“Early Christian Monotheism”
In a previous posting I described the thrust of my recent Burkitt Lecture in Rice University, and promised a report on my lectures in Houston Baptist University. I’ll comment here on the first of these: “Early Christian Monotheism”.
I began by discussing “the Terminology Question”, specifically debates about whether in fact it is misleading to refer to ancient Jewish or Christian “monotheism”. The problem is that (1) the term is of relatively recent vintage (18th century), and, more seriously, (2) that the standard dictionary definition is belief in the existence of only one God (or, correspondingly, denial of the existence of any other gods). All our evidence of ancient Jewish tradition is either inconclusive about whether the existence of other deities was denied, or else is pretty clear that their existence wasn’t denied. Ancient Jews (and Christians) seem to have been more concerned to refuse the worship of other deities, and not so much their existence.
I respond by noting, however, that scholars seem quite ready to refer to “pagan monotheism,” by which they refer to the notion (reflected in some elite writers of the ancient period) that there is one superior deity over all the others, or that all the various deities are manifestations/expressions of one common deity behind them. This, please note, isn’t “monotheism” (per dictionary definitions), but “pagan monotheism.” I.e., multiple deities are granted, and (very importantly) all are to be given worship. But this diversity is presented as cohering somehow in a common divine essence.
So, I continue, if “pagan monotheism” is a valid category (NB, not “monotheism,” but “pagan monotheism”), then 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.
I note also that the “discourse” about God reflected in the NT has a “triadic shape,” with ample references to “God”, “Jesus (the Lord),” and “the Holy Spirit”. But the worship-practice has a clear “dyadic shape,” focused on God and Jesus.
I concluded the lecture with a couple of illustrations of how this “early Christian monotheism” had corollaries in other matters. For example, Paul can use his commitment to “one God” as a basis for his view of salvation as being “one-size-for-all,” both Jews and gentiles saved by the one God through the one provision, Jesus.
In Revelation, we have another type of corollary. Here, the strong, exclusivist stance on worship means that the author treats the divine claims of the Roman imperial regime as unwarranted and even blasphemous. Although the author condemns the economic and political typranny of the Roman regime, his reason for this is actually his “early Christian monotheism,” i.e., a profoundly theological/religious basis for his stance.
In short, in the ancient world it is difficult to find clear expressions of “monotheism” as defined in the modern dictionaries; but we do have noteworthy religious stances, each of which uses “one god” language, but each of which is incommensurate with the others. There is “pagan monotheism” (as described above, essentially a philosophical outlook on the pluraity of Roman-era deities), “ancient Jewish monotheism” (essentially, an exclusivist worship-stance), and “early Christian monotheism” (a distinctively “dyadic” worship-practice expressing both an exclusivity inherited from the ancient Jewish religious matrix, and also the remarkable enfranchement of Jesus as rightful co-recipient of worship).