There are significant problems with the way we often think about and apply doctrine of monotheism. In my experience, I find many people have a sub-biblical understanding of monotheism. All the Bible has to say is rooted in this fact: there is only one true God.
If we misunderstand the biblical meaning of monotheism, what else might we get wrong?
Everyone knows that atheism is common in China, especially among younger generations. However, this way of thinking (propagated by the Communist Party) is not the entire story. As anyone who has ever lived in China knows, countless religious beliefs persist that allows for local deities. This is especially true among minority groups.
Consequently, the existence of God and the particular question of monotheism is incredibly relevant to ministry in East Asia.
Are We Settling for One God?
How do people typically think about monotheism? I will highlight three things that often characterize conventional views of monotheism, as I have observed among evangelical missionaries (and not a few theologians).
1. Monotheism concerns the number of gods.
I suspect that for most people the sum significance of monotheism is that there is only one God rather than two, three, or a thousand gods. In other words, monotheism is mainly about the number of gods. At a very basic level, this is what the doctrine is about; however, we may miss the point if we stop here.
2. Monotheism is background information.
Traditionally, monotheism is just a starting point, the first assumption on which everything else rests. People see monotheism merely as theology’s logical starting point. Consequently, people often think, monotheism largely has no great theological significance.3. Monotheism is lumped with apologetics.
Although people talk about the topic in theology classes (especially in relation to the Trinity), I think it is closely linked to apologetics. People first have to defend God’s existence so they can get on with bigger issues.This is probably a problem particular to the West, where many people assume two mutually exclusive options: monotheism and atheism.
From this perspective, one tends to assume that “proving” God’s existence amounts to affirming monotheism.
Does One God “Exist”?
Apologists have offered various logical arguments in order to “prove” (or point to) God’s existence. Yet, these traditional arguments have a number of problems that do not help people grasp biblical monotheism.
Disproving atheism and proving monotheism are two very different things. Commonly used arguments against atheism do not necessarily prove theism. They simply press people to agnosticism (which is admittedly better than atheism).
They merely argue for the reasonableness of theism; this is not the same thing as proving God’s existence.
Many traditional apologetic proofs are consistent with polytheism. That is, they don’t do anything to affirm or explain monotheism specifically.
In fact, it is possible that people use traditional arguments yet still assume a polytheistic system, like that found in Greek mythology. Perhaps, someone might insist that Greek gods, like Gaea and Ouranos/Uranus, created everything, including Chronos.
In short, they do not necessarily preach monotheism. They simply say that some god(s) exists.
From what I’ve said above, we can easily see that many traditional apologetic arguments do not specifically talk about the Christian God.
A Sign of Problems
Briefly, I will highlight a sign indicating that our traditional way of thinking has a problem. Notice how Paul uses the doctrine of monotheism in Romans 3:29–30.
28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.”
Notice that Paul uses monotheism to argue for justification by faith. However, most of us don’t have this kind of monotheistic perspective. That is, our conception of monotheism does not naturally lead to justification by faith.
Yet, if our theology cannot lead to Paul’s conclusions, then we have a problem.
Next Post: How did ancient Jews think about monotheism?
Photo Credit (number 1): CC 2.0/wikipedia