The Mbg Argument

The version of the MBG argument that I am interested in is this:

1. Jesus claimed, explicitly or implicitly, to be divine.3

2. Either Jesus was right or he was wrong.

3. If he was wrong, then either

(a.) he believed he was wrong and he was lying, or (b.) he did not believe he was wrong but he was institutionalizable, or (c.) he did not believe he was wrong and he was not institutionalizable; rather, he was merely mistaken.

5. He was not institutionalizable, i.e. b is false.

6. He was not merely mistaken, i.e. c is false.

7. So, he was right, i.e. Jesus was, and presumably still is, divine. Let me make four preliminary observations about this argument.

First, although the argument is deductively valid, its proponents affirm the main premises—1, 4, 5, and 6—on probabilistic grounds. In no small part, these grounds have to do with the New Testament texts, especially their reliability visa-vis the claims, character, and conduct of Jesus. The proponents of the MBG argument wisely avoid insisting on the divine authority of these texts in the context of defending its premises; if one would have to endorse their divine authority in order to accept the proflEred grounds for affirming the main premises, the argument would lose much of its interest. And it certainly is not presented that way by its proponents. Rather, its proponents insist that, on

2 See Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 268-80.

3 On the difference between explicitly claiming that p and implicitly claiming that p see Stephen Davis, "Was Jesus Mad, Bad, or God?'' The Incarnation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), eds S. Davis, D. Kendall, G. O'Collins, 221-45. Roughly, the idea is this. To explicitly claim that p is to sincerely assert 'p' or 'p is true' or 'not-p is false' and the like. One can implicitly claim that p, however, by explicitly claiming several things that entail p, or by explicitly claiming several things that only people who think p is true would explicitly claim, or by performing some action where the only people, or the only sensible people, who perform such actions believe p.

the basis of historical scholarship alone, the information gleaned from the New Testament, along with other relevant information, makes it likely that the main premises are true. So, the first ground rule is this: While considering what might be offered on behalf of the premises of the MBG argument (and while assessing objections to them, for that matter), we are not allowed to treat the biblical texts as divinely authoritative.

Second, premise 1 assumes that Jesus existed. I take it that the probability of this assumption, on the relevant information, is 1, or as close to 1 as to make no diflErence. I will also assume that if Jesus claimed to be divine, he claimed to be divine in a robust sense, one that a run-of-the-mill first-century orthodox Jew would attribute only to God. Those familiar with discussions of the MBG argument will notice that I have just ruled out the so-called myth and guru options.4 In doing so, I mean to display my prejudice that they are unworthy of serious consideration.

Third, most proponents ofthe argument present it as a trilemma: mad, bad, or God... Lord, liar, or lunatic. Hence the popular name of the argument, the Trilemma. My version is an explicit quadrilemma: mad, bad, God, or neither mad nor bad, but merely mistaken. By formulating the argument in this way I mean to display my conviction that the merely mistaken option has been unduly neglected by the proponents of the argument.

Fourth, consider the following claim by Stephen Davis, a proponent of the argument: "the MBG argument, properly understood, can establish the rationality of belief in the incarnation of Jesus''.5 Davis does not mean to suggest that the MBG argument is the only or even the best argument for the divinity of Jesus; indeed, he does not even mean to imply that the rationality of belief in His divinity must find its source in argument at all. Rather, I take it, Davis means to claim that the MBG argument, properly understood, can be an independent and sufficient evidential basis for rational belief in the divinity of Jesus. What do I mean by "independent" here? I mean this. There are several lines of evidence that might enter into an assessment of the claim that Jesus was divine. His pre-resurrection miracles, his fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, and his resurrection have, among other things, been emphasized by apologists. When I say that the MBG argument can be independent evidence for the divinity of Jesus, I mean that the MBG argument can be evidence for the divinity of Jesus absent considerations such as these. If we approach the argument in this way (as I shall), then we have a second ground rule for assessing it: While considering what might

4 The myth option is that Jesus never existed; the guru option is that Jesus claimed to be divine alright, but the divinity to which he laid claim was something every human being has in himself or herself, a ''spark of the divine'' or some such new-ageish thing.

5 Stephen Davis, ''Was Jesus Mad, Bad, or God?'' The Incarnation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 223 and 245. Presumably, Davis means by ''the incarnation of Jesus'' the divinity of Jesus.

be offered on behalf of the premises of the MBG argument (and while assessing objections to them, for that matter), we are not allowed to appeal to independent evidence for Jesus' divinity.

At the outset, let me emphasize that even if the MBG argument fails to establish the rationality of belief in the divinity of Jesus, the considerations it points to might still play a part in a cumulative case for his divinity. In this paper, however, I am exclusively concerned with the argument as independent evidence that is sufficient to establish rational belief in the divinity of Jesus.

I turn now to the first objection. (Readers who have no interest in the probability calculus may turn directly to the second objection in section 3.)

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