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Boo for Monotheism, Less Boo for Polytheism, Yay for Yahweh

August 1, 2011

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.

29 Comments leave one →
  1. August 1, 2011 5:43 pm

    Ok, first of all, Isaiah 45:5 – points claimed. Second, I think there certainly is something to what you said about the chronological snobbery of monotheism being seen as more “developed” than polytheism. It seems to me that modern Christians are brought up imbibing a materialist worldiview that Christianity leaves virtually untouched other than adding a monotheistic God as a cherry on top. The cleavage that leaves between Scripture and us as modern readers seeking to read it as authoritative for our belief is just gigantic. We speak of that gap as simply a historical separation of “horizons” needing to be “fused” simply by historical reconstruction, but it might just be that we have irreconcilable worldviews.

    Do you think we ought to seek to see the world in the polytheistic way with which you are suggesting Scripture sees it? Is that even possible?

  2. August 1, 2011 6:23 pm

    I think I see what you are saying, but I have a question or two. These may be redundant, clarifying things that are already clear, so apologies if I just missed it all together.

    Are you saying the not-Yahweh “god” exists prior to the construction of the idol? How would, for example, 2 Kings 19:18 (see also Isaiah 37:19) play into all this? In that verse, if I’m interpreting it rightly, the “gods” are thrown into the fire because they were not really gods. A New Testament example would be Acts 19:26.

    Or is the distinction between “gods” and “the Lord your God” the distinction between “creatures” (either humanly constructed idols or the demonic) and the “Creator”? Or is the term “gods” equivocally used throughout Scripture, sometimes to refer to false idols, sometimes to refer to demons, sometimes to refer to kings, etc.? Elohim seems to be a somewhat general term in many cases.

    I see the inexactness of the term “god” but I’m not sure I fully understand the problem with the term “monotheism,” in so far as it means that there is one unique being “God / Yahweh / Jehovah” that is uniquely the Creator whereas the other false gods cannot claim to be creators.

    Thanks for the post, really interesting stuff.

  3. August 1, 2011 7:22 pm

    (Maybe) a better way of phrasing the main gist of my questions has occurred to me. Yahweh is “God of gods,” “Life of life,” “King of kings,” “Lord of lords,” etc. That is our human way of expressing who God is. What kings are to us, God is to kings. What gods are to us, God is to gods. God is the one True Father, but that doesn’t mean that human beings aren’t “fathers” in a finite shadowy sense. Is this a way of saying what you are saying or no? Human kings aren’t really kings in the way God is King, which is why God didn’t want them to have human kings “like the other nations” in the first place.

  4. August 1, 2011 7:53 pm

    So Justin, basically it all boils down to Yahweh or demons; am I reading you right? By the way, thank you for the post; it provokes.

    Do you think worshiping football could somehow be tied into the systemic structures of evil who are the powers of darkness (vs. simple human projection)? In other words, do you think that the demons/Satan could use football as his sacrament (or whatever other sacraments he might use for his ends and devotees)?

  5. August 1, 2011 7:57 pm

    Thanks, Justin, for another interesting post. Perhaps just to add to the chorus, I wonder if I’m understanding you right on the point of the ‘reality’ of ‘gods.’ Scripture presupposes a polytheist culture, i.e. a way that people live and think about divine beings. But it doesn’t presuppose a polytheist or henotheist universe, i.e. that there really are multiple beings out there that different cultures worship, and the God of Israel is the most awesome. (Or at least I’m not sold on the argument, if indeed this is what you are arguing.)

    The prophets and apostles, then, speak into this cultural milieu. They tend to challenge people’s worship of other gods not on the grounds that they don’t really exist (even when they don’t) but on the grounds that Yahweh is superior, so much that their gods are really no gods at all but ultimately proved to be human invention. That closes the circle and does end up demonstrating that their gods don’t ‘exist,’ even if it’s not the direct aim of the rhetorical strategy. Mount Carmel is the example par excellence of that. Elijah doesn’t argue that Baal doesn’t exist; he argues that Baal is weak and stupid (and therefore doesn’t exist, i.e. doesn’t fit the bill of a ‘god’). Not “We’ll see whose god really exists!” but “The god who answers by fire — he is God” (1 Kings 18:24).

    “Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. ‘Baal, answer us!’ they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered.” (v. 26)

    So maybe a little more clarity on this point would help me: Are you arguing that this difference (between the gods who are, and the gods who people live as if they are) is illusory? Is a god ‘real’ because it is worshiped, even if it has no existence independent of the worshiper?

  6. August 1, 2011 9:23 pm

    @Adam – well, I think, first, it’s right to recognise the bizarro-ness of a polytheistic worldview viz. modernity (as you know, I think the weirdness of Scripture is one of the first things that we should recognise about it). But second, I do think that, yes, it is possible for us to accommodate a biblical worldview in modernity, provided that the unique place of Yahweh as the Creator and ultimate sovereign is admitted. To be clear, I don’t think we should just return to your average, run-o’-the-mill ancient near easterner religious worldview – I think we should be Israelites, that is, we should confess our God as the Lord, which means as the Creator, the Reconciler, and the Redeemer of the world.

    @Shep – yes, I think that gods precede idols. Idols are the human attempt to forge a relationship with particular gods on humanity’s terms. But this is dangerous business, b/c as I mentioned, the other gods look out for number one, and hence we can never find freedom in serving them. As for Yahweh being called the only “god,” as well as the destruction of the idols in 2 Kings 19, I would interpret this in a similar way to Psalm 115: the point is that other gods are self-seeking and untrustworthy, hence the building of idols is a silly religious practice. Yahweh is the only god that is relevant viz. human worship and allegiance because the creation is his – he has absolute sovereignty and hence is the Lord of all. Idols are insidious because they deceive people into thinking that they have access to authority through the authority of the gods they “image.” In reality they have neither access to these gods, nor do these gods have anything like Yahweh’s authority. The gods enslave people; only Yahweh sets them free. This is also how I would interpret a verse like 1 Chronicles 17:20: “O Yahweh, there is none like thee, neither is there any god beside thee, according to all that we have heard with our ears.”

    @Bobby – I don’t know much about demons and angels, but perhaps what you say is right. I was intrigued with JH Yoder’s stuff in The Politics of Jesus about the symbiotic relationship between the powers and the people who participate in them. Other people know this material better than me, but I like this idea because it gives the powers their due as somehow bigger than simply human projection, but at the same time maintaining the notion that the powers operate within the sphere of creation as created “beings” alongside humanity. Here, I think, there’s definitely room for thinking of things like money, sex, or even football being caught up in the stream of creaturely rebellion against Yahweh the Creator when placed in rebellious hands of rival gods.

    @Darren – the difference between Israel and her neighbours was that Israel realised, in light of revelation, that only Yahweh is deserving of creaturely worship. The story I’m telling is that *that* was the cultural revolution and prophetic word of Israel’s faith to her own time and place. As I see it, the issue of existence was never really dealt with (as you point out), and to be honest, probably would have been kind of incoherent to these people (otherwise, why would Israel so often be tempted to partake in the worship of foreign gods?). The issue throughout the OT was always one of trust: do we rely on Yahweh, or do we make an alliance with Egypt? Do we stick to the Torah, or do we say a few prayers to Ba’al, just to keep our bases covered? To people at this time, syncretism made sense. But Yahweh always said “no” – and that was the challenge of being an Israelite. My argument is that we face that same challenge today – and to proclaim our belief in monotheism as some kind of exalted religious system actually causes us to let our guard down about integrating non-Yahwistic (or, if you like, non-christological) worship into the Christian church. The point is that we actually are tempted to worship other gods – and we won’t regard that temptation with all due seriousness if we simply regard these gods as mere “human invention.” Regarding you last question: I kind of dealt with this somewhere in another response: but I don’t think it’s quite as simple as “gods are real only insofar as we believe in them” – I think it’s rather more like, “other gods only have power to the extent that humanity grants them power.” That’s why the church should (will?) always be a threat to the world, and perhaps one of the reasons why Israel had such a hard time way back when.

  7. August 1, 2011 10:10 pm

    I will read through this and (probably) comment at some point in the future, but for now I just want to say I’m glad you tagged this “exousiology.” I think it will be my signal contribution to theology to make this a theological-household term (even though I found it in Yoder).

  8. August 1, 2011 10:19 pm

    Nice – glad you noticed – that was all for you, man.

  9. August 1, 2011 11:16 pm

    I’m in full agreement; it’s just a question of how much else needs to be said to fill out this way of doing theology.

    I think this approach could adopt wholesale the Creator/creator distinction, and recognize the biblical God alone as Creator/Redeemer, but the interesting thing to me here is that this forecloses on the classic tact of then expouding the fact or capacity of the biblical God to be “Creator” on a metaphysical basis of “divinity” — i.e., it is that which is supra-human that conditions Yahweh’s being-as-“creator”. (By taking a different approach here, I think you also potentially foreclose on a lot of avenues for “natural theology” which are opened by the latter traditional approach — i.e., if God’s being-Creator isn’t [at least first and foremost] tied to the conditions of “divinity”, then it is much harder to argue for a non-particularistic relation to “the divine” vis-a-vis creatureliness.) To me this is a huge advantage of this approach.

    I do think one of the basic challenges such an approach has is, as you mention, thinking through what it then means to say that a thing is someone’s or some group’s “god”. Specifically, if we hold on to the Creator/creature distinction, particularly in a way which would want to stress that evil is “privative” — i.e., that there is nothing but the biblical God and creation/creatures — is “godhood” simply equivalent with the reality of human worship, such that once we have a Christian naming of the gods, it becomes either Yahweh/Jesus or idolatry? I’m inclined to the latter (which also opens up a lot of inter-religious dialogue in terms of the “fundamental” reality of human worship, what worship means, etc.) — but even here, a re-examnation of “religion” is now called for in light of what it means for a person/people to “worship” a god at all… and so on.

    At any rate, just my initial thoughts. I didn’t really have time to pour over the other comments, so apologies if I’m covering already-covered ground.

  10. August 2, 2011 12:11 am


    Thanks for the reply. I should’ve taken your invitation to Yoderians in the post as a hint as to the technical context that you are apparently thinking from as you wrote this post.

    I don’t know all that much about, demons; other than that I believe that they exist, and I hold that these are “personal” forces that correlate with the Scripture’s context for “powers of darkness” (in other words I take it to reflect something metaphysical that inheres with the physical and represents the Kingdom of Darkness Col 1.13).

    I’ll be interested to see how this thread unfolds further. Thanks. pax.

  11. August 2, 2011 12:27 am

    I don’t have time to unpack this, but just to point out that the whole question of what “godhood” signifies, or what qualifies human loyalty/allegiance as “worship” — questions Justin mentioned and I raised above — is obviously tied to the whole question of the (de)mythologization of angels and demons, as well.

    I think starting to unpack Yahweh’s/Jesus’s being-God along the lines of the kind of (creative, providential or sustaining redemptive) works he has done, rather than thinking of their deity in classical metaphysical terms of certain divine “attributes”, moves us closer to an account of the gods as realities we worship because “who they are” is intimately bound up with “what they do” (for/to us). In other words, it pushes us towards talking about the kind of agency they have; indeed the kind of agencies they *are*. Perhaps because of this, then — depending on how far along the “exousiological” line you want to take this approach — the question of whether and how “divinity” or the gods transcends what humans are and do will ultimately also force a conversation on whether God and the gods are primarily “personal” (which may tend toward the classical metaphysical line in which being precedes act, etc.), or primarily structural/conditional (in which the being of God/the gods is seen as tied to certain forms of agency and power).

    Does that make any sense? In short: I think the question of how to (re)define “religion” and “worship” according to a polytheistic or monolatric apparoch will ultimately also involve the question of the “personality” or (de)mythologization of “spirituality” itself (and thus “spiritual beings/forces”).

  12. August 2, 2011 12:53 am

    Well and truly you have said it, Teacher. 🙂 I’ve been calling myself a henotheist for quite a while, on the same basic logic. I find the question to be not, “which god exists” — oh, and prove it — but “which god do I serve?” Which is based on “which god is faithful in acting for me?” Whether or not the term is part of the modern comparative-religions spiel, it describes a position in a polytheistic world which even a polytheist will acknowledge. “I serve that one, because…” It leads to a form of witness, not to a form of agonism. I suppose monolatry is a more accurate description than henotheism, in more appropriate terms. This one is the object of my latria, and the subject of my doulia, and the basis for my koinonia.

    The agonism comes later, when the question of whose people, and therefore whose god, is more powerful. That really becomes exousiology.

  13. August 2, 2011 1:31 am

    @Justin, I’ve asked this same question to myself on more than one occasion. But I suppose I still have questions on the relative value of this insight with respect to deconstructing a natural theology. For while it relativizes the concept of “divinity”, it does not necessarily relativize the concept of the absolute. And so it seems to me that everything hangs on how you articulate God’s being with relation to the being of the gods, e.g., are the gods omnipotent, omnipresent, or eternal?

  14. August 2, 2011 8:28 am


    Why does everything hang on those attributes?

  15. August 2, 2011 9:47 am

    Let me just clarify: what I’m trying to do is divest the category of “divinity” from meaning anything like: “that being which possesses the necessary attributes to have created the world,” or “that being which is really in charge,” usw. As Scott has reiterated in his comments, I think that these sorts of assumptions just front load the whole conversation, which leads us to think that have to ability to recognise Yahweh as “God” (i.e., THE god). But here, the conceptuality of “God” ends up being the driver’s seat, and not really Yahweh. In other words, the statement “Yahweh is God” doesn’t actually end up telling us anything about Yahweh and rather has everything to do with what we think “God” is (hence, the danger of natural theology). So, regarding your last question, Tim, I think that protecting the omni’s from being attributed to other gods is not really the issue that’s at stake. Rather, what we’re trying to do is confess both what Yahweh has done and has promised to do and only consequently (and in a highly qualified and analogical sense) that he has the requisite powers and capacities to accomplish these things. That’s not necessarily a dig at a conversation on the divine attributes (I hope not, since my thesis is ultimately about attribution), but more like a plea to order properly the way we talk about God [sic], so that we can focus on his revelation in a more disciplined way. Same goes for the Absolute (although personally I don’t think this term deserves all the bad press that it’s gotten since Barth).

    Scott, regarding your comments about reconceiving religion and worship and the demythologisation of spiritual personality – I’m willing to work with you on the former but retain a bit more agnosticism on the latter. I think talking about competing deities on a structural level is helpful, but not if it ends up reducing everything to projection and/or human social interactions. Your use of the word “primarily” could prevent this – but for myself, I’m not out to trade one ontology for another (e.g., static for dynamic), and I don’t necessarily think that *getting at* agency or identity via action alone cuts one off from considering a “what” along with a “who” (or even a “where”). Again, it’s about keeping in check our tendency to absolve ourselves of being bound up with the worship of other gods that is the real prize in this discussion. It’s my contention that adding “mono” to the dastardly “theism” does nothing to save us from this.

    Matthew – I think you raise an interesting point about the sort of witness that is demanded from the sort of religious worldview that I’m claiming is in Scripture. In particular, I think it means spending less time shooting down the “reality” of other religions, or going for the existential jugular (i.e., “you say you worship X, when in reality, it’s just you concocting imaginary gods to underwrite your sin”), and more time telling the story of how *our* God is the one and only god who is worthy of trust.

  16. August 2, 2011 11:22 am

    Justin: I’m more sympathetic knowing that this is your aim, though I’m somewhat at a loss to see how it is accomplished by what’s in your original post, above — namely dropping the notion of ‘monotheism’ from Christian (and Jewish?) theological discourse. How does this block things like natural theology and perfect being theology and prevent our man-made concepts from taking control? Why not just say that we can’t know anything about God (even God’s singularity of ‘being’) apart from God’s self-revealing acts? “Yahweh is God” is not the confession of the OT. As you rightly alluded earlier, the confession by which Yahweh’s identity is known and proclaimed is “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who brought you out of Egypt.” God’s identity is unknown apart from His activity with us and for us.

    I’m probably just parroting there what Scott and Matthew already said. Just trying to sort it out in my own brain terms. Perhaps you can demonstrate the connecting steps between “other gods do exist” and “divesting the category of ‘divinity'” from X, Y, Z.

  17. August 2, 2011 11:28 am

    Or at least, how our god is jealous, but totally worth it.

  18. August 2, 2011 11:44 am

    @Darren, I have a feeling that’s the wrong question. The effort is posterior, but pre-emptive. Seeing what monotheism does and how it got there, by contrast with the Biblical narratives, we voluntarily do X. But to prevent following that long and illustrious history of interpretation may be asking too much. At least, I’ve only been able to lay it out tour-de-force as a valid argument, and then a functionally preferable one for these reasons.

  19. August 2, 2011 1:04 pm

    Thanks for this Justin. I haven’t read the above comments as closely as I plan to, so I’ll keep my comments brief. It seems to me that the differentiation from stark monotheism can be helpful since it allows us to add more nuance to the actual claims of the Christian (not to mention Jewish) faith. It also seems like it might be helpful when communicating Christianity to those of polytheistic faith: Something like admitting that they have been worshipping a “god” of some kind but confessing that the LORD, He is God.

    In partial answer to what Darren was asking, I think resisting the easy tag of monotheism may be one way of shucking off some presumptions about God in order to help ourselves hear what God has to say about God’s self. But there of course we run into the claims of exclusivity, both in terms of who we ought to worship and in terms of who is actually God. And that’s where I want to push back on you in some sense and ask if this might be further nuanced by saying that there are multiple claims to deity being made and that there is but one who holds the title “divine”. This is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, precisely as He reveals God to humanity, affirming the Shema on one hand and dethroning the fraudulent powers in his death and resurrection on the other.

    In this dethroning, however, I think you are on to something in that you ask us to not forget the strange force and actuality of those powers just because we now know them to be fraudulent. You ask us look at Christ’s exaltation as a dethroning of actual powers; of “gods” (whether made by human hands or not) who really do make rival claims upon us and who are not without existence of a certain kind — even though that existence comes to be seen as nothing in the light of Christ.

    I too am just trying to think this out, and hopefully flesh it out a bit.

  20. August 2, 2011 1:25 pm

    By the way, here’s a particular quote from Yoder, which is found in the “Christ and Power” chapter of The Politics of Jesus, that captured my imagination on these matters: “All these structures can be conceived of in their general essence as parts of a good creation. There could not be society or history, there could not be humanity without the existence above us of religious, intellectual, moral, and social structures. *We cannot live without them.* [important part–>] These structures are not and never have been a mere sum total of the individuals composing them. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. And this ‘more’ is an invisible Power, even though we may not be used to speaking of it in personal or angelic terms.” (p.143) I think “god” is a good name for such pseudo-authorities in the fallen order – and moreover, I’m perfectly open to the possibility that such authorities really are in some sense “personal,” as I think Scripture, particularly the OT, portrays them.

  21. August 2, 2011 1:32 pm

    Jon – read the comments, b/c I think I addressed some of you concerns above, but to directly respond to you: I’m challenging the notion that “actually God” is a self-evidently honorific title for Yahweh. I mean, that’s the coolness of Exodus 3:14 – the name is tautological, incomparable, and self-referential. Now, Scripture does of course call Yahweh “Elohim” in an almost titular kind of way – but I think that’s a subversive move. It’s a way of putting Yahweh above other gods in the way that we assume other gods are above us (as I think Bobby mentioned above).

  22. August 2, 2011 2:08 pm

    Well, the notion that the OT witness is not uniformly monotheistic is pretty much a given for anybody who’s spent serious time studying the OT. That said, you make an assumption that I find somewhat surprising. You assume that the witness of the OT is uniform on this point. That is, if we find henotheism or polytheism in one passage, then we should suspect the same in all passages. Why is this so? The OT was written over a very long period of history (unless you’re a minimalist, which would surprise me), and across a relatively broad range of socio-cultural contexts (from pre-monarchic tribal Palestine to post-monarchic imperial Yehud, and everything in between). So why should it surprise us that many of the Psalms sound almost polytheistic, with their heavenly councils, while the second part of Isaiah sounds strongly monotheistic (your dismissal of the ‘your idol is no god’ passages sounds like special pleading to me, to be honest)?

    This leads to the question of religious “development” (for lack of a better term). You are absolutely correct that religionsgeschichte was often, even mostly, used in a quasi-imperialist and anti-Semitic way (Wellhausen and his generation are particularly guilty of this sin, as are the classical liberals). That said, it does not follow that there was *no* change or adjustment over the course of the history of ancient Israel and early Judaism. More nuance is necessary here.

    Finally, what of the long-standing witness of both the Church and Jewish interpretive tradition? Both stand strongly in favor of monotheism (eventually at least, though I think both could be called strongly monotheistic rather early on in the game). Do we disregard the witness of theological and interpretive tradition?

  23. August 2, 2011 2:38 pm

    First off – I haven’t spent much time seriously studying the OT, so I refuse to be held accountable for misunderstanding it. I’m happy to cede to the knowledge of the experts here – especially those that support my point (know any?).

    Anyways – yeah, I wouldn’t want to say that the Bible is uniformly polytheistic in a serious, exegetical type way – but if I have to choose an anachronistic, philosophy of religion term to describe the religious outlook of the authors of Scripture, across all the times and circumstances in which they wrote, it would have to be that one (hence, “less boo”). The basic point I’m making is that the real culprit in messing things up is “theism,” whatever prefix it follows. This is why I think monotheism is a poor term for describing the faith of the Jews – b/c it imports assumptions about “divinity” into what is actually the pan-OT exaltation of Yahweh in and for himself. If deutero-Isaiah “sounds” monotheistic, it’s because you’re comparing these passages to the the philosophical category you already understand as “monotheism” (which, incidentally, may also be why you consider my Ps 115 exegesis to be special pleading).

    That said, I do think that the philosophical idea of monotheism probably was rumbling around in the later periods of the OT’s composition, and hence it is possible that this conceptuality could have found its way into the canon. But even there, I would say, there are factors built in to temper this idea from taking control – namely, the constant, almost monotonous repetition of Yahweh’s mighty acts amongst and on behalf of Israel as the consistently-held basis for Jewish worship.

    Vis-a-vis the tradition stuff – to put it simply: yes, I do think Scripture is capable of chastising philosophical conceptualities which are extraneous to it. But just to reiterate again: I’m not saying that there are other “Gods,” meaning self-existent deities who pose a serious threat to the reign of Yahweh and/or have spheres of authorities which are somehow beyond Yahweh’s reach; I’m saying that there are other entities which compete for the worship and allegiance of human beings which rightly belongs to Yahweh. Now, if you say, “well those aren’t really gods” – then you betray your pre-understanding of divinity, I think. And that’s what I’m trying to cut out of my thinking, and thus what I would happily avoid wherever it happens to be found in the tradition.

  24. August 2, 2011 3:04 pm

    @Justin, I am sympathetic to your concern here, but my point is that in order for the gain to be other than purely linguistic, there will need to be further argumentation to distance the concept of “God” from “the Absolute.” Perfect being theology has not generally denied that there are other powerful, spiritual agents in the universe, but that, in one way or another, only God is Absolute. And I imagine that a traditional metaphysic would find it a contradiction in terms to posit that Yahweh could be Absolute, and that some other agent might be omnipotent, eternal, etc.

    So perhaps the attribution of the “omnis” to the “gods” is not immediately the most pressing issue. But I do think it would reveal the metaphysical relation of Yahweh to “the Absolute”, which I take to be the real concern of perfect being theology, or those who would posit Yahweh as “God of gods”. Does that make any more sense?

  25. August 2, 2011 3:15 pm

    Hmmmmm, “philosophical conceptualities that are extraneous to it.” Well, I get what you’re going for, but I think this is quite a bit trickier than you make it sound. This implies, I think, that Scripture has a single set of philosophical conceptualities that are *intrinsic* to it. So here I’d reiterate my initial point, which is that the OT just isn’t that uniform. It itself contains a variety of sets of philosophical conceptualities (there’s an anachronism if ever there was one 🙂 ), which is what muddies the waters here. This pushes us toward the hermeneutical problem of how the Bible works between various cultural and linguistic horizons.

    But, that said I do appreciate your clarification regarding your desire to challenge the use of a notion like “theism” in relation to YHWH. Indeed, my general preference in doing biblical theology is to refer not to “God” (which in modern English is rather an abstract term) but to YHWH, Jesus, and the Spirit (which are also abstract, though in a more precise and specific way). So on that front I’m certainly on your team.

    Another problem that this discussion raises, and one that interests me greatly, is the question of the application of language to YHWH at all. This is terribly tricky stuff, but I think that going forward there is some very important work to be done in exploring the way that our understanding of what language is and how it works applies to our use of theological language, and our interpretation (especially in a theological sense) of Scripture.

  26. August 2, 2011 8:49 pm

    @Colin, while the writings of the OT do not at all points evidence a uniform position on other gods than YHWH, while wearing my Bible hat I would say that it is the uniform presupposition of all of them that the world in which they live has other gods, just as it has other peoples. For “philosophical conceptualities,” read in Weltanschauungen. The different texts take different approaches to this world, and more or less agonistically in their defense of YHWH’s superiority — which is also self-defense. But none of them, from a flat reading, take the view of the philosophical monotheism that developed out of Christian apologetic.

    And a major part of the modern problem with that development is that we have separated out religion from culture, and don’t look at it like “well, obviously, people have gods whom they worship and serve.” But in the Levant and the Hellenistic world, this is so basic it need never be mentioned as a principle. The agonistic assertions about our God make far less sense if you presume that it is self-evident that their gods don’t exist. (And they make no sense at all under Nostra Aetate, a crowning achievement of Thomistic Aristotelian monotheism, in which we grant that other religions may at best see glimmers of our truth.) Monotheism as it developed later took the agonism of scriptural monolatry *so* seriously that it made the polytheistic context completely disappear. It became dogma, not apologetics. “This God” became “the only God.” After which point it was possible to develop out of the Fathers and baptized pagan philosophers a “pure” theistic philosophy. Forgetting, of course, that the point with Aristotle and Plato wasn’t to prop up gods, but to work around them or knock them down. So we used them for their natural function against every other god, and bent ours to fit their ideals — hence the “omnis,” “the Absolute,” etc.

    But to return to apposite history, and talk about the early Christian and Rabbinic interpretations, you have there two worlds. After Constantine, there is a dwindling reason to talk about paganism — for Christians. And there remained some reason to talk about both paganism and Christianity, for the Rabbis — but the subject of midrash was always the people of God in relation to God, and if you read Genesis rabbah, for example, you will see how internal, how intramural, it became. One went almost purely intramural by means of gaining immense influence, and the other by means of losing practically all influence, on the world. Empire and enclave. Talk about anything other than this God became far less necessary, politically. The world had ceased to be dominated by pagans.

  27. August 3, 2011 8:34 am


    Quickly, as this is kind of a side discussion: I’m not wanting to pit the personal against the structural/conditional, but I do think at the end of the day one has to decide whether one thinks salvation (or God’s “eternal purposes”, whatever you want to call it) is primarily social or individual. This decision has an ontological dimension, so my comments were hinting at the fact that there is a difference between a traditional conception of God as a “divine person” out to redeem the (note the singular) “human person” — an approach buoyed by concern about personal “attributes” — and an approach that emphasizes that God is a particular kind of agent/agency operative in the creaturely world, doing certain things for certain ends. Certainly “persons” are involved, though. That’s all.

  28. August 3, 2011 9:55 am

    Quick responses – and then stay tuned for a new post from Darren.

    Colin: I don’t think that the Bible has one set of philosophical conceptualities that are intrinsic to it – I can’t see how that’s an entailment of what I said. But, if you still disagree, I’ll amend my sentence to read: “I think Scripture is capable of chastising [things] which are extraneous to it.” On your point about language – yes, I totally agree, it’s really tricky business to understand just what predication means with respect to God. That’s a big question in my thesis: what are we really saying when we say that God is love? But, hopefully in around 4-5 months I’ll have more clarity on that issue.

    Matt: whoa.

    Scott: yeah, I think I see what you’re saying. But perhaps some beer might lubricate my understanding – let’s drink some sometime.

    Tim: so, are you saying that I need to beef up my grievances so that they also include a rejection of Absolutheit? Or are you saying that I need to be careful to distinguish Yahweh from other gods on the basis of his omni-ness?

  29. August 3, 2011 2:27 pm

    Justin, I am saying both. I am saying that if you want your argument to do the work of eliminating an avenue for natural theology, you need to beef up your grievances to include a rejection of the Absolute, since the Absolute can be smuggled in under cover other than an abstract use of the term “divine”. But, as a consequence, eliminating a difference between Yahweh and other gods on the basis of the Absolute would seem to make it difficult to deny Molech his right to omnipotence, eternality and aseity.

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