This was my first "Contemplation in Theology," posted as a Facebook note on November 29, 2008. I will be transferring all of these notes to this blog over the next few weeks; new content will be interspersed between these archived notes. Enjoy!
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Error is persuasive to the extent that it contains elements or grains of truth.
Satan is described as "the father of lies," yet in his attempts to tempt the first humans and the Christ he relied heavily on Truth. He quoted the Bible three times to Christ in the wilderness; he cited a direct command from God (though subtly misquoted) when tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden. His greatest, most potent weapon comes from misconstruing and subtly perverting special revelation.
Augustine asserted that evil has no existence in itself, but is merely a negation of the good. Likewise, error is a negation of truth. But being without substance, error must rely on the remaining vestiges of truth to persuade others. Thus I assert that the more appealing and persuasive errors contain a greater degree of truth.
Can we not see this in philosophy? The revolutionary, dramatic heresies are quickly extinguished, but the subtle errors of philosophy tend to endure with much greater longevity. Moreover, Christian philosophers discovered great truth in the prevalent systems of philosophy that existed before Christ. Was there a more persuasive, more ubiquitous model of pagan philosophy than that produced by Plato and Aristotle in classical Greece? And it was in this model that St. Paul was educated--a Pharisee trained in Jewish law and Hellenistic (Greek) culture. It was the Platonic model that led to St. Augustine confessions, and the Aristotelian model that contributed to St. Thomas Aquinas's systematic theology.
We must look to the most prevalent errors to glean the greatest truths; we must search the deepest coal shafts if we wish to find diamonds. We must first purify these truths by fire, but having done so we need not fear them, for all Truth is God's truth.
I wish to start with the axiomatic, but let's take this argument one step further. Why is it that the single greatest and most prevalent error of the ancient world is uniformly rejected, neglected, and laid aside by modern theology? I am speaking of pagan polytheism. Nearly every primitive culture has some tradition of polytheism; nearly every ancient civilization believed that the world was ruled and controlled by many gods. Where is the truth in that? Yet if my previous argument holds, there must be some truth--for ancient peoples almost instinctively clung to this system.
The truth of polytheism lies in the uncontainable, unexplainable, unendurable multiplicity and complexity of a unified God. It is the same truth recognized by the Christian doctrine of the Trinity--that God is three and God is one--yet amplified to a level nearly unrecognizable to the modern world. Consider this: Genesis states that man was created in the image of God (Latin imago dei). The personality and characteristics of God form the basis for the personality and characteristics of humans--not only taken as a group, but taken individually. All the variety and complexity we find among individual humans is a mere reflection of the variety and complexity of an infinite God.
There is so much more to this argument, but I will save that for later. I will also add a caveat. This line of reasoning has led me to some rather heterodox beliefs, though I understand them supported by Scripture, reason, and past authority. I wished to present the foundation: I believe that the study of Creation and of human error can be a fruitful avenue of inquiry into the nature of God.