Monday, June 24, 2013

What Do We Mean by "Monotheism"?

[Addendum] The ensuing is adapted from a recent paper of mine.  It scolds the categorical monkeying around we evangelicals are used to committing to make sense of the term ‘monotheism.’  The end proposes clarification for how evangelicals should understand the term. (For those new to the blog, yes I am a Biblical monotheist.)  The issue is primarily important for its apologetic value in responding to consensus modern source-critical reconstructions of Israelite religion which propose an evolution from polytheism to monotheism throughout the Biblical text.  I reject the notion that the Biblical texts reflect a chronological evolution from polytheism to monotheism.  If the concept of non-angelic deities existing within Israelite religion is new to you, you can read an introduction by a specialist in the source material here.

A modern term applied to ancient religion

Over the past 35 years Old Testament scholars have wrestled with the value of applying the term “monotheism” to the religion of the Bible. The problem, as Nathan McDonald’s doctoral thesis relates, is due to the original coining of the term “monotheism” in the 17th century by the Cambridge neo-Platonist Henry More as an antonym of atheism, not polytheism. The Cambridge Platonists were deposed by Locke and deist rationalists who would “ensure the term’s survival and led to its established place in philosophical and theological discourse.”[1]  This Enlightenment climate eventually injected the term with its modern connotations, especially with regard to Israelite religion.[2]  I’d agree with the dissertations of Michael S. Heiser and McDonald: The term “monotheism” is useful in expressing the uniqueness of the ancient Israelite God.  It does this in a way in which other terms like henotheism and monolatrism don’t.  At the same time “a yawning gap exists between ‘monotheism’ and the Old Testament.”[3]  That yawning gap is represented in how we moderns use the term as an antonym for polytheism. (i.e. defining “monotheism” as what “polytheism” is not and “polytheism” as what “monotheism” is not.)

Categorically inconsistent and tautological

Frankly, it’s incoherent and tautological when we moderns use “monotheism” as an antonym for “polytheism.” The reason is that when we use these two terms in this mutually defining apposition of each other we must equivocate on what we mean by (G/g)od in order to render the two categories mutually exclusive.  When we use the term “mono-theism” the theos in that phrase designates a being who is eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, self-sufficient, etc. When we use the term “poly-theism” the meaning of the term theos becomes something much different.  In this case the term comes to refer to a sort of super-person, usually with a limited realm of preternatural powers (such as the Egyptian deities, gods of ancient Greece or the superhumans of Celtic mythology).  The term theos in this case cannot have the same definition as the one we were assuming in the term monotheism because the notion of many gods all possessing an attribute like omnipotence would itself be absurd and inconceivable. It follows also the term “monotheism” is tautological then because it reiterates the mono-ness of a Being, the definition of which, necessarily includes singularity.

What is a god?: defining deity

The other option for the defender of the common definition of monotheism (as an antonym for divine plurality) to circumvent the above charges of equivocation and tautology is to object that the term theos in both cases merely refers to any being who is at the level of a preternatural super-being or greater.  The problem with this type of response is that it fails to account for the inconsistencies in the way in which we categorize the divine beings in the monotheistic religions.  Before the founding of Islam jinni were considered tutelary gods.[4]‘ifrits have been considered particularly powerful and marids also share many of the natural associations we would expect of an Ancient Middle Eastern deity.  They are powerful, vatic creatures with freewill; they have shape shifting abilities, their ire is often feared, and the beings were considered deities before being appropriated by Islam.[5]   If we are going to identify the Qur’an or texts like The Arabian Nights as monotheistic documents we have conceded our equivocation of theos in our use of the terms monotheism and polytheism and so, have forfeited the notion that those two terms describe mutually exclusive categories.  David Penchansky (who believes in a source-critical evolving Israelite monotheism which he parallels with Islam’s evolution of the jinn) has pounded on this here.   It is intractable to attempt to define the theos of polytheism in a way which circumscribes all the minor deities of ancient Egypt, Canaan, or Central American religions and yet extrudes those pesky jinni of folk Islam and the Quran.

Gods other than Yahweh in the Bible?

Again, what in our modern thinking qualifies the super-humans of Celtic mythology, or Aken, the mere ferryman of the Egyptian underworld, as gods yet makes an exception in the “divine” category for jinni?  A clear answer isn’t obvious. Why do Deber and Resheph, both fierce soldiers in Yahweh’s military retinue not make the cut when they are considered gods when they appear in the Ugaritic and other West-Semitic texts?[6] Why are the beings assuming the divine council thrones of Daniel 7 excluded from the category of deity, yet the beings of the Ugaritic divine council are considered gods?  Certainly the Qumran community was monotheistic and revered those texts like Isaiah and Deuteronomy which are usually upheld as the paragons of matured monotheism.  Why then do they identify the singular elohim of Ps. 82 as Melchizedek?  Why are there 185 occurrences in the extra-biblical DSS texts where a variation of elohim or elim appears in the plural?  What about the elohim of Duet. 32.8 who are geographically portioned and hold all the same functions as gods? Why do scholars refer to a Ugaritic ml’k as a “messenger deity” yet a מלאך of the Bible gets excluded?  Why are the seventy sons of god in the Ugaritic texts divine but not their 70 cognates in the Bible in texts like Ps. 82 and Duet. 32.8?  What standard happens to qualify a lowly artisan god of Canaanite religion in the divine category yet happens to extrude a powerful angel like Michael or the Sons of God of Gen. 6?

What a flurry of questions like these illustrates is that our modern, application of 17th century terminology (pre-dating all notions of modern archaeology and most comparative materials in the Near East) to ancient Israelite religion confounds clear thinking when evangelicals approach the topic of divine plurality in the Hebrew Bible. Consider how we usually perceive monotheism and polytheism as mutually exclusive opposites.  In the parlance of possible world theory it is recognized two mutually exclusive realities cannot both exist as conjuncts of any possible world. For example, there is no conceivable reality in which there could exist married bachelors or square circles.  These categories are genuinely mutually exclusive and are therefore not even conceivable.  “Monotheism” and “polytheism” cannot be mutually exclusive.  It is easy to conceive of a reality in which there might actually exist an eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, self-sufficient being unlike any other who created any number of supernatural beings which administer affairs of the cosmos in many ways analogous to other Mesopotamian deities. 

What then do we mean by monotheism?

The term monotheism is here to stay.  When we use it, we should therefore take it to mean that one, incomparable, unique God exists who holds attributes such as omniscience, omnipotence and eternality and that this God created a host of lower subordinate others who administer the affairs of His cosmos.  The term monotheism should remain one of incomparability.  We should not use it as a declaration of singularity among an ambiguous category of beings we call gods. Evangelicals must embrace the highly supernatural worldview of scripture. It isn’t enough to depose of the existence of Yahweh’s divine council of gods by simply appealing to God’s “denial” statements in Isaiah in Deuteronomy since those same authors embrace the divine council in other places and Heiser and McDonald have demonstrated these statements must be understood as declarations of incomparability.  An example of this is readily found in the way Isaiah uses these same denial statements in reference to the incomparability of Babylon and Moab:
Is. 45.5
I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me 
Is. 47.8, 10
8Now therefore hear this, you [Babylon and Moab] lover of pleasures, who sit securely, who say in your heart, “I am, and there is no one besides me [אני ואפסי עוד לא]10…you said in your heart, “I am and there is no one besides me [אני ואפסי עוד].”
Those who offer a text like Isaiah 45.5 as an ontological statement of the non-existence of the divine council beings cannot maintain a consistent hermeneutic when approaching parallel denial texts like Isaiah 47, since it is obvious a text like Isaiah 47 is making a statement of incomparability (and not a statement of the ontological non-existence of any other city).  This reality applies not only to evangelicals but to source-critics who would wish to uphold texts like Isaiah as theological innovations of monotheism that are in contradiction with the divine plurality of earlier Biblical religion.

[1] Deuteronomy and the Meaning of ‘Monotheism’, (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 17.

[2] Ibid., 1-21.

[3] Ibid., 52.

[4] Inscriptions and reliefs at Palmyra depict the deities in warrior regalia protecting the city. An inscription near Palmyra reads, “the ginnaye of the village of Beth Fasi’el, the good and rewarding gods.” Robert G. Hoyland, Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam (Routledge: New York 2002), 145.

[5] Though very dated, Thomas Patrick Huges provides a detailed explanation of Islamic jinni tradition. A Dictionary of Islam: Being Encyclopedia of the Doctrines, Rites, Ceremonies, and Customs, Together with the Technical and Theological Terms, of the Muhammadan Religion (London: H. Allen & Co. 1895), 133.  Diane Morgan offers a modern introduction in Essential Islam: A Comprehensive Guide to Belief and Practice (USA: Praeger, 2010), 15-6. In regards to jinni serving the function of tutelary deities in modern times, it is interesting that during the Rwandan genocide, Rwandan Muslim neighborhoods were avoided because of circulated fear that jinni protected Muslims and mosques.

[6] Cf. P. Xella., “Resheph in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. (hereafter DDD) (Brill: Grand Rapids 1999), 700-3. Resheph is a very popular West-Semitic chthonic god with Deber also present in the Akkadian and Ugaritic texts (cf. Duet 32.24 and Ps 78.48).  Hab. 3.5 has both serving at the heels of Yahweh.


  1. Good info here.

    I share the view that Psalm 82's "elohim/gods" means "divine creatures" myself. Probably angels, I think Paul called the fallen "elohim" of the OT demons in the NT text.

    Might not be perfectly accurate interpretation, but, this doesn't cause me "polytheism" heartburn because these "elohim" don't demonstrate the ontology of the creator Yahweh and Yahweh is always the boss.


  2. Brother Ben, great stuff. I am curious as to how your colleagues at the seminary view your position concerning biblical monotheism?

  3. Have you considered the theology of Monotheistic Christianity as explained by Emanuel Swedenborg? He basically states Jesus Christ is Jehovah in human form. Where the confusion comes is that He was in two states of being - a state of separation while He was being tempted, in this state He prays to the Father. The other state was a state of union, this is where He declares that He is one with the Father. These two states of being are often confused with two distinct beings, which is incorrect. Check out my blog (dream prophecy blogspot), but lately I have been delving into other topics. I have heard other ministers criticize this as "Modalism" or "Sabellianism", but that is incorrect and shows a misunderstanding of monotheistic Christianity. A monotheist is one who believes in God as one personal being.

    1. I'm usually not inclined to care what an 18th century scientist has to say about second temple Israelite religion.

    2. He was not just a scientist. If you are interested in Hebrew parallelism, the two Genesis creation counts, or the symbolism hidden behind Jewish rituals, he is worth checking out. His writings are similar in nature to Philo of Alexandria, a first century Jewish philosopher, but much more extensive.