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Henotheism is a temporany form of monotheism that places exclusive devotion on a single Deity, worshipped as the one and only God for a short period of time; it could be best explained as the "belief in individual gods appearing alternatively as the highest gods". Henotheism is confused with monolatry sometimes, but they are different concepts of religious belief.
The term Henotheism was originally coined in 1860 by Friedrich Max Müller, a German Indologist, philologist and historian of comparative religion. Müller applied it to the temporany, ritual and liturgical worship of one single God at a time, especially in Vedas; thus, is a form of devotion that was practiced by Hindus only. He employed it in conjunction with the term Kathenotheism in order to distinguish Hinduism (Vedic Religion in particular) from Greco-Roman polytheism and Abrahamic monotheisms, and present Hindu beliefs in a more comprehensible way to European scholars that knew nothing of Eastern religious traditions.
The distinction between monotheism and henotheism was stated by Müller as follows:
“”If therefore, an expression had been given to that primitive intuition of the Deity which is the mainspring of all later religions, it would have been - There is a god, but not yet There is but One God. The latter form of faith, the belief in One God, is properly called Monotheism, whereas the term of Henotheism would best express the faith in a single god.
Afterwards, his contemporary religious scholars (among them, his colleagues) tried to give a more precise definition of the term, and its correlation to monotheism and monolatry; aside from slight differences, they all agreed with Müller that henotheism is a legitimate but nonetheless temporany form of monotheism.[note 1] However, both the terms Henotheism and Kathenotheism have soon become obsolete, and hardly survived criticism from late academics.
We can see the last stages of the evolution from henotheism to monolatry, and finally from monolatry to monotheism within the pages of the Hebrew Bible itself. At first the Hebrews practiced henotheism as seen in the commandment by Yahweh/El to have "no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:2-6), which only makes sense if other gods are held to exist.[note 2] After the Hebrews became fully monotheistic around the time of the Babylonian Captivity, and Yahweh started to be regarded as the only One God of Israel, the injunction against idolatry remained in the Scriptures as an admonishment: according to the Israelites, to worship other people's gods in foreign lands meant to abandon their national God and the Land of Israel. Thus, Jewish monotheism was the outcome of this process of isolation and stabilization of their ethno-religious identity during the Exile.[note 3]
Christianity, which retains the Old Testament as scripture, also condemns idolatry and explains this peculiarity by merging all Baal worship or Marduk worship (or even the veneration of Mary, according to Protestants) into Satan worship. That way the commandment from God not to worship other gods is not tacit acknowledgment of the existence of other gods, but simply God trying to keep people from being snared by the wiles of the Devil.
Mormonism's doctrine that God the Father is but one of many Gods shares a few similarities with henotheism, but is distinguished from it by the the absence of recognition of other gods (including resurrected humans granted their own universe over which to rule) in any devotional sense - only God the Father, and God the Son Jehovah/Jesus Christ are held to be worthy of devotion.
Moreover, Mormons have been frequently criticized by other Christians (mostly Trinitarians) because they don't accept the Trinity as it was established in the Nicene Creed; Mormons are more prone to define their conception of the Godhead as a "social" interrelation between God the Father (the "Supreme Being" and "Creator"), God the Son and Holy Ghost: they all form the Godhead, but they're also autonomous and distinct Persons; the Father and the Son have physical bodies, whereas the Holy Ghost has a spiritual one (this definition of the Triune God has been accused of "Tritheism"). Thus, Mormons are charged with heresy by some Trinitarian Churches.
“”In Müller's judgement "henotheism" is a natural, unreflective, but legitimate expression of monotheism. As with "monolatry" the term is now used of an intermediate stage between "polytheism" and "monotheism". Frequently "monolatry" and "henotheism" are used as synonyms [...]. Attempts have been made to differentiate the terms. Meek [...] understood monolatry as a devotion to one god in which other deities were excluded, and henotheism as a devotion to one god in which other deities were absorbed. M. Rose sees "henotheism" as a temporany devotion to one god, "monolatry" as the close relationship between a community and a god. He notes, however, that some regard "monolatry" as an enduring devotion to one god [...]. A definition of "henotheism" as a temporany devotion to one god finds a basis in Müller [...]. Henotheism is seen as a religious stage in which temporarily one god was adored and the plurality of gods disappeared from view.
—Nathan MacDonald, Deuteronomy and the Meaning of "Monotheism", pp. 53-54.
“”When one god possesses much greater power and authority than all the other gods combined, researchers call the religion a henotheism. A henotheism stands between polytheism (in which there are many gods, each with relatively equal power and authority) and monotheism (in which there is one god and no other supernatural agents of any kind). In the ancient Near East, every patron god was the divine king in a henotheism, and all other gods were subordinate to him. In most henotheisms, humans were permitted to worship many gods, but the patron remained in charge. This approach offered the human king a practical advantage. The king could permit the gods of popular piety a place in the divine realm without taking the risk that one of these alternate gods might threaten his own religious and political supremacy. Henotheism was a religious umbrella under which every god, no matter how minor, could find a place.
On rare occasions, so-called intolerant henotheism was imposed. In this case, worship of lesser gods was prohibited and the patron god alone received worship. Some researchers call this intolerant henotheism a monolatry, which means "worship of only one". Many portions of the Bible express monolatry. For example, when Yahweh declares that he is a jealous god who banishes all other gods from his presence, the author of this commandment does not deny that other gods exist but prohibits worship of them (Deuteronomy 5:7-10). Likewise, when Micah announces that other kingdoms will walk "each in the name of its god", but Israel will walk in the name of Yahweh, Micah does not deny that other gods might be real (Micah 4:5).
—K. L. Noll, Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: A Textbook on History and Religion (2013), p. 188, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, ISBN 978-05-67-20488-2.
“”The Great Religions of Western civilization, Judaism and those that followed, are all monotheistic: they claim that the God they worship is the only god there is. The Bible is an important source of this conception, but the scriptures of ancient Israel actually offer a more complicated picture. [...]
Scripture repeatedly emphasizes the foreign origin and the foreign connection of gods other than YHWH; Jeremiah ties the worship of such gods to the threat of exile; if the people insist on worshiping other nations' gods, they will wind up having to worship those gods in the other nations' lands. Monotheism thus became a by-product of patriotism (or xenophobia), of the wish to streghthen Israel's identity by purging its life of elements that were felt to be of foreign origin.
But still the question remains: this process of ongoing exclusion did not have to result in the denial of the other gods' very existence. [...] The other so-called gods are not YHWH's rivals: if anything, they are his agents and servants. They are surely no more than that.
—Robert Goldenberg, The Origins of Judaism: From Canaan to the Rise of Islam (2007), pp. 26-35, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-84453-6.
- Nathan MacDonald, Deuteronomy and the Meaning of "Monotheism" (2012), pp. 53-54, Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck (2nd and Revised edition), ISBN 978-3-16-151680-1.
- A. Van Selms, "Temporany Henotheism", Symbolae Biblicae et Mesopotamicae (FS. F. de Liangre Böhl; [M. Beek-A. Kampen, eds.] Leiden 1974), pp. 341-348.
- Hermann Oldenberg, The Religion of the Veda (1993), p. 59, Delhi, Motital Banarsidass, ISBN 81-208-0392-2.
- Sharada Sugirtharajah, Imagining Hinduism: A Postcolonial Perspective (2004), pp. 43-45, NY, Routledge, ISBN 0-203-63749-6.
- Arthur B. Keith, The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads, Part 1 (1989), p. 89, Harvard Oriental Series Vol. 31 (Delhi, Motital Banarsidass, Harvard University Press), ISBN 81-208-0645-x.
- See the Wikipedia article on Origins of Judaism.
- D. C. Peterson and S. D. Ricks, "Comparing LDS Beliefs with First-Century Christianity" (March 1988), lds.org
- T. L. Givens, P. L. Barlow, The Oxford Handbook of Mormonism (2015), pp. 638-640, NY, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-977836-2.
- "God the Father", True to the Faith (2004), 74–76, lds.org
- G. B. Hinckley, "The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost" (March 1998), lds.org
- See the Wikipedia article on God in Mormonism.