“Early Christian Monotheism” | Larry Hurtados Blog

Larry Hurtado provides insight and commentary on the New Testament and Early Christianity. His latest article provides some interesting discussions on the nature of Monotheism as it was understood among Ancient Jewish and Christian believers verses Christian believers of today. His article is here: “Early Christian Monotheism” | Larry Hurtados Blog.

Hurtado begins the examination that focuses on, what he refers to as, the Terminology Question:

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 theworship of other deities, and not so much their existence.

Along with this, Hurtado also differentiates Pagan Monotheism and that of Ancient Jewish and Christian Monotheism:

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.

He further states:

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.”

Differentiating the two types of “Monotheism” (Pagan and Ancient Jewish-Christian), Hurtado focuses on the more worship-practice understanding of early monotheism as it developed within the Jewish and Early Christian faith. This description is founded upon the principle understanding that the New Testament teaches of a Triadic nature of the Godhead (which is what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints adhere to and understand). Within this Triadic nature of the Godhead, the Father and Son are the rightful recipients of worship. According to Hurtado, this worship-practice that is distinct toward the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ is more of a dyadic devotional pattern. 

In Early Christianity, the Godhead (The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) were understood as separate and distinct personages that comprised a Tri-unity instead of the more modern acceptance of the Trinitarian viewpoint. On the one hand, The Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God and would therefore mean Latter-day Saint Christians believe and accept three Gods who make up one Godhead. Many of our critics attempt to confuse this and obfuscate the truth of the New Testament. Christ himself constantly affirmed his divinity and his divine origins, to include the more blasphemous accusation of claiming to be God of Abraham. Along with affirming His Divine origins and attributes, the New Testament writers attested that Christ also distinguished himself from the Father on numerous occasions.

John 5:30 I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.

John 6:39 And this is the will of him who sent me….

John 7:28-29 …I have not come by my own authority. I was sent by the One True God. You don’t know him, but I know him and I am from Him. He sent me (ERV).

John 12:49 For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me

John 20:21 …as my Father has sent me…

These are just a handful of passages that show a distinctive separateness from the Father and our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. These passages beg the question of who sent Christ? The answer is the Father, however, viewing this answer – is it the Father of Christ that is a Spirit and in oneness with the Redeemer? Or, is it the Father who is separate and distinct? Interestingly enough, one New Testament Passage states that Christ will come in a second time in His Father’s Glory (Matthew 16:27).

Whatever one’s understanding is – the validity of the Father, the Son and the Spirit being separate and distinct from one another shows that this was the more acceptable teaching of Ancient Jewish Christian thought. Today, many hold to a modalistic monotheism that is defined as the Trinitarian doctrine of the Godhead.