The Unity of God

by Herman Bavinck

The last of the incommunicable attributes is God’s oneness, differentiated into the unity of singularity and the unity of simplicity. By the first we mean that there is but one divine being, that in virtue of the nature of that being God cannot be more than one being and, consequently, that all other beings exist only from him, through him, and to him. Hence, this attribute teaches God’s absolute oneness and uniqueness, his exclusive numerical oneness, in distinction from his simplicity, which denotes his inner or qualitative oneness. Scripture continually and emphatically proclaims this attribute and maintains it over against all polytheism. All agree that this is true of the New Testament and the later writings of the Old Testament. Many critics believe, however, that monotheism does not yet occur in the earlier parts of the Old Testament, and that especially as a result of the witness and activity of the prophets, it gradually developed from the earlier polytheism that was generally dominant also in Israel. But against this view so many objections are being raised that its untenability is becoming increasingly more apparent. It is clear that the prophets were not at all conscious of bringing to their people a new religion in the form of an ethical monotheism. On the contrary, they view themselves as standing on the same foundation as the people of Israel, the foundation of yhwh’s election and covenant. They regard idolatry as apostasy, infidelity, and a breach of the covenant, and call the people back to the religion of yhwh, which they have willfully forsaken.

Furthermore, no one can tell us what Israel’s actual religion was before the ethical monotheism of the prophets gained acceptance. Critics speak of animism, fetishism, totemism, ancestor worship, and polydaemonism, and are especially at a loss when it comes to the character of yhwh. According to one, he was a fire god akin to Molech; according to another, he was a storm god from Mt. Sinai; according to a third, a tribal deity who had already acquired certain ethical traits. And with respect to his origin, there is an even broader array of answers. Canaan and Phoenicia, Arabia and Syria, Babylon and Egypt have all had their turn as being the answer. However, quite apart from these divergent beliefs concerning Israel’s earlier religious state, if under the influence of the prophets, polytheism developed into ethical monotheism, the manner in which this occurred should certainly be made somewhat clear. At this point, however, a new difficulty presents itself. The evolutionistic viewpoint, which underlies the position of the critics, naturally precludes the idea that ethical monotheism made its appearance as something entirely new, as an invention of the prophets. The principle at work here demands that the ethical monotheism of the prophets must have existed, at least in a primitive form, long before the time of the prophets.

So now the critics face a dilemma: They can refrain from providing further explanation [as to the rise of ethical monotheism], continue to be stumped by the sudden appearance of ethical monotheism in the writings of the prophets, hide behind the currently popular notion of “the mystery of personality,” and join Wellhausen in saying: “Even if we were able to trace the development of Israel’s religion more accurately, this would fundamentally explain very little. Why, for example, did not Chemosh of the Moabites become the God of righteousness and the Creator of heaven and earth? No one can give a satisfactory answer to that question.”94 In fact, the promise and prospect of a satisfactory answer had been repeatedly held out as a result of the new critical method. Many others, accordingly, regarding this position unacceptable, resorted to the second alternative: they are prepared to concede that monotheism existed long before the prophets—in the time of Abraham and in the case of Moses. They explain this in light of the influence of the religions surrounding Israel, in light of the “tendencies converging toward monarchy in the world of the gods,” tendencies that can already be discerned in Syria, Palestine, and Canaan, at least among the “intellectual elite,” or in light of the “monotheizing ideas” that penetrated Canaan from Babylonia and perhaps also from Egypt.95 So, by way of a history-of-religions approach, the theory arises that from very ancient times polytheism rested on a more or less conscious monotheism, somewhat analogously to the way in which, according to Haeckel, the origin of life needs no explanation because it is nothing new, but something in principle inherent already in the inorganic world and in fact in all atoms.

Thus scholars shift from one extreme position to another. Nevertheless, the latter view has an advantage over the former: it is not compelled by a principle—by a preconceived idea of development—either to deny the presence of monotheism in the earlier parts of the Old Testament or for that reason to shift it to a much later time. Indeed, Scripture is monotheistic—not only in its later, but also in its earlier parts. Though yhwh’s interaction with humans is described in very dramatic, graphic, and anthropomorphic language, yhwh is nevertheless the Creator of heaven and earth, the Maker of humankind, the Judge of all the earth. He destroys the human race in the flood, is present and active in all parts of the world, divides humankind over the earth, and by calling Abraham prepares for his election of Israel.96 Even though there is certainly a kind of progression in revelation and development in its ideas, the entire Old Testament, with its teaching of the unity of the world and of the human race, the election of, and covenant with, Israel, and its teaching of the religion and morality described in the law, is based from beginning to end on the oneness of God. yhwh is the Creator of the world (Gen. 1 and 2), the Owner and Judge of the whole earth (Gen. 14:19, 22; 18:25), the only Lord (Deut. 6:4), who will tolerate no other gods before him (Exod. 20:3). Besides him there is no other god (Deut. 4:35; 32:39; Ps. 18:31; 83:18; Isa. 43:10; 44:6; 45:5ff.; etc.), and the gods of the Gentiles are idols, nongods, dead gods, lies and deception, not Elohim but elilim [worthless gods] (Deut. 32:21; Ps. 96:5–6; Isa. 41:29; 44:9, 20; Jer. 2:5, 11; 10:15; 16:19; 51:17–18; Dan. 5:23; Hab. 2:18–19; etc.) and insofar as real powers are worshiped as idols, they are considered demonic (Ps. 106:37; 1 Cor. 10:20). In the New Testament this singularity of God becomes even clearer in the person of Christ (John 17:3; Acts 17:24; Rom. 3:30; 1 Cor. 8:5–6; Eph. 4:5–6; 1 Tim. 2:5).

With this confession of the only true God the Christian church made its debut in the Gentile world. Though in that world official religion had in many cases become a target of ridicule for the intellectual elite, polytheism was still enormously influential in the political and social life of the people and continued to be so also in the worldview of those who took a philosophical position or sought to elevate themselves above popular religion by adopting some kind of religious syncretism. Hence, from the very beginning the Christian church saw itself involved in a serious conflict, and in waging this battle its spokesmen employed not only defensive but also offensive means. Feeling strong in their confessional position, Christian thinkers proved the uniqueness of God not only by appealing to Scripture but also by deriving arguments for the truth they proclaimed from every domain of human knowledge. They appealed to the witness of the human soul, to pronouncements made by many Gentile philosophers and poets, to the unity of the world and the human race, to the unitary nature of truth and morality, to the nature of the divine being, which tolerates no equals. And along with polytheism they attacked all things directly or indirectly connected with it: demonism and superstition, mantic and magic, the deification of humans and emperor worship, the theaters and the games.97 In this mighty, centuries-long struggle polytheism was overcome and deprived both religiously and scientifically of all its power. However, this does not alter the fact that polytheistic ideas and practices survived in various forms, repeatedly found fresh acceptance, and especially in modern times powerfully reasserted themselves. When the confession of the one true God weakens and is denied, and the unity sought in pantheism eventually satisfies neither the intellect nor the heart, the unity of the world and of humankind, of religion, morality, and truth can no longer be maintained. Nature and history fall apart in fragments, and along with consciously or unconsciously fostered polytheistic tendencies, every form of superstition and idolatry makes a comeback. Modernity offers abundant proof for this state of affairs, and for that reason the confession of the oneness of God is of even greater significance today than it was in earlier times.98


From Reformed Dogmatics by Herman Bavinck

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