One and Only One

Three options: first, there are many gods and YHWH, God of Israel, is one among many; second, there are many God but YHWH is superior to all other gods; third, there is one and only one God, and YHWH is that God. Polytheism, henotheism and monotheism, roughly. The dominant theme of the Old Testament is monotheism though it is abundantly clear that at times ancient Israelites affirmed either the first or the second options. The theme of one God is sketched by Ronald Heine in his book Classical Christian Doctrine: Introducing the Essentials of the Ancient Faith.

A central affirmation along this line is the Shema; Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. This is an affirmation that YHWH is the one and only God. Creation, calling of Abraham, the exodus, as well as pre-exile and post-exile teachings reveal this emphasis — and it is a growing emphasis (as Isa 40–55 make clear).

What do you think of a routine recitation or confession of the Shema in Christian public assemblies? I say Yes, what say you? What would we gain? Do you see problems? What are they?

Earliest Christians affirmed one God, even if many Christians died at the hand of Romans for their belief in one God.

I consider this affirmation was a particularly stretching or challenging element of faith for the early Christians who quickly began to affirm the deity and worship Jesus alongside the Father, the one God of Israel. Here are some important considerations:

1. The early Christians affirmed one God. This connected the Christians to the faith of Israel — continuity frames this whole theme.

2. A particularly interesting text in this theme is 1 Corinthians 8:4-6. Here’s the text:

1Cor. 8:4    So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

First, one God is affirmed in v. 4. That is, Paul affirms his God is the God of Israel. Continuity theme.
Second, others may believe in more than one God but Paul doesn’t.
Third, Paul is “exegeting” the Shema, where two names for God are given: Lord (YHWH) and God. This observation is fundamental to what is happening in this text.
Fourth, astoundingly, Paul sees “God” (Elohim) as the Father and he sees “Lord” (YHWH) as Jesus.

The affirmation of one God entails belief that the Father is Elohim and the Son is YHWH.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Rick

    Larry Hurtado touched on this recently, referring to a presentation he gave. He stresses certain definitions of monotheism:
    “I propose that we can also refer to “ancient Jewish monotheism,” by which I mean the notion that there is one deity alone who is properly to be worshipped. I.e., it’s not the existence of other deities that is particularly denied, but instead the propriety of giving them worship. Worship-practice is the key expression of this “ancient Jewish monotheism.” Here, also, this isn’t dictionary “monotheism,” but instead “ancient Jewish monotheism.” I then describe the remarkable innovation in earliest Christian circles in which Jesus is linked uniquely with God as rightful co-recipient of cultic devotion, proposing that we can call this “early Christian monotheism.” Once again, not the dictionary-version of “monotheism,” i.e., not focused on denying the existence of other divine beings, but instead comprising a strong, exclusive worship-practice: In this case, only one God and one Lord (designated by the one God) as rightful recipients of worship. This produces the distinctive “dyadic devotional pattern” that I have underscored a number of times.”

  • Clay Knick

    These have been so interesting, Scot. Thanks for posting.

  • Wolf Paul

    Regular confessiion of the Shema by Christians: I would be all for it.
    There are four texts that I think churches of every stripe and tradition (even non-liturgical ones) would do well to make a regular part of their public services:

    - the Shema
    - the Trinitarian Doxology “Glory be to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit …”
    - the Nicean or the Apostles’ Creed (either one or the other)
    - the Lord’s Prayer

    I observe a number of doctrinal strangenesses among Evangelical believers (both in the US and here in Europe) which could be corrected if people regularly recited these texts.

  • Tom Krajecki

    Yes, we should be. There is, I think, the tendency in Evangelical churches to see the Trinity as a doctrine that is too difficult to understand or discuss. We need to see some issues as basic and important. Worshiping the same God (Trinitarian) would be a good step on the right direction.

  • lbehrendt

    Scot, as one of your faithful Jewish non-Christian readers, I’d ask that you be sensitive about appropriating Jewish symbols, rituals and prayers for Christian ends. I can’t speak for all Jews, but a number of us (me included) would not appreciate this. I’m happy to elaborate if you think it is necessary.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marshall-Pease/1324310862 Marshall Pease

    “How many Gods?” seems to me about like asking how many Laws of Nature. The observable universe we know was only created once and obeys one rule; that is, “reality” is unique. So we could start there.

    The Shema could be taken as the basis for a doctrine of ecumenicalism: if there is only one god, then we can stop talking about “false gods” and say that Those Other People are trying to worship the same god as we do; they are just not clear [as clear as we are] on His actual Name. That’s not likely how the original authors took, to be sure.

    Routine recitation? We should confess as Jesus confessed, IMO. Shema, yes. Lord’s Prayer, yes. Creeds … different category.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marshall-Pease/1324310862 Marshall Pease

    But all that stuff is a vital part of our inheritance as much as yours, although neglected in many neighborhoods of Christendom. I for one would be happy to hear your elaboration…?

  • Jon G

    I believe in some of Peter Enns’ work he discusses how Israelites in the OT mainly practiced monolatry (the worship of one god) rather than monotheism (they didn’t believe only one god existed but rather that YHWH was the superior god).
    I would think that even Paul, in his “powers and principalities” kind of does the same. Personally, I’m a one-god kind of guy. Heck, I can’t even believe in the Trinity! :-)

  • Tom F.

    I’m trying to imagine saying the Shema in my church on a regular basis. I’m trying to think about how that would be heard and experienced.

    I hear Scot saying that it was a radical thing for 1st century Jews (Jews had to get a special dispensation from Rome to affirm this) and Christians, once they lost this legal exemption, were in fact at great risk in affirming this.

    I am not sure that this would be experienced as radical or counter-cultural in my church context. What would the modern day analogy to 1st century pagan polytheism that the Shema would be addressing? The Shema doesn’t have to be counter-cultural, I suppose, but I wonder what else would be needed along with the simple recitation of it in order for us to be true to the dangerous, counter-cultural aspects of the Shema.

  • http://flavors.me/gflagg Greg Flagg

    It’s not too difficult for me to imagine why Jews would not appreciate Christians seemingly co-opting their symbols, rituals and prayers. Christians have historically had a less than stellar relationship with our Jewish brothers and sisters so using their language in our worship could probably come across as a slap in the face. Or, we proclaim it in a way that may suggest that we understand it more “fully” than Jews do.

    These are just my thoughts on the matter as a Christian who is very interested in our common history. I do love the Shema (memorized it in Hebrew), and wish more Christians understood the Hebrew Scriptures. But, please, do elaborate. I would love to hear your thoughts.

  • William

    Mormons teach plurality of gods/polytheism. They say the Father is Elohim and Jesus is YHWH. In fact, there is only one true God by nature. The Father is YHWH, the Son is YHWH, the Holy Spirit is YHWH. Elohim can be used of YHWH, angels, men, false gods, but YHWH is His covenant, personal name. Strict trinitarian monotheism should not say Father=Elohim and Son=YHWH, except maybe in certain verses/contexts (but not theology/doctrine of God/Christology as a whole).

  • lbehrendt

    To start: I am a non-Christian Jew who loves Christianity. I believe that Christianity is a true and beautiful faith. The fact that it is not my faith does not lessen my appreciation.

    The Shema is the center of the Jewish worship service. It is our creed, or at least the closest thing we have to one. When Jews recite the Shema today, we are affirming that God is One — not two (as in, for example, a god of good and a god of evil), not three, and not three-in-one. The Shema as Jews understand it today is not compatible with the Christian idea of Trinity or Incarnation.

    So, Christians could bring the Shema into Christianity only by coming to a very different understanding of what this prayer really means. That might be fine, if things would go no further than that. For certain, there are many Christians who might be willing to “share” the Shema, in an ecumenical spirit of tolerance and a belief that the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come. But for certain, many Christians believe that Christianity is the only true path … creating the likelihood that many Shema-reciting Christians would conclude that the Jews have misunderstood their central creed.

    Of course, Jewish-Christian contention over the meaning of the Old Testament goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. We haven’t shared our common heritage particularly well, and I for one am working to improve this situation. Marshall is right: Jews like me cannot claim exclusive rights to the Torah. The Shema belongs also to Christianity. But the Shema has never been a Christian centerpiece. To make it such, at this relatively late date, seems to be unnecessary at best (why is it that the Nicene Creed is suddenly insufficient?). At worst, it feels like appropriation of something sacred to Judaism for a non-Jewish purpose. It has a polemic feel to it.

    Try to imagine how you might feel if Jews decided to adopt the Lord’s Prayer as our own (and why not? It’s a perfectly good Jewish prayer). Imagine if we taught our children that the true meaning of the Lord’s Prayer is that Jesus is not God, and that the Christians have misunderstood their own most important prayer for 2,000 years. Might this rub you the wrong way? Might you wonder what possessed us to appropriate the Lord’s Prayer as our own, after thousands of years of religious life without this prayer? Might this feel provocative to you?

    If none of the above speaks to you … let me point out that the Shema has traditionally been the last words spoken by Jewish martyrs, many of whom (unfortunately) were murdered by Christians motivated by Christian religious zeal. For this reason alone, it would be terribly and bitterly ironic for Christians today to adopt this prayer as a central feature of the Christian liturgy. It seems disrespectful to me for Christians to take the exact last words spoken by these millions of blessed memory in a way intended (directly or indirectly) to cast doubt on the faith that they died for.

    Of course, this is just one Jew’s opinion, expressed for what it is worth to the community here of fellow believers and seekers of the divine presence. I apologize for any offense I may have caused — these are not easy matters to discuss. Let us all pray for the ability and opportunity to move forward together into an age of greater understanding and sharing of the wisdom and love to be found in our respective traditions.

  • http://thebookofdavis.blogspot.com/ Michael Davis

    I like mike hieser’s take on the divine council and how it was the view of the biblical writers throughout the OT
    http://thebookofdavis.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-divine-council-of-70-gods-in-bible.html

    Paul’s use of one God and one Lord have to be taken in the context of the false teachings he was responding to: IMO the false teachings were that the God of the Jews within the church was different than the God of the Gentiles within the church. And the domain of earthly lords (husbands, masters, fathers) was coming into conflict with the lordship of Christ.
    http://ephesiansrevealed.blogspot.com/2012/12/one-god.html
    http://ephesiansrevealed.blogspot.com/2012/11/lordship.html

  • http://flavors.me/gflagg Greg Flagg

    Thanks for taking the time to respond, you words are very enlightening. I understand that it must be equally odd to hear Christians recite the Shema as it would be for Christians to hear Jews recite the Lord’s Prayer.

    To your point of “why now?” with the Shema and “why is the Nicene Creed” suddenly insufficient, I think (thanks in no small part to Scot’s Jesus Creed book) the Shema is re-emerging as a central part of the Christian faith. Jesus himself acknowledges it as the Greatest Commandment along with “Love your neighbor as yourself.” So, I think the Shema can (and should) be equally important for Christians and Jews. Where we Christians get in trouble, as you pointed out, is not understanding the history of the Shema and even the Jewish nature of the Lord’s Prayer. Too often Christians perceive their faith as something wholly other than, and separate from, Judaism which causes the divide we currently experience between our traditions. Christians would do well to be more sensitive and attentive to their Jewish roots in Scripture and history rather than just taking a simple fascination in learning a few Hebrew words.

  • lbehrendt

    Greg, well said. Might you consider the version of the Shema in 1 Corinthians 8:6? Paul’s version, particularly if spoken in English (or Greek!), would be less problematic from the perspective of Jewish-Christian relations.

  • KentonS

    Scot-

    One of my favorite thinkers wrote a book called “The Jesus Creed.” He has a blog by the same name. Are you familiar with it? :)

    Seriously, I say that because my church is currently in a sermon series called “Knowing God”, and we started the whole thing off, by reading that the greatest commandment is “loving God”, but that second part about “loving neighbor” seemed to be swept under the rug. That’s the problem for me. I’m all for a recitation of Shema as part of a recitation of the Jesus Creed, but the point Jesus was making was that the second command was “like the first” and I’ve come to appreciate that you can’t have one without the other. I think that “Jesus Creed” guy taught me that.


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