Monotheism 101

Once again in a thread conversation at BioLogos, some Christian with a scientific background suggests that maybe God didn’t plan the details of biological forms below a certain level, such as (for example) quadrupeds, fish etc, “allowing” evolution to fill in the details. Interestingly this would be consistent with the Creationist concept of baramins derived from the “kinds” of Genesis, which are in fact pretty much as vague (animals being divided only into domestic, prey-animals and carnivores, for example). But that’s a conversation for another time.

Eddie pointed out that such an open-ended picture of creation runs contrary to traditional ideas of sovereignty. But I want to go further to suggest that, in the end, they go against the entailments of monotheism itself.

In truth, the idea of more-or-less indeterminate evolution, though it fits in with the “accidental” teleology of strict Darwinism and its atheistic metaphysical interpretation, appears not to be held by theistic evolutionists because the science demands it. In fact, the science doesn’t require it, given an orthodox doctrine of divine providence, and the new findings of biology, suggesting as they do law-like processes and true teleology, make it more and more of a choice than an entailment.

No, there are sufficient other comparable examples in modern religious expression to show that the underlying motivation is that there is something distateful to many in the idea that God alone should be the entire explanation of Creation. In evolutionary thinking itself, the “autonomy of nature” theme against which I’ve inveighed for five years here and elsewhere, and seen in Howard Van Till, John Haught, John Polkinghorne and, perhaps, a majority of the popular writers on evolutionary Creation, is essentially an egalitarian one. It is unjust and despotic for God to “call all the shots” (a phrase not infrequently used), and so (allegedly) deny creaturely freedom to the universe he has made – you can’t be free, it seems, unless you’re able to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps by creating yourself.

Such thinking began, of course, in the more general theological realm of humans in relation to God, rather than the natural creation. In that sphere it is at least more coherent, because it claims that God would simply be making us robots if his will always prevailed over ours. There’s only room for one will at a time – and when push comes to shove, we’re not compromising ours. In the extreme of Open Theism, even God’s knowledge of our future is perceived to curtail our freedom, and so the following logical (so they say) sequence results:

(1) Philippians 2 talks about Christ emptying himself at the Incarnation.
(2) This must mean he laid aside his divinity whilst a man (yes, they really believe that’s both possible and biblical).
(3) The Incarnate Christ is paradigmatic of the nature and character of God.
(4) Ergo, God in creation also laid aside some of his divine attributes, such as infallible foreknowledge (though some say the future, being open to influence by other wills than God’s, simply cannot be known by him).

I would suggest (and usually get into trouble for saying so) that the long-running Arminian controversy (arguably having as little to do with Arminius as hypercalvinism has with Calvin) stems from the same sense of scandal, that God should be the sole arbiter of the future (which, since he formed the world, implies that he is also the sole arbiter of the past).

All these themes and movements – and there are more – appear to depend on the “univocity of God” arguments of some of the mediaeval opponents of Aquinas. Whereas Thomas, following the strong traditions of the Fathers like Augustine, taught that God’s very mode of being is different from his Creation’s, the univocalists said that, in fact, “existing” is just the same for God as for us. In context, the result of this is that God, as it were, woke up to find that he was the only existent being, and wasn’t too happy with the idea, on democratic principles he also found himself to possess. Creation, then (to speak somewhat frivolously), became a necessity to right a primaeval wrong of too few wills in the scheme of things. Not only did God choose to spread existence and freedom to other beings he created, but it would have been morally deficient if he hadn’t.

If that is the case, then indeed it would be inappropriate for God to determine individual species, or individuals of species, or individual events in the life of those individuals, just as (to echo another recent BioLogos thread), it would be wrong for him to control the weather day by day.

The problem, though, is that according to the Hebrew Scriptures, which introduced the world to monotheism, God does control the weather day by day – it was, indeed, one of the main ways he claimed to govern his people Israel in blessing or chastisement. Israel did not invent monotheism – at least if one claims to be a Christian – but rather it was revealed to them by God.

And perhaps because of that, or because it was such a complete contrast to universal polytheism, they quickly latched on to the core consequence of its truth. And that is, that by the very fact of monotheism, everything in heaven and earth must depend on, stem from, and tend towards a single sovereign Mind and Will. There is nowhere else to go. The very goodness of God, the Hebrew prophets saw, stems from his being One and utterly Sovereign: and any good in Creation is at it tends towards what Paul teaches in 1 Cor 15 to be its goal – that God should be all in all.

The inevitable danger in univocity it that it places God within some existing reality (“existence”), rather than his being the reality in which we live and move and have our being. So to those holding it, it’s no problem for God to leave aspects of Creation to chance: that gives chance something to do independent of God’s will, and also leaves God’s busy hands free to wander elsewhere (outside himself) and get on with more important work.

But monotheism says that if there is a thing called chance, it can only exist as an outworking of God’s will, because nothing has independent existence from God. I have the task of preaching from Romans 9 this Sunday, and it’s a passage that causes problems because it suggests that human decisions are subordinate to God’s overarching, and specific choices, as between Jacob and Esau, or Ishmael and Isaac. “Solutions” to this range from fudging Paul’s rather clear meaning (in the context of his developing argument about grace v. works) to saying that “old Paul got things a bit wrong here.”

In fact, Paul simply followed the necessary entailments of true monotheism that the Bible writers had always known, in classical examples like Joseph’s brothers intending for harm what God had intended, for over 400 years at least, for good; or the various rebellious acts and historical contingencies on the death of Solomon that divided the kingdom being “a turn of events from the Lord.”

A familiar analogy may be of some limited help. Under univocity, God is one of the characters in the Book of Life, with whom we might interact. But classical monotheism makes him the author of that whole book, and that has some necessary sequelae. When you write a story, you actually create an entirely different world from your own. Granted, stories usually benefit from the pretence that they take place in our world, and that were you in the right time and place you might bump into James Bond or Jane Eyre. But it’s an illusion: whatever in the book is not created by the author is conjured in the mind of the reader from experience beyond the book. One stroke of the pen, and Jane Eyre lives on Mars, and James Bond is a teetotal bishop.

Occasionally authors engage in the conceit of becoming part of their story: Spike Milligan played with the idea of a character complaining about how he’d been written, and the author answering back as if (but only as if) he too were a character in the book, albeit a transcendent one. Given that the book is the only reality characters in it can ever know, only that kind of surrogate communication is possible – there is just no possibility of James Bond talking to Ian Fleming directly, because they have a different order of being.

James Bond or Jane Eyre certainly exist (for you know something about them), in a way that Guk Johlop or other random names do not. But they do not exist as Fleming or Bronte do. Their lives, characters, even their accidents must depend on their author’s intentions, for there is no other way they can occur than by being “creatively written”. It is more than mere rhetoric to say that Jesus is the author of life – it is a rigorously monotheistic statement.

Now that author analogy is, indeed, limited by the fact that we are real minds, with genuine wills, like Fleming or Bronte, and not passive characters like Bond or Eyre. There is also the mystery of our partaking, in due course, of the very nature of God. But even so the gulf between God’s mode of existence and ours is every bit as great, or greater, than that between human author and character. The truth, under true monotheism, can only be that nothing in our existence is ever truly independent of God’s will and providence: we are free, but our freedom exists only within his – for where else could it come from, there being One at the heart of all things? And that is why the Bible speaks of God creating both evil and good (in the sense of harm and blessing), and of governing even human sin whilst not being tainted by it (remember, the evil of St John Rivers or Goldfinger need not detract from the virtue of their authors).

We are undoubtedly more than characters in a play (though Paul McCartney’s observation of the pretty nurse he invented in Penny Lane remains food for thought (“though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway”). Our freedom is real and our choices responsible – but never independently of God, for we are monotheists in a monotheistic reality, and there can be nothing independent of God if one personal principle is the source of everything. And there can be nothing better than that reality for God to aim at.

In fact, it helps (as Paul does in Romans 9) to refuse to argue the toss about human freedom at all, and just to stress the utter freedom of the God who is far, far, more than just one constituent of reality (and who just happens to find himself as the Creator rather than the creature). Whilst we believe that God is One, in the sense that God revealed it to the Hebrews, that must be the case.

Soli Deo gloria.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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7 Responses to Monotheism 101

  1. Cath Olic says:

    Speaking of The Beatles, may the great George Martin rest in peace.
    From a wonderful write-up by the WSJ’s Jim Fusilli:
    “On Wednesday morning, Mr. McCartney wrote on Facebook: “From the day that he gave the Beatles our first recording contract, to the last time I saw him, he was the most generous, intelligent and musical person I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.””

    Also, good luck with preaching on Romans 9. It seems pretty involved.

    I just wish more preachers would soberly consider the responsibility they’re assuming.

    “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.” James 3:1

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Amen to the George Martin comment – quite coincidentally I was peeling the layers off one of his production jobs with the Beatles for an arrangement I was doing this week. Astonishingly original. And aside from the Beatles, he was behind an amazing number of significant recordings. “Greatest ever producer” isn’t really too hyperbolic.

      The whole of Romans is, to use your words, “pretty involved”. I admire the fact that our minister, who considers himself a faithful pastor rather than a high-flying theologian, has chosen to tackle it as serial exposition – surely the only way for a congregation to appreciate it. He’s done excellently at making it seem as if it is not complicated, which is at the heart of the “art” of preaching.

      I get to do two chapters, when he’s away. James’s strictures are well-spoken: too few churches, of any stripe, guard their pulpits as they should. In my case, I aspired to preach for twenty years before I was allowed the opportunity. That seems about right to me.

      • Henry Tudor says:

        Dear Jon,

        I promise that I will not write so much of my family history on this forum, for I know it is for science and religion. I respect that. I am also an historian and enjoy my father’s family very much. I just have to tell you this. My ancestor, George Wynne of Isle of White County, Virginia and Bertie County, North Carolina, was the grandson of Sir Owen Wynn(e) of Gwydyr and Grace Williams, niece of John Williams, Archbishop of York. Sir Owen’s stepmother was Catherine Tudor as I have mentioned. My ancestor, William Williams sent George Wynne to Virginia to manage his holders here. The Williams family was related to the Tudors by blood through Jasper Tudor. Guess what? Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland , was a Williams on his paternal side and was related to Grace Williams Wynne; therefore, I am also related to Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was his maternal family name. I just received the history on this from a cousin. I promise I will not mention about family history anymore since this is a Christian/science blog, but as an historian, I was shocked to discover this. I do hope you and the others don’t mind me mentioning this. Take care.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          I’ve told the story here before of my mother, trying to trace the family history, travelling half across the country to see her ancient Aunt Grace – a fine Christian, and very much a family person.

          But when mother asked her about her ancestors, she replied, “All I know is that I’m descended from Adam and Eve.” The older I’ve got, the better that answer seems!

  2. Henry Tudor says:

    Catherine Tudor was actually Sir Owen’s step-grandmother.

  3. Henry Tudor says:

    I have decided not to participate for personal reasons. Please cancel me on this forum.
    I appreciate your assistance.

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