In his essay “The ‘Most High’ God and the Nature of Early Jewish Monotheism,” Richard Bauckham helpfully distinguishes between inclusive and exclusive monotheism.
Inclusive monotheism declares the God is the highest being within the class of deities to which he belongs. “He is unique,” Bauckham explains, “only in the sense of superlative.” His uniqueness is defined by his supremacy over all other gods and divine beings. He is the most powerful, most wise, most intelligent of all the gods. This inclusive monotheism developed out of the older polytheisms of competitive gods. Most importantly, “it takes a ‘gradient view of reality that does not draw sharp ontological distinctions between the supreme God and other gods, or between gods and humans” (p. 109). As we saw in an earlier post, this gradient understanding of divinity is characteristic of pagan religion and ancient philosophy. God is but one within the continuum of being. Perhaps we might call this a relative monotheism.
Exclusive monotheism, on the other hand, understands “the uniqueness of the one God in terms of an absolute difference in kind from all other reality” (p. 109). Bauckham calls it “transcendent uniqueness.” I commonly refer to it as God’s “radical difference.” God does not belong to a class called “Deity,” nor is he the supreme instantiation of generic divinity. Exclusive, or absolute, monotheism thus asserts a binary view of reality.
In Bauckham’s judgment, the Second Temple Jewish understanding of deity is properly described as one of exclusive monotheism:
In my view, early Jewish literature (with few, if any, exceptions) is strongly committed to such a view by the way it constantly understands the uniqueness of the God of Israel as that of the one Creator of all things and the one sovereign Ruler of all things. Because these definitions of God’s uniqueness drive an absolute difference of kind between God and ‘all things’, they override any older gradient features of the Israelite-Jewish worldview (such as survive in some of the vocabulary used) and create an essentially binary view of reality. This does not and need not deny the existence of many heavenly beings, but simply insists that they are created by God and subject to the sovereign will of God. In early Judaism, the binary distinction between God and all other reality was observed and inculcated—in daily religious observance—by monolatry. In a gradient worldview (such as the pagan, inclusive monotheism of antiquity), many beings are accorded honour, each to a degree appropriate to its originally been a concomitant of henotheism) into a powerful symbol high-ranking creatures (but not in contexts where it might be mistaken for divine worship, and so usually not to angels or to rulers who claimed divinity), worship was different because it was acknowledgement of the transcendent uniqueness of the God of Israel. (p. 109)
Hence even though Israel may originally have conceived of YHWH as one of the gods, perhaps even practicing a form of inclusive monotheism, eventually it moved into an exclusive monotheism, denying all other gods precisely as gods. As a rabbi wrote to me last week:
From the standpoint of tradition, however, there is no question that the Biblical references prohibit not only worship, but even belief in any competing deity. Consider Deuteronomy 4:35 אין עוד מלבדו. There is nothing besides Him. I imagine one could interpret that as “Of all the other gods hanging around out there, there is none other that should interest you.” But the text does not say that. It either says there is no other god, period, or (the way that Rabbis taught it), there is nothing else in the cosmos but G-d Himself.
Given Judaism’s commitment to exclusive monotheism, it becomes clear why the Christian confession of Jesus as Lord required, right from the start, a wrestling with, and reconstruction of, the notion of divinity. Creator/creature marks an absolute distinction. There are no degrees of divinity, no semi-divine beings or intermediaries. There is only the Creator, the one God of Israel whom Jesus addresses as Father, and the world of beings that he has freely brought into existence and over which he exercises his sovereign rule. Assuming faithfulness to exclusive monotheism, the Church was thus faced with the problem: which side of the divide do we locate Jesus of Nazareth? And if we include Jesus within the identity of the one God, how do we avoid the assertion of two Gods?