Thursday, February 19, 2009

McDowell's Trilemma Argument - Part 3

Josh McDowell's Trilemma argument is presented in Chapter 7 of Evidence that Demands a Verdict (EDV). McDowell's argument is based on the following premise:

Jesus claimed to be God.

(the first sentence of section 2A, on p. 104 of EDV).

This premise is supported in Chapter 6 of EDV. McDowell quotes or references many passages from the New Testament, especially from the four Gospels, to support this claim. But most of the passages come from a single source: the Gospel of John. McDowell quotes or refers to at least thirty-two different passages from this Gospel (in Chapter 6 of EDV).

McDowell uses a "shotgun" approach, demonstrating a clear preference for quantity of evidence over quality of evidence. But we can quickly narrow down the evidence from the Fourth Gospel to a much smaller number of significant passages. Seven of the thirty-two passages include no words from Jesus, so those passages cannot be used as direct evidence about what "Jesus claimed" :

John 1:3, 3:35, 4:42, 12:34, 12:41, 19:7, and 20:30-31.

Only about one-third of the remaining 25 passages from the Gospel of John are worthy of serious consideration as evidence for the premise that Jesus claimed to be God. Here are the passages that fail the sniff test:

(1) John 4:26: Jesus claims to be the messiah. "Messiah" does not mean "God". McDowell is reaching for straws here.
(2) John 5:17-18: Jesus refers to God as "My Father". Jesus also refers to God as "your Father" without implying that his disciples are God (Matthew 5:16, Mark 11:25, Luke 6:36, John 20:17). Try again, McDowell.
(3) John 5:21: "the Son gives life to whomever he wishes" i.e. "raises the dead" on judgment day. Assuming that Jesus is referring to himself here as "the Son," this does seem a bit egotistical, but nothing prevents an all-powerful God from giving an ordinary human being such power and authority. Another one bites the dust.
(4) John 5:23-24: We are to "honor the Son," as we "honor the Father". But "honor" does not mean "worship". If God granted an ordinary human a high position of power and authority in heaven, then one might well want to give honor to that person, just as we would give honor to a powerful earthly ruler. There is a biblical command to "Honor your father and mother", so does that mean my mom is God? No sale here.
(5) John 5:27: "the Son" has been given "authority to execute judgment". See responses to passages (3) and (4). Evidence that demands nothing.
(6) John 6:26-27: Jesus can provide "eternal life". Yes, by giving his disciples teachings that contain divine wisdom revealed by God to Jesus. This is just a claim to be an inspired prophet, not a claim to be God himself. Keep moving: nothing to see here.
(7) John 6:35: "I am the Bread of Life." This is a metaphor pointing to the same idea stated more clearly in passages (3) and (6). Re-statement in different words does not make this passage any less irrelevant than the others.
(8) John 8:12: "I am the light of the world." All prophets claim to bring us divine wisdom and enlightenment. Duh.
(9) John 8:24-28: Jesus says "you will die in your sins unless you believe I am he." [in the Greek: "I am"]. The specific title Jesus mentions in this passage is "the Son of Man" (verse 28). "The Son of Man" basically means "the messiah" in this context. So, the requirement for salvation appears to be that we must believe Jesus to be the messiah. See my comments on passage (1). McDowell points to the use of the phrase "I am" here, as a reference to God's use of that phase in the Old Testament (Exodus 3:14), but another passage (John 8:58) has a clearer reference to this Old Testament phrase. So this less clear passage can be set aside.
(10) John 10:9: "I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved...." Another unclear metaphor. The basic idea appears to be that Jesus can provide eternal life to his followers. See my comments on passages (3) and (6).
(11) John 10:11: "I am the Good Shepherd". Yet another unclear metaphor. This one seems to be pointing to the idea that Jesus is an inspired prophet and can provide us with truth and guidance leading to eternal life. Nothing new here.
(12) John 11:25: "I am the resurrection and the life." See my comments on passages (3) and (6). Yawn.
(13) John 14:1: "Believe in God, believe also in me." This is just plain vague. What specifically is this belief in Jesus supposed to involve? He does not say that we must believe him to be the second person of the holy trinity. The belief intended here might well be belief in Jesus as an inspired prophet or a religious teacher who can show us the path to eternal life. Unbelievable.
(14) John 14:6: "I am the way, the truth, and the life." An unclear re-statement of ideas stated more straightforwardly in passages (3) and (6). Are we there yet?
(15) John 14:13: "... so that the Father may be glorified in the Son." I will deal with the language "the Father" and "the Son" later (in relation to passages from John chapter 5). The idea of God being glorified in Jesus or by Jesus' life does not imply that Jesus is himself God. Christian believers are to glorify God in their bodies and by their lives (1 Cor. 6:20 & 2 Cor. 9:13).
(16) John 15:4-8: "I am the vine, you are the branches." Another lousy metaphor, open to reasonable interpretation along the lines of passages (3) and (6). The last sniff-test failure (Thank you, Jesus!).

In the next installment, I will start examining the nine passages from the Gospel of John that pass the sniff test, the passages that are worthy of closer examination.