No God but One
Baal, Yahweh, Amazon, and Me
Article by David Mathis, Executive Editor, desiringGod.org
The oneness of God is under relentless assault today — though not in the way we might expect.
At least in the West, very few try to make a public case for traditional polytheism. There is little pressure in the mainstream to affirm many gods (at least not formally). Rather, the pressure which continues to rise with each generation, and each passing year, is the pervasive assumption of secularism — the pressure to sideline any talk of the one God and live together as though there were none.
In the ancient world, various pantheons of gods abounded. In Canaan. In Egypt. In Babylon. In Athens. In Rome. Everywhere God’s strange monotheistic people turned, they encountered polytheists. They were tempted incessantly to adopt the world’s gods to try and improve their lives. Against this pressure, the Hebrew Scriptures, again and again, assert the oneness, and supremacy, of the true God, not many gods. But today, the mounting social pressure is to believe in (or at least to live as if there were) no God at all.
As much as we may think (and keep telling ourselves) that we’ve progressed as a society, in the end, our modern secularism shares a common root with ancient polytheism. The two amount different guises for one fundamental rebellion. Secularists are the new polytheists.
No God Today
We have Amazon and Apple. We google and tweet. And one of the great delusions of the modern world is that we tell ourselves, in subtle and overt ways, how much wiser we are today, and how foolish our ancestors must have been. We assume the dead, who cannot defend themselves, must have been far inferior to us. While outwardly we may seem to be progressing through technology, inwardly however we are wasting away, generation after generation, under the ongoing curse and devolution of sin.
Two psalms begin with the basic declaration of folly not against polytheists, but against secularists:
If anything, we are deeper into Romans 1 in our day than the ancients who dreamed up other gods. At one level, at least, they were honest enough with themselves to perceive “eternal power and divine nature . . . in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). Not that they weren’t fools themselves (Romans 1:22–23). We, however, dig new and deeper depths of folly when modern secularists and materialists “suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18) to such a great extent that they acknowledge no divine power in this manifestly designed and personal world.
If the fool says in his heart, “There is no God,” then how much more the one so bold as to say it with his mouth, and pretend to live like it?
Many Gods Then
Before the Scriptures establish threeness in God, they start with his oneness (especially in the Old Testament, and clearly confirmed in the New). From the very beginning, the one true God reveals himself to his people, and the nations, despite their speculations, as the one and only true God. The first claim of the first document in the Scriptures is not ambiguous: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).
Any “progress” we might sense in the Scriptures from “henotheism” (the worship of one god, while not denying the existence of others) to genuine “monotheism” is not progress in divine revelation but in human understanding. The God of the Bible does not reveal himself as just one among others, en route to making more exclusive claims later on. He did not share with other gods in creation. He does not share with other gods in ruling his creation. He alone is God. Any traces of so-called henotheism are described (Genesis 31:33–35; Exodus 18:11), not prescribed.
Stubborn and prone to relapse as God’s people may prove to be, God’s own revelation is clear from the start. From the very first verse, the God of the Bible is in a class of his own. He is the Creator. “In the beginning, God.” He alone is God; there is no other.
Monotheists All the Way Down
The mention of monotheism, which is not a biblical term, raises the question today of what kind of monotheism? Is Christian monotheism fundamentally different than that of some ancient Greeks, or that of Islam?
As Christians, we are monotheists all the way down. We believe in and worship one God. And we are monotheists who receive the one God as he has revealed himself to us, rather than determining through our own reasoning whether his oneness means he cannot also be three as well. In one sense, Christians are very much, we might say, strict monotheists, in that we do not fudge or compromise at all with God’s oneness. There is one God, and no other gods besides him.
However, compared with non-Christian Jews and Muslims, we might say we are monotheists with an asterisk — though not because we’re open to polytheism in any sense. We believe that the one God has revealed himself supremely in the person of his Son, in the man Jesus Christ, and in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. There is one God, who has shown himself to us as tripersonal: Father, Son, and Spirit. There are not three Gods, but three persons in one God. And when we turn to the world that exists, a world of both unity and plurality, neither more ultimate than the other, we find how neither polytheism, nor mere monotheism — nor secularism — explains our world like the God who is both one and many.
No God but Me
But if ancient humans were, in fact, on the whole, no dumber than us moderns — and likely less foolish in many ways — what was the allure of polytheism? And what is the allure today for more than a billion Hindus?
Perhaps it’s the sneaking suspicion in fallen humans that our lives are too complicated for just one God to handle it all. To bring it closer to home, we professing Christians should ask ourselves, in our age of specialization, do we assume that the one Creator, and the one Bible, and the one church and her pastors, need to stay in their lane with regard to so many of our modern problems? Our secular age conditions us to run to other gods, to the experts and specialists, to handle the various aspects of our personal lives. And at the level of social discourse, to explain away what God might be doing in wildfires and volcanoes and hurricanes and heat. Today’s answer, of course, is climate change, and nothing more — no space for a warning from the one God of heaven who commands all sinners to repent lest we likewise perish.
Even deeper than the seeming complexity of our lives, and our penchant for specialization, is the moral convenience of sidelining the one God. Because we ourselves want to be God, at least in the ways we so choose. We want to have control. We want to be our own authority. Beneath the veneer of polytheism is another form of monotheism called autotheism: the pretense that I am God.
Polytheism, without exception, glorifies the flesh. Polytheism keeps me in control, as no god can claim my all. Polytheism keeps each god at arm’s length, enough to keep me comfortable. As does secularism. It’s a new dress on the same ancient rebellion. Both polytheism and secularism, in the end, reduce to the evil root of pride and self-worship. Different confessions, but the same heart.
One God Forever
But for thousands of years, the one true God has confronted the evil of our self-worship with the invitation, and summons, to worship the one for whom our souls were made. When the one true God calls us to worship him, and him alone, he is bidding us to enjoy the glory and joy for which we long and cannot experience by turning inward, or elsewhere.
The fundamental confession of God’s first-covenant people was Deuteronomy 6:4–5: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” And there is no fundamental difference for us today in the age of the Spirit.
The oneness of God calls for a oneness in us. The one true God is not divided. He is one. So also he bids us not be divided but one — to love him with heart and soul and mind and strength. To have him as our one Lord, our one Master (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13), our one God — and his Son our one mediator (1 Timothy 2:5).
In a world tempting us to bow the knee elsewhere, or inward, at every turn, the one God calls us to make him wholly, in theory and practice, our fundamental allegiance and our greatest treasure.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.