Monotheism

MONOTHEISM (mŏn'ō-thē-ĭzm, from Gr. monos, one, theos, god). The doctrine or belief that there is but one God. Atheism is the belief that there is no god; polytheism, that there is more than one god; monolatry, the worship of one god as supreme, without denying there are other gods; and henotheism, belief in one god, though not to the exclusion of belief in others. There are three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the latter two having their origin in the first. According to the Bible, man was originally a monotheist. This has been denied by the school of comparative religion, which teaches that monotheism was a late development in human religious experience. It holds that the religion of Israel was not originally monotheistic but that it gradually became so through the influence of the prophets. W. Schmidt, S. M. Zwemer, and others have shown, on the contrary, that polytheism was a late development. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity does not conflict with the monotheism of the OT. Rather, the manifold revelation of God contained in the OT is crystallized in the NT into the supreme doctrine of the Three Persons. See also Jehovah.——SB


The belief that there is one, personal, transcendent God, who is the creator and ruler of the universe. Monotheism is apparently solely the outcome of revelation and is represented by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The claim for a primitive monotheism finds support among certain primitive tribes, but if true it has not influenced the world religions. There is no evidence for any development in nature religions from animism through polytheism to monotheism; the final goal of development seems always to have been pantheism, or exceptionally dualism. Equally, philosophical speculation and mysticism seem incapable of reaching the concept of a single, personal God, separate from matter.

Though the OT ridicules polytheism, it does not seek to establish monotheism by intellectual argument, but rather bases it on the experience of God's acts for those who trust Him alone. This attitude, displayed first by the patriarchs and Moses, is called “ethical monotheism,” for it shows itself primarily in a life of trust; its rejection of polytheism bases itself primarily on the impotence of the heathen, nature deities. While popular Christianity has often compromised its claims to monotheism, the NT, the Christian creeds, and the standard theologians have throughout maintained a strictly monotheistic position, the reconciliation of it with the doctrine of the Trinity being regarded as a divine mystery.

W. Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion (1931); W.F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (1940); K. Barth, Church Dogmatics, part II (ET 1957), especially vol. I, pp. 440-61.


MONOTHEISM. Monotheism is the view that there is one God. It stands in opposition to polytheism, which acknowledges many gods. With the application of the principle of evolution to the study of history, particularly religious history, the effort has been made to classify all religions on a scale moving from the simple to the sophisticated, and to equate this spectrum with the historical development of the race. On such a scheme, monotheism is the final stage in the evolution of man’s religious consciousness. Its “discovery” is said to have been the achievement of the great ethical prophets of Israel, much as the Gr. mathematicians discovered the fundamental laws of numbers. The latter displayed a genius for rational abstract thought, the former for religion and ethics.

For anyone who accepts the witness of Scripture, however—and there is nothing in the evidence outside of Scripture which contradicts this witness—the knowledge of the one true God can hardly be the mere product of the interplay of factors in the environment on the social organism of Israel. Israel’s doctrine of God is based on historical events which are capable of only one interpretation. By His mighty power God had delivered Israel from Egyp. slavery and made them His elect people. “What great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?” (Deut 4:7). For Israel, from the beginning, there could be only this one God. This is why the religious faith of Israel was able to survive even the crisis of the Exile. It was the God of Israel, not the false gods of Assyria and Babylon, who was in charge of all these events. The Assyrian was only the “rod of his anger” (Isa 10:5); Nebuchadrezzar His “servant” (Jer 25:9); and Cyrus His “anointed” (Isa 45:1).

The doctrine of the Trinity, which is rejected by the great monotheistic religions of Judaism and Islam as a denial of the truth that God is one, really rests on the same foundation as the monotheism of the OT. The concept of the Trinity is not the product of Gr. speculation, but rather the result of believing reflection on the great events of incarnation and Pentecost, which are at the heart of the Christian faith. Because these events are the fulfillment of the promises made to the fathers, the apostles saw no incongruity in identifying themselves as strict monotheists, while at the same time proclaiming that God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 8:6). It is true that the elaboration of this belief, in terms of the dogma of the Trinity involves the use of categories of Gr. thought. But to say that God is three persons, though one in His essential being, however it may transcend human comprehension, in no way denies, but rather strongly affirms, the unity and oneness of God as a fundamental affirmation of the Christian faith.

If God is the one only true and living God, and if this knowledge rests on His self-disclosure in the events of incarnation and Pentecost, what of all the peoples of the earth to whom He has not revealed Himself as the Redeemer? With respect to this question, the Scriptures teach that God was known to man in the beginning (cf. the opening chapters of Genesis), and that even though man has fallen into sin, he is not wholly without a knowledge of the true God. As Paul wrote, “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20). See God.

The belief, therefore, in many gods, and the idolatrous practices connected with such beliefs, are the result of sinful man’s alienation from the true God, and no matter how widespread and ingrained such beliefs may be, they really constitute no evidence that there are more gods than one. As a matter of fact, even in cultures where there is a belief in many gods, there is sometimes the belief that one of these is above the others; the gods themselves have a god. Researchers in the field of the history of religions have noted the belief in a supreme high god even among primitive peoples.

The question of monotheism which has been discussed primarily in Biblical terms, has been central also in religious philosophy. In discussions about the idea of God, there have been many efforts to establish some sort of “natural theology,” in which monotheism is seen as best reflecting the order and rational unity of the world. Furthermore, the problems of ethical theory have led thinkers, who make no claim to represent Biblical Christianity, to postulate a supreme Being and to view the world as best explained in terms of some sort of monotheistic model.

Bibliography

C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. I, p. 243f. (1871); J. Royce, “Monotheism,” HERE, 817-821 (1915); E. Brunner, Dogmatics, vol. I, chs. 13-15 (1950); K. Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. II, part 1 (1957).