When and Where
When did monotheism begin? The seventeenth century, say some
"Who invented real monotheism? That is, the idea not
only that the god of Abraham was supreme but that he was alone? One
persuasive recent scholar thinks this may have been the
fourth-century writer Firmicus Maternus, whose surviving books
include an astrological manual and a fiercely antipagan tract whose
enthusiasm may derive as much from his desire to please the reigning
emperor as from any theological passion of his own. The issue is so
contentious that one of that scholar’s reviewers insisted on dating
the innovation to the seventeenth century!"
(O'Donnell, James J.
(2015-03-17). Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise
of Christianity (p. 65). HarperCollins.)
If we're waiting for everyone to agree, we'll wait forever; the
Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses do not agree even at this late
date, they say there are
many gods. One should not, and cannot, describe Milton's system as
true monotheism, it is rather a synthesis, a combination of two
different theologies. It did not start with him, though he is likely
to have provided the transmission line through which it passed to
Joseph Smith and Charles Taze Russell. It is not very likely that an
earnest inquirer sitting down with the Old and New Testament could
rediscover some a complex construction! It must have
started when the gospel was presented to pagans who had not even
been God-fearers. These people could not bring themselves to believe
their former religion had been an exercise in self-delusion, though
they could accept it had been rather on the left hand than on the
right. In time, entire nations were ushered into the kingdom of God; when
the barbarian chieftain accepted baptism so did his people, not having
been taught nor believing their former views were in error. The realm of
nature was already fully populated with gods who managed its various
aspects. These were never ejected by the Northern barbarians, just
demoted a few steps. Nature thus became the realm of Satan, which no doubt
found resonance in the Manichaean survivals so popular in the following
period, like Catharism. Hints of these ideas are found in some of the early Christian
writers, though the partial fusion of medieval Christendom, and the full fusion of the Renaissance lay in the future.
If one is looking for a full and complete presentation of the
monotheistic system, it's Moses, though there is no real reason to question the
patriarchs' faith. That the pagans were wasting their time was stated
also very clearly by the psalmist and by the prophets:
"Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.
They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not:
they have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not:
they have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat.
They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them."
The pagans did not think they were trusting to a block of wood,
they imagined the block to be inhabited; but since there was,
objectively, nobody home, they were in fact worshipping a
useless piece of inert material. Gods made by human hands are no
gods. The atheist or the skeptic could not describe pagan
worship in more scathing terms than did the prophets of Israel. It was a
waste of time, pure and simple. Some people just couldn't bring
to believe it.
The consequences of this system were unintended but brutal. In
the Dark Ages, tribes and nations were 'converted' to Christianity
in batches; they were not really even nominal believers, just
baptized pagans. Ambrose, in the late fourth century, still understood that
Jupiter had nothing to do with the thunder, and the people who thought
he did were fools: "Let them also ascribe to Jupiter the thunderbolts
which he did not possess, so that they witness to the disgrace with
which he was laden." (Ambrose, Concerning Virgins, Book 3, Chapter 2,
Section 7). But the recently converted barbarians retained certain convictions about the world: they
heard Thor's hammer in the thunder storm, not the voice of Jehovah. They
might believe, for instance, that one could start a tempest by
dropping a stone into a certain lake. Everyone knew how to do it,
but you should not do it; magic wasn't futile, it was just a bit
So when we look at the witch trials that convulsed Europe,
we wonder: where did these people get the idea that witches could
start a tempest? Why did they believe society needed to be protected
against this terribly powerful source of harm and damage to crops
and farm animals? It's not like the Bible says that the storm is the
voice of pagan gods, or devils, and that the witch controls them. It
was all paganism. They believed this because they learned it at
their grandmother's knee. The 'gods=demons' equation, on equal
terms, was the back-door through which all manner of paganism could
be smuggled into Christendom. It's better not to go that route in
the first place. It's simply not correct that the Bible teaches paganism is
wonderfully effective at achieving its goals.
The Renaissance saw a revival of interest in pagan culture.
Esteem for pagan authors had never been lost; to Thomas Aquinas,
Aristotle is 'the Philosopher,' and Plato too had his admirers
during the middle ages. This narrow focus, as misfortune
would have it, spot-lighted the most anti-democratic authors whose works
survive from the age of democracy. During the modestly named 'Renaissance,'
this focus broadened out to include ancient
writings on morals, history and even
pagan theology, the last a topic in which the medievals had no interest. John
Milton squared the circle and reconciled pagan theology with
Christianity, marrying these two incompatible parts into one jumbo system. Like many of his contemporaries,
Milton wanted to have his cake and eat it too; he wanted to write
pagan poetry like his Comus,
"What hath night to do with sleep?
Night hath better
sweets to prove;
Venus now wakes, and wakens Love.
Come, let us our rights begin;
’Tis only daylight that makes sin,
Which these dun shades will ne’er report." (John Milton, Comus).
. . .and also not go to Hell. In any event, no one, not Charles
Taze Russell nor his followers, should base theology on this
conglomeration of disparate and inharmonious parts, myths about the 'Titans'
melded with the Christian gospel. So the next time the
Jehovah's Witnesses tell you something like this: "The demon controlling
the man is actually one of Satan's angels." (The Greatest Man Who Ever
Lived, Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, p. 23),— ask them,
'How is it that you know this? Chapter and verse, please.' Do not let
them get away with saying, 'But everybody knows this,' because all that
means is 'It's in Paradise Lost.'
John Milton's vision was a spring-board for Joseph Smith as well,
though one can scarcely blame the blind bard for this unlooked-for
outcome: "Devils are demons, the spirit beings cast out of heaven
for rebellion. (Rev. 12:7-9)" (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine,
p. 190); "Devils are the spirit beings who followed Lucifer in his
war of rebellion in pre-existence. They comprise one-third of those
spirit children of the Father who were destined to pass through a
mortal probation on this earth." (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon
Doctrine, pp. 195-196). What reason is there to assume that all
'spirit' creatures are of one and the same species, rather than
divided into different and non-intersecting species as are material
beings? No one supposes that 'turtles' and 'elephants' must be different
stages of the same life-form, simply because both are 'material,' so
why assume 'demons' and 'angels' share a common nature merely
because both are 'spirit'? Yet once that supposition is admitted, how far
can it be taken? Suppose that all spirit beings are one and the same thing,
only in different conditions and stages of progression rather than of
different nature. Of course John Milton, who evidence suggests was
an Arian heretic but no Mormon, never took his own line of thinking
this far. Again, ask for scripture when visiting Mormon missionaries
'explain' that demons are fallen angels; since there is none, asking
closes the door. The Bible no more says that demons are fallen angels than
it says that they are human criminals executed at the cross-roads. While
people are free to indulge in creative speculation, no binding
doctrinal conclusions follow therefrom.
Muslims challenge infidels to produce as noble a work
of literature as the Koran, believing that those who cannot do so,
must concede the inspiration of that document. This challenge is laid down
in the Koran itself: "The boldest argument for the divine inspiration of
the Quran was its inimitability, primarily its literary excellence. .
.This is the challenge of the Quran: no one can produce anything that
rivals it." (Nabeel Qureshi, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, p. 224). The Koran is not, in
fact, the greatest work of literature ever written, because it lacks
any organization above the level of the verse; the suras, themselves cobbled
together of heterogeneous material, are ordered according to length. If several verses are
strung together in meaningful sequence, that is a sustained effort
for the unlettered prophet of seventh century Arabia. "The chapters are
simply random compilations of sayings." (Hussein Hajji Wario, Cracks in
the Crescent, p. 57). In judging literary excellence, it is not
unreasonable to look for organic structure, the kind of
interconnectedness one finds in a living organism. So the Koran fails
its own test.
But heaven help us if proponents of John Milton's theology demand
that we produce something comparable before we can refute him! No
can do. Fortunately we do not have to produce a poem as
beautiful as John Milton's 'Paradise Lost' to retain our right to
point out, that the theology isn't quite right.