Bryan and I have recently been discussing things such as trinitarianism’s compatibility with monotheism as well as functional vs. ontological subordination (see the comments to this post and this one) and as I think about it, there’s a common denominator between the two subjects, namely God as Creator. As you’ll read (if you choose to follow the above linked discussions) in my comments to my post on the Trinity Debate from the other night, I maintained that we see an ontological subordination only if we somehow see the Son as a creature (no matter how exalted) as opposed to the Creator. That was the true error of Arian subordinationism. But this is also a major criterion in maintaining monotheism in a trinitarian context.
Bryan’s question centers on the meaning of the word “monotheism” and whether or not it’s proper to speak of trinitarianism as being such. Here’s the thing with regard to the word “monotheism” – it’s a fairly recent word (c. 17th century) that was coined to describe the belief in “one God,” no more, no less. The word came along well after Judaism, Christianity, and Islam had been established and was used to describe all three of their beliefs because essentially they all (presently) believe in one God. If it was a word that simply had reference to unitarianism then of course it’s not proper to use in reference to trinitarianism, but such is not the case. In a sense it’s even more appropriate to describe Christian belief as monotheistic than it is to describe ancient Israel’s belief as such since it appears that Israel genuinely believed in the existence of other ‘gods’, even if Yahweh was their God alone and supreme above all others. This is why a great many scholars see ancient Israel’s faith as monolatrous as opposed to properly monotheistic.
Theodorus P. van Baaren remarked in his article on monotheism that “it is not the oneness of god that counts in monotheism but his uniqueness; one god is not affirmed as the logical opposite to many gods but as an expression of divine might and power.”1 This is the course that Bauckham travels in his arguing for Jesus being included in the “unique divine identity” of Israel’s God. van Baaren’s “expression of divine might and power” is most prevalent in YHWH’s act of creation. I want to take this post to briefly follow Bauckham’s thought here with regard to this issue.
He begins by stating that “Jewish monotheism is characterized by its way of relating YHWH’s particularity as Israel’s God with his universality as Creator and sovereign Lord of all,”2 and then continues by saying that “[t]he essential element of what I have called Jewish monotheism, the element that makes it a kind of monotheism, is not the denial of the existence of other ‘gods’, but an understanding of the uniqueness of YHWH that puts him in a class of his own, a wholly different class from any other heavenly or supernatural beings, even if these are called ‘gods’.”3
It’s from this point that he proceeds to argue that Jesus was ascribed the unique characteristics that YHWH alone possessed. For example, Bauckham notes that “In the prologue of his Gospel, especially the first few verses, the Fourth Evangelist establishes that Jesus is fully and truly divine in a way that does not compromise Jewish monotheism – for he is included in the unique divine identity as understood in Jewish monotheism.”4 But how is this established? It’s the clear echo back to the Genesis creation narrative that establishes this point. The Word is the means through which all things came into being, and as stated above, YHWH’s uniqueness is largely attributed to his being Creator of all things. Bauckham says that “this was perhaps the simplest way of making, as Jewish monotheism required, an absolute distinction between God and all other reality: God alone is the Creator of all else; all other things were created by God.”5
In the comments to Bryan’s post I brought up 1Corinthians 8:6 and the way that it incorporates Jesus into the Shema in a way that Paul clearly didn’t feel violated monotheism. Bauckham teases out the implications of this passage for his position saying:
The purpose of what is said about Jesus Christ in 1 Corinthians 8:6 is not primarily to designate him the ‘mediator’ (a not strictly appropriate term in this context, but frequently used) of God’s creative work or of God’s salvific work, but rather to include Jesus in the unique identity of the one God. Jesus is included in God’s absolutely unique relationship to all things as their Creator. The purpose of the whole verse in its context is strictly monotheistic. Its point is to distinguish the God to whom Christians owe exclusive allegiance from the many gods and many lords served by pagans. Just as in all Second Temple Jewish monotheistic assertions of this kind, what is said about God is said as a means of identifying God as unique. What is said about Jesus Christ only serves this purpose if it includes Jesus in the unique identity of God. Paul apportions the words of the Shema‘ between Jesus and God in order to include Jesus in the unique identity of the one God YHWH confessed in the Shema‘. Similarly he apportions between Jesus and God the threefold description of God’s unique identifying relationship as Creator to all things, in order to include Jesus in the unique identity of the one Creator.6
This Creator/creature distinction was one that would have lasting effects and play a large role in the fourth century Christological and Trinitarian controversies. Perhaps in another post I’ll comment on that in more detail. I’d also like to briefly look at the cultic devotion accorded to Jesus in early Christianity and the way that this was done without devolving into ditheism; of course there’s no better place to turn for that than the work of Larry Hurtado. Stay tuned…
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1 Theodorus P. van Baaren. “Monotheism” in New Encyclopædia Britannica, 1981 ed., 12.381.
2 Richard Bauckham. “Biblical Theology and the Problems of Monotheism” in Craig Bartholomew, Mary Healy, Karl Möller, Robin Parry (eds.) Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 208.
3 Ibid., 210.
4 Richard Bauckham. “Monotheism and Christology in the Gospel of John” in Richard N. Longenecker (ed.), Contours of Christology in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 149. This same essay has also been published in Richard Bauckham. The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 239-52.
5 Ibid., 150.
6 Richard Bauckham. Paul’s Christology of Divine Identity, a paper delivered to the Pauline Epistles Section of the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Toronto on November 25, 2002. I have cited p. 20 of the PDF version of this paper available online.