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The Only True God
by James F. McGrath
by Barbara Buzzard
As stated on the book jacket, “The Only True God explores the extent to which Christianity began to move in new directions in the earliest period of its history...James McGrath argues that even the most developed Christologies in the New Testament fit within the context of first-century Jewish ‘monotheism.’ In doing so, he pinpoints more precisely when the parting of the ways took place over God’s oneness.”
At this point, I think we should be alerted to two phrases which could signal a great and dangerous divide: “move in new directions” and “parting of the ways.” Unless Christianity can trace its beliefs back to the early church, its authority is self imposed and therefore most questionable. While moving in new directions may sound innocent enough, once the golden thread of Messiahship being traced back to descendancy from David is broken, all connections with the parent faith are at least suspicious and at worst bastardized.
McGrath writes: “Monotheism has also been at the focus of numerous debates, in particular between Christian Trinitarians on the one hand, and other monotheists, in particular Jews and Muslims, on the other. Questions that tend to be asked in the context of such debates include whether Christians are in fact truly monotheists at all or whether, on closer inspection, they prove to be ‘tritheists’ whose commitment to monotheism is at best questionable.” On page 2 of his book McGrath states that it is not clear when and how the parting of the ways took place, but he certainly admits that it did take place. Between page 2 and the last page McGrath details historic data about this great divide. He sets the stage: “Many readers less familiar with recent scholarly debates on this subject may well take it for granted that early Jews and Christians considered themselves to be monotheists — and may likewise take it for granted that Jews did not consider Christians to be such because of the beliefs they held about Jesus.” McGrath speaks of a “development on the part of early Christian theology away from its roots in Jewish monotheism,” and he feels that the word “departure” was an accurate one to describe Christianity leaving the strict monotheism of its Jewish parent religion.
Serious Bible students will already have their hackles up at several of the terms used and will perhaps be thinking that a more Biblical word would be apostasy. Note this: “Early Christians made innovations that moved them not away from monotheism but toward a different sort of monotheism, one redefined so as to incorporate the exalted status of Jesus.”
McGrath agrees that a mutation took place in early Christianity and states that “Thus Christianity’s ‘worship’ of Jesus is a mutation within early Jewish and Christian monotheism” and he actually feels that this mutation led to the “production of a new species (Trinitarian monotheism)”!
While McGrath defends mutations, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary gives as one meaning: “a hypothetical sudden fundamental change in heredity believed to result in the production of new individuals that are basically unlike their parents.” Good thing or bad thing?
McGrath agrees that earliest Christianity did not depart from Jewish adherence to the idea of one God alone. However, this statement and the reasoning surrounding it make one wonder if he is not saying that later Christianity did! We are reminded of John 17:3. He then explains that he feels that the most sensible view is that “the early Christian view of Jesus represented an adaptation within Judeo-Christian monotheism rather than a departure from it.” (Hmm. I guess that adaptation would allow one to alter numbers.)
McGrath is very keen that we understand the various types of monotheism: rhetorical, creational, liturgical, and inclusive or exclusive, but as he says, “Early Christians do not engage in debates about whether God is one, and they often cite the oneness of God as a presupposition.”
McGrath is also keen to make it understood that it is just not that simple in terms of comparing monotheists to polytheists; that monotheism occurs in varying degrees and changes over the course of history. I personally remain unconvinced of this angle, remembering how stunningly clear it was to Jesus, who was a genius and would have made note of any vagaries and inconsistencies. He proclaimed loud and long that only his Father was God, a simple enough proposition to me. Please compare it with this quotation from McGrath’s book. He quotes Paula Fredriksen: “While not every ancient polytheist was a monotheist, all ancient monotheists were, by our measure, polytheists.” McGrath balances this by saying: “But in emphasizing this diversity, it would be wrong to neglect the underlying unity evidenced throughout available sources regarding Hellenistic Judaism, namely, the core belief that only one God is to be offered sacrificial worship, the form of worship par excellence in the ancient world.”
McGrath explains that “In the view of the majority of New Testament scholars, in 1 Cor. 8:6 Paul has ‘split the Shema,’ the traditional affirmation of Israel’s faith in one God, in order to include Jesus Christ within it.” Emphasis mine and apologies to those who haven’t seen before how the Shema is treated (abused?) by some, a fact without parallel in Jewish literature. He quotes New Testament scholar Tom Wright who affirms that this verse “functions as a Christian redefinition of the Jewish confession of faith.” Thankfully, our author sees through this and finds that “it does not do justice to the nature of the Shema itself...The fact of the matter is that Paul does not say that there is one God who is both Father and Son; he says rather that there is one God and also one Lord. The fact that a human figure is called ‘Lord’ does not of course imply for Paul that God is thereby divested of his lordship.” McGrath then goes on to present evidence to challenge the popular notion that Jesus has been included inside the Shema and gives an alternate understanding that Jesus is alongside the Shema. He notes that the word Lord “has a range of meanings and nuances running all the way from ‘sir’ to ‘Yahweh.’”