Different Concepts of God
By Jim Myers

Among the hot theological debates of all time are those about God.  Some say there is only one, while others argue that there are many, and still others are absolutely convinced there is none.   Others have strong beliefs about their deity, but they are not able to accurately define their concept of their deity.  In this article we are going to touch on three of the major "concepts of deities" - polytheism, monotheism, and henotheism.  


Polytheism is the belief in the existence of many different gods.  The gods are not under the control of, or definitively inferior to, a supreme deity.  They are all, so-to-speak, on a level playing field.  The Vikings had such a system, with gods in control of the various elements, but no god was strong enough to take complete control.1 The ancient Greeks had something very close to a supreme deity in Zeus, however, their concept allowed them to conveniently move him off to the side, and then the other gods could do as they pleased.2   Over time the Greek city states moved slightly away from a pure form of polytheism by having a supreme deity over a city.  However, the Greek system was probably as good an example as any of a sophisticated concept of polytheism as may be found.


Monotheism is considered the polar opposite of polytheism - one deity vs. many deities.  However, defining monotheism isn't as easy as one may think.  Three of the modern major religions claim to be monotheistic - Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Rabbinic Judaism and Islam both define monotheism according to the classic model - the existence of a single deity with universal power, without modifications or exceptions.  However, Christianity declares itself to be monotheistic, but instead of following the classic model of monotheism, it offers the concept of Trinitarianism - one deity, but manifested in three forms - God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Volumes have been written about this Christian concept, but any attempt to logically explain the Trinity usually ends up in a convoluted maze of doctrines.  Judaism rejects the claim that the doctrine of the Trinity is really a monotheistic concept:

"God cannot be made up of parts, even if those parts are mysteriously united. The Christian notion of trinitarianism is that God is made up of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Such a view, even if called monotheistic because the three parts are, by divine mystery, only one God, is incompatible with the Jewish view that such a division is not possible.  Indeed, many Jews see an attempt to divide God as a partial throwback, or compromise with, the pagan conception of many gods." 3

As always, it is important to understand the chronological relationship of each of these religions.  Rabbinic Judaism (second century CE), Christianity (fourth century CE), and Islam (seventh century CE).  It should also be noted that Christianity and Islam are allied in that both are "religions of a canonized book" and base their concepts of Trinity and monotheism on their interpretations of their scriptures. 4 


Henotheism fills in the gap between the polytheism and monotheism.  Imagine the concepts placed in a line, with polytheism on the left and monotheism on the right (no political connotations), placing henotheism in the middle.  In its purest form, henotheism is the idea that even though more than one deity may exist; there is one deity who is supreme.  The challenge of defining a henotheistic system is to determine just how far one may progress from polytheism toward the center before the concept becomes henotheism.  Probably the initial development of henotheism is in the idea of a patron deity for a city or country.  This deity may be viewed as supreme in his or her territory with all other deities occupying a subordinate position.  Examples would be Athena of Athens and Bel or Marduk of Babylon.  Many scholars now believe that the early Israelites also held a henotheistic deity concept with Yahweh being the supreme deity and other deities being his subordinates in the Land of Israel.  They conclude that between the seventh and fifth centuries BCE the people of Israel moved from henotheism to monotheism.  There is a growing body of archaeological evidence that supports their position.

Other Concepts

Below are other concepts that are related to this study.  They are listed in alphabetical order.  If you are not familiar with them or would like to know more about any of them, please take the time to find a good dictionary or encyclopedia and get more information. 



- Truth is "unknowable."



- There is no God.


Liberalism / Modernism

- We must rethink and adapt our concept of God and truth to fit with modern culture and modes of thinking.



- Everything is an undifferentiated oneness or unity.


Pantheism / Naturalism

- Everything is god and god is in everything.



- Focused more on "what works" than on "what's true."



- Sees all of nature as rational and that the making of proper deductions is essential to achieving knowledge.

When you finish, take time to write down your concept of deity and see which category best describes it.  I know a lot of people who say they are monotheists, but when asked to explain what they mean by monotheism they describe a pantheistic concept.                                                                                   DTB

More Links


1 Wernick, Robert, The Vikings (Alexandria, VA:  Time-Life Rooks, 1979) pp. 25, 26.

2  Homer's Iliad, where Hera puts Zeus to sleep so that other gods may help the Greeks. Iliad XIV, 149-360.

3 The Differences Between Judaism and Christianity - http://www.convert.org/differ.htm

4 Islam - http://www.kheper.auz.com/topics/religion/Islam.htm




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