On the recommendation of Ken Keathley, I recently read Winfried Corduan’s In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism. I don’t intend to summarize or review the book here, but to comment on a few things that particularly struck me as I read.
1. This book demonstrates the requirements of good scholarship. I have not read extensively in earlier anthropological debates, but it appears that Corduan has, or at least he had to in order to produce this book. Good scholarship is not easy, or quick. Corduan rightly chides many of the participants of these earlier anthropological debates for failing to read the work of their interlocutors. This leads me to my second observation.
2. Bias exists, and it can be powerful. Wilhelm Schmidt, one of the early advocates of the original monotheism view–and major focus of Corduan’s book–became increasingly frustrated that his opponents outright dismissed the field reports, observations, and conclusions of missionaries simply because they were missionaries. Corduan writes:
It is nothing new to me to have the truth of something I have written questioned by people who have not read a word of it, simply on the basis of my personal beliefs. Such folks are accountable for themselves. One could point out that they are guilty of the alleged prejudice of which they are accusing Schmidt or me, but what else can one say? I am reminded of Schmidt’s memorable phrase in the first volume of Der Ursprung in connection with the offhand rejection of reports by missionaries just because they were missionaries: “This nonsense has got to stop!” Also, it occurs to me that it might help to remind these folks that a lot of people will notice that they are putting their biases ahead of scholarly interaction. (Kindle Locations 91-96).
3. With my previous research on Insider Movement theory, I couldn’t help but think of an issue that cropped up in my dissertation research and writing. In his article “Inside What?” Kevin Higgins writes:
Third, the Bible describes ways in which God is at work in other religions, and suggests in at least some cases that members of other religions are in relationship with God Himself. Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek (a pagan priest of ‘God Most High’) shows us that the author of Genesis sees El and Yahweh as the same Being. The fact that Abraham offers a tithe suggests an acceptance of the validity of Melchizedek’s priesthood and thus, religion. This acceptance is confirmed by the New Testament view of Melchizedek as one of the crucial precursors of the Messiah. This is an astonishing acknowledgement of God’s work in another religious tradition. (p. 85, emphases added)
Higgins seems to be arguing here that Melchizedek, apparently a resident of Canaan, participated in Canaanite forms of worship and religion, but was worshiping “God Most High.” Higgins further supports this by suggesting that the author of Genesis sees El and Yahweh as the same being (with El being a Canaanite term for God).
Besides the fact that Higgins’ view rests significantly on assumptions related to Melchizedek’s geographical location, the original monotheism view described in Corduan’s book argues against Higgins’ approach in at least two ways. First, Ulf Oldgenburg believes that “El and Yahweh were originally identical and not two originally different gods who were secondarily identified.” Furthermore, he concludes that “Yahweh was identified with El in his original glory and omnipotence , before knowledge of El was defiled by Canaanite apostasy.” (The Conflict Between El and Ba’al in Canaanite Religion, p. 175) In other words, Melchizedek was not taking his cues from Canaanite religion, but Canaanite religion was a corruption of the original monotheism.
Second, to suggest that Melchizedek was worshiping within “another religious tradition,” runs counter to both the Genesis narrative and the original monotheism view. As Carson notes:
When the Melchizedek passage is placed within the developing narrative within the book of Genesis, one can no longer think of monotheism emerging after endless struggles with pagan polytheism. It is far more natural in reading the account to suppose that there were still people who believed in the one true God, people who preserved some memory of God’s gracious self-disclosure to Noah, people who revered the memory of the severe lesson of Babel. (Carson, Gagging of God, p. 250)
(For an expanded discussion on this topic, see pages 39-41 of my dissertation.)
For those not familiar with anthropological issues and terminology, parts of Corduan’s work may be challenging to read, but I concur with Dr. Keathley: “If you care about missiology, apologetics, anthropology, or theology of religions, then you are going to want to read this book.”