What is Monotheism?

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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez

Dictionaries define “monotheism” as the belief that there is only one God; from the Greek, mono (“single”) and theos (“God”). Scholars from all Christian traditions have discussed the extent to which this term embodies the biblical view of God. The question they raise is whether the Bible recognizes the existence of other gods. I will describe some of the issues of this question and make some general comments on the biblical materials.

1. Monotheism and the Bible: Bible scholars used to believe that all religions were originally monotheistic, but that slowly the idea of the existence of many gods crept into their system of beliefs. Other scholars argued that monotheism is the end-
product of a long process that began with the conviction that there were 
many gods or many spiritual forces. But this evolutionary approach to monotheism is alien to the Bible. Recently scholars have recognized that biblical materials on 
that topic are more complex than previously believed. But they are still asking themselves whether a 
narrow understanding of monotheism properly describes the biblical view of God. That depends on how we define monotheism.

2. One, Yet Many: The Bible clearly affirms the existence of one supreme God. This is the God introduced in the first verse of the Bible, Genesis 1:1. It was the Lord alone who created everything in an effortless manner, i.e., without having to face opposing forces. At the moment of Creation, He was the only and unique God, the Lord. We find passages stating that “besides him there is no other [God]” (Deut. 4:35, NIV), that “the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other” (Deut. 4:39, NIV; see also Isa. 44:6-8). Many other passages support the use of the term “monotheism” for the biblical understanding of God.

But we cannot ignore other evidence that complicates the issue; particularly passages such as Psalm 82, where God is described as sitting among the “gods” in judgment and pronouncing a final verdict against them: “You are ‘gods’; you are all sons of the Most High. But you will die like mere men” (verse 6, NIV). This has been called “monarchic monotheism,” that is to say, the other gods are under the headship of God (cf. Ps. 95:3); but this is too close to polytheism (a belief in the existence of and the worship of many gods). The New Testament acknowledges the existence of at least another “god:” “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers” (2 Cor. 4:4, NIV).

Even the first commandment could be read as implying the existence of other “gods:” “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3, NIV). What is surprising about the first commandment is that—as far as I can tell—such a prohibition is unknown in ancient Near Eastern religions. Such religions did not know anything about a jealous God who demanded the exclusive service and adoration of His people. In such religions, honoring all the gods was a virtue and useful to their practitioners.

3. Uniqueness of the Lord:When examining this question we have to emphasize one thing: that the Bible depicts God as absolutely holy, unique, and without equal (cf. Deut. 6:4; Isa. 6:3). He is the Uncreated One, the Eternal (cf. Isa. 43:10; 44:6-8). His very nature places Him outside the realm of His creation—even though He chose to dwell with His creatures. Those who are called “gods” are in reality creatures and therefore essentially different from the Lord. They were created by Him through Christ (cf. Col. 1:16), but they chose rebellion (cf. Jude 6) and sought to occupy the Lord’s place in the life of humans (Isa. 14:13, 14; Eph. 2:1, 2). They proclaimed themselves “gods” but they are still accountable to the Lord and cannot fully function independent of Him (cf. Job 1:6-12; Col. 2:10). This biblical understanding of God and the nature of the “gods” may not fully fit a traditional and narrow definition of monotheism, but it is monotheistic in that it does not recognize the existence of any other being that is in any way similar to the Lord God or that participates of His distinctive nature. The uniqueness of God does not deny the plurality of persons in the Godhead, but they should never be considered to be a plurality of “gods.” The mystery of the Godhead resides in the mystery of His uniqueness.