God’s Holiness

I was glad to be up on Aotea (Great Barrier Island) last week to speak to a group of mostly teenagers and twenty-somethings at an event called Going Further. My brief: talk about (i) God’s goodness and trustworthiness, and (ii) God’s holiness. A number of people have asked me for a copy of the talks. They were not recorded, and, as per my usual practice, I departed often and widely from my notes. But for those who may be interested in the thrust of what I said, I thought it worth posting my notes here. The talk on God’s goodness and trustworthiness is available here, and below are my notes on the second talk, on God’s holiness.

God’s Holiness

I want to begin tonight by re-reading the passage that I shared the other night from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe where the Beaver’s are telling the Pevensie kids about Aslan:

‘Is – is he a man?’ asked Lucy. ‘Aslan a man!’ said Mr. Beaver sternly. ‘Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion’. ‘Ooh’, said Susan, ‘I thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion’. ‘That you will, dearie, and make no mistake’, said Mrs. Beaver; ‘if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly’. ‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king I tell you’.[1]

And later on in the series, in the book The Last Battle, Lewis writes of Aslan: ‘“Do you think I keep him in my wallet, fools?” … “Who am I that I could make Aslan appear at my bidding? He’s not a tame lion”’.[2]

These words go a long way in saying something important about what we mean by God’s holiness: that holiness is, in a sense, foreign to us. That holiness is, in a sense, other than us. That holiness is, in a sense, all about the fact that we can’t pin God down or control God or use God to serve our own ends. The language of holiness reminds us that God is God and that creatures are creatures, and that we ought not too hastily confuse the two.

We live in an age in which much has become trivialised and demeaned. And one place that that’s manifested is in our attitude toward the sacred, toward creation, toward life itself. And if we go to many churches, we are probably more likely to gain an impression that Jesus is a kind of celestial boyfriend who never embarrasses us than we are to learn of the great otherness of God and of the sacred mystery which is life. And in the circus that so often characterises the Church’s worship, and in our efforts to exalt human nature, God has been stripped of majesty, and awe-fulness, and transcendence. Of course, transcendence is something that used to be reinforced in the church’s architecture and in the community’s worship space. When we enter a cathedral and we look up at the majestically-high ceiling, we are reminded that God is big, that God is far away, and that we are small. But in our modern multi-purpose entertainment centres, the ceiling feels almost within reach, and God is not so big, and we are not so small. This reflects a change in theology – both in our thinking about God and about ourselves. God used to be bigger and we used to smaller. But now God is not so big, and we are not so small! Or so modernity’s narrative goes.

And in the flattening out of our worldview and of history (what we call secularisation), the holy God has been sanitised. And this has some profound implications, as one commentator noted:

The loss of the traditional vision of God as holy … is the key to understanding why sin and grace have become such empty terms. What depth or meaning … can these terms have except in relation to the holiness of God? Divorced from the holiness of God, sin is merely self-defeating behavior or a breach in etiquette. Divorced from the holiness of God, grace is merely empty rhetoric, pious window dressing for the modern technique by which sinners work out their own salvation. Divorced from the holiness of God, our gospel becomes indistinguishable from any of a host of alternative self-help doctrines. Divorced from the holiness of God, our public morality is reduced to little more than an accumulation of trade-offs between competing private interests. Divorced from the holiness of God, our worship becomes mere entertainment. The holiness of God is the very cornerstone of Christian faith, for it is the foundation of reality. Sin is defiance of God’s holiness, the Cross is the outworking and victory of God’s holiness, and faith is the recognition of God’s holiness. Knowing that God is holy is therefore the key to knowing life as it truly is, knowing Christ as he truly is, knowing why he came, and knowing how life will end.[3]

When I hear of God being addressed as ‘my mate’ and as ‘cool’ (as I did at a church service just last Sunday), and even word ‘Lord’ used with seemingly little thought of the implications of naming God as such, I think of the God that confronts Ezekiel and Isaiah and Adam and Mary, and I wonder what Bible people are reading! It’s certainly not the book in which the word ‘holy’ appears 779 times.[4] (For the record the word ‘love’ appears 586 times, ‘justice’ 165 times, ‘good’ 827 times.)

The theme of holiness is, of course, first introduced in the creation narrative in reference to the Sabbath – the day that God ‘sanctified’. But the first time that the actual word ‘holy’ is used in the Bible is in Exodus 3 which recounts Moses’ encounter with the burning bush:

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.  3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”  4 When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”  5 Then God said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” 6 God said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exod 3.1–6)

Here is God’s chosen servant being told ‘Come no closer’. This passage reminds me of one of the most famous and influential books ever written on the subject of holiness.[5] It’s called The Idea of Holy (first published in 1917) and it was written by a German theologian named Rudolf Otto.

Otto studied how people from different cultures and different religions ‘behave’ and ‘feel’ when they encounter something they regard as ‘holy’. And the first thing that he discovered was that people have a difficult time describing exactly what ‘the holy’ is. No matter what their description of the experience was, there was always an element that defied explanation. It wasn’t that this element was irrational. Rather, it was kind of ‘super-rational’; it was beyond words. And what Otto discovered was that when it comes to holiness, human language actually reaches its limit.

And I think that Otto is right here. And that’s why the grammar of God’s holiness is most clearly preserved in the church’s liturgy and in prayer and in song – in those arenas of human activity where God is spoken to rather than spoken about, where God is realised and praised rather than analysed and appraised, and where the burden of feeling like we need to nail down a tight definition and explanation is not only less pressing, but if pressed is likely to lead to distortion.

Otto believed that every religion deals with this sense of mystery, what he called ‘feelings of the non-rational and numinous’ or the ‘sheer absolute wondrousness that transcends thought’. And the universal human response to this overpowering experience, Otto said, was both dread (‘mysterium tremendum’) and fascination (‘mysterium fascinans’). He described it like this:

The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its ‘profane’, non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost gristly horror and shuddering. It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of – whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.[6]

If you’re a horror movie buff like me, you’ll know something of that feeling of both dread and fascination that Otto is talking about. I know that I’ll be frightened if I watch, but I can’t turn away either.

Remember Mrs. Beaver: ‘if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly’. ‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king I tell you’.[7] And it goes on: Peter replies, ‘I’m longing to see him … even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point’.[8]

And what strikes me about the Exodus 3 passage that we read earlier is that it tells me that holiness is both terror-inducing and intimate. The same Moses who hides his face because he is ‘afraid to look at God’ (v. 6) is the same Moses who hears God’s gracious promise to personally intervene in the liberation of his people from slavery in Egypt and makes a promise to Moses, ‘I will be with you’ (v. 12). So holiness is not just about separation from those things which are ordinary or profane, but it’s also about belonging and liberation and identity and vocation in God. No wonder that after they were delivered from the Egypt, the Israelites broke out in song:

‘Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?’ (Exod 15.11)

So what’s a good definition of God’s holiness? Here’s one that I like:

‘God’s holiness is the majestic incomparability, difference and purity which he is in himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and which is manifest and operative in the economy of his works in love with which he elects, reconciles and perfects human partners for fellowship with himself’. (John Webster)[9]

In other words, God’s holiness refers to the fact that God cannot be compared to anything created. God is not only beyond created realities, but God is also other than creation. And God is majestically pure, not as a lonely monad but as a community of other-person-centred life. And we see God’s holiness in the way that God elects humanity to be his covenant partner, in the way that God reconciles humanity to himself in Christ, and in the way that God patiently goes on to bring humanity to full maturity in the perfection of the Spirit.

And the Bible talks not only about God as holy but also about other things and places and people that God sets apart or marks off or withdraws or consecrates for some special purpose.[10] Things we might call tapu. So the Bible talks about holy ground, the holy Sabbath, a holy nation, a holy place, holy linen, holy coat, a holy house, a holy tithe, holy censers, holy oil, holy bread, holy seed, a holy covenant, the holy of holies, a holy field, a holy jubilee, holy water, teh holy ark, the holy word, the holy city, holy ones (saints), etc.

Now none of these things is holy in itself. Only God is that. But these things have what we might call a borrowed holiness.

And what a list like this tells us is that holiness is not just concerned with itself but that God desires to see holiness – i.e., to see himself – reflected in creation. God desires to look at creation as if it is a mirror.

And so from within a creation existing under the bondage of its own decay, God chooses an unholy people – Israel – and sets them apart – sanctifies them, makes them a holy nation – in order that they might be – in their life together – a mirror and a copy of Yahweh’s holy love in the world. And in this act of election the people of God actually come to share in God’s holiness. And God speaks to them a command which is in a very real sense a command spoken over all creation and which gives us a clue into why creation exists in the first place: ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’ (Lev 11.45).[11]

In other words, not only is God holy, but we who are God’s image bearers are called to reflect, to be a mirror, of God’s holiness in the world. And the OT prophets, again and again, are trying to outline for us what this ‘You shall be holy’ actually looks like on the ground, as it were. And they identify Israel’s holiness with the care for the most vulnerable in their midst (for refugees, orphans, widows and the poor), with just practices in the courts, and with other activities like the denunciation of idolatry. There is no pietism here!

And as we were so beautifully reminded of this morning from Isaiah 6,[12] creaturely holiness cannot be reached apart from judgement. And we experience this judgement not only internally in the human conscience but also in being gathered up in the judgements that come upon creation itself – in famine and flood and earthquake – judgements which are experienced now in the devastation and rape and groaning of life itself.

And so to speak of God’s holiness is to recall that aspect of God’s love which is not satisfied with creation just existing on its own terms. The Creator is not prepared to let creation go its own way or to leave it to its own devices.[13] So there is (as we saw this morning in the Isaiah passage) what we might call the annihilating or ‘cauterising’[14] power of holiness which purifies all things. In other words, it’s the holiness which confronts us and which overcomes us in our sin. For, you see, creation’s holiness is not reached apart from judgement. In fact, God’s judgement is our great hope because judgement is the form that love takes, the action that love takes, in the face of evil. We are not saved by escaping God’s judgement. We are saved by going through the judgement in Christ. And what I trust that we will see tonight is that the final judgement is not something that is coming in the future but that the final judgement has already taken place in the Son of God’s love who is, as one writer put it, ‘God’s holiness in human form’.[15]

And Jesus unveils God’s holiness to us as the Son for whom nothing was dearer than his Holy Father and for whom nothing was more paramount than hallowing his Father’s name. In fact, I believe that the whole of history is an outworking and fulfilling of the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.’ That’s what Jesus is doing all throughout his ministry – he’s answering that prayer, he’s hallowing the Father’s name. And that’s what the Spirit is calling the people of God to participate in – in Jesus’ work of hallowing the Father’s name.

So what does holiness look like when it comes among us, when it gets into our face? In order to answer that question, I want us to look together at a story recorded in chapter 5 of Mark’s Gospel:

21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea.  22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet  23 and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”  24 So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.  25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.  26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.  27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,  28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”  29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.  30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”  31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’”  32 He looked all around to see who had done it.  33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.  34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5.21–34)

This woman dashes onto the stage for 10 verses. She’s got no name. She’s got no idea of who Jesus really is. He represents for her the last straw in a long line of doctors and miracle workers that she has spent all of her money on and over a decade seeing. And because of her medical condition, she has been treated like a leper in her community for 12 years. For 12 years, she has been tormented by guilt and anxiety. For 12 years, she has been untouched … and untouchable. She has been unable to hug her kids. She has been unable to make a cup of tea for a friend or to eat at the same table as her family. And for 12 years, no one has invited her to their home. Now she doesn’t want to know Jesus. She’s not seeking a relationship with him, but she wants to be healed. She wants to be restored to her community. She wants to be able to go to her kids’ birthday party and make love with her husband. She wants to be able to prepare a meal for her family and enjoy a day out with her friends. And she hears reports of this guy in town who heals people and so, at the end of her tether, she goes along to check it out, and she moves in on Jesus from behind … anonymously in a crowd.

This is the man who deliberately touched unclean lepers and corpses. This is the man who made a point of eating with prostitutes and calling ‘sinners’ his friends. This is the man who deliberately went out of his way to do almost everything that the OT prohibits us, and especially priests – who are meant to be the model of what it means to be ‘holy’ – from doing. But would he allow this woman to touch him, to pollute him, to make him ceremonially unclean? Would he allow this woman to place him under the wrath and judgement of God? Because that’s what she does when she touches him.

You see, God does not heal us by standing over against us, diagnosing our sickness, prescribing medicine for us to take, and then leaving us to get better by obeying his instructions – like an ordinary doctor might. No, God becomes the patient! God assumes the very humanity which is in need of healing, and by being anointed by the Spirit in our humanity, by a life of being completely given over to hallowing the Father’s name, our humanity is healed in him.[16]

C.S. Lewis once said, ‘Prostitutes are in no danger of finding their present life so satisfactory that they cannot turn to God: the proud, the avaricious, the self-righteous, are in that danger’.[17] What Lewis is saying is that if you can look at your life and see yourself as someone who is not only bleeding like this woman in Mark 5 but also dead, then you are going to find it very hard to know that God has touched you and healed you and made you alive in Christ. One of my favourite theologians, a guy by the name of Helmut Thielicke, once said, ‘There is no wilderness so desolate in our life that Jesus Christ will not and cannot encounter us there … There is no depth in which this Saviour will not become our brother … He comes for us wherever we are … For that is his majesty’.[18]

So do you know that he has come for you? Do you know that he has pursued you as a lover chasing his beloved? And do you know that he has caught up to you and made you holy by the only way you can be? Isaiah said ‘All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like menstrual cloths’ (Isa 64.6). Do you know that you have absolutely no righteousness, no holiness, of your own? But that the Lord in Zechariah 3 says to you tonight, ‘Take off (your) filthy clothes … See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.’ Do you know that he bore all your sins, all your uncleanness, and all of love’s wrath in his own body on the tree? Do you believe that? Do you believe that from the moment you’re born right up until the moment of your death, that on that cross he entered into your history, into your mind, into your conscience, into your memory, into your acts, and he took into himself all the judgement, the pain, the shame, the loneliness, the burden, the confusion, the guilt, the fear, the darkness, the hypocrisy, the terror? Do you know that on that cross he actually experienced your life, and that he left nothing undealt with? And that as God’s High Priest he sanctifies (makes holy) everything that he touches … and that he has touched you? Do you know that? Do you know that if you are in Christ then you will never be more holy than you are today? And that as far as the east is from the west he has removed our sins from us, and he will remember them no more because there is nothing for him to remember? Paul said,

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? … But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6.9–11)

What relief! What joy! What grace!

Friends, in the history of Israel – which is a history which culminates in Jesus Christ – God has undertaken the responsibility to bring creation to its glorious goal in the kingdom of God. And we might say that God’s ability to complete this project[19] in the face of that sin which mocks his holiness is the ultimate question in life, because it’s a question that goes to the heart not only of why creation is here but also of where creation is going, why creation is moving in a particular direction, and who is taking it there. So the biggest questions of life – of why, and where and who – are all wrapped up with this matter of holiness, and with the bringing to fulfillment those ancient words that echo out across all history – ‘You shall be holy, as I am holy’.

Holiness is the key to knowing why life exists, and how life will end. And so the joyful word of hope that comes to us in the gospel is that, in the end, hell will be empty. In the end, every knee in heaven and on earth and under the earth will bow to Christ, and all creation joyfully reflect and participate in the holiness for which God created it, and redeemed it in his Son (Phil 2.10–11). In the end, all the kingdoms of this world will ‘become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever’ (Rev 11.15), and ‘the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea’ (Hab 2.14).

It is not enough that sin be quarantined in hell. Whatever sin is – and it is a mystery – it is unjustifiable, unredeemable and unconvertible. Strictly speaking, sin is unforgivable. It is extinguished in Christ. God never forgives sin. God only ever forgives sinners. Sin is what God leaves behind on the path to the sanctification of all things. And if God in his love is to be all in all (as St Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 and Colossians 1), then there can be no place left for hell in the end. There can be no back room in the coming kingdom of God which will mar the glory and the joy of the new creation in all its purity, no dark cellar with locked door and inescapable passage, no black line across a world that God has made clean.

If God’s goal for creation is to see himself echoed, mirrored, reflected – to see the whole of creation as the theatre of his glorious holiness – then all that stands in the way must be overcome. And it is precisely this overcoming that is being enacted in the death and resurrection and ascension of the second person of the Trinity who takes into himself our broken and recalcitrant humanity and in his own humanity and in the Spirit cries out to the Father, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’. ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor 5.21). Here is God going out into the limbo of our lostness, and he says, ‘I thirst’, as though it has expended every resource he has, and then he cries out, ‘It is finished’. As the writer of Hebrews said, ‘He tasted death for every one’ (Heb 2.9). He took all of the hellishness of the world – its white, hypocritical, religious wisdom – and he crucified it on the Cross. The Apostles’ Creed describes it like this: ‘He descended into hell’.

And so friends, in Christ, nothing is lost, every last soul from every last tribe, people and tongue is sought out, and gathered up into the life of one who makes space in his own life for us. This is the Son’s gift to the Father.[20]

Hell now belongs to Christ, and so the message about hell – which is a message that the Church must keep proclaiming – is that hell has become part of the good news.[21] Death has been swallowed up in the victory of the Second Adam. No wonder the Apostle Paul could break out in confession and say ‘May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world’ (Gal 6.14).

A final thought: So how do we live?

I hope that it is clear by now that to be holy is to be found in the neighbourhood of God’s cross. And that means that holiness takes us where Jesus goes; holiness takes us to those for whom Jesus died; it takes us into the neighbourhood of those who are forgotten, who have no voice, and who need healing and forgiveness. It takes us into very strange places. And the holy person is that person who will very often be found in very odd company. The holy person is to be found not among the righteous but among sinners, not among the healthy but among the sick. And a holy church is one that goes, with its proclamation and integrity and fidelity, among those who need healing, among those whose physical lives are wrecked by pain and disease and disaster. A holy church is one that stands alongside those who live with the scourge of HIV aids; a holy church is a church that labours alongside those who have been made homeless or bereaved by natural disaster. A holy church is a church which is completely uninterested in maintaining its own programs and status but which will go into the heart of the city and sit with addicts and the destitute and the shamed – with those who have no hope. A holy church, in other words, is a people who live under the cross, who give thanks for the cross, whose hope is in the cross, and who live in the crucified Christ and seek the crucified Christ where he is in the world – among his suffering people and a world waiting in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.[22]

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (London: Fontana Lions, 1980), 75.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (London: Lions, 1980), 72.

[3] David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993), 300; cf. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (vol. 1; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1998), 279 : ‘A true love to God must begin with a delight in his holiness, and not with a delight in any other attribute; for no other attribute is truly lovely without this’.

[4] Holiness is a really central theme in the Bible. In many ways, it is actually the theme of the Bible. And so it’s somewhat surprising that Christian theologians have made so little of the idea in their thinking about God. While there’s heaps written about God’s righteousness and faithfulness and love, there’s comparatively little material outside of the Bible on God’s holiness. To be sure, there’s heaps of stuff written on the topic of holiness, but it’s mainly about human holiness rather than God’s. And even where we do find some stuff written about God’s holiness, we find that time and time again there’s very little thought and discussion about the place that Jesus holds in forming our understanding. In fact, this is true for many (perhaps most) discussions about God, which tend to be either highly abstract or anthropocentric. Here I am reminded here again of something that C.S. Lewis once said: ‘What makes some theological works like sawdust to me is the way the authors can go on discussing how far certain positions are adjustable to contemporary thought, or beneficial in relation to social problems, or “have a future” before them, but never squarely ask what grounds we have for supposing them to be true accounts of any objective reality. As if we were trying to make rather than to learn. Have we no Other to reckon with?’

[5] C.S. Lewis listed it as one of the ten most important books in his life.

[6] Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational (trans. J.W. Harvey; London: Oxford University Press, 1931), 12–3. One is here reminded of Paul Tillich who describes holiness as ‘the quality of that which concerns man ultimately’, and as ‘the unapproachable character of God, or the impossibility of having a relation with him in the proper sense of the word, is expressed in the word “holiness”‘. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (vol. 1; London: Nisbet & Co., 1955), 239, 271. Also of Jacques Derrida’s definition of holiness as the ‘unscathed which is safe and sound’. Jacques Derrida, ‘Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of “Religion” at the Limits of Reason Alone’ in Religion (ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo; Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998), 36.

[7] Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 75.

[8] Ibid. 75.

[9] John Webster, ‘The Holiness and Love of God’, Scottish Journal of Theology 57 (2004), 256. See also John A. Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Leicester: IVP, 1993), 76–7: ‘Holiness is God’s hidden glory; glory is God’s all-present holiness’. Also Colin E. Gunton, The Christian Faith: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 49: ‘Holiness is ‘sheer difference from everything else’.

[10] Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament (trans. J. Baker; vol. 1; London: SCM, 1961), 270: Holiness is ‘that which is marked off, withdrawn from ordinary use’.

[11] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.2 (ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance; trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1958), 500–1.

[12] In many way the crux of Isaiah’s vision here is the hymn in v. 3: ‘And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory”‘. We must not here miss the significance of the Seraphs song, and particularly the repetition of the word holy. The repetition, which is called the trishagion (i.e., three-times holy), represents a peculiar literary device that is found especially in Hebrew poetry. The repetition functions as a form of emphasis. When we want to emphasise the importance of something in English we underline the important words or print them in italics or bold. We might use an exclamation mark or quotation marks. But for the OT Jew, one device that they used was repetition. So we hear Jesus saying ‘Truly, truly, I say unto you …’. And by doing this, he is alerting his hearers to the fact that what he is about to say is of particular importance and that they need to sit up and listen. But only once in the Bible is an attribute of God elevated to the third degree. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love, or mercy, mercy, mercy, or wrath, wrath, wrath, or justice, justice, justice. But it does say – in at least two places – that God is holy, holy, holy. And here in Isaiah it draws attention to God’s transcendence.

[13] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. J.W. Edwards, et al.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1958), 95.

[14] John Arthur Thomas Robinson, In the End, God: A Study of the Christian Doctrine of the Last Things (London: James Clarke & Co., 1950), 104.

[15] P.T. Forsyth, The Person and Place of Jesus Christ: The Congregational Union Lecture for 1909 (London: Congregational Union of England and Wales/Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 347.

[16] James B. Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1996), 42–3. There are implications here for our sexuality, which is something that the Christian community seems to tie itself up in knots over. So William Stringfellow, ‘The Humanity of Sex’ in The William Stringfellow Archives (vol. Box 8 of Ithaca: Cornell University Library, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, 1965), 8–9: ‘Can a Homosexual be a Christian. One might as well ask, can an insurance man be a Christian? Can a lawyer be a Christian? Can an ecclesiastical bureaucrat be a Christian? Can a rich man be a Christian? Can an infant be a Christian? Or one who is sick, or insane, or indolent or one possessed of power or status or respectability? Can anybody be a Christian? Can a human being be a Christian? All such questions are theologically absurd. To be a Christian does not have anything essentially to do with conduct or station or repute. To be a Christian does not have anything to do with the common pietisms of ritual, dogma or morals in and of themselves. To be a Christian has, rather, to do with that peculiar state of being bestowed upon men by God … Can a homosexual be a Christian? Yes: if his sexuality is not an idol’.

[17] Cited in Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 152.

[18] Helmut Thielicke, How To Believe Again (trans. H.G. Anderson; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 60, 63.

[19] See C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 205–6.

[20] 1 Cor 15.24.

[21] Stringfellow offers us a wonderful definition of hell: ‘Hell is when and where the power of death is complete, unconditional, maximum, undisguised, most awesome and awful, unbridled, most terrible, perfected. That Jesus Christ descends into Hell means that as we die (in any sense of the term die) our expectation in death is encounter with the Word of God, which is, so to speak, already there in the midst of death’. William Stringfellow, A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2005), 110.

[22] Here I draw upon Rowan Williams, ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ (Conference paper presented at The 3rd Global South to South Encounter, Ain al Sukhna, Egypt, 28 October 2005, 2005).

Powerpoint slides here.


  1. “God assumes the very humanity which is in need of healing”. Wish I’d been at your talk Jason, thanks for posting it here.


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