Have humans always believed that there was only one God, or were humans originally polytheists? Where did the idea of one supreme God originate? There are really only two options:
- Monotheism (mono– “one” theos – “god”) was original to humans from the very beginning.
- Monotheism was an invention or development of religion in early human cultures arising from polytheism (belief in many gods).
Anthropologists and historians of religion, at least since the European Enlightenment have taught that monotheism – the idea of “one supreme God” was not original to mankind, but rather was a late development in the history of religion stemming from animism and/or polytheism. Today Muslims, Christians and Jews comprise the three great monotheistic faiths of the world. The adherents to these three faiths reach well into the billions.
According to the Bible, God directly created mankind from the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:5-9). In the Genesis account, the first man and woman (Adam & Eve), enjoyed direct fellowship and communication with God. The fellowship was broken when the first humans acted independently of God by an act of direct disobedience to His command (Gen. 3). The results of that act of disobedience was broken fellowship with God and banishment from His presence.
If we follow the Bible’s account of history, as the population of the earth increased, humans moved further and further away from God (and in their knowledge of Him), where eventually an understanding of who He was, was either lost or replaced with polytheism, the deification of the forces of nature, or some combination of both.
In his recent book, In the Beginning God, Winfried Courduan states:
The Bible does not give us an account to how idolatry and polytheism arose historically. We know that Abraham came from a line of people who worshipped a moon god, but we don’t know where that chain was broken. …there is good reason to believe that there were other monotheists around besides Melchizedek. Further, there were multiple opportunities to learn about the one God, not to mention the probability of there having been a live memory carried all along in Moses family.
Nevertheless, in Genesis 12 we learn that God did not allow mankind to be unaware of who He was, but appeared to a man in ancient Mesopotamia named Abram. Historian F.E. Peters summarizes:
…at a given moment in historical time, he [God] addressed himself to one Abram, the sheikh of an extended family of Near Eastern sheep nomads who were camping in what is today called the Negev. Worship me, the god said, and I will make you and yours a great people. It was not a unique or a solitary voice; we know from plentiful evidence that there were other, many other, gods on that landscape and in the minds of Abram’s contemporaries. Abram, however, limited his worship to this one deity, and the god in turn granted his favor to Abram, or Abraham, as he was henceforward called.
Later in biblical history, God would appear once again, but this time it was to Moses who grew up in Egypt, another polytheistic nation who worshipped many gods. In the famous scene of the burning bush (Ex. 3), when Moses asks God His name, God tells Moses that He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Ex. 3:15). Finally, when God gives Moses the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20) the first three commandments all deal with the nature of the one true God and what it means to properly worship Him and Him only (Ex. 20:3-7).
That was the working narrative for at least nineteen centuries until the rise of naturalistic & skeptical theories concerning the Bible and the rise of monotheism.
In the seventeenth century Dutch philosopher, Benedict Spinoza published the Theologico-Political Treatise in 1670 (also posthumously in 1677). In it he argued (among other things), that all revealed religion had to be analyzed on the basis of reason; not blind faith. Theology & philosophy must be kept separate. He categorically denied prophecy, miracles & the supernatural. He also denied Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and stated that it was probably a cobbled-together text which was likely composed of multiple authors.
In the following years, scholars such as Thomas Hobbs, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Julius Welhausen and many others followed Spinoza in their distrust of the biblical record of history. By the end of the nineteenth century many scholars had developed serious doubts about the Bible’s account of reality, especially the dawn of history’s monotheistic origins in Eden.
Wilhelm Schmidt was a German scholar who lived in the early twentieth century and argued that the original religion of human beings was monotheism. According to Corduan, “In 1906 Schmidt created a journal called Anthropos, [which was] intended to provide missionaries with greater awareness of new developments in the field of cultural anthropology.” From this humble beginning and focus on religion, Schmidt’s thesis eventually developed into a massive 12-volume work, Der Ursprung der Gottesidee [The Origin of the Idea of God] (Munster: Aschendorff, 1912-55). Schmidt’s thesis of original monotheism derives from what he called the “culture-historical method.”
[to read Schmidt’s main thesis for yourself, it is now available this excellent new reprint version The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories originally published in 1931]
Schmidt’s Main Thesis & Ideas
In his massive 12 volume work, “Ursprung” or The Origin of the Idea of God, Schmidt analyzed the major theories of comparative religion up to his day, as well the theories of the development of religion in ethnology from cultures around the world (ethnology is a branch of anthropology that compares global nations and cultures and how they identify themselves).
Essentially Schmidt’s case for original monotheism “is grounded in the culture-historical method by which we can discern which among present cultures appear to be the ones that most closely resemble the earliest human cultures. Ethnologically, those are the ones that show the least amount of growth in their material culture. And it is precisely those that display forms of monotheism” (W. Corduan). When all of the data are sifted and analyzed, Schmidt argues that one can discern the core belief of the earliest human cultures was monotheism, or a belief in “the Primitive High God” [one God].
…the goal of all work on the lines of the historical method is not to set up theories or hypotheses but to arrive at scientific certainty. Here we mean by ‘scientific certainty’ the facts which make up our picture of primitive religion, not indeed as atoms, but as an organic and mutually interdependent whole. …If we apply that criterion to the abundant mass of data which we can now produce regarding the primitive Supreme Being, the first thing to notice is that the total sum of facts is of a nature to satisfy the total sum of human needs…
Schmidt’s thesis is well grounded in his extensive research and analysis in historical, linguistic, and anthropological studies. Yet, his theory also fits perfectly with what the Bible teaches about original monotheism (in Genesis).
That being said, Corduan warns us of absolute certainty beyond all objections in Schmidt’s “original monotheism” theory.
Have we (that is to say, Wilhelm Schmidt, and those of us who support his cause) really shown that original monotheism is true beyond all conceivable objections? Of course, we have not. It would be impossible for any human to do so. …There is no scientific enterprise where eliminating all “conceivable” objections is the point
However, the point is that there are sound reasons (grounded in anthropology, linguistics) based on data in the field, that mankind worshipped one God from the very beginning of the human race.
Theistic Arguments Are Grounded in Both Reality and Scripture
Although this is not the main point of my post here, the second way in which one could argue for original monotheism is via theistic arguments. If theistic arguments (such as the cosmological, teleological and moral arguments) can succeed in establishing theism, then theism (properly defined) would be the default position in the history of humanity, and atheism only a recent development. In a twist of irony then, the so-called “primitive” monotheists of the Ancient Near East [i.e. Abraham & Moses] were more up-to-date, and in touch with reality than today’s modern sophisticated and “educated” atheist elites.
The Unique Message of Christianity: The Broken Relationship Between God and Man Is Restored in Christ
Finally, a brief word about the uniqueness of the Christian claim that is relevant to the question about original monotheism.
Christianity has its roots deeply embedded in the Old Testament and as such Jesus claimed to be the one promised and predicted from the writings of the Old Testament prophets Luke 4:14-21. Not only this, but He also made the audacious claim that He was God in human flesh John 8:21-58, even stating that He was the visible manifestation of the great “I Am” (Creator & Covenant making God) of Exodus 3 when Moses spoke with God face to face from the burning bush. In John 8 the Jewish leaders questioned Jesus about His true identity.
Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”…(Jesus said), Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!” “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds – John 8:53-8
When the Apostle Paul was waiting for his traveling companions in Athens he even made an appeal to the Athenian philosophers, to their belief in an “unknown God” in Acts 17. The Athenians, as well as most Greeks were well known for their polytheism dating to the time of Socrates and even before that.
For as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription TO THE UNNKOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you; ‘God who made the world and everything in it, since He is the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands, Nor is He worshipped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath and all things. And He has made from one blood, every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth and has appointed their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring’ “ – Acts 17:23-28
Paul then continued to proclaim Christ and His resurrection to which some of them mocked, some believed and yet others were curious to hear more Acts 17:32-34.
Christ came for one reason only and it was to perfectly reveal the God whose fellowship was broken with mankind in the garden. He restored the knowledge of God and even more by His death, burial and resurrection, showing the world what God is truly like. To see Jesus is to see God.
He is the image of the invisible God the first-born over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on the earth, visible and invisible…For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness [of deity] should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross – Col. 1:15-16, 19-20.
 Winfried Courduan, In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism (Nashville, B&H Academic, 2013), location 5409 Digital Edition
 F.E. Peters, The Monotheists: Jews, Christians and Muslims in Conflict and Competition, Vol. 1 The Peoples of God (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press) xix.
 Forward in Wilhelm Schmidt’s, The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories (Protorville, OH: Wythe-North Publishing, 2014) v.
 Ibid.,pp 219ff.
 W. Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories (Protorville, OH: Wythe-North Publishing) 283.
 Win Corduan, In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism (Nashville, B&H Academic, 2013), loc 5809 Digital Edition.