Eighteen years ago, my jaw figuratively dropped to the floor as I sat in the first Old Testament course of my academic career. I attended a secular university, so I did not expect much true biblical teaching. However, I had hope the Scriptures would be treated fairly because my professor was an Orthodox Jew. You can imagine my surprise, then, when my professor said faithful ancient Israelites did not deny the existence of other gods. They worshiped Yahweh above the rest of the gods, he said, but they believed those gods were real.
Liberal “highercritical” circles accept as dogma my professor’s view, which is henotheism. True monotheism—the belief that only one God exists—came late in Israel’s history, these critics say. Advocacy of henotheism is based largely on reading references to “other gods” in the Pentateuch as proof that Moses attributed true existence to the deities of other peoples but believed Israel was to worship Yahweh alone (for example, Ex. 20:3).
Unbelieving scholarship must focus on minutia and ignore larger contexts to “find” henotheism in Scripture. That Moses affirmed the existence of only one God is plain from the Pentateuch’s first chapter. Unlike other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts, we do not read that battles between deities brought forth the earth. Genesis 1 presents one God who “created the heavens and the earth” (v. 1). Yahweh, the sole actor in the narrative, formed the universe by His Word.
Given the prevalence of polytheism in the ancient Near East, the biblical authors repeatedly insist that there is but one God. Just prior to the Shema and its affirmation of monotheism, we read that “there is no other” Lord (Deut. 4:39). Only Yahweh responds in the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal, for Yahweh exists and Baal does not (1 Kings 18:20–40). Isaiah says, “Besides [Yahweh] there is no god,” and points out the folly of serving deities represented by wooden idols (Isa. 44).
The Apostles proclaimed monotheism most strongly when they encountered Greek paganism. Paul continues the Old Testament’s denial of the existence of other gods in Romans 1, explaining that polytheism arises as people suppress their knowledge of the one true God and fashion deities they can manipulate (vv. 18–23). The same Apostle reminds Timothy, who ministered in a pagan context, that “there is one God” (1 Tim. 2:5). Throughout Revelation, John points out the futility of Roman religion, describing the eventual fall of any pretender to the Lord Almighty’s throne.
That the one God reveals Himself to His creation undergirds biblical monotheism. What good would it be to know that one God exists without knowing anything else about Him? This deity would be functionally absent, leaving us on our own to figure out His will, if He even cared that we follow it. The God of Scripture, however, reveals Himself— indeed, He must reveal Himself if we are to know Him. This revelation comes through creation itself (Ps. 19; Rom. 1:18–32), but saving knowledge of the Creator is possible only through the special revelation that is the Bible (Matt. 11:27; 2 Tim. 3:16–17).
Biblical monotheism is not mere abstract speculation but has at least four practical consequences for life and ministry:
Certainty—God clearly and truly reveals Himself, so we are not left to guess what He expects from us. Modern people often view themselves as “seekers” doing their best to figure out God. Yet mere conjecture is a shaky foundation for one’s eternal destiny.
Courage—Western Christians are not yet being thrown to the lions. Yet if we ever face serious suffering, we will not persevere if we are unconvinced that the God of Scripture is the only God. We will deny Christ at the first hint of trouble if we waver on the fact that one God means one Savior for the world. Without this foundation, we will bow to religious relativism. Daniel’s commitment to monotheism strengthened him to resist paganism. By God’s grace, we follow his example. We fear not what our enemies can do to our goods, kindred, or mortal lives, for if there is only one God and we are on His side, persecution is but a “light momentary affliction” compared to the “eternal weight of glory” in store for us (2 Cor. 4:7–18).
Conviction—Conviction and courage are inseparable and mutually dependent. Courage enables us to persevere in love for the one true God. Conviction enables us to take a stand even before trouble comes our way. If our faith is grounded in the fact that there is only one God and therefore one truth, then our preaching, teaching, evangelism, and cultural engagement will be strong. We will confront fallen humanity’s strongholds, and the Spirit will use our words to soften the hearts of sinners. The church sorely needs men and women of godly conviction. Such conviction begins with an unwavering commitment to biblical monotheism.
Clarity—Understanding biblical monotheism helps us to be clear about what we believe and are to teach. We do not believe in one God who is known by many names and who offers many paths of salvation. We do not affirm that it is enough to believe one God exists. We confess that we must trust in the God of the Bible, who is not worshiped even by the most well-meaning Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, animists, or modern Jews.
As for clarity, biblical monotheism is not unitarianism. The fullness of the Shema‘s testimony to God’s oneness is in the Bible’s teaching that His oneness is not undifferentiated unity. His oneness pertains to His divine essence, but this one divine essence is shared fully and equally by three distinct persons. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are fully and equally divine, but the Father is not the Son, who is not the Spirit (John 1:1; 14:16–17; 2 Cor. 13:14).
Salvation is the work of the triune God. The Father sends the Son; the Son atones for sin; and the Spirit applies this atonement to us. The Spirit regenerates His people; thus, they trust in the Son alone; and the Son presents the kingdom of the Lord’s elect to the Father that “God may be all in all” (John 3:5, 16; 1 Cor. 15:20–28; Heb. 1:1–4).
We need not fully understand the Trinity to be saved. Such understanding is impossible for creatures. But as the Athanasian Creed states, no one can be saved who denies that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.