Three and a half thousand years ago, in the midst of almost universal polytheism, one small group of people – the Israelites – were obliged to embrace a radically different concept: that there is only one God, and they must acknowledge no other (Exodus 20:1-3). It took them a thousand years to get the message. The truth had to be hammered home to them repeatedly, both explicitly and implicitly. The prophets raged against the futility of idolatry and upheld God’s uniqueness: “I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from Me there is no saviour.” (Isaiah 43:11) “This is what the LORD says – Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from Me there is no God.” (Isaiah 44:6) The creation story (Genesis 1) and the Egyptian plagues (which systematically demolished the power of the various Egyptian gods) made the same point, more subtly: Yahweh alone is God, and nothing (and nobody) else is in the reckoning. There is no other Creator, no other Saviour, no other Redeemer, and no other god to be worshipped. “You were shown these things so that you might know that the LORD is God; besides Him there is no other.” (Deuteronomy 4:35)
And so we come to Judaism’s great confession of faith, the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4,5): “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” And this doesn’t change when we come to the New Testament. “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (I Timothy 1:17) It is absolutely fundamental; there is no room for negotiation here.
So far, so simple… and yet, it can’t be quite as simple as that.
For the Christian, an equally fundamental, non-negotiable truth about God is the apostle John’s famous statement: “God is love.” (I John 4:8) Now love cannot exist as an abstract concept: it presupposes a relationship of (at least) two individuals, in which it can be expressed by one and received by another. Otherwise it would be self-love, which is not what John is talking about at all! So the expression ‘God is love’ (as opposed to ‘God has love’ or ‘God loves’) has no meaning if God is a solitary being. Now it is easy (and true) to say that God loves the world that He has created, and the people that He has redeemed. But how could He be love before the world was created? Before the angels were created? If love is an intrinsic part of His eternal nature, then He cannot be single and undifferentiated.
Plurality within unity
How can we reconcile ‘God is one’ with ‘God is love’? The word ‘one’ (Hebrew ‘echad’) certainly affirms Yahweh’s uniqueness (as the one and only God), but does it necessarily denote singularity? When it is used to describe the ‘oneness’ of husband and wife (Genesis 2:24), it denotes unity, not singularity – because here there is obviously plurality of persons within the unity of ‘one flesh’.
The Hebrew word for God (Elohim) is plural, yet when referring to Yahweh it is always used with a singular verb. So even embedded within the Hebrew language there is an ambiguity about God: is He one, or more than one? As the apostle John wrote: “[The Word] was with God in the beginning” (John 1:2) So God is one, and yet God is not alone. There is a struggle between singular and plural when Isaiah “heard the voice of the LORD saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’” (Isaiah 6:8) The one God is the Creator of all things – yet He said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…” (Genesis 1:26) Now this is not an example of the so-called ‘plural of majesty’ (the ‘royal we’), which does not exist in Biblical Hebrew. It is just possible that the plural pronouns here could be referring to angels – yet nowhere does Scripture tell us that angels share God’s image, or that we bear the image of angels, or that angels are agents of creation.
Then there is the enigmatic figure of ‘the Angel of the LORD’, who appears from time to time throughout the historical narratives of the Old Testament. Sometimes he appears to be a straightforward messenger (which is what the word ‘angel’ means); yet there are also occasions when he is identified with the LORD Himself (e.g. Exodus 3:1-6), or accepts worship on behalf of the LORD (e.g. Joshua 5:14,15).
Do we find the concept of plurality within unity in the New Testament? Yes, indeed. For just as Moses received a fresh revelation of God’s name (Yahweh) at the time of the Exodus, so a new name for God was revealed to us by Christ following His resurrection: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19) Surely that’s three names, isn’t it? But Jesus says that we are to baptise in one name.
The first Christians in Corinth, mostly converted from a pagan background, also had to contend with polytheism – and in his letter to them Paul restated the Shema: “For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live.” But Paul could not leave it at that: “…and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” (I Corinthians 8:5,6) God is one… and yet God is not alone.