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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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MONOTHEISM.—At whatever period in their early history the people of Israel may be supposed to have passed through the obscure and uncertain stages of belief that precede a clear and reasoned theism, that period had been left behind long before the days of Christ and the NT writers. The bitter experiences of exile and suffering on the one hand, and on the other the lofty teachings of prophets and men of God, had eradicated all tendencies to polytheism, and had fixed immovably in the conscience and conviction of the entire nation the faith that Jehovah was the one God of the whole earth. If Israel’s early beliefs, as some contend, were henotheistic, and conceded a place and right to other national gods, as Chemosh, Molech, or Rimmon, as equal and paramount lords of their own peoples, such recognition of external divinities had long since ceased to be permissible. There were not really gods many and lords many; there is one God the Father, and one Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 8:6).

This monotheistic belief, however, is assumed rather than formulated or defined in the Gospels. The doctrine that God is one, universally supreme and without rival, does not need to be explained or defended, for it runs no risk of being assailed. Like the belief in the existence of God, it is an article of faith accepted on all sides, by Jesus and by His opponents, and is rather implicit in the thought than explicit in the teaching of Christ and of His disciples.

While, however, this is true, and all the more so because His controversy with the Jews turned largely upon the question of His claim to equality with God, and the blasphemy which this claim appeared to them to imply, epithets and phrases may readily be quoted from the Gospels which have no meaning except as presupposing an absolute and pure monotheism. Such phrases, as would naturally be anticipated, are more generally employed by St. John than by the Synoptists. Thus the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel, tracing all things back to God with whom the Word is one (John 1:1), asserts nothing less than the uniqueness as well as the eternity and sovereignty of Him from whom they proceed; and the true Light entering into the world enlighteneth not this or that nation only, but every man (John 1:9). To the same effect and with the same background of accepted and common belief are the repeated declarations of His oneness with the Father (John 10:30; John 10:38; John 14:10; cf. John 17:21; cf. John 17:23). The area and claims of the Divine Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, are explicitly enlarged beyond any mere national limits, and made to embrace the whole world (Luke 16:16, John 4:21 ff.), and so the disciples are taught to pray that it may come upon earth, as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). It is indeed not bodily or material (Luke 17:21), but transcends the world (John 18:36). In the Last Judgment, again, all nations are gathered before the throne, and all receive sentence. ‘The field’ in which the seed is sown is ‘the world’ (Matthew 13:38); and the final injunction to Christ’s followers is that they are to go into all the world to make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:19).

The same teaching is conveyed with more or less directness in the assertion of the subordination and judgment of the prince of this world (John 16:11); in the stress laid upon the unique obligation and importance of love to God as constituting the first and greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37 || Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27); in the appeal made by Christ Himself to a similar unique obligation of worship and service to the one only God (Matthew 4:10 || Luke 4:8); in the emphatic affirmation of a common Fatherhood and Godhead (John 20:17; cf. John 8:41); and in the solemn declaration of the permanence and inviolability of the words of the Son (Matthew 24:35 || Mark 13:31, Luke 21:33), while elsewhere there is ascribed to Him that omniscience which is an attribute of God Himself (John 16:30).

There are also passages in which the epithet ‘one’ or ‘only’ is directly applied to the Divine Ruler, thus claiming for Him with more or less emphasis the sole dominion and the exclusive right to homage. ‘The Lord our God is one Lord’ (Mark 12:29 from Deuteronomy 6:4, cf. Mark 12:32). The God who forgives sins is εἶς (Mark 2:7), or μόνος (Luke 5:21); He is unique in goodness (Matthew 19:17 || Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19); the sole Father (Matthew 23:9); and the only God (John 5:44).

Some of these expressions might, it is true, be satisfied by a wide conception, such as the ancient prophets had formed, of a God of Israel to whom the sons of Israel were a first interest and charge, or even of a Sovereign the limits of whose sway left room for other sovereigns beside Him. Not all of them, evidently, if read apart and by themselves, will bear the weight of a full monotheistic inference. Taken together, however, and in their context, their joint and several significance is unmistakable. They assume on the part of speaker and hearer alike a belief in the sole supremacy of one God. Nor is this inference as to their meaning seriously contested.

Moreover, in one passage (John 17:3) there is found a perfectly distinct and unequivocal assertion of monotheistic doctrine; eternal life is to gain a knowledge of the only true God (τὸν μόνον ἁληθινὸν θεόν). Other phrases, in themselves less definite or comprehensive, must clearly be received and interpreted in the light of this, if an adequate conception of Christ’s teaching concerning the Father is to be reached. The principle is applicable to other elements of His instruction than that under consideration. The whole is to be construed and expounded by means of the loftiest and most comprehensive statements of doctrine, not to be attenuated to those which may be more particular or obscure.

The conclusion, therefore, is that a monotheistic belief is everywhere assumed in the Gospels; and if it is rarely formulated, the reason is to be sought in the universal assent with which it was received. Christ did not need to teach with definiteness and reiteration, as though it were a new truth, that there is one only Lord of heaven and of earth; for this belief was common to Himself and to His hearers, and formed the solid and accepted foundation of their religious faith.

Literature.—Treatises on the Theology of the NT discuss the conception of God, and the general doctrine is treated in works on Theism; cf. Ed. Caird, Evolution of Religion2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , 2 vols., Glasgow, 1894; Orr, Christian View of God and the World1 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , pp. 91–96.

A. S. Geden.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Monotheism'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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