Holiness according to Otto – 3

In a number of passages Otto seems to be taking a direct stab at Ritschlianism, arguing that the delineation of ‘Jesus’ faith in the fatherhood of God … certainly misrepresents’ the New Testament. The New Testament Father, he asserts, is far more holy, numinous, mysterious than his Kingdom. ‘He represents the sublimation and the consummation of all that the old Covenant had grasped by way of “creature-consciousness”, “holy awe”, and the like.’ Not surprisingly, therefore, Otto identifies Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane as the ‘awe of the creature before the mysterium tremendum, before the shuddering secret of the numen’ rather than as the struggle of a Son who sees the painful implications of a loving Father’s will.

With regard to Luther, Otto argues that the non-rational in Luther’s religion has come to be ignored, even by Lutherans who have ‘not done justice to the numinous side of the Christian idea of God. By the exclusively moral interpretation [they] gave to the terms, [they] distorted [and rationalized] the meaning of “holiness” and “wrath”.’

The echoes of Otto in biblical scholarship are noteworthy. James Dunn recently noted that ‘wherever the concept of “holiness” appears in the biblical material, underlying it is a sense of the mysterious otherness and aweful power of the divine, of God.’ Von Rad describes this otherness and power as ‘the great stranger in the human world … a datum of experience which can never really be co-ordinated into the world in which man is at home, and over against which he initially feels fear rather than trust – it is, in fact, the “wholly other”’. Something of this ‘aweful power’ and ‘fear’ is recalled in the story of Aaron’s first day on his new job as Israel’s high-priest when he lost his two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1-3). The story reminds us that ‘God has never lightly suffered the desecration of the holy’ and that ‘it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God’. In Habakkuk’s experience, ‘I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me’ (Hab 3:16a).

Tozer describes ‘the moral shock suffered by us through our mighty break with the high will of heaven [which] has left us all with a permanent trauma affecting every part of our nature.’ Philosophically, this encounter with the ‘irrational’ results in a sort of ‘wonder’ as described by Josef Pieper:

‘The innermost meaning of wonder is fulfilled in a deepened sense of mystery. It does not end in doubt, but is the awakening of the knowledge that being . . . is mysterious and inconceivable, and that it is a mystery in the full sense of the word: neither a dead end, nor a contradiction, nor even something impenetrable and dark; mystery really means that a reality, the singular existing thing, is inconceivable because it is an inexhaustible source of light, and for ever unfathomable.’

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