Drafts of My Article on Monotheism

My earliest draft of my reference article on the term “monotheism” was very brief, and so I can share it in its entirety here:

monotheism n. Do not use this term.

I came to the International Society of Biblical Literature conference hoping to get a better sense of whether this was the emerging scholarly consensus on the subject, and as a result of the papers I have heard I decided to expand my first draft with a slightly longer introduction:

“Monotheism” was a term used in Biblical studies until the summer of 2011, largely as a self-description used by religions whose monotheistic credentials were questionable, and as a term used by scholars to highlight what those religions in fact were not.

I am, of course, being facetious in what I wrote above. But since the sessions on monotheism at the International Society of Biblical Literature conference have centered on questioning the appropriateness and usefulness of continuing to have Biblical scholarship employ the term, I thought that I might in fact hear a great many papers moving in the direction my spoof drafts above suggest. But in fact, the papers generally have recognized that terminology and conceptual baggage are not so easily set aside. And my own view is that the term “monotheism” as a scholarly concept is no more or less problematic than other terms we use such as “God” and “religion.”

  • http://evolvingthoughts.net John S. Wilkins

    On why no religion is a monotheism: http://evolvingthoughts.net/2009/10/on-gods-and-religion/

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Thanks John. I particularly appreciate your point that a pure monotheism is not embraced not least because it is boring.

  • Anonymous

    monotheism n. Mostly Harmless

  • Dan McClellan

    You’ll have to keep me posted on how the sessions go.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    I think the key question is, if other beings or objects can accurately be identified as gods based on the lexical definition of the word as powerful/object of worship, then the term monotheism does not appear to be accurate. The word monotheism forces a new definition on the biblical words elohim and theos, causing them to only mean YHWH. But that is not how they seem to be used in the Bible. Elohim and theos should only mean YHWH when the context indicates it. The word God is used to describe certain qualities of YHWH that are tied in with the definition of the word God, but it does not define every aspect of YHWH.

    On the other hand, since the lexical definition of God is based on man’s historical use of the word, maybe the biblical definition is a little different. This is the closest analogy I could think of for the issue. There are two main definitions for the word mother, giving birth, and caring for her children. Suppose we have a woman who gave birth to a child, but then gave it up for adoption and another woman who can not have children, adopted this child and raised it as her own. Even though the woman who adopted the child is called a mother by the child, is she a real mother even if she only possesses some of the qualities that define the word mother? Or is she a mother in name only, as opposed to the first woman who is the true mother since she gave birth to the child and was capable a caring for it, fulfilling all the qualities of a mother. So basically, if someone possesses some of the qualities of the word god in a limited way, are they called a god in name only, as opposed to the true god YHWH who over abundantly fulfils every aspect of the word god?

    • Dan McClellan

      My concern is that if these other begins can be accurately identified as gods, then they always will have been accurately identified as gods. People have long recognized this but have still self-identified as monotheists. Since the word began as a descriptive term (that actually originally allowed for a “latitude of sense” in the “mono-”) I think we should let it stand and let its historical usage instead of the etymology (which was never a strict part of the word’s usage) determine what it means.

      • Howard Mazzaferro

        @7dbfdaed4dbfa219f03ce90439761f07:disqus I can certainly agree with your assessment, after all, words are defined by how people use them over time. And so on the one hand, it should be acceptable to use the word monotheism to indicate that you believe in only one God or that you worship only one God, even though there are other so called gods. (1 Corinthians 8:5-6) On the other hand, if the word is going to be used in this manner, then it should not be used in a way that attempts to disprove the existence of other gods.


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