Some Recent Watering Holes

croft-shutmouthscream-detail-2016

Brenda L. Croft, ‘shut/mouth/scream’ (detail), 2016. Source

 

I haven’t posted one of these for a while. Here are a number of pages I’ve appreciated visiting this past week or so:

And this:

Tasting Chris Green’s Sanctifying Interpretation – Part 2: “Reimagining Holiness as the Possibility of Oneness”

Sanctifying Interpretation

As promised, here’s the second of three excerpts from Chris Green’s Sanctifying Interpretation: Vocation, Holiness, and Scripture (pp. 71–73):

Christian theologians commonly use ‘holiness’ to name whatever it is that makes God different from all that is not-God. Jean-Luc Marion, for example, says that ‘God is distinguished from the world and from other gods insofar as he is “majestic in holiness, terrible in glorious deeds” (Exod. 15:11)’. God reveals himself to creation in such a way that no one can enter ‘the vicinity of his holiness, which separates him from any other [tout autre] as the Wholly Other [Tout Autre]’.[1] Dumitru Staniloae offers a similarly typical account:

Holiness can be said to reveal to us all the divine qualities in a concentrated way. It is the luminous and active mystery of the divine presence. In it there is concentrated all that distinguishes God from the world.[2]

Such descriptions, true so far as they go, are finally insufficient. John Webster is right: ‘God is what God does’; therefore, ‘God’s holiness is to be defined out of God’s works’.[3] Given that Jesus is the full embodiment of all God’s works, we have to look to Jesus and his storied witness of God if we want to know what holiness means.[4] Jesus just is, in himself, ‘the event of the coming of that holiness which crosses the great divide …’[5] ‘What he does and what is done to him—his whole life history—is … the manifestation of holiness.’[6]

What do we find when we look to Jesus to see God’s holiness? Again, I agree with Webster: we find that holiness is ‘a mode of relation’.[7] It is, in fact, the mode of relation God enjoys as Father, Son, and Spirit—the very mode of relation God opens to us as creatures.[8] God’s holiness is the freedom made possible because Father, Son, and Spirit exist for, in, and with each other. Or, to put it the other way around, because God is holy and in goodness shares that holiness with all things, God is the God God is, and we are the creatures we are, in our life together with God and before God in the world.

All that to say, God is holy in that God relates (both immanently and economically) in ways that are simultaneously free and freeing, lively and life-giving, just and justifying. Because God is holy, we can experience goodness, truth, and beauty in relationship with God in ways that make us good and true and beautiful. To narrow it to a single statement: God’s holiness is the way God has of relating to us so that we can not only know God, but in knowing, become like God. Because God is holy, God can be with us, the ‘holy one in our midst’, not unmaking our humanness but perfecting it, drawing us into humanizing deification.[9] As Keen says, ‘God’s holiness is a freedom for what is far gone from holiness’.[10]

[1] Jean-Luc Marion, ‘The Invisibility of the Saint’, Critical Inquiry 35.3 (Spring 2009), pp. 703–10 (708).

[2] Dumitru Staniloae, The Experience of God Vol. 1: Revelation and Knowledge of the Triune God (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994), pp. 222–23.

[3] John Webster, Holiness (London: SCM Press, 2003), p. 39.

[4] Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification and Theosis in Paul’s (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), p. 113.

[5] Craig Keen, After Crucifixion: The Promise of Theology (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), p. 94.

[6] Keen, After Crucifixion, p. 94.

[7] Webster, Holiness, p. 5.

[8] It is opened to us through the ‘communication of attributes’ in Christ. That is to say, the divine holiness, brought to bear by the Holy Spirit, holds the divine and human natures together in Christ without confusion, division, change, or mixture so that the human is healed, perfected, and transfigured by the divine. Holiness not only preserves the integrity of the two natures but also effects the deification of human nature through its ‘contact’ with the divine in Christ through the Spirit. As Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, expounding on theology of Gregory Palamas, explains in his One with God: Salvation as Deification and Justification (Collegeville, MN: Unitas, 2004), p. 28, ‘When the Logos of God took on human nature, he bestowed on it the fullness of his grace and delivered it from the bonds of corruption and death. They consequence of this hypostatic union of the two natures in Christ was the deification of the human nature’. Similarly, Douglas Harink (1 & 2 Peter [BTC; Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2009], p. 144) says that ‘our human nature is purified and taken up, through our participation in Christ’s humanity (made possible by his participation in ours), into the divine life and fulfilled in its humanity, through that participation’.

[9] See Webster, Holiness, pp. 5, 9, 43, 45.

[10] Craig Keen, ‘A Quick “Definition” of Holiness’ in Kevin W. Mannoia and Don Thorsen (eds.), The Holiness Manifesto (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), p. 238.

The Beauty of Holiness

LambA guest post by Chris Green

Ps. 96.7-9
1 Thess. 4.3
Heb. 12.15

God means to make us holy. As one of our texts put it, “This is the will of God: your sanctification.” But what does this actually mean? What exactly is it that God wants for us? Simply this: to make us like Christ. St Paul says it directly; we are predestined to be conformed to the image of the Son. Sanctification, then, names the process by which the Father, working in, with, and through us by the Spirit, accomplishes this work of making us like the Son, our humanity through and through glorified by sharing together in the Triune life.

Making us like Christ requires a healing of all that sin has corrupted, disfigured, and destroyed in us. And it requires a reordering and reenergizing of our loves and habits of body, mind, and spirit so that we come to live lives worthy of the gospel. Such radical renovation of our lives depends upon our being baptized in and filled with the Spirit—made to partake of the divine nature, as St. Peter has it—so that we come, over time, to take on Christ’s divine-human likeness. Only in this way are we made apt for God, neighbor, and creation. Only in this way are we made truly ourselves.

If we aren’t careful, however, our talk about holiness will slide into nonsense—or something worse. In many people’s minds, the call to holiness is a call to a certain kind of moral rigor. To be holy is to be “good” in an extraordinary, perhaps even superhuman, way. For me, this kind of perversion is exemplified by Bro. Wright, a cranky old man from the church my family attended when I was kid. Bro. Wright—it’s impossible to overstate how pleased I am that this happened to be his name—believed that he was “fully sanctified,” and so not only couldn’t sin but also couldn’t even be tempted to sin. Every December 31st, during what we called the “watch night” service, he would testify that if he had the year to live again he would do nothing differently. I don’t need to tell you that he was unbelievably distant, mean-spirited, condescending. No lie: he sat to the side of the sanctuary, in a metal folding chair, and presided over the services. In the end, not long before he died, he became so weary of dealing with the rest of us that he quit coming to church altogether.

Of course, Bro. Wright—or, more accurately, my memory of him—is a caricature. Still, I suspect that many of us recognize in this sketch an image we know. Perhaps we recognize something of ourselves? Regardless, it’s safe to say that if we’re thinking of the saintly life as one that leads away from the ugliness and inconvenience of life together, then we have utterly misunderstood the gospel. Sanctification moves us always deeper in, more toward the center of community, in the world as well as in the church.

The Fourth Gospel teaches us that Jesus is the one who prays for us to be where he is, interceding for us to have a home in his nearness to the Father. To be like Jesus, then, is to be “with God,” to abide “in the Father’s embrace,” and precisely in that place to open our lives for others, especially those most removed from God—the godless, the ungodly, the godforsaken. Christ prepares for us a place in the Father, the room he himself is. “I go to prepare a place for you,” he promises, “that where I am, you may be also.” He is the Father’s house, and as we become like Christ, we too become roomy, opened more and more for others to find their place in God through us. To be where Christ is, is to embody the mind of Christ, as Philippians 2 describes it; that is, to refuse to fixate on or take refuge in our personal relation to God, but instead to go on emptying ourselves, in myriad ways, in the unpretentious care of our neighbors and enemies, becoming obedient, day after day, to the cross we’re bound to bear.

The horizontal beam of this cross is the otherness, the strangeness, of our sisters and brothers, outside and inside the church, and all the difficulties their strangeness causes for us and for them. As Bonhoeffer says, “Only as a burden is the other really a brother or sister and not merely an object to be controlled.” The vertical beam is the otherness, the strangeness of the God whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are beyond our thoughts. Enduring this manifold strangeness, we identify ourselves with Christ in his intervening, atoning agony and just so find ourselves taking on his character. Look again at Hebrews 12. The holiness to which we are called, the holiness without which we cannot see the Lord, is a holiness we are called to make possible for others. “See to it,” the text says, “that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.” See to it that the weak are made strong, that the lame are healed. See to it that bitterness can take no root. See to it that Jacob and Esau live at peace.

Intercession, then, is the surest mark of holiness. Like Abraham, we intercede for Sodom—not only for God to spare their lives but also for God to forgive their sins. Like Moses and Aaron, we stand in the midst of the rebels—the very ones calling for our demise—and resist the divine judgment against them. Like Christ, even as we are dying, falling into the abyss of godforsakeness, we cry out for our oppressors’ forgiveness. “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” A.W. Tozer famously said that the most important thing about us is what comes into our minds when we think about God. That’s not quite right. The most important thing about us is what comes into our hearts when we see the sins of our enemies. In the end, the sheep are known by how they see—and see to the needs of—the goats.

Finally, I want to return to the language of the “beauty” of holiness. In what ways is holiness beautiful? In just the same way that Jesus himself is beautiful. The beauty of holiness is the unrecognized, undesired beauty of the Suffering Servant who suffers for others’ salvation, his life utterly expended for theirs. As we become like him, we too will be despised, held in no account, as we, like and with him, bear others’ infirmities, carry their dis-ease, making their wounds our own, letting their iniquities fall upon our heads. Oppressed and afflicted, we will hold our tongues, and find ourselves again and again led like lambs to the slaughter. For his sake, we are sure to be killed all day long—and precisely in these moments to know ourselves to be “more than conquerors.” It is this beauty that will captivate the world, so that they’ll say of us, “they have been with Jesus.” By this the world will know that we are his disciples. What more could we want or ask for?

[Chris’ recent book, Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper: Foretasting the Kingdom, was reviewed here]

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.

Drifting or resolve?

‘One of the most striking evidences of sinful human nature lies in the universal propensity for downward drift. In other words, it takes thought,  resolve, energy, and effort to bring about reform. In the grace of God, sometimes human beings display such virtues. But where such virtues are absent, the drift is invariably toward compromise, comfort, indiscipline, sliding disobedience, and decay that advances, sometimes at a crawl and sometimes at a gallop, across generations.

People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated’. – Don Carson, For the Love of God: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Treasures of God’s Word, Volume Two, 23 January.

Forsyth on the holiness of Christ

Forsyth‘We have seen in Christ a holiness the prophet did not know. It is not less solemn, it is not less sublime, but it is more sweet, it is more deep, it is more abiding. It is not a vision, but a presence and a power. We have seen through the smoke which filled the house. We have seen the face of Him that sat upon the throne. We have seen the Cross upon the altar. We have seen that the holiness of God is the holiness of love. There is no such awful gulf fixed between the King and the creature. We too are kings in Him. The word we hear is judgment indeed, and fear, but it is more. It is our judgment laid on the Holy. It is such mercy, pity, peace, and love. It is, indeed, infinite tenderness; but it is soul tenderness, it is moral tenderness, it is atoning, redeeming tenderness. It is the tenderness of the Holy, which does not soothe but save. It is love which does not simply comfort, and it is holiness which does not simply doom. It is holy love, which judges, saves, forgives, cleanses the conscience, destroys the guilt, reorganises the race, and makes a new world from the ruins of the old’. – PT Forsyth, Missions in State and Church: Sermons and Addresses (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1908), 233.

Understanding holiness takes a miracle

Defying empirical definition, holiness, like Christianity itself, only makes sense from the inside, from direct experience and that not only of hearing the seraphim calling to one another ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts’, not even when such confrontation brings the self-revelation of personal and corporate uncleanness. Holiness comes home in that action when the same ‘LORD of hosts’ calls one of those seraphim to fly towards you with a live coal in its hand which he had taken with tongs from the holy altar and place that coal at the very source of one’s unholiness and say, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven’ (Isa 6:7).

One recalls here Forsyth’s words: ‘the holy is the ideal good, fair, and true, translated in our religious consciousness to a transcendent personal reality, not proved but known, experienced immediately and honoured at sight as the one thing in the world valuable in itself and making a world’ (Peter T. Forsyth, The Principle of Authority in Relation to Certainty, Sanctity and Society: An Essay in the Philosophy of Experimental Religion (London: Independent Press, 1952), 6).

Human curiosity longs for a rational expression of ‘the holy’ at the same time that holiness defies such explanation or ‘justification’ apart from moral experience. It is known only as the human subject is thrown back onto the miracle of revelation, of grace. (Even Otto sees something of this when he notes that accompanying the disvaluing of self is the feeling of being unworthy to be in the presence of ‘the holy one’, that we may even defile him, and that we subsequently require a covering that renders the approacher numinous, freeing them from their ‘profane’ being,’ so that they are no longer unfit to relate to the Holy). Certainly, when we are dealing with the holy, we are in ‘a region which thought cannot handle nor even reach. We cannot go there, it must come here. We are beyond both experience and thought, and we are dependent on revelation for any conviction of the reality of that ideal which moral experience demands but cannot ensure … The situation is only soluble by a miracle’ (Forsyth, Authority, 6).

PT Forsyth on satisfying the holiness of God

‘There is only one thing that can satisfy the holiness of God, and that is holiness – adequate holiness … Nothing, no penalty, no passionate remorse, no verbal acknowledgment, no ritual, can satisfy the claim of holy law – nothing but holiness, actual holiness, and holiness upon the same scale as the one holy law which was broken. The confession must be adequate … All your repentance, and all the world’s repentance, would not be adequate to satisfying, establishing the broken law of holy God. Confession must be adequate – as Christ’s was. We do not now speak of Christ’s sufferings as being the equivalent of what we deserved, but we speak of His confession of God’s holiness, his acceptance of God’s judgment, being adequate in a way that sin forbade any acknowledgment from us to be. For the only adequate confession of a holy God is perfectly holy man. Wounded holiness can only be met by a personal holiness upon the scale of the race, upon the universal scale of the sinful race, and upon the eternal scale of the holy God who was wounded. It is not enough that the eternal validity of the holy law should be declared as some prophet might arise and declare it, with power to make the world admire, as the great and sublime Kant did. It must take effect’. – PT Forsyth, The Work of Christ (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 126-7.

The locus of holiness

‘For execution by crucifixion to become the criterion of holiness, and of God’s holiness at that, became the supreme scandal. It created havoc (and still does) with all other ideas of wisdom, power, salvation, God – and thereby of holiness. How could such havoc be overcome? It is easy enough to accept, in theory, the idea of God as the sole source and criterion of holiness; but it is anything but easy when such holiness is defined by the awful dereliction on Golgotha. Likewise, it has proved easy in retrospect to accept the idea of Jesus’ holiness; but, in the first instance, it was anything but easy when that holiness was measured by his execution as a traitor to Israel’. – Paul S. Minear, ‘The Holy and the Sacred’, Theology Today 47 (1990), 8.

That holiness might fill the whole of life

As one whose destiny was from eternity the cross, through his active conquest over every form of the demonic and its blasphemous evil – through healings, prayers, the casting out of demons – Jesus erased all that separated God and humanity from fullness of life together. All that he touched he healed – carrying the full load of human alienation and depravity, sickness and blasphemy, until it crushed him. He alone could carry such a load. And on the cross, the Triune God in Christ established not a new divine love for the world but a new relation or treatment with the world in which God’s holy love might take shape and bear witness to its source. God’s justifying activity, therefore, was not only done by holiness but for holiness, and for it alone. It was done that holiness might fill the whole of life on earth as it does in heaven.

Holiness According to Rudolph Otto


With a steady stream of new work coming out on Rudolph Otto’s notion of holiness, Otto, it seems, is as popular as ever. Here is a wee series of reflections on Otto’s notion of The Holy which I contrast with Forsyth’s (for who else would be up to the task!)

Holiness According to Rudolph Otto – Part 1

Holiness According to Rudolph Otto – Part 2

Holiness According to Rudolph Otto – Part 3

Holiness According to Rudolph Otto – Part 4

Holiness According to Rudolph Otto – Part 5 

Holiness According to Otto – 5

Whilst scholars are generally agreed that the notion of ‘otherness’ is not absent, Forsyth posits that it is more appropriate to define God’s holiness by considering its expression in history, centrally in the incarnation of the Son, but also in the sending of the Spirit, and his election of a people (both Israel and the Church) out of all the peoples of the earth to be as he is, to shape its life after him. For the Christian, there is no other God than the one who has suckled on Mary’s breast and was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Neither can holiness be understood apart from this one. In this vein, Forsyth affirms that ‘holiness is not anything that can just be shown; it must be done’. Revelation is action.

Söding argues that ‘God’s powerful holiness manifests itself in creating and sustaining, in judging and delivering the world of humankind. According to John, in agreement with the whole Old Testament, God evinces his holiness in his actions, which mediate the historical and cosmic presence of God together with his absolute transcendence.’ In other words, divine holiness must find expression in its ever longing to exert itself in action. It is not enough that God’s love be emptied out on creation. God must himself take upon himself the evil for which he is held liable. God in Christ is his own theodicy. He alone does full justice to God’s holy name, offering his holy self to the holy God in holy confession ‘from sin’s side’. As holy love, God goes out to establish command of all, not simply plucking it out of hell or even making it innocent, but taking it into heaven and making it holy, presenting humanity to God ‘presanctified’. Forsyth insists that ‘the holiness of love’s judgment must be freely, lovingly, and practically confessed from the side of the culprit world. It must be answered with perfect holiness’. Though transcendent, here is no remote or static god of the deists or the epicureans. Forsyth’s German contemporary, Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923), whose (at least) early writings are familiar to Forsyth expresses this well:

‘The divine holiness is no moralism. God did not give the world his law and then abandon it; instead, he searches for the creature with love and passion, creating the very holiness that he demands. Here we find no cold law, no crushing commandment that seeks fulfilment in human compliance; we find a holy love that embraces us and incorporates us into itself, thereby bringing us to faith.’

Holiness According to Otto – 4

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.’

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.’

Holiness according to Otto – 2

As a notion that describes God apart from his moral and rational characteristics, Otto’s holiness carries elements of Coleridge-like awe-fulness, overpoweringness, absolute unapproachability, fascination and urgency – a force which is most easily perceived in the ‘wrath of God’. A little more positively, it is the ineffable core of religion: the experience of which cannot be described in terms of other experiences.

Otto describes the numinous as that which ‘grips or stirs the human mind’. It is ‘the deepest and most fundamental element in all strong and sincerely felt religious emotion.’ It is found in ‘strong, sudden ebullitions of personal piety … in the fixed and ordered solemnities of rites and liturgies, and again in the atmosphere that clings to old religious monuments and buildings, to temples and to churches.’ Sometimes it comes ‘sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship’ whilst at other times it is ‘thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its “profane”, non-religious mood of everyday experience’. Its sometimes violent, deep eruptions of the soul ‘with spasms and convulsions’ can lead to the ‘the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy’.

Otto turns to the Scriptures, and to Luther, to illustrate that the rise of the rational in the Judeo-Christian tradition did not eliminate the non-rational numinous, citing examples of the continuing presence of the ‘aweful’ and dread-inspiring. He avows that the Old Testament describes a definite shift in tradition from an early YHWH who still bears traces of the ‘daemonic dread’ of the pre-god stage of the numinous who in his anger sought to kill Moses, to Elohim who displays the more mature ‘rational aspect’ which ‘outweighs the numinous’.

Otto also seeks to draw attention to the balance between non-rational and rational in the New Testament where the rational and human aspects of God which begin in the early Hebrew tradition reach their consummation, even whilst traces of the numinous remain. He identifies the numinous in Jesus’ teaching on God’s wrath, in Hebrews and in Paul, where the ‘non-rational’ notions of predestination and the flesh come under discussion. Otto suggests that the clearest example in the New Testament of the Old Testament YHWH is Romans 1:18ff where the ‘jealous, passionate Yahweh’ has ‘grown to a God of the Universe of fearful power, who pours out the blazing vials of His wrath over the whole world.’

Holiness according to Otto – 1

With a steady stream of new work coming out on Rudolph Otto’s notion of holiness, Otto, it seems, is as popular as ever. Over the coming week or so, I propose to post some reflections on Otto’s notion of The Holy and to contrast it with Forsyth’s (for who else would be up to the task!). First, some background.

Theodor Von Häring, a successor of Ritschl’s at Göttingen and himself a leading figure in the development and popularising of Ritschlianism, had in his class a young man name Rudolph Otto. In 1895, Otto travelled to Egypt, Palestine and Greece, later describing how the experience of Holy Week in Jerusalem, and participating in a Coptic liturgy in Cairo, had left a deep impression on him. But it was that experience that came to him at the Sphinx in Giza which left the deepest impression. He describes a ‘general feeling of the unfathomable depth and mystery of existence and universe’ overcoming him. 1911 and 1912 saw him journeying to North Africa, India, Burma, Thailand, China, and Japan studying religious traditions and experiences, all the time with a growing longing to articulate his experience of the ‘unfathomable depth’.

In 1917, four years before Forsyth’s death, Otto penned Das Heilige (dedicated to Häring), probably the most well known treatment on holiness available. Certainly no discussion of holiness can proceed without considering his ‘yardstick’ contribution which has ‘left its mark not only on the history of religions, but also on twentieth-century philosophy, psychology and aesthetics of religion, biblical studies, and theology’. Otto argues that the holy, what he terms ‘the numinous’ (Lt. numen, divine spirit), is encountered by the creature as the mysterium tremendum and the mysterium et fascinans. More concerned with human experiences of holiness – and the production of such experience in his readers – rather than with an ontology of holiness, Otto concludes that holiness both repels and attracts.

‘Its dual character, as at once an object of boundless awe and boundless wonder, quelling and yet entrancing the soul, constitutes the proper positive content of the ‘mysterium’ as it manifests itself in conscious feeling. No attempt of ours to describe this harmony of contrasts in the import of the mysterium can really succeed; but it may perhaps be adumbrated, as it were from a distance, by taking an analogy from a region belonging not to religion but to aesthetics.’

Violence and the Cross 2

Recently, Michael Jensen responded to my post on violence and the cross asking me to speculate on what Forsyth might say to Girard. After discerning that this Girard is different to this one I confessed that my only reading of Girard has been vicariously through Volf, and Hans Boersma’s book Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross. While I am reluctant to comment on work where I haven’t read the primary sources, and I don’t normally like to reproduce stuff that is already on my blog somewhere else, I thought that this might be of interest to some who would otherwise miss it in the comments section. Perhaps any discussion that arises will also mean that I can learn some more about Girard and maybe even feel inspired/challenged enough to actually go and read the guy’s stuff.

Boersma writes:


‘One of the main reasons that [Girard’s] theory continues to increase in popularity is that he helps Christians avoid the embarrassment of having to acknowledge that God is involved in violence, even as he expresses his most hospitable self on the cross. This gain carries the cost, however, of the denial of a good creation. Desire, as something underlying all cultural endeavor, is inherently mimetic and thus must lead to violence, Girard insists. But is it true that mimetic contagion explains all desire and that it accounts for all violence? Girard fails to acknowledge that we often desire certain objects because of their inherent value rather than simply because other models desire them. A theology of creation that affirms its inherent goodness will insist that desire can function in wholesome ways and stems not first of all from imitation but from the positive value of the created order. Girard’s atonement theology is built on an ontology of violence that leads to a negative view of culture and is thus unable to function as a solid foundation for a positive politics of hospitality. Not only does Girard regard violence as the basis of human culture, but he also finds much of the Old Testament unworthy of the nonviolent God that we have come to know in Jesus Christ. The continuity between the two Testaments gets stretched to the breaking point.’

My sense, regarding Forsyth’s response, is two fold.

Firstly, he would have never attacked Girard by name. He felt that when we we ought to expose error, we should expose the error and not attack the person. That’s the easy bit.

That said, Forsyth would see in Girard’s thinking a failure to understand not only the nature, scope and purpose of God’s atoning activity in Christ, but the nature and depth of sin and evil and the threat that sin poses not just to the world, but to God’s own being.

Whilst violence is the fruit of humanity’s angry rejection of the future intended for it by God, it also serves as part of the ‘tools’ that God uses to bring about his good purposes. So for example, Forsyth’s significant support of Britain’s role in WWI.

Forsyth insists that sin is so violent that it took the almost boisterous expression of violence (a clash of violence) to overcome it. Whenever grace and guilt collide, war it out, there will be violence – even in prayer. But it was not the violence of it that saved. It was the obedience in the midst of violence that did that. That said, Forsyth asserts that ‘it would have mattered a whole world if Jesus had met His death naturally, by accident or disease. Everything turns, not on His life having been taken from Him, but on its having been laid down. Everything, for His purpose, turns on the will to die. But, none the less, for that purpose, it had to be a death of moral violence (inflicted, that is, by human wickedness and the wresting of the law), to give its full force to both man’s sin and Christ’s blood. “Men of blood,” in the Old Testament, were not mere killers but murderers. So that we say it would have mattered a whole world if the death had not been violent and wicked, if Jesus had died of disease in His bed, or by accidental poison.’

He asserts that we feel the pain and disappointment of death as impugning the moral goodness of God. To us pain and death seem a moral outrage, a violent injustice done to the good. And it was moral outrage on God’s holiness that gave the sting and the mean misery of death for Christ. Only a great difference remains: The taste of death makes us think that it is a moral outrage on us – a tyranny; whereas Christ tasted it as the fruit of a moral outrage by us – a treason. ‘How prompt we are to accept Christ as a sympathizer with our oppressions’, he said, ‘and how slow to take Him as the accuser of our sins!’

Whether or not Girard sees more divine irony and inconsistency here than he can cope with, well I guess that that’s God’s problem – a problem that he has already taken up and answered violently in the obedience of Jesus Christ.

PS. Apologies to MJ for this being less than an ‘ideal blog entry’. See item 4 here. Learn to scroll … it’s not hard mate. You can do it. I know you can …

Holy Love conquers all things

Michael Jenson is experimenting with a new book idea here. It’s called YOU and aims to be a a popular level book that carefully and sensitively addresses questions and contributes a Christian theological voice into the discussion. His latest post is on Leviticus 15 and is entitled ‘The Ooze’. It invited a lengthy response from me that I’ll reproduce here for the sake of my blog readers but moreso to encourage you to go on to read and contribute to Michael’s project. I wrote:

It seems to me that Leviticus 15 serves, among other things, to remind us that because God is love, and because his love is holy love, when he sees anything that defiles his creation he must do something about it. It must be judged and ultimately either sanctified or destroyed. And when he sees evil in us it is no different. God is not squeamish.

The problem is that we don’t see our own evil to be as evil as he does. It’s only when we see ourselves at the cross that we see the enormous horror and hideous, deceitful, evil of our own hearts. Karl Barth once said, ‘God’s attitude in (his fellowship with us) is characterised by holiness, exclusiveness, the condemnation and annihilation of sin. The holiness of God thus involves peril to the man with whom he has fellowship…. As sinful man he cannot stand before God. He must perish’ (Church Dogmatics II/I, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1985, 364).

In Mark 7, the Pharisees criticise Jesus’ disciples for eating without going through the proper hand-washing rituals. They seem to have forgotten what purpose these laws served, and turned them into a system of trying to get right and then stay right with God. And so Jesus lets rip. He calls them hypocrites and accuses them of nullifying the word of God for the sake of their traditions. And then Jesus redefines uncleanness (Mk. 7:20-23). Isn’t that a great thing … that Jesus knows exactly what our hearts are like! So how can unclean people like that, people like us, people under the wrath of God, approach a Holy God not only without being struck down on the spot but approach the throne of grace with confidence?

Mark 5:24b-34 recalls the story of a woman. This woman dashes onto the NT 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. She has been treated like a leper in her community for 12 years. She has been tormented by guilt and anxiety. 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. No one has invited her to their home in 12 years. 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 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, from doing. But would he allow this woman to touch him (remember Lev. 12), to pollute him, to make him unclean? Would he allow this woman to place him under the wrath and judgement of God?

C.S. Lewis 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’ (Quoted in Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995, 152). To hear the Word of God takes a miracle. It takes God! It takes the gift of a new heart! And so if we’re proud, if we’re self-righteous, if we can look at our life and see ourself as someone who is not only bleeding but dead, then we are going to find it very hard to know that God has touched us and healed us and indeed made us alive in Christ.

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’ (How To Believe Again, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974, 60, 63). In Jesus Christ, God bore all our sins, all our uncleanness, and all the wrath of the holy God in his own body on the tree. Do we believe that? Do we believe that from the moment we’re born right up until the moment of our death, that on that Cross he entered into our history, into our mind, into our conscience, into our memory, into our 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 we know that on that Cross he actually experienced our life, and that he left nothing undealt with? And that as God’s High Priest he sanctifies everything that he touches… and that he has touched us? Do we know that? Do we know 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.

On God’s holiness

‘Christianity is concerned with God’s holiness before all else.’ (Cruciality, viii.)

‘If we take the Lord’s prayer alone, God’s holiness is the interest which all the rest of it serves. Neither love, grace, faith nor sin have any but a passing meaning except as they rest on the holiness of God, except as they arise from it, and return to it, except as they satisfy it, show it forth, set it up and secure it everywhere and forever.’ (Cruciality, 23)

‘Everything begins and ends in our Christian theology with the holiness of God.’ (Work, 78)

‘The grace of God cannot return to our preaching or to our faith till we recover what has almost clean gone from our general, familiar, and current religion, what liberalism has quite lost – I mean a due sense of the holiness of God… This holiness of God is the real foundation of religion… Love is but its outgoing; sin is but its defiance; grace is but its action on sin; the cross is but its victory; faith is but its worship.’ (Cruciality, 22)

Human dignity

– ‘The dignity, the very dignity of man himself is better assured if he were broken upon the maintenance of that holiness of God than if it were put aside arbitrarily, just to let him off with his life. This holy order is as essential to man’s greatness as it is to God’s; and that is why the holy satisfaction Christ made to God’s holiness is in the same act the glorifier of the new humanity. Any religion which leaves out of supreme count the judging holiness of God is making a great contribution to the degradation of man. We need a religion which decides the eternal destiny of man; and unless holiness were practically and adequately established – not merely recognised and eulogised, but established – there could be no real, deep, permanent change in the world or the sinner. The change in the treatment of us by eternal grace must rest on judgment taking effect. Man is not forgiven simply by forgetting and mending, by agreeing that no more is to be said about it. To make little of sin is to belittle the holiness of God; and from a reduced holiness no salvation could come, nor could human dignity remain.’ (P T Forsyth, The Work of Christ, 128-9)

‘Everything that enhances the native purity of man, that extenuates his sin, that diminishes his guilt, and sets over him but a kind father, really belittles his greatness. Man can only have huge guilt because capable of great things (Matt. vi. 23). It is a tremendous power to be capable of sin against God. It betokens, as nothing else but holiness can do, the greatness of the soul, and its place and its issues.’ (P T Forsyth, Missions in State and Church, 32)