying to say. Unfortunately I am having some trouble understanding you. In general you are keeping your cards to yourself and have passed on opportunities to explain what particular viewpoint or framework you bring to this discussion. In particular, I just plain don’t get your most recent comment. However, you seem to be asking that we get at the truth, but if you are complaining about obfuscation, being more direct in what you mean would help.

    Back to the Historicity of John’s Gospel. I understood Deacon Bill’s statement “As to the historicity of John…. who claims that it is supposed to be?” to be addressing the general question of Scripture and the Canon, not anything particular about John. I understood the point of the statement to be “Who (do you beuwulf2k8 claim) says that a primary criteria for Canonicity is historicity? There was some statement above that at the time I understood Deacon Bill to be reacting to, but I can’t spot it right now. Deacon Bill did clarify later with :

    ” My point still remains that the accuracy of events in a historical framework is not crireia for canon or for truth.”

    Which makes clear nothing Deacon Bill typed was intended to be implying or acknowledging the John was not historical, only that the criteria for including John or any other book in the Canon does not include the requirement that the book be “historical” and in that I think he meant in the sense of being written as a book or history.

  32. Paul in the GNW,

    I take Deacon Bills question to mean what people always mean by this type of thing…that what actually happened doesn’t matter, that what the text actually says doesn’t matter, because the church has said that it means this for so long that even if it was a lie at first its now the truth….time sanctifies lies and makes them true.

    For example, despite that fact that Matthew has Jesus say to Peter “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you” — and John had his flesh and blood brother reveal it to him at the beginning “We have found the Messiah!” — both are true. One originally was a lie — but now both are true because the church has said so for so long that its become true.

    So, if for example, Isaiah 7 is clearly not about Jesus but about Mahershalalhashbaz/Hezekiah, that “immediate fullfillment” means nothing because the fictional fulfillment by a fictional story of a virgin birth hundred of years later after the 5 kings the prophecy is actually about are long dead takes precedence and becomes “the Truth” because the church put forth this mystical spin so long ago that its had time to become true.

  33. Or Paul may in fact have been created by Marcion…but the church forged First Clement and claimed it was written 90AD so long ago, that although it was a lie at first, now its true and unquestionable that First Clement was written in 90AD and proves Paul was used by the orthodox at an early date.

    I was originally a non-Catholic non-Protestant Christian, in that very fundamentalist church the CofC. But I could see through Paul. And eventually I had to admit it. Being a Nestorian-Pelagian (and by Pelagian I really mean rejecting Romans 4 and Romans 9) wasn’t good enough, because so much of the New Testament is simply Catholic forgery. I became a Deist, but one who insists on proper interpretation of the OT, something that “The Church” (no matter what church that title is applied to) will never be able to do. To interpret the Old Testament properly they would have to admit that not one OT prophecy is really about Jesus, and then they’d have to admit Christianity is a sham.

    But for Deacon Bill, who is clearly a Marcionite, that wouldn’t matter. History doesn’t matter to him — a mystical literary Jesus is enough — because he’s a Marcionite. I even went through a Marcionite phase myself, but I grew up. Grow up Deacon Bill.

  34. Beowulf,

    If you can’t be charitable, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. Bear in mind that I actually agree with you that the Gospel of John’s historicity matters. Yet I still find you incredibly alienating in the way you present your view.

    Obviously, what Deacon Bill was saying was that historicity isn’t the only gauge of truth, or a requirement for canonicity. After all, Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son likely wasn’t historically true, right? Do you really see no difference between an allegory or parable on the one hand, and a lie on the other?

    And of course, in addition to allegory and history, there are all sorts of other genres that human beings employ to express ideas. If Aesop begins a fable, “Once upon a time,” or a comedian says, “two guys walk into a bar,” normal humans don’t call them liars if they can’t prove that these were historical events.

    Having said that, I agree with you that John’s Gospel doesn’t appear to be meant to be allegorical, or a dramatization, or a theological meditation that builds off of the historical events. Deacon Bill basically just said that even if it was one of those, that’s not fatal to its canonicity or the possibility it was inspired by the Holy Spirit.

    Your response was graceless. So far, you’ve been very quick to accuse basically everyone of lying or covering up lies, and the last two sentences of your last comment were an unnecessary and rude personal attack.

    That adds nothing (or at least, nothing pleasant) to the conversation. If you’re just looking to vent some rage, or trying to get well-adjusted Catholics to “grow up” into bitter Deists, take it elsewhere. Preferably, take it to prayer. And be assured of my own prayers as well.

    In the love of Christ,


  35. Really? A Marcionite? wow… OK, this really has been interesting, but I have a Church to divide and some Old Testament to deny. It’s hard to imagine how I could be so transparent without making a single theological or Christological statement. It’s usually a lot more work keeping a dead heresy alive.(Just so I am clear, the above was an attempt at humor though it resembled sarcasm. Sorry, it’s been a long week)

    Actually, beowulf, I will remember you in my prayers and hope that you find what you are looking for. However, I am done feeding you on this thread. It’s frankly a poor use of virtual ink as it is obvious that you are here to bate and not debate. Have a nice night.

    As to the post itself, it was well stated and edifying. I think I have found a good blog to frequent.

    Shalom -Dcn. Bill

  36. “If Paul’s epistles were written by Marcion, then can you quote a paragraph by Marcion that parallels Pseudo Paul in theme, diction, and tone?”

    I can quote the whole of Galatians which Tertullian tesifies was ‘found’ by Marcion.

  37. Tertullian is MAKING FUN OF MARCION for finally getting around to READING it!

    It would be as if I, as a Protestant (I used to be) said ‘Aha! Joe, even your Church even teaches that only God forgives sins!’

    And Joe says, ‘Well I see Dan finally discoverd paragraph 1441 of the Catechism!’

  38. And how could Polycarp quote copiously from Galatians before 140 AD, when Marcion didn’t even go to Rome until years after that?!

    Or did Marcion forge the letters before that, and how would he get them accepted at Galatia as legitimate?

  39. Let me explain why Marcion couldn’t have ‘discovered’ ie forged Galatians in more detail, to have Christians dress it up and claim Paul’s authorship later.

    Polycarp knew of the text of Galatians. Polycarp’s scribe for his epistle to Philippians is Crescens, the Bishop of Galatia.

    Crescens personally knew Paul (2 Tim 4:10).

    Galatians was written at least in part by Paul’s own hand (6:11).

    Crescens could vouch for the letter’s Pauline authorship based on that.

    He would have presented the authentic epistle to Polycarp to reference.

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