Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?

Aquinas on the Divinity of the Johannine Christ

In his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus, the noted Jewish historian of the first century, described Jesus of Nazareth as a “wise man [sophos anēr] . . . a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.”1 Today, many hold the same view as Josephus did, recognizing the wisdom and moral integrity of Jesus, while denying outright his divinity. Yet, for C.S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity, to hold such a position is simply unacceptable. Lewis declares that because Jesus claims to forgive sins and, moreover, claims to be God, in the sense that would be completely unacceptable to any observant Jew, “what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.”2 The moment Jesus of Nazareth stands on the stage of history and declares that he is God, he has removed the option of calling him a mere man, albeit a good and wise one. As Lewis so eloquently declares in his so-called “trilemma”:

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 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 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 patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.3

So, the options are either Lord, Liar, or Lunatic — never simply a man. If one does not wish to call Jesus a liar and they refuse to say he is a lunatic, the only option left is God.

In his Lectura super Ioannem, St. Thomas Aquinas anticipates Lewis’ argument by seven hundred years. Moreover, Aquinas tell us in his prologue to his commentary that the Evangelist John himself shared the same concern as Lewis and Aquinas, and that was the reason for writing his Gospel. According to Thomas, John wrote:

. . . because, after the other Evangelists had written their Gospels, heresies had arisen concerning the divinity of Christ, to the effect that Christ was purely and simply a man, as Ebion and Cerinthus falsely taught. And so John the Evangelist, who had drawn the truth about the divinity of the Word from the very fountain-head of the divine breast, wrote this Gospel at the request of the faithful. And in it he gives us the doctrine of the divinity of Christ and refutes all heresies.4

Aquinas, however, is concerned with other adversaries than Ebion and Cerinthus. His two main interlocutors are the Arians and Jesus’ own interlocutor in the Gospel of John, the Jews. For Arius and his followers, Jesus was certainly not God in the sense that would be completely unacceptable to any observant Jew. Arius, instead, said that Jesus was “the perfect creature [ktisma] of God,” who was “created [ktistheis] and founded before the ages.”5 In the face of the Johannine Jesus’ bold assertions of divinity, Aquinas is astounded throughout his commentary on John that the Arians could not see what the Jews could. For the Jews, the teaching of Moses in the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 is clear: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

In John 5, after Jesus heals the paralytic by the pool on the Sabbath, the Jews began to persecute Jesus. When Jesus responds to their anger by saying, “My Father is working still, and I am working” (Jn 5:17), John tells us in the next verse: “This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God” (Jn 5:18). Aquinas comments that the charge of blasphemy did not arise simply because Jesus called God his Father, since we see in Jeremiah (3:19) that other men have called God their Father in a metaphorical sense and therefore did not commit blasphemy.6 Jesus, however, does more than this. By saying that his “Father is working still, and I am working,” the Jews recognize that he is claiming to be equal to God. Jesus’s statement reveals that God is his Father by nature, while God is the Father of others by adoption. This leads Aquinas to exclaim:

How great then is the blindness of the Arians when they say that Christ is less than God the Father: for they cannot understand in our Lord’s words what the Jews were able to understand. For the Arians say that Christ did not make himself equal to God, while the Jews saw this.7

Aquinas then directs the Arian to more closely examine the text. The Gospel of John plainly tells us that the Jews persecuted Jesus because he made himself “equal to God.”

The Arians, St. Thomas contends, assert that since Jesus goes on to say in John 5:19 that “the Son cannot do anything of himself, but only what he sees the Father doing,” that this is evidence that the Son is less than, and not equal to, the Father. The Arians would further contest that when the Jews became agitated at Jesus’ statement concerning his imitation of the Father’s work, Jesus decided to ameliorate his statement in verse 19 so as not to lead them to think he was actually claiming divinity. Since the Son can only do what he sees the Father doing, this is proof of the Son’s subordination.8

Not so fast, Aquinas would respond. If the Son is subordinate to the Father, then he would not be the same as the Father, but Jesus states in John 10:30 that “I and the Father are one.” Is the Johannine Jesus a liar, then? St. Thomas gives the Arian a choice, “But Christ is either a liar or equal to God. But if he is equal to God, Christ is God by nature.”9 St. Thomas teaches that Jesus’ declaration that he is one with the Father saves us from the Arian Charybdis, on the one hand, because if Jesus and the Father are one, then they have the same nature, and, on the other hand, we are protected from the Sabellian Scylla since Jesus distinguishes between his own person and that of the Father.10

Again, the Arians would push back, Thomas tells us, and claim that “a creature can in some sense be one with God, and in this sense the Son can be one with the Father.”11 Yet there are three ways in which Aquinas shows that this is false. The first is from “our manner of speaking” (ipso modo loquendi). Because of the convertibility of being, when we speak of “one” thing, we are speaking of a “being” (ens). Thus, when we speak of “being” simpliciter, we are speaking according to substance. Likewise, when we speak of a thing as “one,” it is so according to its substance or nature (secundum substantiam vel naturam). But when Jesus says, “I and the Father are one,” he is speaking simpliciter, and therefore is referring to a unity of substance or nature. This is contrasted with the way that a creature is said to be one with God, namely, with some added qualification. St. Thomas gives the example of St. Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 6:17, “He who is united to the Lord become one spirit with him.” Since Jesus does not add any qualifications to his statement of unity with the Father, it is obvious that he does not mean it in the way in which a creature is one with God.

The second way in which Aquinas says that the Arians are incorrect is from Jesus’ prior words to which the statement “I and the Father are one” is a conclusion. According to the text that St. Thomas is working from, after Jesus teaches that he is the Good Shepherd and his sheep hear his voice and follow him, he states, “What my Father has given me is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them [his sheep] out of the Father’s hand.”12 Aquinas comments, “This is like saying: We are one to the extent that the Father has given me that which is greater than all.” That which the Father has given the Son is the divine nature itself through the eternal generation.

The third way the Arians are erroneous is from the intention of Jesus. Since Jesus makes an a fortiori argument that since no one can snatch the sheep from his Father’s hand, therefore no one will snatch it from his own, this implies an equality of power with the Father. Yet the argument would fail if Jesus were not of the same nature as the Father. Aquinas concludes, “Therefore, the Father and Son are one in nature, honor, and power.”13  Jesus, then, does indeed intend to “make himself equal to God” as the Jews clearly saw. The Arians have to choose: Is Jesus a liar or is he Lord?

Or could he be a lunatic? Some of the Jews in the Gospel of John certainly thought so. In John 10, when Jesus declares that he is the “Good Shepherd” (Jn 10:14), he makes allusions to Ezekiel 34:11-31, where the future Shepherd-Redeemer of Israel will be both God Himself (Ezek 34:11-16) and, at the same time, David (Ezek 34:20-24). Further, he declares that, unlike the current leaders of Israel who are supposed to be watching over the flock of God, Jesus will lay down his life for his sheep. Then, in John 10:17-18, Jesus reaches the climax:

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.

These words of Jesus cause some of the Jews to take offense at him and declare that he has a demon and is mad. Aquinas, however, turns the scene on its head and contends that the Jews who are calling Jesus a lunatic are themselves fools. St. Thomas states:

It is the habit of the foolish to always give an evil interpretation to matters about which they are in doubt; whereas the opposite should be done. Thus they revile whatever they do not know, as we read in the letter of Jude. And so because they were incapable of understanding our Lord’s words, for the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5), they blasphemed, saying, he has a devil and is mad. And they try to turn others away from him, saying why do you hear him? 14

Yet not all who heard Jesus thought he was mad. Others rightly stated that “these are not the sayings of one who has a demon” (Jn 10:21). Aquinas argues that the “profundity of Christ’s words” (ex pondere verborum) speaks against any claim to insanity. Rather, St. Thomas describes Jesus’ words as “orderly and profound” (ordinata et ponderosa).15 At the beginning of the Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas, following Aristotle, teaches that those are to be called wise “who order things rightly and govern them well.”16 Further, the wise man should primarily be concerned with the contemplation and the handing on of the truth, since truth is “the ultimate end of the whole universe.”17 That truth is Jesus himself, who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6).

After Jesus washes the Apostles’ feet at the Last Supper in John 13, he acknowledges that the Apostles themselves have called him “teacher and Lord.” In his commentary on this passage, Aquinas again draws from St. Paul in 1 Corinthians (1:24), where the Apostle to the Gentiles calls Jesus “the power of God and the wisdom of God.”18 As the “power of God” he rules all things, and so is Lord. As the “wisdom of God” he teaches all. In affirming his designation as teacher and Lord, Aquinas expounds upon Christ’s words, imagining him to say: “I am the Teacher because of the wisdom I teach by my words; I am the Lord because of the power I show in my miracles.”19

Aquinas underscores that it was not just some of the Jews who heard the “Good Shepherd” discourse who recognized the wisdom of Jesus. So also did Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, and the other disciple of John the Baptist who was with him, when the Baptist pointed out Jesus as the Lamb of God (Jn 1:36) prompting them to inquire where the Rabbi Jesus was staying or abiding. Likewise did Peter after the Bread of Life Discourse, when he responded to Jesus’ inquiry concerning whether the Twelve would also choose to abandon him over his “hard saying” (Jn 6:60) about eating and drinking his flesh and blood in order to have eternal life. Peter’s words, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:68-69), show, according to St. Thomas, that Jesus’ teaching surpassed that of Moses and the prophets.20 Jesus, then, is the wise man par excellence, and therefore is not a lunatic. But neither is he a liar, as would logically follow if the Arians were correct.

Instead, he is the one at whose feet we should fall and proclaim, as Thomas, called Didymus, did when confronted with the Resurrected Christ, “My Lord and my God.” If we make this profession with Thomas, we too can become as he was, that is, as Aquinas calls him, “a good theologian” (bonus theologus) since we will have professed “a true faith” (veram fidem).21 In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Apostle Thomas:

. . . professed the humanity of Christ when he said, My Lord, for he had called Christ this before the passion: “You call me Teacher and Lord” (Jn 13:13). And he professed the divinity of Christ when he said, and my God. Before this, the only one who had called Christ God was Peter: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Mt 16:16); ‘This is the true God and eternal life’ (1 Jn 5:20); ‘You are my God, and I will give thanks to you’ (Ps. 118:28).22

Let us then be like Thomas the Apostle, not just confessing the true humanity of Christ, but his true divinity as well. Let us not proclaim Jesus as merely a man and not God, for in the words of C.S. Lewis, with which the Angelic Doctor would surely agree: “He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”23

  1. sophos anēr . . . didaskalos anthrōpōn tōn hēdonē talēthē dechomenōn.” Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.3 in The Works of Flavius Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), 480. See Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 162: “In Josephus’s mind Jesus fits into the stream of tradition that began with Solomon, the fount of Jewish wisdom, and continued through a host of prophetic sages like Daniel, who reflects, as does Jesus, the melding of prophetic, apocalyptic and wisdom insights into God, humankind and their interaction in history.”
  2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 51.
  3. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 52.
  4. Aquinas, Super Ioannem, prologue (10). (Hereafter SI.)
  5. Arius, “Letter to Alexander of Alexandria,” in The Trinitarian Controversy, ed. William G. Rusch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 31-32.
  6. SI ch. 5, lec. 2 (741).
  7. SI ch. 5, lec. 2 (742).
  8. SI ch. 5, lec. 3 (745).
  9. SI ch. 5, lec. 2 (742): “Aut ergo Christus est mendax, aut est aequalis Deo. Sed si est aequalis Deo, ergo Christus Deus est per naturam.”
  10.  SI ch. 10, lec. 5 (1451).
  11.  SI ch. 10, lec. 5 (1451): “Sed hoc Ariani, impietatis suae mendacio, negare contendunt, dicentes, quod creatura aliquo modo est unum cum Deo: unde et hoc modo Filius potest esse unum cum Patre.”
  12. The reading of Aquinas is a variant found in Codex Vaticanus. The majority of Greek manuscripts, as well as Nestle-Aland 29, read: ho patēr mou ho dedōken moi pantōn meizon estin. See the discussion in Edwyn Hoskyns, The Fourth Gospel (London: Faber and Faber Lmtd., 1947), 388-389.
  13. SI ch. 10, lec. 5 (1451): “Unum ergo sunt Pater et Filius natura, honore et virtute.”
  14.  SI ch. 10, lec. 5 (1429): “Consuetudo namque stultorum est ut dubia semper interpretentur in malum, cum tamen contrarium debeat fieri. Unde contingit quod quaecumque ignorant, blasphemant, ut dicitur in canonica Iudae. Quia ergo verba Domini intelligere non valebant, quia lux in tenebris lucet, et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt, ideo blasphemant dicentes daemonium habet, et insanit. Et nituntur alios ab eo avertere, dicentes: quid eum auditis?
  15. SI ch. 10, lec. 5 (1430).
  16. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Bk. 1, ch. 1.1, trans. Anton Pegis (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1955), 59.
  17. Aquinas, SCG, Bk 1, ch. 1.2, 60.
  18.  SI ch. 13, lec. 5 (1775).
  19. SI ch. 13, lec. 3 (1776).
  20. ch. 6, lec. 8 (1003).
  21.  SI ch. 20, lec. 6 (2562).
  22.  SI ch. 20, lec. 6 (2562): “quia humanitatis Christi, cum dicit Dominus meus. Sic enim vocabant eum ante passionem; supra XIII, 13: vos vocatis me Magister et Domine. Item divinitatis: quia Deus meus. Ante enim non vocabant eum Deum, nisi quando Petrus dixit Matth. XVI, 16: tu es Christus Filius Dei vivi. I Io. ult., 20: hic est verus Deus, et vita aeterna; Ps. XCVII, v. 28: Deus meus, et confitebor tibi.”
  23. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 52.
Daniel M. Garland, Jr. About Daniel M. Garland, Jr.

Daniel M. Garland, Jr., is a Ph.D. candidate in Systematic Theology at Ave Maria University. He has taught theology at Ave Maria University, Christendom College, and for the Permanent Diaconate Programs of the Diocese of New Ulm, MN, Arlington, VA, and the Archdiocese of Washington. His articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Maynooth Theological Journal, Heythrop Journal, Angelicum, and National Catholic Register. He is also the first English translator of St. Jerome’s Commentary on the Prophet Haggai, which is published with IVP Academic’s Ancient Christian Texts series.


  1. Avatar Ruth O'Keefe says:

    What is the big deal here? It is certainly possible that Jesus was lying about himself and it is also perfectly possible that he was delusional in some way and really believed he was god. Both are very real possibilities……He certainly was not god. People say this lunitic, lyer or lord thing like the first 2 are not real possibilities.

    Ruth O’Keefe

    • You say — “he certainly was not god.” with such a deep faith in something you cannot possibly know neither metaphysically nor physically. I have to assume you are an avowed atheist. Christian faith and certainly Catholic faith is indeed “faith” in a literal “impossibility” (in a purely human way of concluding), the impossibility of his divine “nature” having been joined with a human nature — an impossibility from a linguistic way of understanding. But that is what makes FAITH — FAITH -“Now Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1).

      Rather than opining upon realities of which you cannot prove, you should follow after Ludwig Wittgenstein, a true man of atheistic logic. I suspect your disbelief is a thread of the same faith garment. An avowed atheist, Wittgenstein more prudently concluded, after considering the existence of logically deduced reasonings and understandings that were surprisingly (to him) imbedded in the phenomenological, but nevertheless manifest in the deeper, more metaphysical understandings of the human experience, that there could be conclusions put into understandable words about things not of human origin or subject to its reasonings. But that there could be conclusions of a more mysterious note that might be understood but could not be put into words. Thus he concludes: “Wowon mann nicht sprechen kann err muss daruber sweigen” (Ludwig Wittgenstein – Tractatus Logico Philosophicus) This was the 10th formal logical (symbolic logic) proposition that “whereof man cannot speak (and presupposing the speaking, come to an understanding), he MUST pass over in silence.” You should do the same.
      One more thought about your shallow comment. That Jesus could lie (in the context of his life, teachings, statements, and who HE says He is) is indeed an utter impossibility in the sense that if he says: “I am the way the life and THE TRUTH — might be such a lie? He does not say: “What I have said is the way, the life, and the truth.” HE says (entologically) “I AM the way the life and the truth.” I see no derangement here. If he were lying, he also would have run away when he had the chance to, and there were many. That Jesus’ entologically BEING the TRUTH and stating so as a lie would be more ridiculous and provocative than Epimenides’ paradox.

  2. Avatar Ørnulf Wang-Sandaas says:

    Well said. In this time and age, where so much of organized Christianity kow-tow to both false gods and worldly powers, we must be true to the clear teachings of the Bible. Jesus is the Son of God, and He is true God, and there is ONLY salvation through Him. That means that we also must state, with one voice, that there is NO salvation in any other religion.

  3. Avatar Ruth O'Keefe says:

    I am not familiar with the atheist Wittgenstein—you have also based your answer on the assumption that I am an atheist which is not a logical conclusion to draw from my comment. In any case, Wittgenstein notwithstanding, I don’t have to be silent. I said what I wanted to say, you said what you wished to say….there is no need for anyone to be silenced. The truth stands alone…..which is to say if something is true it will stand any challenge, verbal or otherwise…..non truth will not stand.

  4. Avatar Tom Showerman says:

    I ask you to please continue to seek the Truth.