You Are Gods: Does the Bible Teach Polytheism?

If you ask some religions, the OT/NT teaches a plurality of gods.  In fact, said Joseph Smith, the gods created the heavens and the earth.  Other religions also teach a plurality of gods, more popularly known as polytheism.  What is the Christian to do when he or she runs across passages in the Bible like Psalm 82.6 and John 10.34-36 (I said, you are gods, sons of the Most High)?  Well, first of, we should not set our mad heads above Scripture, as Luther said.  Second, we allow clear passages help interpret the less clear passages.  Third, we have to understand – as Scripture presents itself – that the Bible is accommodated to humans.  God has “bent over” to speak “baby talk” to dim and sinful humans.  With these three things in mind, consider again the “gods” language in the Bible.

Scripture teaches a vast distinction between Creator and creature.  For example, in Isaiah 44.6, Yahweh says, I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god (cf. Jn 17.3, 1 Cor 8.6, Eph 4.6, etc).  In no uncertain terms, the Bible tells us that Yahweh is the creator and sustainer of all things; he is not subject to time or space or physical laws as are creatures.  One only has to read Job 38-42 and Isaiah 40-50 to see that God is neither contained nor constrained by the created and contingent world.  In other words, the gulf between Creator and creature is sharply defined: he is God and not a man (Hos 11.9; cf. Num 23.19, Is 55.8); his ways are beyond tracing and his mind is past finding out (Rom 11.33).

Taking these things in mind, when we see “gods” language in Scripture, the first thing we do is affirm that these “gods” are part of the created order.  Gods are not the Creator, but part of the creation.  These gods did not help Yahweh create, for he alone created all things by himself (Is 44.24).  These gods were not in existence before God spoke all things into being.  “Gods” in Scripture refers to angels, magistrates, and even to false gods (Ex 20.3, Ps 82.1, Is 37.19, 1 Cor 8.5, etc.).  Scripture never refers to these gods as having any of the essential (incommunicable) attributes of Yahweh – none of them are without beginning or end, none of them are simple (not made up of parts), none of them are immutable, none of them are omniscient or omnipresent or all-hearing.  Yahweh Elohim alone has the essential attributes of the true God; the other elohim do not. This is the theological side of this question/answer.

The grammatical/linguistic side is also helpful.  In human terms, it shouldn’t puzzle us too much to say that there is one true God but other gods who are less, not divine, and even sometimes non-existent, a figment of our idol-imagination.  For example, we say there is one President of the U.S.; there are other presidents (of the P.T.A., Country Club, etc.) and there are imposters (people who make themselves president of something), but only one real president, the president.  Again, this has to do with analogy and accommodation.  Or, in the language of the Reformed scholastics, “Jehovah alone designates God himself and no other, while Elohim is applied analogically to other beings” (Muller, PRRD, III.266).  Scripture uses language this way often: God alone is King, but there are other kings.  God alone is Lord, but there are other lords.  God alone is our Father, while there are other fathers.

Next time the Mormon missionary knocks on your door, and reacts violently to you saying “I am no polytheist like Joseph Smith,” lovingly press him on the Creator/creature distinction.  This is really the heart of the matter: the Mormon doctrine of God is really Mormon doctrine of Gods because they do not affirm a Creator/creature distinction as the OT/NT teach. “I said you are gods,” (Ps. 82.6) does not mean humans are or will be gods that transcend the created order and attain godhood; it does not mean that humans will ever have any essential (incommunicable) attributes of Yahweh.  It does mean that in the “creaturely” and “contingently” way, humans are/can be gods (i.e. rulers, authorities, etc.), as Ps. 82.7 clearly notes.

shane lems

sunnyside wa