Tag Archives: Henotheism

Monotheism and the Bible: An Interview with Nathan MacDonald

A friend of mine named David Burnett has a new blog up entitled The Time Has Been Shortened. His most recent post is an interview with Nathan MacDonald about monotheism. It provides a good overview of the issues and challenges associated with discussing monotheism in the Bible. Check it out here.


Responding to James White (Part 4)

I had assumed that White was finished with his third post, but I was mistaken. He had posted a fourth response to my comments. After reading over it carefully a number of times, I don’t feel there is much that I could say about his argument that hasn’t already been said. White is appealing to the same fallacies to which he appealed in earlier posts. I do have a couple things to point out, though.

In this fourth post, White argues that I am wrong when I say that “Mormonism claims to be Christian just like James claims to be Christian.” He evidently interprets this to mean “Mormonism claims to be Christian in the exact same manner that, and based on the exact same perspective from which, James claims to be Christian.” From their he dives into Mormonism’s claim to be the only church with God’s authority, and thus the only true church of Jesus Christ. He distinguishes this from his own claim to be Christian and insists that Mormonism is too audacious in their claim to be then allowed to turn around and identify generally with the Christian faith. Of course, my comment had nothing to do with the nature of our separate claims to be Christian. It only had to do with the simple fact that we each claim to be Christian.

Another statement White makes, however, problematizes his earlier rhetoric. In showing that he does not have the unmitigated gall to claim to be the only church with God’s authority he states,

I recognize the reality of God’s Spirit working in men and women who disagree with me on the non-essentials, and see a world-wide body of believers, the elect of God, united by a common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and the Scriptures are sufficient for life and godliness.

Here the fundamental definition of Christianity appears to be the “common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and the Scriptures are sufficient for life and godliness.” Why was this not put forth as the fundamental definition of Christianity in earlier posts? He repeatedly stated that Christianity is fundamentally defined by its doctrine of God. Others have even commented to me that it is odd that White fundamentally defines Christianity without ever talking about Christ. I have argued that his definitions are begging the question and are trying to construct an artificial definition of Christianity that can help him to draw Mormonism outside the circle. I have argued he isn’t really addressing true defining issues. I think White’s slip-up above shows that my assessment has been perfectly accurate. When the rhetoric is over and it comes time for White to define Christianity for those we don’t want to a priori exclude from Christianity, White’s definition actually overlaps quite a bit with Mormonism. I don’t know any Mormon who would disagree with the first two confessions. Of course, White’s definition, asserting sola scriptura as it does in its third confession, is more an Evangelical set of confessions than a simple universally Christian set of confessions. He’s intentionally excluding Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, but since that last confession is so ingrained in his own tradition’s fundamental identity, it’s to be expected.

I would conclude that White here has come full circle and finally proven that the fundamental criticism I provided in my original critique of his video was exactly on target. I would reiterate it:

What James is arguing throughout his video is that Mormonism is not Evangelicalism. This hardly needs a 14 minute video to point out, though. The implication, however, is that because it is not Evangelicalism, it is not Christian.


Responding to James White (Part 3)

White’s third post in his series can be found here. I start off by noting the following comment (I’ve already responded to his comments about the First Vision):

the consistent rejection of Mormonism as a Christian religion by the entire spectrum of Christian churches has been based, first and foremost, upon the doctrine of God.

Unless White can document the rejection of Mormonism as Christian by “the entire spectrum of Christian churches” I would ask him to avoid hyperbole. But as has been pointed out in the comments section of this post, White’s hyperbole is demonstrably false. A 2007 Pew Research Center Survey (found here) found that 40% of white Evangelicals, 62% of white mainline Protestants, 43% of black Protestants, and 52% of Catholics identify Mormons as Christians. Historically, I have seen a few different kinds of responses to these data. They usually come down either to the notion that these people must not be real Christians; that it’s the church’s official judgment that counts, and that’s determined by whether or not they consider Mormon baptisms legitimate (or something along those lines); or the data will simply be ignored. Perhaps White will have a different approach. For the issues with his prioritization of the “doctrine of God” in analyzing Mormonism, see my comments in Part 2.

White continues:

Fundamental to all of these discussions was the overwhelming testimony of the divinely inspired Scriptures, that is, Yahweh is the eternal creator of all things, and there is no God other than Him. Monotheism is not a negotiable for the Christian faith, and it never has been.

This is simply false. As I already pointed out, Paul asserts there are many gods and many lords. Identifying them as demons not only reads into the text something that isn’t there, but it also doesn’t change the fact that demons are divine beings, or gods. Christians accept the Hebrew Bible as God’s Word, and the Hebrew Bible affirms the existence of numerous divine beings from beginning to end, even calling many of them gods. The modern concept of monotheism is not that there exists only one divine being. It’s that there only exists one divine being monotheists consider worthy of worship. In the first century that wasn’t even true, though. Revelation 3:9, 21 show that humans were expected to be worshipped in the end times. 4Q246 shows the same expectation within the Qumran community. 1 Enoch and other pseudepigraphical texts expressed the same, as did a number of rabbinic texts. It wasn’t until the assimilation of the Greek notion that God, understood as a universal superlative, could not number more than one, that these ideas were manipulated to fit into the new rubric. Many of the ideas didn’t go down without a fight. This is why Christianity fought for centuries to make it sound logical to have three distinct deities considered one deity.

White goes on:

It is only when the divine inspiration and consistency of the Bible is denied (as Mormonism does), and the consistency of belief of the Christian people on the fact that there is only one true God is made to be only as relevant as the views of a religious sect from the Intermountain West that arose 1800 years after the founding of the Christian faith, that the question can be made difficult or complex.

This is absolutely true, but James would have to provide an argument for why my denial of a univocal Bible (I don’t deny it is in some sense inspired, I just don’t commit to any particular idea about exactly what that means) is unfounded before this comment could become relevant to this discussion. As it stands it is a simple statement of dogmatism and only serves to reinforce my original conclusion, namely that White’s rejection of Mormonism as Christian is not based on an objective or logical analysis, but on nothing more than sectarianism and dogmatism.

White continues on for some time apparently defending the fact that his argument was begging the question. He ends with a series of questions that I’d like to answer:

But let us note something here that is very important: if Mormonism can be included as a Christian faith, then…what is the Christian faith?

A variegated collection of religious groups claiming to be trying to follow Christ.

We know Mormonism actually does not claim to be merely a Christian faith, it claims to be the Christian faith, the one true Church, the sole repository of God’s true authority in the priesthood, etc. So keep this in mind as you listen to Mr. McClellan’s rhetoric.

In other words, try to be offended as you read my comments. It makes disagreeing with them so much easier. We do claim to be the only church with the proper authority. We don’t claim to be the only Christians, though. We don’t equate “Christian” with “saved,” too. Christian is not a soteriological judgment in our book. Salvation is a process that we believe finds culmination only after this lifetime, and we don’t believe anyone who tries their best to live up to the worldview to which they hold will simply be flippantly denied salvation.

But even more important, if Mormonism is Christian, I have to ask…what isn’t?

All groups that do not self-identify as Christian and claim to be trying to follow Christ.

I mean, as we will see, Mr. McClellan will appeal to the “self-identification” of Mormons as Christians as evidence.

I said it was the most important criterion, but I also said it wasn’t the only one. The word began as a descriptor for people who follow Christ. That must also be taken into consideration. The person’s sincerity, as we will see, is also important.

OK, then Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians, too, right?

Do they self-identify as Christians, and do they claim to follow Christ? If so I see no reason to deny them the designation.

And, if a Muslim wants to be called a Christian, they do believe in Jesus, right?

This is a rather silly question. Can anyone point to any Muslims who honestly self-identify as Christians?

And how about Robert Price, the atheist scholar, who is a member of an Episcopalian Church? Can we have an atheist Christian, too?

Does he actually claim to be a Christian and does he claim to follow Christ?

 Why not?

I didn’t say he couldn’t.

Is there any objective element to Christianity that can differentiate it from what is “not” Christianity?

Yes. I already explained what those elements were. These questions aren’t addressing my claims, they’re just trying to find silly loopholes in the logic. Anyone can do that, even for James’ definition of a Christian. Observe: If a Muslim said they accepted the Nicene Creed and believed the Bible was the only word of God, would they be a Christian? Will White respond that they would no longer be a Muslim, or will he respond that he’s still a Muslim and so he can’t believe those things? Either way, the integrity of his premise falls apart.

Let’s ask the question this way: am I a Mormon? If I “self-identify” as one, am I one?

Does White self-identify as a Mormon? Obviously not. The hypothetical situations are really pointless since their rhetorical strength rests exclusively on the conflict created by the juxtaposition with a current reality that precludes the hypothetical one.

I believe Joseph Smith was a false prophet, the Book of Mormon a 19th century fraud, the temple ceremonies bad copies of Masonic rituals, etc. But as long as I “self-identify” as a Mormon, who is to say I am not?

The people who know that White being completely dishonest in his self-identification are those who would say he is not a Mormon. Mormonism is a different animal altogether, though, since it holds to a much more limited and unique set of ideologies. Additionally, this line of argumentation is becoming increasingly silly.

If Mormonism has the right to define its borders and boundaries, why can’t Christianity?

First, “Mormonism” can technically mean more than just the mainstream LDS church, and those that self-identify as Mormon contribute to that general boundary. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can define its borders and boundaries because it has, since the beginning of its existence, maintained a very clear and very formal process to gain and maintain membership. It also has a central authority structure that is recognized by the entire membership. That structure is reaffirmed by the membership twice a year. The apodosis here doesn’t follow. Christianity does get to define its borders and boundaries, but White alone does not speak for all of Christianity, and not only do Mormons self-identify as Christians, but there are plenty of Christians in other denominations and churches that have no trouble identifying Mormons as Christians.

White concludes his final (?) response with the following:

The reality is, Christians for over a century and a half have been putting Mormonism “outside the circle,” and until just recently, Mormonism seemed to be fine and dandy with that, and returned the favor. Can Mormonism retain its identity while seeking to mainstream? I am unconvinced that it can.

No, Mormonism has not been fine being considered non-Christian. They have been fine not being considered mainstream Christian, or Protestant, or any one of a number of other sub-designations, but it’s equivocation on White’s part to insist that not identifying with specific other Christians means not identifying as Christian. White has shown throughout these responses of his that he hardly speaks for all of Christianity, much less for Mormonism, and that he doesn’t give the facts a fair shake when he’s got a rhetorical point to make; his predictions about Mormonism’s internal integrity thus don’t really amount to much more than dogmatism and petty sectarianism.

UPDATE: I have added a reference to a 2007 Pew Research Center survey after a commenter reminded me of it. I have also made a couple minor edits.


Responding to James White (Part 2)

White’s second post (found here) begins with concern for my use of his first name. He states,

it is possible that in modern Mormon homes, using someone’s first name, even if they are older than you are, and unknown to you, has become the standard.

White here is very clearly taking advantage of every opportunity possible to rhetorically jab at Mormonism in general through me. He is trying to insist that my use of his first name derives from a contemporary Mormon trend away from respect for one’s elders, and thus that Mormons in general are growing increasingly disrespectful. Nothing could be further from the truth. I used his first name because I treat my blog rather informally. I approach things academically, but I’ve always used first names, and most other bibliobloggers do the same. I’m happy to use White’s last name if he prefers that—I meant no disrespect—but the notion that my use of his first name stems from a trend in Latter-day Saint households away from respect is quite petty. It seems, however, to be consistent with White’s general habit in these responses of broad generalization and mischaracterization for rhetorical purposes. He continues with the following:

After linking to my video and that of Elder Holland, he notes, “In doing so he tries to paint a picture of a shifting and manipulative Mormonism working to hide its disparity from Christianity in the interest of seducing converts.” You will not find this kind of language in my original video, of course. What I noted was Mormonism’s seeking to “mainline,” and the resultant shifts in emphasis and presentation. There is no doubt about that, of course. Evidently, this is simply how Mr. McClellan “hears” criticisms of the modern LDS presentation of itself.

I felt and still feel White’s rhetoric is clear enough in the video, and my comment obviously places the main points of his characterization at the rhetorical level. The same is clear of his comments about Catholicism not being Christian, which I quoted in my earlier post. He was careful not to clearly state it, and to use no-fault language (it’s “others” who might conclude that “Christian” may not be the most judicious characterization of Catholicism). He continues that no-fault language here by not actually disagreeing with my reading. He simply states that he did not explicitly say it in his video. Be that as it may, it seems obvious to me that there was a thick shellacking of it between the lines. I may be wrong, though. If James wishes to clearly state that he does not believe Mormonism’s putative mainlining is in the interest of appearing more Christian for the sake of more converts, I will happily retract my statement and issue an apology.

White’s next paragraph attempts to imply that if I am anything like my “apologist” predecessors I am woefully ignorant of my own church’s history and thus need to be reminded of the fact that early Latter-day Saints often leveled harsh criticisms against mainstream Christianity. He links to a collection he has put together of just such rhetoric (here). White is here appealing to emotion again. His collection of sayings is not relevant to the discussion, and that kind of rhetoric was quite tame in that time period, especially compared to the secular and religious polemic aimed at Latter-day Saints. The fact that early Latter-day Saints ridiculed other Christian denominations, or mainstream Christianity in general, while obviously unacceptable today, hardly indicates they didn’t wish to be identified as Christians.

White next addresses my actual comments. In response to my assertion that his definition of Christianity is begging the question and that Mormonism should be allowed to contribute to the definition of Christianity he had this to say:

In fact, he even argues that Mormonism should be given a voice in defining Christianity. Think about this for a moment: that which has existed for nearly two millennia should be defined on the basis of that which came into existence April 6, 1830. No, logically, that which comes into existence April 6, 1830 is to be judged on the basis of what had existed long before it came along. But that is disastrous for the modern Mormon who is attempting to make room in the Christian faith for a belief that is fundamentally “other.”

This, however, is an even more egregious example of begging the question. White must reject the LDS claim to be primeval Christianity restored in the latter days in order to define it as coming into existence in 1830. Additionally, White is still presupposing the grouping together of numerous other manifestations of Christianity of vast degrees of disparity from one another, and of varying ages, under the “Christian” umbrella, with Mormonism intentionally left out. White’s Reformed Baptist tradition does not date back two thousand years. He will insist on ideological continuity with the broad Christian tradition that dates back that far, but that insistence brings us back to the core ideologies that define Christianity. White cannot escape begging the question if he insists on this line of argumentation. In the next paragraph White makes his question begging absolutely explicit:

I emphasized the nature of God (not just monotheism, but the fact that the God of the Bible is eternal, unchanging, self-existent, the Creator of all things, etc.) and the atonement because these are two glaring and obvious areas of contradiction between Christianity and Mormonism

In other words, his definition of Christianity was based on the need to distinguish it from Mormonism. He is begging the question. He immediately moves on to an appeal to popularity and neglects to address the role of sectarianism and the very fallacies to which he appeals in accounting for the popularity of his claim:

I am not alone in identifying these issues. As far as I know, every Christian denomination that existed in 1830 would have agreed with me on the topic, and surely I am representing the majority view over the 180 years of LDS history.

White moves on to claim that the “single defining issue” I highlighted as begging the question is not just “a single defining issue,” but is “the foundation, the definition.” Of course, this again neglects the fact I pointed out in my initial post that if the defining issue of Christianity does not meaningfully separate it from Islam of Judaism, it is hardly defining. Even a brief glance at the New Testament, early Christian literature, and even Jewish and Greco-Roman literature, shows that the foundation and defining issue of Christianity is that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah and the Son of God. Since White is interested in detecting methodological change in broad religious movements, perhaps it would be apropos of me to ask him if Christians have ceased emphasizing Jesus as Messiah and Son of God in favor of what White seems to insist is the only defining issue: the One God, uncreated, eternal, etc. A friend recently commented concerning White’s three responses here that he not once mentions any particular king of belief in Jesus as a criterion for being Christian, nor does he even seem to prioritize belief in Christ. White even states,

the consistent rejection of Mormonism as a Christian religion by the entire spectrum of Christian churches has been based, first and foremost, upon the doctrine of God.

For White, Christianity is not about Christ, but about a correct idea of God’s nature. Certainly a part of this is God’s relationship to Christ, but White never emphasizes this. Look at his list of possible emphases:

I could have pointed to many other areas of contradiction, and, of course, have, in published works on the subject, such as the gospel, the priesthood concept, temple ceremonies, etc. But I was focusing upon the fundamentals.

Christ is not a part of defining Christianity, apparently. This must mean that Mormonism’s idea of Christ is just fine. With all the polemic aimed at Mormonism for putatively neglecting Christ in favor of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, I find this quite surprising. Those accusations (which could not be more ridiculous) strain credulity in light of White’s approach here.

White finishes out his post with a discussion of Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse. His idea of an infinite regress of gods is highlighted by White as the issue that “once and for all” separated Mormonism from Christianity:

Smith may have thought he was taking away a veil, but in reality, he was removing his followers from the Christian faith, once and for all.

Again, it is God, apart from Christ, that defines Christianity for White. White’s insistence that this issue alone was what removed Mormonism from the Christian faith would seem to indicate that had he not taught an infinite regress of gods, Mormonism would be considered Christian. This does not seem to me to square with White’s earlier claim to numerous “areas of contradiction,” and I must conclude he is just letting his rhetoric get the best of him. Regarding the King Follett Discourse itself, I would point out first that it’s not official doctrine, it’s not binding on any member of the church, and many members don’t even know about it. Would White agree that those that don’t know about, or reject, the infinite regress of gods are Christians? I don’t think he would. On the other hand, many scholars, myself included, argue that Yahweh was originally conceived of as a son of the Syro-Palestinian high god. At that point there was really no concern for ideas of philosophical eternity or for the immanence or transcendence of any particular deity. If the earliest strata of Israelite biblical tradition are held to be the word of God then Mormonism’s position hardly conflicts with it, and I would see no reason to point to that position as invalidating Mormonism’s participation in the broader Christian tradition. If White wishes to assert that the word of God now opposes the earlier word of God then he must reconsider his earlier criticisms of Mormonism’s evolution. If he rejects the notion that early Israelites believed that Yahweh was the son of the Syro-Palestinian high god then he will have to provide an argument.

White concludes:

Modernistic theories about ancient henotheism in textual variants of the Hebrew Old Testament (based upon the rejection of the consistency of divine revelation across the canon), as popular as they are, cannot change a simple reality: the Christian faith is based upon the confession of one God, not many gods. Smith rejected this, and unless McClellan and his fellows are willing to reject Smith, they simply cannot lay claim to the title “Christian.”

This is problematic, though, because if those “modernistic theories” (and I have stated they include first century Christians as well) are accurate, then the Christian faith is simply not based upon the confession of one God. White must respond directly to those claims if he wishes his assertion to stand. Once again, his argument is built upon dogmatism and sectarianism, not on sound methodologies and sound logic.


Monotheism – Still a Misused Word in Jewish Studies?

I recently finished a paper for a conference up in Canada and thought I would share it. It’s a response to Peter Hayman’s 1991 Journal of Jewish Studies article, “Monotheism—A Misused Word in Jewish Studies?” You can find my paper here. I appreciate any comments.


Richard Hess on Monotheism

Richard Hess has an interesting post up on Bible and Interpretation on monotheism in the pre-exilic period. The title of the post is “Did Anyone Believe in One God before the Greeks?” although Hess states in the second paragraph that he is not discussing philosophical monotheism, “such as emerged in the world of Classical Greece,” but the practice of worshipping only one deity. I felt a little duped by the title of his paper, since it was explicitly about belief in one deity and the relationship to the Greeks, but the paper is thought provoking nonetheless.

Hess’ thesis is basically that monotheism should be understood as the worship of a single deity to the exclusion of all others. In that sense, Egypt was monotheistic during the Amarna period, and Israel was monotheistic from the reforms of Josiah and afterward. Simple enough. Interestingly, both Tom Thompson and Niels Peter Lemche come to Hess’ defense in the comments (note also Philip Davies’ and T. S. Verenna’s comments).

I take issue with Hess on a few grounds. First, what, specifically, comprises worship? Sacrifice? Prayer? Any kind of gesture or address? I think this is a crucial issue, but it’s glossed over (granted, it’s a blog post and not a monograph). Moving past that, I cannot agree with his argument about pillared figurines. If pillared figurines are not representative of Asherah, but are votive offerings to a deity, which deity is it? Are we simply to assume it is Yhwh? Does “votive offering” comprise cultic worship? Second, the fact that they are cheap and mass produced hardly indicates they are not intended to represent deities. Poor people wanted images of deities, too, and worship was not the sole purview of the state. Third, what of Anat-Yahu? What of prayers offered to saints? What of the reverence of angels in the Greco-Roman period? What of James Spinti’s mug? (ZING!) I don’t think those issues are aberrant enough to just be dismissed.

Hess states in his article, “The textual evidence from outside the Bible provides a uniform witness that only Yahweh was officially worshiped in Judah and its capital.” I find the notion that the state’s “official” worship is alone determinative for this question quite problematic. John Barton and Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s recent volume, Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah, did an excellent job of breaking down the false dichotomy of “official” vs. “popular” religion. Even within that dichotomy, though, shouldn’t “popular religion” have a say in what a nation collectively believes? If the question is just one of any significant segment of the Israelite demographic adhering to the worship of only one deity, then certainly it goes back further than Josiah.

Next, I am not convinced that monotheism is best defined in terms of worship. The term “monotheism” was coined in reference to belief in a single deity (specifically, as opposed to atheism). Scholarship has been trying for years to nail down a useful way to apply this term to ancient Judaism, but as Peter Hayman’s 1991 JJS article has shown, that attempt has largely failed. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have manifested belief in numerous divine beings since their inception and down to this very day. The notion that monotheism should be viewed as exclusively expressed through worship rather than belief is, in my opinion, an attempt to skirt that fact. In saying this I’m not arguing that monotheism is inapplicable to Judaism and Christianity. I believe it can be applied to ancient Judaism, but I think one shouldn’t be looking only at worship to identify the genesis of a phenomenon that is rather universally understood as a belief first and a practice second (and to mark a distinction between “monotheism” as a practice and “philosophical monotheism” as a belief is to classify the latter as conceptually subordinate).

Lastly, if monotheism finds its genesis in the exclusion of other deities from worship, what shall we call the development of the notion that God is, in a significant sense, the only god that exists? This notion did in very fact develop, just ask any Christian or Jew on the street what monotheism means. What happens if you point out that other entities are called “gods” in the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls? “Those are just angels,” or some variation will likely be the response. “They’re only contingent/created/subordinate beings.” See a similar comment from Deuteronomy Rabbah which responds to the fact that angels are called “gods” in the text: “‘Do not go astray after one of these angels who came down with me; they are all my servants. I am the Lord, your God.” See James Spinti’s comment on the matter:

I believe in the gods (and goddesses). Yes, all of them, Ba`al, ‘El, Zeus, Jupiter, Apollo, etc. OK, you can get up off the floor now and let me finish. I believe that they are divine beings, but that they are created ones, under the thumb, so to speak, of YHWH. I suspect I am in the minority in the Western world, bordering on insane, but in the 2/3 world, I would be considered sane and reasonable.

In a recent paper I tried to show that this identification of the gods with angels occurred at a specific point in time, and accomplished a sort of ontological distinction between “the One God” and another group of “gods” to a sufficient degree that subsequent Jews and Christians were (and remain) perfectly happy to insist that only one God exists.

In my opinion, and I welcome comments, this development is far more intimately linked with the common ancient or modern Christian or Jew’s notion of monotheism than the worship of a single deity without necessarily denying the existence of other deities. I think the latter is an important step in the development of monotheism that deserves attention, but since the word “monotheism” was intended to describe a belief, and is most commonly used to describe a belief, I think it more useful to allow it to apply to a significant development in belief, not in religious practice.


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