Friday, March 13, 2009

Monolatry, Monotheism and Henotheism

I believe that we must keep in mind that such terms as monolatry, monotheism or even henotheism are all attempts to delineate, circumscribe or define certain religious phenomena that one encounters in Scripture. In other words, the Bible itself never uses such terminology to describe the ways in which people of ancient times worshiped. One can only arrive at such descriptive words by prescinding from that which is explicitly contained in Holy Writ. Another thing that we must do, however, is render precise that which we are concerned with here.

(1) Henotheism has been defined as the act of worshiping one God (in particular, a national or tribal deity) while simultaneously refusing to rule out the existence of other gods. It has well been said that henotheism defined thus "certainly does not fit the universal and cosmic conception implicit in the Old Testament" (Ralph L. Smith, Old Testament Theology, page 232). I would also argue that Witnesses of Jehovah are
not henotheists since Jehovah is not viewed as a tribal god, nor are other beings recognized as "gods" by Witnesses accorded the same ontological status as Jehovah.

(2) One online source defines monolatry as follows: "worship of one god only out of many believed to exist."

Witnesses worship (in the sense of latreia) one God (not "god") and we believe that there are others that can be called "gods" in a functional or an ontological sense (i.e. angels and judges). But what does it mean to say that one believes there are many gods that exist? Does it not all depend on how one defines the term God/god? To illustrate what I mean, notice what Smith says about monotheism.

(3) Ralph L. Smith quotes from three scholars who all
define monotheism in slightly different ways. The
point I want to draw attention to now, however, is
what G.E. Wright states, as quoted by Smith. Wright
notes that monotheism is "the exclusive exaltation of
the one source of all power, authority, and
creativity" (Smith, page 232).

Now, if one defines monotheism in the foregoing
manner, it is safe to say that recognizing what Wright
calls "subordinate divine beings" (i.e. gods) does not
mean that one is not a monotheist. In fact, D.S.
Russell ("The Method and Message of Jewish
Apocalyptic") writes:

"There is ample evidence to show that [OT] conception
of monotheism was held in conjunction with a belief in
a spiritual world peopled with supernatural and
superhuman beings who, in some ways, shared the
nature, though not the being, of God" (page 235).

While I am not totally sure what Russell means when
he writes that the angels were depicted as sharing the "nature"
but not the "being" of God, I nonetheless conclude
that it is appropriate for Jehovah's Witnesses to identify themselves
as monotheists rather than monolaters or henotheists. Witnesses
worship "the only true God" (Jn 17:3) but realize that
images of this one God subsist in the spirit realm and
some men (and angels) have represented the one God on earth.

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