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Chapter 3. The Road Ahead for Biblical Monotheism

Chapter 3

The Road Ahead for Biblical Monotheism

A theological awakening

A new openness to God’s word is sweeping through the world in a way not seen before. It moves with quiet power, breach­ing relig­ious and denomi­national barriers.

It is summed up in one word, freedom, specifically the freedom to read God’s word without being controlled by dogmatic traditions. At long last, after two thousand years, that free­dom has arrived, thanks to the Internet and other transformational changes in society.

But hasn’t that freedom always been with us for 2,000 years? The answer is “yes” for some, but “no” for the vast majority who have lived in the world, even the Christian world. That is because great and formidable obstacles have for centur­ies stood in the way of those who hunger and thirst for the pure word of God. These barriers have had to be removed one by one, brick by brick, until the final and greatest barrier was overcome (partially) in the 21st century.

The first barrier was the dire lack of Bibles even among church leaders in the cen­turies before the invention of the printing press. Today more copies of the Bible are produced in one month than in the first 1,400 years of church history. Constantine’s edict of A.D. 331 to produce copies of the Bible for the Roman Empire involved the production of only fifty handwritten copies (my iPad alone has thirty Bibles). But even after the invention of the printing press, the church had at times brutally suppressed the translation of the Bible into the com­mon languages of the people.

The second barrier was general illiteracy in the early church. Bart D. Ehrman refers to studies that suggest a literacy rate of 10-15% in classical Athens and an even lower rate in the Roman Empire of the first centu­ry. In those days, one could be counted as literate if he or she could sign his or her own name or write the letters of an alphabet. Wikipedia article “Literacy” explains how literacy in Europe increased rapidly in the past five centur­ies; in earlier times, general illiter­acy was the norm in much of Europe.

The third barrier was the non-specialist’s lack of access to the origi­nal lang­uages of the Bible even up to the 19th century. The phrase “lost in translation” may sound tired but it helpfully reminds us that mis­trans­lation can happen even between modern lang­uages. The problem is greater when it comes to translating the Bible, not only be­cause its original lang­uages are ancient (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek) but also because there is a real danger of doctrinal bias in Bible translat­ion. The good news is that today we can study the Bible in its orig­inal lang­uages if we are willing to invest the time and effort to learn them, and the money to acquire a small library of textbooks and references.

The final barrier, overcome partial­ly, is the trinit­arian sup­press­ion of non-trinitarian teaching. The barrier was erected at the Council of Nic­aea (325) where an anathema was cast on all dissent­ers in the entire Christian world, and also at the Council of Constantinople (381). The barrier remains standing to this day, as seen in tragic epi­sodes of his­tory such as the burning at the stake of Michael Servetus.

When I was living in Canada in the 1970s and 1980s, the only places in Canada where I could buy good Christian books were the Christ­ian book­stores located in the major cities. The problem was that the selection of books was restricted by the doctrinal lean­ings of the book­stores and/or their parent organizat­ions. The censor­ship was not total, however, for the stores were still willing to stock books that were liberal, atheis­tic, or even hostile to Christianity. But they would never stock a non-trinitarian book even if it is based on the Bible be­cause such a book, especially if it has solid biblical support, would be viewed by the church as being deadlier than atheistic books. A book may be rooted in the Bible and adhere to the principle of sola Scriptura, yet is viewed as anathema for not falling in line with trinit­arian dogma.

The power to suppress a biblically-based book solely for not adhering to trinitarian dogma will inevitably shape our interpret­ation of the Bible. I have experienced this kind of power first hand. Because the book­stores had no books that deviated from trinitarian dogma, for years I literally equated trinitarianism with the Christian faith.

Another example of the trinitarian suppression of non-trinitarian doc­trine is seen in the case of the Evangelical Theological Society which, at its found­ing in 1949, had only one doctrinal requirement for society mem­ber­ship: accept­ance of biblical in­errancy. But 41 years lat­er, in 1990, a new require­ment was added: adherence to trinitarian­ism. But if trinit­arian­ism is really rooted in Scripture as trinitar­ians say it is, why was it necessary to add the second require­ment when the first would have safe­guarded the doctrine (assuming that it is biblical­ly based in the first place)? Where is the bold con­fid­ence in sola scriptura—Scripture alone? ETS started as a bibli­cal society but ended as a doctrinal society.

Ironically, the two requirements for ETS membership—accept­ing the inerr­an­cy of the Bible and accepting trin­it­arianism—are incon­gruous because the word “trinity” is not even found in the Bible.

Finally, the supreme example of trinitarian control is seen in the fact that most Bibles today are trans­lated with a trinitarian bias. But that is a big topic for another day.

The final barrier is being eroded

But things had changed by 2009, the year I moved back to Canada after being away two decades. The formerly largest Christ­ian book­stores in Montreal are now smaller than they used to be. Collectively, these stores have a reduced and aging inventory of books amid a plethora of bookmarks, greetings cards, and Bible cases. (Note: I still show my sup­port to these bookstores, having bought many books from them in the past seven years.) Christian bookstores in Toronto seem to fare bet­ter but none of them can halt a global development that is neutralizing any attempt to suppress Christian titles.

Today you can order Christian books of any theo­logical persuas­ion from Amazon.com, making it impossible for any church to silence a writer who speaks the truth about God. Every book now has a distribution channel to a global audience.

Today you can “Google” for monotheistic resources and expo­sit­ions of God’s word which in an earlier era would be suppressed by the bastions of dogma. With every passing year, we see new websites and blogs and books that uphold biblical monotheism.

Today’s church­goers are less willing to accept dog­matic teachings from the church blindly, and are trained to search the Internet for alternative interpretations that may have better biblical support.

But despite the pervasiveness of the Internet, the final barrier—doctrinal control—still stands to some extent. In practice, however, it has been neu­tralized for those who seek the truth. For those who are open minded, there is now a clear chan­nel to the truth of God’s word that is free of doctrinal control. The Internet is a two-edged sword that can used for promulgating the truth or for spreading false­hood. But with prayer and God’s help (Jn.7:17; James 1:5), the seeker of the truth is now em­powered to arrive at the truth, and to experience God in a deeper way on account of his or her deeper understand­ing of the only true God.

The future of biblical monotheism

I am hopeful about the future of biblical monotheism in the world, even in a country like China. It’s not because China has the biggest popul­ation in the world (which, in any case, will be sur­passed by India’s in 2028 according to several estimates), but be­cause China is the least religious count­ry in the world by one measure: religious identification.

A 2014 Win/Gallup poll finds that China is the least religious country in the world by this measure, with only 7% of its populace calling them­selves religious. Here are the percentages for some other countries: USA (56%), UK (30%), Can­ada (40%), Australia (34%), India (76%), Japan (13%), South Korea (44%), Mex­ico (68%), Malaysia (72%), Pakis­tan (88%). The highest percentage is seen in Thailand (94%).

I believe that the Chinese people, being less religious and less entrenched in traditional Christianity, would in general be less swayed by the trinitar­ian hegemonies in the west. This topic is ripe for discussion at our theolog­ical confer­ence.

Ultimately the key to the successful promulgation of bib­lical monotheism will be God’s help and the fact that trinitarianism finds weak support in God’s word.

 

(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church