Rudolph Otto

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).

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.’