The unity of the divine essence states that what God is, only God is. This is a distinct, yet related, doctrine to that of the unity of the divine Persons, which states that the Persons are consubstantial with the divine essence. This latter doctrine flows from the former. Because God is one, creatures ought to worship Him and Him alone, and this one God subsists in three Persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The unity of the divine essence is paramount to the argument implied by the greatest commandment, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deut. 6:4-5) The 17th century theologian and philosopher, Hugh Binning, once wrote, “Since God is one, then have no God but one, and that the true and living God, and this is the very first command of God, which flows as it were immediately from his absolute oneness and perfection of being.”

The unity of God grants sufficient reason for why this God is deserving of all honor, praise, and worship. The import of such doctrine is the Judaistical and Christian denial of pagan polytheism. Flowing from Deuteronomy 6:4 are other statements, such as what we find in Isaiah 45:14, “Thus says the Lord: ‘The labor of Egypt and merchandise of Cush And of the Sabeans, men of stature, Shall come over to you, and they shall be yours; They shall walk behind you, They shall come over in chains; And they shall bow down to you. They will make supplication to you, saying, “Surely God is in you, And there is no other; There is no other God.”’”

Incursions of henotheistic thought have made their way into churches, seminaries, and theological resources in recent decades. Henotheism is a species of polytheism, where many gods are said to be subject to one principal deity or supreme Being. Rather than being entirely equal, as with many Eastern polytheisms, henotheism teaches a hierarchy in the divine nature. Proponents of henotheism include the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Norse peoples. More recently, however, the late Dr. Michael Heiser has imbibed henotheistic thought. While maintaining monotheism in principle, Heiser defines monotheism as the belief in a “species unique” deity that presides over other divine beings or gods. In my opinion, this is virtually indistinguishable from the Greeks and Romans who saw Zeus or Jupiter, respectively, as the “king gods” who maintained sway over subjugated divine powers, such as Ares, Athena, or Mars. To adopt this position is to (inadvertently?) drink from the fountain of a fundamental metaphysical compromise, i.e. the expansion of “divine nature” to more than one being.

In other words, to grant a divine nature to beings other than YHWH is to grant that which belongs to YHWH alone.

In this brief post, I want to outline why this view represents a shift away from the clear biblical data that explains why Christians have always confessed only one true and living God.

Defining the Orthodox Position

A main point of confusion in this discussion involves the reality of beings that are often worshiped as gods by erring Israelites and pagan nations. What the orthodox position maintains is not that idols lack any real substance or beings that sit, as it were, behind them. Christians throughout the ages, following Scripture, have overtly affirmed the existence of real beings that are either worshiped directly or indirectly (through manufactured idols) as gods. As the apostle Paul notes, “the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons.” (1 Cor. 10:20)

What is denied is that these spiritual beings habitually worshiped by the pagan peoples are actually “gods” or subordinate “Elohim.” We would, instead, want to say that these entities are “so-called” Elohim, but are not truly so. (1 Cor. 8:5) The Bible clearly states that there is only one true and living Elohim, “But the Lord is the true God; He is the living God and the everlasting King. At His wrath the earth will tremble, And the nations will not be able to endure His indignation.” (Jer. 10:10)

Credal and confessional theology is also clear that there is only one God. For example, the Nicene Creed begins, “We believe in one God…” And the 2LCF 2.1 states, “The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection…” Furthermore, the Baptist Catechism asks, “Are there more gods than one?” answering, “There is but one only, the living and true God.” (Q. 8)

Are there real spiritual entities other than YHWH that are able to either positive or negatively influence the world? Yes. Are these entities gods? This we strongly deny.

Wrestling with the Biblical Language

Frequently left out of the discussion amongst those who affirm a plurality of gods in addition to YHWH is the element of linguistic device. It is important that we assume the biblical use of analogy, metaphor, and metonymy as we read our Bibles. If we do not make this assumption, we may come away thinking that God has a body, with anatomical limbs, etc., when we read passages as follows, “So I will stretch out My hand and strike Egypt with all My wonders…” (Ex. 3:20) Or, “with the blast of Your nostrils The waters were gathered together…” (Ex. 15:8) Because Scripture interprets Scripture, our reading of these texts must be conditioned by other Scriptural ontological statements, such as, “God is Spirit…” (Jn. 4:24) Or, “God is not a man, that He should lie…” (Num. 23:19) And again, “For I am the Lord, I do not change…” (Mal. 3:6) These passages help us to understand that when creaturely features are ascribed to God, they are ascribed not properly but by way of some improper linguistic device, e.g. analogy or metaphor.

Furthermore, we know that the Bible sometimes attributes divine language to things that are not divine. For example, “But where are your gods (Elohim) that you have made for yourselves?” (Jer. 2:28) Clearly, this text is calling manufactured idols “gods,” which are no gods at all. Other texts indicate the falsity of these feigned deities, such as, “Has a nation changed its gods, Which are not gods?” (Jer. 2:11) And, “For all the gods of the peoples are idols…” (Ps. 96:5) The biblical text denies the true existence of any other Elohim besides YHWH, “They will make supplication to you, saying, “‘Surely God is in you, And there is no other; There is no other God (Elohim).’” (Is. 45:14b) Benjamin Keach is helpful on the name “Elohim”:

His Hebrew name אלהיﬦ, Elohim, when taken properly, belongs to none, but the only true and eternal God, and because it is of the plural number, it intimates the mystery of a plurality of persons in one most simple Deity…”

See also Matthew Poole on Psalm 82,

By gods, or the mighty, he understands kings, or other chief rulers, who are so called, because they have their power and commission from God, and act as his deputies, in his name and stead, and must give an account to him of all their actions.

As we read the biblical text, we need to understand the way the Bible uses language. Scripture often speaks rhetorically, and by way of analogies and metaphors that are designed to make a deeper point. When Scripture speaks of God’s “arm” or “hand,” it means to convey not that God really has arms and hands, but that He is poised to exercise His might, either in judgment or redemption. Likewise, when Scripture speaks of the “gods,” it is using the language of the pagan peoples, oftentimes to set the reader up for a major contrast between these pretended deities and the only true and living God.

Why Henotheism?

So, why the modern interest in polytheistic henotheism?

The answer to this question continues to elude me. Assuming the best intentions, Heiser and others may have just missed the important piece of the interpretive puzzle in neglecting to observe linguistic devices employed by the divine Author. Another possible reason for the embrace of this view is a contemporary desire to “re-enchant” the universe. We live in a materialistic cultural rut that strives to remove any and all reference to the supernatural. Philosophical and scientific naturalism has stripped the world of its vibrant, spiritual excitement. But is this a good reason to adopt henotheism?

There appears to be a move toward a more colorful understanding of God’s creation. This is fine as far as it goes. And I am entirely in favor of recapturing a biblical and classical cosmology that assumes the influence of angels, the negative impact of demons, and so on. However, in our zeal to retrieve a more biblically faithful cosmology, we need to be cautious not to retrieve the pagan perversions of this cosmology often spoken of and condemned in the pages of Scripture. While the biblical record grants the real existence of “so-called” gods, or those who are called “gods” or “Elohim” by the pagan nations, we should stop short of granting to these beings what the Bible clearly reserves for God alone. “There is no God besides Me,” YHWH declares. (Is. 45:5) Imagine the delight of the demons if we granted them the status they so long for!

While it may be exciting for some to think of the universe as being under the sway of a multitude of deities, all of whom are in subjection to a “king God,” the reality stands that YHWH is the only true deity in existence. Alternatively, the classical Christian tradition offers a truly interesting cosmology, full of both holy angels and fallen angels, each of which fall under the supreme Lordship of the one true God. These angels are capable of a number of wondrous abilities, and all such beings are designed to lead us to fear and trust in the only true and living Elohim — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The reality of “principalities and powers” urges us to seek refuge in the only begotten Son our Lord, who for us and for our salvation was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, and through His active and passive obedience defeated the powers of darkness and ordered the holy angels into the service of our redemption.


Why is any of this important?

In John 5:44, Jesus asks the question, “How can you believe, who receive honor from one another, and do not seek the honor that comes from the only God?” The final two words of this sentence are, “μόνου Θεοῦ” (monou theou), from which we get the term “monotheism.” Taking theos to be the common New Testament translation of the Hebrew “Elohim,” we are able to see that our Lord Jesus Himself affirmed the “only-ness” and unity of God. Far beyond the bare theological musings of man, this biblical monotheism is the theology of our Savior. As disciples of Christ, may we follow Him not only in what He did, but also in what He affirmed theologically.