Tuesday 18 October 2016

Why do most Christians insist that they are monotheists?

It is an old question - revived for me by listening to an audiobook CS Lewis essay on the topic, where he makes a rational argument for the necessity of monotheism.

On the face of it, Christianity is not a monotheistic religion because of Jesus Christ; who is God - but not the only God, not the same God as the already-existing God of the Ancient Jews to whom Jesus frequently refers, defers and prays.

But for some reason earlyish (probably the second century of the religion) many of the most intellectually sophisticated Christian theologians began to regard it as absolutely necessary that Christianity should be monotheistic as well as having at least two Gods.

The question is, why did they feel that way? I infer that it was because the philosopher-theologians were also (and already) embarked on a philosophical quest to explain the coherence of reality and the necessity of God; they wanted to unite all reality in a single unity that was also deity.  They were engaged in a conflation of Christian theology with philosophy, because they simply took the absolute necessity of their philosophy for granted.

(And they ended by shoe-horning Christian theology into classical philosophy; while also modifying that philosophy somewhat in the process.)

It seems to me that many philosophical Christians simply assume that this is necessary to the religion - i.e. that for Christians God must be ultimately necessary to be the source of everything and all order, and also that for reality to hang together requires that God be not only one, but indivisibly one. Hence monotheism.

I don't accept this line of argument, because - like all lines of argument - it has assumptions; points at which we must assert It Just Is - but these assumptions are not intrinsic to Christianity and instead come from outside it.

And there are other assumptions which work just as well as Christian explanations, are simpler, more comprehensible and have better implications.

So we can drop the necessity for monotheism and suggest that the coherence of reality comes from other sources - especially that there is one creation (not creation by one, but one creation) in which we dwell. This creation (and its creator/s) is, of course, not logically entailed; but a thing which happened-to-have-happened.

We then understand the one-ness of God as described in scripture to be the one-ness of a King, a reference to primacy not unity of identity - and we find that this fits comfortably with the Old Testament culture, language and descriptions.

And Christians are to understand the cohesion of reality to be due to Love - in some sense of Love (and I tried to describe my own understanding in a post yesterday); which is a inter-personal thing, which means that the universe of reality is personal from top (from God) to bottom ('non-living' matter): an alive and conscious universe of manifold entities, cohering by love. 

So we end with a very different world picture from classical theology. And this world picture is not monotheistic - but instead explains monotheism as a consequence of philosophical (not Christian) compulsioins.

But, as an explanation non-monotheism works at-least-equally well: indeed I would assert that it works better for Christians.



Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Classical philosophy may have been an influence, but surely the primary source of the insistence on monotheism is the Old Testament.

Kristor said...

Christians insist that they are monotheist because their scriptures insist that monotheism is true. To wit:

Isaiah 45:5-6: I am the LORD, and there is no other; Besides Me there is no God ... there is no one besides Me. I am the LORD, and there is no other ...

Deuteronomy 4:35: To you it was shown that you might know that the LORD, He is God; there is no other besides Him.

Deuteronomy 6:4: Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!

Psalm 86:10: For You are great and do wondrous deeds; You alone are God.

Isaiah 44:6-8: Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: I am the first and I am the last, And there is no God besides Me. ... Is there any God besides Me, Or is there any other Rock? I know of none.

Isaiah 45:18: For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (He is the God who formed the earth and made it, He established it and did not create it a waste place, but formed it to be inhabited), "I am the LORD, and there is none else.

Juxtapose all those verses - and many others - with the Prologue to John's Gospel, and it is easy to see why Christians are monotheists.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas and Kristor - 'One God' in the context of the Old Testament clearly does not mean 'monotheist' in the sense it came to have after AD100 (as evidenced by multiple references to other gods - which are classically by monotheists interpreted to be angels or Men) - indeed, the ancient Hebrews would not even have been able to conceive of the later meaning.

No - the reason for monotheism becoming only one god was the necessity for conflating The Father with the pre-Christian God of the Philosophers and his properties such as creation of everything from nothing, being outside of Time, and having Omni- potence science, presence etc - and conflating the resulting entity with Jesus Christ.

And this led to the vicious and tragic schisms in the early centuries AD, of Christology, the Trinity etc - issues which apparently did not trouble Christ or the Apostles - at least, not enough for them to elucidate such matters.

These became officially central and definitive to Christianity *after* the New Testament was finished - which is why it took many centuries to reach the (unsatisfactory) mystical/ incomprehensible/ way-too-abstract 'solutions'!

Just think about it - all the easy, simple, common-sense solutions to the nature and relation of the Father and Christ (and the Holy Ghost, of course, although few people seem *genuinely* concerned about that matter, post the Great Schism of 1000 AD) - all the kinds of explanation you might give to a child or a simple adult and expect them to understand - are torpedoed by one thing only; which is the insistence upon 'strict philosophical monotheism'.

Derek Ramsey said...

"all the kinds of explanation you might give to a child or a simple adult and expect them to understand - are torpedoed by one thing only; which is the insistence upon 'strict philosophical monotheism'."

This is not strictly true. One does not have to go to Mormon-style polytheism to avoid this problem. One can also go the biblical unitarian monotheism route (not universalist!). If Jesus is a man, a second creation of a sinless kind like Adam, and God's agent (Shaliah) endowed with God's power (Spirit), then monotheism is maintained. Deity is granted post-death: there is no need for pre-existence metaphysics.

This is (arguably) even easier to explain to children and simple adults than polytheism. I've testing this out successfully.

Hoyos said...

You've also got Paul saying the gods of the heathens are devils, and on Mars Hill identifying God Himself with the Unknown God. Then there are the clear claims to omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience.

Chistology was important in the early church with Paul warning us about false Christs, Jesus warns us about false Christs for that matter. The Trinity is even hinted at strongly in the OT (Elohim as a compound unity among other things).

I know you're not doctrinaire Bruce, but the common sense solutions at the very least seem to be orthodox doctrine to many of us.in my own case they reflect reality. No one has ever been "monotheistic" in the sense of believing in only one supernatural being. But there is only one God Who is all powerful, all knowing, and all present.

The warnings about false Christs and those who do not proclaim Him risen from he dead, and the centrality of Christ crucified were important enough to mention, and God has given us clear information to get it right. Some parts of theology are complex and difficult to understand, but this really doesn't seem to be those parts to me.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Derek - Fair argument, at least in some versions. But if Jesus is acknowledged as *fully* God - which seems to be the distinctive Christian belief; then this is more than being 'endowed' with divine power; but requires the doctrine that Jesus was created as a Man but became *fully* God (in some sense of the same nature and scope - if not stature - as God his Father).

This is, in fact, normal Mormon theology (and is what I personally believe is true) - as is the implication that all Men can, in principle, become fully God.

But my understanding is that this is *not* what Unitarians believe.

I also feel that Unitarianism (while perhaps a possible resting point in theory) has been tried and failed in practice; in practice it seems inevitably to slip out of Christianity, out of any effective religion at all - and into something indistinguishable from mainstream secular Leftism.

Why? I think, because of the underlying secular Left motivation which I believe fundamentally *drove* Unitarianism.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Hoyos - My point is that this things are not clear at all! They are not even with with retrospect, when looking for them! If God was an Omni God it would have been easy enough to say so clearly and explicitly - but nothing in scripture ever does. As I mentioned, I don't think that the people who wrote scripture could even have conceptualised the Omni-properties - which are abstract and absolute and impersonal - whereas the God of the Bible is a person.

I would suppose that false Christ's are a different matter - a misunderstanding that what Christ did is done, so there is nothing more for 'another Christ' to do.

To believe in another Christ seems to be down-rating him to merely a teacher or prophet - ie. not to be Christian.

"God has given us clear information to get it right." I agree - but that clarity is very much personal and common sensical - and does not involve concepts like the Trinity doctrine of being paradoxically/ incoherently wholly three persons and completely unitary and undivided.

(I should point out that pure monotheists such as Jews and Muslims have always generally regarded Christians as polytheists - because we insist that Christ is fully divine - in other words they do not accept the validity / coherence of Trinitarian arguments.).

BTW: This is an amusing take on such things!...


Derek Ramsey said...

@Bruce I discovered Unitarianism around the time you started exploring Mormonism. Your journey is insightful, yet problematic for traditional Christianity. The traditional Trinitarian view, which almost universally held, is inchoherent. But your views have not posed a real challenge towards the idea that Jesus was "just" a man (cheesecake is "just" a dessert too). Only Unitarianism and Mormonism remain as viable metaphysical frameworks.

(Biblical) (Monotheistic) Unitarianism is quite old, but modern biblical scholarship has improved to such an extent that it is now pretty obvious that the Biblical text does not support the Trinity. What is the metaphysical difference between "becoming fully God" and "being resurrected with a new eternal body"? I've never seen a unitarian elucidate a meaningful distinction, so I treat them as the same. Even mormonism teaches divinity to a varying *degree*.

Your argument against unitarianism being tried and failing is not a strong one. Mormonism is itself very small and suffering from decreasing growth and appears to be headed towards no growth or even decline. It's just too young to know for sure. We should avoid rejecting either on this basis, but judge them on their own merits.

The Unitarian Universalists (a triumph of leftism) do have the same name. This naming is a real problem because it obscures the doctrine. Michael Servetus, for example, predates the whole leftism movement. That the powers of evil corrupted unitarianism is not surprising. I'd point you to my own work on the subject but I have not published it yet except in a few early forms. There is the work of Anthony Buzzard and the "Trinity Delusion" website. If you've never explored it, I'd suggest you do so as it is simpler than mormonism, more consistent in my opinion, and I've yet to find any metaphysical flaws in it.

I've long hesitated from writing about it here because I thought you'd reject it immediately. I could write about it and post links here, but I'm not sure your policy on such things so I've avoided doing so.

Bruce Charlton said...


As Mere Christian; I personally am quite happy to accept that people are Christians who regard Christ as (in some objective way) divine, central and essential to salvation.

That does not mean I find all Christian metaphysical systems to answer to the demands I personally make of them - nor am I looking around for any alternative to what I have found in Mormon theology. I also regard the CJCLDS as true by its own account - but I am not a member and do not currently have any plans to become a member.

[Aside: As for the success of the CJCLDS - beware of what you read in the mass media - for the church as a whole things are much better than you seem to suppose. I agree that growth in The West has declined or plateaued, and there are very serious direct threats from government, and the leadership are very explicit about such matters. On the other hand on measures of devoutness and active engagement the number of full time missionaries has grown tremendously in just the past few years (there are about 90,000 currently active, I believe), many new temples are still being built and administered locally - and all such growth is sustained by the time and money of rank and file membership. However, all that is aside from the theme of the post.]

Anonymous said...

In any case "creation of everything from nothing" is Jewish pre-Annunciation: "ut aspicias ad caelum et terram, et ad omnia quae in eis sunt: et intelligas, quia ex nihilo fecit illa Deus, et hominum genus" (2 Maccabees 7:28: I haven't dug out my Septuagint and don't know a good online one).

St. Paul's letter to the Philippians 3:11 (with Isaiah 45 in the background) is clear as far as I can see: "every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is LORD [i.e., JHWH] in the glory of God the Father" - with (so far as I can see) no "implication that all Men can, in principle, become fully God."

David Llewellyn Dodds

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Actually, the characterization of Judaism and Christianity as monotheistic seems to depend on rather arbitrary decisions as to what counts as a "god." Loki and Prometheus are considered gods, but Lucifer is not. Hermes and Iris are gods, but Gabriel and Michael are not. Hercules, Guan Yu, and the Catholic saints are all humans who have ascended to heaven and can be prayed to, but the saints are not considered "gods." It all seems quite ad hoc.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Agreed - it seems as if Christians have felt a compulsion to assert and prove that they are monotheists; rather than simply saying 'this is what we believe to be true - call it what you like". The question is why this aspect of nomenclature became such an overmastering need - and that question is what this post was tying to answer.

EomerSonOfEomund said...

The God of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) is very clearly an "Omni" God. I had to abandon your position when faced with so many passages from the Scriptures like these:

For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether. (Psalm 139:4)

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. (Psalm 139:7-8)

But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:26)

Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the Lord. (Jeremiah 23:24)

and he is before all things, and by him all things consist. (Colossians 1:17)

for in him we live, and move, and have our being (Acts 17:28)

Neither Job nor his comforters ever suspect for even a moment that his sufferings may not be entirely the will of God. God's ultimate responsibility is taken for granted by everyone, and when God rebukes Job He does so by firmly asserting His almighty power and dominion.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ESOM - I find that if one tries to read the Bible a phrase at a time it collapses into incoherent nonsense. On the other hand the big picture seems to be coherent - although not the same throughout - the nature of the relationship with God changes.

My feeling is that the omni idea is brought-into Christianity, fuelled by the reluctance to set limits to God's powers and this being distorted into an assertion that there are no limits to God's powers; this in itself being sometimes a personal-fear-based (hence, ultimately, sinful) and superstitious emotion - rejecting of the assurance that God is Love.

(This assurance some mainly from John's Gospel, and requires that we take the gospecl at its on account as written by Christ's most beloved disciple - hence having priority over all other scripture.)

Anyway, my point is that the 'story' of Man's relationship with God in the Bible is (to my eye and heart) in no sense that of a relationship with an 'omni' God whose true nature is abstract and philosophical. Of course, the inspired authors of the Bible are human (not mere dictation conduits for divinity), hence limited and prone to err and to misinterpret the divine.

But the Jewish and Christian God is a personal God with whom people have a relationship - not an abstract divinity of the kind which comes through in (for example) Hindu stories.

At root, however, all these matters must rest on personal revelations (including revelations of who has authority to decide such matters): Christianity does not originate in scripture, and scripture alone is inadequate for Christians-plural (although for the individual, not necessarily inadequate).