This article was written by Liam Thatcher to accompany the ‘Knowing God’s Character‘ hangout.
How Many Gods Are There?
Deuteronomy 6:4 is arguably one of the most important verses in the Old Testament. It is known as the Shema or Shema Yisrael, named after its opening words in Hebrew. It is the first prayer Jewish children are taught to pray, and is typically the last utterance a Jewish person would want on their lips as they depart from this world. In many ways it sums up the heart of Jewish Monotheism:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
This prayer is simple but devastating, insomuch as it posed a significant challenge to many of the dominant views in the Ancient World.
We can often approach a phrase like this, and indeed the whole idea of monotheism, as if it is primarily to do with the inner workings of God and of how many parts He is constituted. But as N.T. Wright puts it,
“Within the most fiercely monotheistic of Jewish circles […] there is no suggestion that ‘monotheism’, or praying the Shema, had anything to do with the numerical analysis of the inner being of Israel’s god himself […] The oneness of Israel’s god, the creator, was never an analysis of this god’s inner existence, but always a polemical doctrine over against paganism and dualism.” (N.T. Wright – The New Testament and the People of God, p259)
The Shema was not designed to tightly argue that God is only constituted of one part. In fact, Jews had plenty of ways of discussing the activity of YHWH – they spoke freely about Wisdom, or Spirit, or the Arm of the Lord – without ever suggesting that there were multiple gods. No, the Shema was a prayer that expressed the ultimate supremacy of Israel’s God over any other contenders.
Jewish monotheism was:
- Creational:It argued that there was one Creator God and that all other ‘gods’ are created things; idols. In a world that worshipped anything and everything from carved items up to the stars, being able to claim that there is one God and that all other idols are the works of His hands, is a powerful polemic.
- Ethical:Claiming that there was one God meant that He alone was the guide by which morality is measured. Whereas other religions included stories of gods differing in opinion and warring to see which one won out, in Judaism the sole God was the single measure of morality and his judgments – sometimes expressed through concrete acts – were absolute.
- Covenantal:This one God had one chosen people, who were marked out by the covenant. All other nations, then, could look on and perhaps benefit from the goodness of this God, but they were not ultimately the people through whom this one God would choose to act.
So as Wright summarises, at the core of Judaism is the belief that:
“There is one god, the creator, who continues to govern his world and is active within it. And he has called from his world a unique people, Israel, through whom he is at work, and will be at work, to establish his rightful rule on earth, as it is in heaven.” (Wright – NTPG, p259)
How many gods are there? According to the Bible: one. Definitely, emphatically, one…
THINK IT THROUGH
Read Deuteronomy 4:29; 2 Samuel 7:22; Psalm 96:5; Isaiah 44:8-9.
- How would these verses have posed a challenge to the polytheistic religions of the day?
… and yet, it is not uncommon to hear objections such as: “Why is the God of the Old Testament so different to the God of the New Testament?”
Behind objections like that lie one of two misunderstandings. On the one hand, it may be that the questioner genuinely thinks there are two gods! On the other, it may be that they believe that god has substantially changed between the two books.
Both pose a problem for our understanding of the character of God…
THINK IT THROUGH
- Why do you think people make a distinction between the Old Testament and New Testament gods? List all the reasons you can think of why people might be keen to make that distinction.
How Many Gods Do We Want?!
In his bestselling book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins famously writes this,
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilent, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (Richard Dawkins – The God Delusion, p31)
If you’re anything like me, when you hear a quote like that it makes you shudder. But I shudder not just because I find these words offensive (although I do!) but because if I am honest, I sometimes find myself wondering the same thing! There are parts of the Old Testament that I read and think, “how could a God of love do that?” or perhaps, “how can I reconcile that with what I see in the person of Jesus?”
But this problem is not new. From the earliest days of Christianity, there have been some who sought to drive a wedge between the Old and New Testaments and the depictions of God therein.
For example, Marcion of Sinope (c. 85-160 AD) rejected the writings of the Old Testament and the deity they depicted. He believed that Jesus taught that there were two gods; “one judicial, harsh, mighty in war; the other mild, placid and simply good and excellent.” The first of these gods was YHWH – the god depicted in the Old Testament, and the second was the Father of Jesus – an altogether different deity.
Marcion rejected the Old Testament and any portion of the New Testament that spoke positively about the Old, as well as also removing any passages in which Jesus spoke positively of YHWH or implied that YHWH and the God he worshipped were one and the same.
The church rejected Marcionism, branding it a heresy. (But on the positive side, Marcion’s challenge did lead the church to firm up their doctrine of Scripture, and many of the early canons were formalized in response to the heresy of Marcionism.)
Still, the challenge of Marcion raises a number of important questions, many of which we cannot discuss here:
- How many gods are there?
- Is there a distinction between the gods of the Old Testament and New Testament?
- If we want to affirm that the gods are one and the same, what do we do with the passages of the Old Testament that make us wince, or seem to stand in contradiction to the teaching of Jesus?
- Should we affirm that there is actually one God, but that He has changed over time?
- If so, what does that do for our understanding of the character of God? Can we trust the character of a being who changes His mind so drastically?!
THINK IT THROUGH
- How would you answer these questions?
- Why is Marcion’s answer problematic for our understanding of the character of God?
Note – We cannot answer many of the questions raised here about the morality of the Old Testament. But if you would like to think further on these matters, or consider a response to the claims of Dawkins, you may find one of the following books helpful:
The Unchangeable Nature of God
There are a number of problems with the idea that there are multiple gods, or that God had a facelift and image change before the New Testament. One is that the Bible – in both Testaments – affirms the unchanging nature of His character.
The Psalmist writes, “In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.” (Psalm 102:25-27)
In Malachi, God offers his unchangeable nature as a reason for His people to have confidence and security. “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” (Malachi 3:6) God is not fickle or changeable, but solid and trustworthy. If He were changeable, Israel would constantly live in fear that he could destroy them at any moment.
James, having discussed the impossibility of God ever being tempted to do evil (1:13), affirms that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17)
THINK IT THROUGH
- Why is the witness of both the Old Testament and New Testament regarding the unchangeable nature of God so important to our study of His character?
- What practical problems would we face if God’s character was indeed changeable?
Jesus and the God of the Old Testament
Perhaps the most important reason to affirm the consistency of God’s character between the Old and New Testaments, is because that is exactly what Jesus did!
Jesus spoke positively of the Father, never once suggesting that He had changed, or that the God of the OT was obsolete. In fact, Jesus regularly identified himself with the Father.
Take John’s gospel, for example. We are told that nobody has seen God fully, but that Jesus, sent by God, has made God known (1:18). The Son worked with and on behalf of The Father, being sent by Him as part of the Father’s eternal rescue plan (3:16f) and the words the Son utters are the very words of the Father (3:34).
Rather than doing his own work, the Son has the same agenda as the Father and does the same work. The Son sees what the Father is doing and partners in His work (5:17-27, 36-44; 6:38). In fact, the Son is the only person who has ever seen the Father, so he of all people is in the best place to have an accurate assessment of God’s character (6:43-46).
Jesus went so far as to say that if you know him, you know the Father (8:14-19, 54-55) and when the disciples asked Jesus to show them the Father, he replied that he and the Father mutually indwell one another such that if you see the Son, you have seen the Father (14:1-14).
Given the way Jesus so closely identifies himself with the Father, and depicts himself as the authentic revelation of God’s character, it is quite unthinkable to argue that there are two gods dwelling in the two Testaments. Jesus is not the representation of a new kind of God, but of YHWH, the God who was and is and is to come.
What’s more, Jesus regularly affirms the truthfulness of the Old Testament’s depiction of God.
He calls the Old Testament the word of God (Mark 7:13) and the commandment of God (Matthew 15:3). In debates, he referred to it as an authority, since it is spoken by God (Matthew 22:31). He argued that Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35) and that until Heaven and Earth pass away, not one dot of Scripture will be removed, until it has been accomplished (Matthew 5:18).
Thus Jesus affirms the truthfulness of the Old Testament, and its depiction of God’s character. In fact, he even affirms some of the passages that modern believers might be tempted to write off!! (e.g. Luke 11:51; Mark 12:26; John 6:31-51; Luke 17:29-32).
So we cannot and must not use the stories of Jesus as a way of amending, correcting or otherwise altering the Bible’s depiction of God’s character. Jesus brings a revelation of God’s character that is fresh and clear, but never contradictory to the Old Testament!
THINK IT THROUGH
- We have seen that Jesus affirms the consistent character of God between the Old and New Testaments. And yet, John also claims that nobody had seen God (at least fully), but that Jesus made him known (John 1:18). Do you think there is any sense in which Jesus revealed anything new about the character of God? And if so, how do you balance these two ideas: (a) that Jesus’ revelation was fresh and full, and (b) that it was entirely consistent with the character of God as revealed in the Old Testament?
Hebrews: Jesus’ Unchanging Nature
We have seen that the Old Testament affirms the unchanging character of God. The New Testament does the same. Jesus upholds the testimony of the Old Testament, affirms that he and the Father are one, and declares that he is the true revelation of the Father’s character.
The book of Hebrews picks up this theme, and there are two important verses that act like bookends to the whole of the authors’ teaching. They appear in the first and last chapters of the letter:
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Hebrews 1:1-3a)
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)
The author to the Hebrews affirms two major facts:
- Firstly, that Jesus is the exact representation of God. In fact, the writer argues that the very God of whom Jesus is the exact imprint is the same God who spoke through the prophets of the Old Testament. There is no space in the theology of Hebrews for the idea of two Gods, or that the God Jesus represents is anything other than YHWH.
- Secondly, that Jesus doesn’t change. He never has, and he never will. He always has been the accurate representation of God’s character, and he always will be. Which means that by looking at Jesus we can not only know what God is like, but how He will always be.
As Andrew Wilson puts it, Hebrews 13:8 is particular striking since,
“It comes at the end of a book […] which has been devoted to showing that even the most fixed things in Judaism were always destined to be temporary. This doesn’t mean much to us, but these things had been in place for 1,400 years – in our terms, the law was twice as old then as the English language is now. Yet Hebrews says that the law is only ‘a shadow’. The old covenant is ‘obsolete and growing old.’ Gift and sacrifices are just ‘regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation’. The commandment is ‘set aside because of its weakness and uselessness’. All the foundations of the Jewish way of life, Hebrews says, are changeable. Only Jesus is the same, ‘yesterday and today and forever’.” (Andrew Wilson – Incomparable, p73)
By looking at Jesus, who never changes, but accurately represents God to us, we can get insights into the character of the Father. Which means anything that is true of God is true of Jesus, and vice versa.
THINK IT THROUGH
Given that God’s character is consistent between Old and New Testaments and that Jesus accurately reveals God’s character, work through each of these attributes and try to think of a verse, passage or Bible story that shows how each attribute is demonstrated by God in the Old Testament, in the New Testament and in the life of Jesus.
Conclusion: The (un)Changeable Nature(s) of (the) g/God(s)
We have seen that a biblical understanding of God must affirm His unchanging character. There is one God, revealed most fully in Jesus, whose character is entirely consistent. In the next article, we will try to draw out some practical implications of these first two sections. But to whet our appetites, here’s a quote by A.W. Tozer:
“What ‘peace’ it brings to the Christian’s heart to realize that our Heavenly Father never differs from Himself. In coming to Him at any time we need not wonder whether we shall find him in a receptive mood. He is always receptive to misery and need, as well as to love and faith. He does not keep office hours. Neither does he change his mind about anything. Today, at this very moment, He feels toward his creatures, toward the sick, the fallen, the sinful, exactly as he did when he sent his only begotten Son into the world to die for mankind. God never cools in his affections… He ever continues to stretch forth his hands unto us, saying, ‘Come unto Me, all you that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’. God need not be coaxed, nor can He be persuaded to alter His Word or talked into answering a selfish prayer. In all our efforts to find God, we should remember that all change must be on our part – ‘I am the Lord, I change not’ (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8, James 1:17). We have but to meet his clearly stated terms, bring our lives into accord with his revealed will, and his infinite power will become instantly operative toward us in the manner set forth in the Scriptures of truth. I am reminded of the words of that wonderful hymn, ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’ – ‘There is no shadow of turning with Thee; Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not; as Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.” (A.W. Tozer)
- Consider the Tozer quote above. How does the consistency of God’s character affect your faith and your spiritual life?
- List some of the practical implications of all that we have considered in this section.