Boo for Monotheism, Less Boo for Polytheism, Yay for Yahweh
Often, we’re told that Christianity is one of the “three great monotheistic faiths,” along with Judaism and Islam. But I think “monotheistic” is entirely the wrong word to describe the faith depicted in the canon of Christian Scripture. Monotheism, as I understand it, asserts that there is only one “real” god, implying that “godhood” cannot possibly be applied to anything else. In other words, the god of a particular monotheism supposedly enjoys, among all other gods, exclusive rights to the attribute of existence (apologies to Kant). This of course may be philosophically expanded in accordance with what we assume would befit a solely existent god, yet nevertheless, however else a particular monotheistic god is described, at base, all monotheisms assert that their preferred form of divinity actually exists, while denying this privilege to other gods. Monotheism is thus considered antagonistic to polytheism.
To claim that the faith of Israel, or that of the early Christian church, is monotheistic, therefore, one would have to show that this sort of theory was operative in one or both of these communities. Here, (around) five bits of evidence are usually adduced: 1) the Jewish/Christian belief that Yahweh is the Creator, 2) the restriction of the Jews’ religious allegiance to Yahweh alone, 3) the Shema (“Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one”), 4) the mocking of the other gods/idols found scattered throughout the OT (e.g., the showdown at Mt. Carmel, the depiction of idols as deaf and dumb, man-made, etc.), and 5) the early Christian concern to reconcile the worship of Jesus with the oneness of God (which allegedly reveals a baseline commitment to Jewish monotheism). In short, I don’t think that this evidence actually adds up to the conclusion that no other gods exist. Rather, what we get from these are, positively, an account of Yahweh’s identity viz. his acts, and negatively, the inferiority of the other gods. But before I spell out the implications of this, allow me briefly to comment on the five points mentioned above.
Yahweh as Creator. According to Scripture, only Yahweh, amongst all other gods, can be called the creator of the world. Now this admittedly is an exclusivistic claim; indeed, many have pointed out that the account of the six days represents, in part, a humbling commentary on the other Mesopotamian deities (e.g., the careful avoidance of the term “shemesh”—the name for the Babylonian sun god—to refer to the sun in Gen 1:14). The point, then, is this: Yahweh is greater than all competing gods because he is the one to whom the world owes its existence. But this does not imply that other gods do not exist. Indeed, it would only mean this if we came to the text pre-loaded with the idea that gods must not be created. But why would we say this? Certainly the text does not demand it. Rather, there is here only a description of a particular “elohim”—identified as distinct solely by his act of creation. To be sure, the text is not interested in recommending the creator elohim on the basis of his exclusive rights to “divinity” (simply on the grounds that at one point, only he existed). Rather, this elohim is commended as unique simply because only he can be said to have created. He is the subject of an act which he shares with no other.
The First Commandment. The text of Exodus 20:2-3 reads: “I am Yahweh, your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” I cannot see how this commandment entails monotheism—its purview is monolatrism.
The Shema. “Hear O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.” Again, this strikes me as simply a commentary on a particular god—a description which, in the context of Israel, implies the proscription of syncretism as a legitimate form of Jewish worship (obviously a temptation in the ANE).
The Mocking of Other Gods. The strongest bit of evidence, I think, are passages like Psalm 115:2-8: “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him / But their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands / They have mouths but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see […] / Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” But here again, the focus is on the superiority of Yahweh in view of his trustworthiness as demonstrated by his acts (which the rest of the psalm emphasizes). Yahweh is the god who acts on behalf of Israel, who responds to their prayers, and whose presence is a testament to his own glory, rather than Israel’s. Idolatry, on the other hand (that is, idolatry as a religious practice), is foolish because, where it claims to give one regular and privileged access to particular gods, it actually secures no such thing. The reason for this is that other gods are capricious, out for themselves, and must therefore be manipulated to procure their aid. By contrast, Yahweh is for his people in and by his own gracious initiative. He visits the temple on the basis of his own loving prerogative; he need not be summoned.
The Doctrine of the Trinity as a Monotheistic Model. I don’t think I need to dwell too long on this one, as I think Richard Bauckham has done some fine work here in his God Crucified. Not that I’m willing to sign on fully with Bauckham, but I do think he’s onto something when he claims that the problem faced by the early church had more to do with understanding how Jesus was to be included in the identity of Yahweh, rather than trying to figure out how there could be plurality within a single essence (even if that work is, in certain contexts, perfectly legitimate). In other words, the concern of the first Christians was to make sure that they were not in violation of the first commandment when they worshipped Jesus; they were not interested in defending the abstract concept of a singular divinity.
Right. So far I’ve said nothing all that new, just that the Bible is more monolatristic than monotheistic. Now, to be honest, I think that monotheism, polytheism, henotheism, animism, etc. are simply the (aging) tools of the comparative religion trade and are in truth not all that helpful when it comes to actually understanding what is unique about a particular faith (especially Christianity). And to make matters worse, the modern habit of depicting monotheism as a particularly “developed” form of religion could even lend possible justification for ethnocentric oppression and crypto-colonialism. It is my belief, therefore, that these terms should best be avoided. Besides, the existential question raised by Scripture is typically, “Who is your god?”, not “Is your god really god?”
Now, there is another side to the jettisoning of monotheism, and that is, it forces us both to reconceive as well as to come to terms with the existence of other gods.
Again, monotheism works by assuming it knows what divinity is and then restricting this attribute to only one being. But “divinity” is not an exclusive currency in Scripture—it is actually quite fluid (as Jesus shrewdly pointed out in his retort to “the Jews” in John 10:24). This means, I think, that we need to rethink what a “god” really is and why we are told to avoid them.
Put simply: in the Bible, a god seems to be anything which commands allegiance and worship. To be clear, I’m not waxing metaphorical here. I’m not saying something as simple as: whatever you really really like becomes your god (i.e., “football is my god”). I think the word is more restrictive in Scripture—“god” has to refer to an actual entity which is, in some way, transcendent of the human sphere. A god is served. Gods, in other words, are not simply human projections (though we do indeed worship them for selfish reasons). Gods are poison to Israel not because they are “unreal,” but precisely because they are real—which is why one cannot worship Ba’al and recite the Shema at the same time.
I think it’s important to remember this. If we go the monotheism route, then we fool ourselves into thinking we have nothing to fear. Why fear Mammon, for example, when, really, there is no Mammon, but only money? But the writers of Scripture seem to think that other gods do exist. Of course, we are promised that Yahweh will ultimately crush all opposition—but this opposition is not merely a metaphorical concretization of our propensity to rebel, but “the cosmic powers of this present darkness.” If anything, the Bible is actually “polytheistic”—even as there is only one Yahweh.
I should stop here, because by now you’re all probably getting the gist. I realize there is a massive amount of literature on the stuff I’ve touched on, and I’m hoping in particular that all the Yoderians will come out and fill in some of the details in the comments (and bonus points for the first person to bring up Isaiah 45:5). But the key insight is: monotheism is out, (at best) polytheism is in, and Yahweh is one.