Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Monotheism and Monolatrism

In my last post, I wrote quite a bit of dull academic stuff about monotheism in ancient Israel and in modern academic theology. This post should hopefully be more relevant and interesting.

What the Old Testament often teaches isn't monotheism – the belief that only one god actually exists. What the Bible tends to teach instead is monolatrism. A few definitions will help:

Monotheism: - the belief that only one god exists
Henotheism: - worshipping only one god without denying the existence of other gods
Monolatrism: - the belief that there is only one god who is worth worshipping.

I think monolatrism is actually quite a sensible approach. If you're standing next to the temple of Baal, it's quite hard to persuade people that Baal doesn't really exist. Finding proof that something doesn't exist is usually very hard outside mathematics. What the prophets argued was that Baal was useless and wasn't worth worshipping. He couldn't save people, he couldn't call down fire on sacrifices, he wasn't worth worshipping.

Today, the idols are often different. There aren't many people who worship statues of Baal around. But there are plenty of people who worship football teams, or money, or success, or pleasure. And what we are to show them isn't that their gods don't exist, but that they aren't worth worshipping – it isn't worth giving your life to a football team or to money or to pleasure. But it is worth giving your life to God.

It actually makes far more sense to teach monolatrism than monotheism when you're speaking to people who don't agree with you. So it isn't surprising that that's what the prophets did in the Old Testament. And, contrary to a lot of modern theologians, it doesn't show that they're on a journey from polytheism to monotheism.

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