Of Greeks, Dogs, and an ANCIENT DOCTRINE for Today

One reason I believe Christianity it is true is that it comports with reality; it explains the world we observe around us. Another reason I believe Christianity to be true, a reason which may at first seem opposed to the first, is that it is so counterintuitive. No one would have, or could have, dreamed up such a framework. Here’s what I mean.

Unlike other gods, the God of the Bible cannot be bribed and is not impressed with religiosity. He cares not only for the rich and powerful, but also for the poor and weak. He wants neither our money or performance, but our hearts. This God is holy; He hates sin. Scripture says, in fact, that all people are spiritually dead and under God’s judgment. Yet this same God has provided salvation by coming to Earth in the form of a man, dying on the cross for our sins, and offering forgiveness and eternal life to all who believe.

Among the astonishing claims of Christianity is that God is Trinity: three-in-one. Before the universe began, there was individuality within community . This one God exists as three eternally divine persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In His own perfect being, God encompasses both diversity and unity. Each person is fully God, yet there are not three Gods, but one. No human could invent this. The seeming paradox/antinomy, is so great. That’s one reason I believe Christianity is true.

Here’s another reason: doctrines like this are not esoteric religious knowledge without application in the real world. The doctrine of the Trinity not only helps us make sense of our salvation in Christ, it also provides the intellectual and moral foundation for the equal dignity of men and women. The Trinity leads us to the glorious revelation of the individual within community.

An Ancient Question

For thousands of years, philosophers have struggled to make sense of unity and diversity in the universe. Creation includes incredible diversity (plants, animals, peoples, cultures, languages, etc.), as well as striking unity. The many different breeds of dogs, for example, all share a common “doggyness.” The same is true of other animals, and also true of humans. All people share a core of similarity, both in physical characteristics and psychological makeup. These simple observations create the two poles of unity and diversity. Most meta-narratives emphasize one and neglect the other. Only the biblical worldview holds both in balance, a balance rooted in the Trinity.

Is reality defined by unity or diversity? How do we resolve the age-old puzzle of “the one and the many”? The Fall of humankind left philosophers polarized, “looking through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12, KJV). Beginning from human wisdom, they developed two different understandings.

The ancient Greeks helped to frame the debate on the issue. Parmenides of Elea (ca. 475 B.C.) emphasized unity over diversity. According to Parmenides, all is one, and all is unchanging.

Following in the footsteps of Parmenides, the Greek philosopher Plato (ca. 428–348 B.C.) opted for unity over diversity, metaphysical meaning over scientific fact, and the ideal over common sense. Plato said that things move from this world (the physical) to the eternal (spiritual), from lower to higher, from appearances to reality, from becoming to being.

Some scholars believe that these ideas were imported from Greece to India by Alexander the Great. That could explain a similar idea at the core of Hinduism, i.e. that ultimate reality is one. This approach holds that only the spiritual is really real.

Of course Plato and Parmenides did not have the philosophical playing field to themselves. Heraclitus of Ephesus (540–480 B.C.) stressed diversity over unity. According to Heraclitus, all is many, and all the particulars are in flux. In this system, the tangible is what is really real.

Plato’s pupil, Aristotle (ca. 384-322 B.C.) broke with his master to side with Heraclitus emphasizing diversity over unity, the temporal over the eternal, scientific fact over metaphysical meaning, and common sense over the ideal. Modern secularists reflect Aristotle when they insist that only the tangible is real.

Nevertheless, Aristotle and his followers lost the debate to the Platonists, and history would never be the same. Although the Bible affirms God’s physical creation, Platonic philosophy came into the Church via Gnosticism, elevating the spiritual over the physical. People concluded that the physical world, including the human body, is bad. Sex, by its very nature, is profane. Plato’s approach dominated the Western world until the Reformation.

One vs. Many in Religious Thought

The matter of unity and diversity has also profoundly shaped religious thought down through the ages. The great monotheistic religions of Islam and Judaism, the latter led by Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), emphasize the unity of God, viewing Him as absolutely one in both essence and person. Both emphasize God as:

  • Transcendent rather than immanent;
  • Infinite rather than personal;
  • Creator rather than Lord and Savior;
  • Powerful rather than compassionate or loving.

At the other end of the spectrum are many ancient polytheistic religions that worship distinct, separate, and often local deities. In the ancient world, the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, and Norse were polytheists. Today, polytheism continues to define animistic or folk religions throughout the world and particularly in Africa and Asia.

Over and against both monotheism and polytheism, Christianity holds to the radical middle – Trinitarianism. Rather than going to either pole, classic Christian theology affirms both unity and diversity in the Godhead—God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and in His creation. The implications of this confession are much more profound than may be immediately apparent, as we will see.

 

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2 Responses to Of Greeks, Dogs, and an ANCIENT DOCTRINE for Today

  1. John Wood says:

    The historical survey is really helpful. I can’t wait to share this with some of my friends who express faith in science.

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