Whilst Rudolph Otto’s designation of ‘the holy’ as mysterium tremendum is not without its usefulness (as helpful descriptors of Isaiah 6 and Luke 2:9, and as a reminder that religion is more than disguised morality, for example), it is perhaps less helpful, as was foreseen by Barth and Brunner, than it has been considered in decades past. Otto has overstated his case. His understanding of holiness betrays an over-dependence, of which he is aware, on the residual rationalism of Kant and Fries. Also, although holiness certainly carries connotations of the mystery of divine power, it is far from the raw power that Otto describes. Not only does the biblical material point to a more christo-centric definition of holiness, but Otto’s notion of holiness is far too entrapped in a subjectivist framework to truly shed light on the broader spectrum of biblical teaching on holiness. Yet with all his Kantianism, Otto remains suspicious of Forsyth’s project of employing holiness as a moral category which serves to qualify the nature and goal of God’s love, accusing this route of narrowing and trivializing ‘the Holy’. Still, Otto has done us not a small service in bringing holiness onto the agenda of theological discourse.
That said, long before Otto, Forsyth was speaking of the ‘idea of the holy’ and challenging his romantic-love-besotted generation with the truth that ‘the holiness of God is the real foundation of religion’ and that the prime petition of the Lord’s Prayer is ‘Hallowed be thy name’. Indeed, the entire prayer is there to serve the holiness of God. Forsyth insists that concepts like love, grace, faith, and sin mean nothing apart from God’s holiness – as they arise from it, return to it, satisfy it, show it forth, set it up, and secure it ubiquitously forever. It is not enough that evil should be restrained. ‘Holiness had to be set up and secured in history.’