Divine Transcendence and the “Holiness” of “God”

“Be holy as I am holy”  (1 Pet 1:16;Lv 11:44-55; 21:26;)

“Be holy as I am holy.”  That striking challenge from the first letter of Peter has always held center stage in the Christian Doctrine of “God.” What it means to say that “God” is “holy,” how­ever, is not immediately clear because the significance of the word has been different in different contexts.

In its original place in Leviticus, the biblical authors used the word “holy” (kodesh) to separate what is pure from what is impure as regards foods, animals and certain activities, and so it means “apartness, set-apartness, separateness, sacredness.” “Holy” referred to a category that goes beyond the moral and bears on the contract that bound Yahweh to Israel and formed the conditions for his keeping his promises. The items listed for avoidance were all “dirty” in some way and therefore unworthy of those who would associate with Yahweh, who was considered absolutely clean … holy.

As the religious thinking of the Mediterranean peoples came to be dominated by Greek, and especially dualistic Platonic imagery, the notion of “impurity” was easily absorbed into the notion that “matter” was dead and needed “spirit” in order to live. Matter by its nature was composed of parts; it was spirit that held those parts together. Left to itself matter decomposed. Matter was impure in the first instance, therefore, because it is the source of death.

Matter also had a direct relationship to animality for the Greeks, who considered bodily urges, especially for being spontaneous and unresponsive to mental control, to be something less than human. The agitation of the “flesh” was the antithesis of spirit’s characteristic serenity. Hence to be “holy” for the Greeks signified the contemplative quiet­ness of the purely spiritual … nothing made of matter could be expected to achieve any such tranquility and therefore was to that degree “unholy.” Peter’s intention in repeating the phrase from Leviticus seems to assume the Greek meaning of impure as “giving in to passions” and the call to holiness an encouragement to keep a “sober-minded” control over the body.

At the end of the middle ages, the “holiness” of “God” was conceived in Augustinian terms. “God” was holy because, as Plato imagined him he was beyond matter in every way, but also as Augustine taught, because “God” was Mind, the ultimate source of all rationality and the one who created and sustained the universe as the material expression of his self-reflecting ideas. For Augustine it was the Mind of God that made things what they were and gave them their destiny. Everything was created for a reason. The universe was believed to be full of discernible purpose. So God was “holy” because he commanded that the reason embedded in things — the purposes that were the reflections of his perfections, the natural law — be obeyed and not be thwarted. God was holy because he demanded that everything be done and treated “right.” God was “righteous” and demanded that we conform to the rightness of his creation.

This righteous holiness became the source of an imagined infinite gap between God and humankind. It made “God” morally transcendent. For Augustine the counterpart to that transcendence was the utter depravity of man caused by Adam’s disobedience. Not only did men and women have “bodies” made of mortal matter which made them impure and slaves to their lusts, but because of original sin their humanity had become thoroughly corrupt and led them to behavior that was morally “irrational:” it disregarded the right purposes that “God” had put into created things, including the human body; human nature was not “righteous.” The human race, according to those who followed Augustine, like the Reformers of the sixteenth century, in the searing light of the all holy God deserved nothing but annihilation.

This human experience of the overwhelming holiness of God is identified by Adolf Harnack as the very epicenter of religion.

the religious motive in the strictest sense of the term [is] the motive that asserts itself within the Christian religion as the power of the living God, before whose Holy Spirit nothing that is one’s own retains its independence …[1]

In passage after passage, the Reformers reveal their vision of the degeneracy of man and the overwhelming righteousness of “God.” “Predestination,” which means that “God” intentionally chooses some to be condemned to eternal torment and others to live in endless bliss regardless of merit, was considered a perfectly reasonable thing to do for the supremely holy Creator in his dealings with a thoroughly corrupt humankind. Here is John Calvin:

Since God inflicts due punishment on those whom he reprobates and bestows unmerited favor on those whom he calls he is free from every accusation: just as it belongs to the creditor to forgive the debt to one, and exact it of another. The Lord, therefore may show favor to whom he will, because he is merciful; not show it to all, because he is a just judge. In giving to some what they do not merit, he shows his free favor; in not giving to all, he declared what all deserve.[2]

“What all deserve” is the key notion for Calvin, following Augustine. The entire human race, regardless of the merits of the individuals, deserves eternal torment in hell because of Adam’s infinite insult to “God.” Even infants who died without baptism “deserved” damnation because of Adam’s disobedience. Humanity was congenitally impure, degenerate, unholy. “Salvation,” therefore, was always the gratuitous gift of a holy “God” who was under no obligation to save anyone. “God” made some chosen individuals “holy” by drawing them to himself through faith in the atonement wrought by Christ’s death on the cross. No one was ever capable of a holy act on their own without the miraculous grace of a saving “God.”

Throughout this scenario the transcendent “holiness” of “God” who dwells in light inaccessible beyond the realm of perverse humankind, was the overriding notion.  It was the guiding imagery that brought Christians to their knees in total surrender — shorn of any means of self defense. “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.”  You could not help yourself in any way.  All you could do was pray you were one of the “elect.” In order to be holy as “God” was holy, you had to be specially chosen, called and miraculously made holy by the irresistible grace of the holy “God.”  According to Augustine, Peter’s invitation omitted a lot of details.

*     *     *     *

Jesus also left out details — not only Calvin’s but also Peter’s.  In his preaching, Jesus frequently called his listeners to “be like” their Father.  The idea of imitating “God” was reminiscent of the sentiments of Leviticus.  But Jesus offered neither kosher purity nor spiritual control as the content of the imitation, much less did he make any reference to “congenital depravity.” Rather Jesus’ terms are about super-abundant generosity, limitless mercy, unbounded forgiveness, measureless love.  This gives a completely different sense to the word “holy,” one that Jesus seems to assume is well within everyone’s grasp without recourse to an elite education, sacraments, membership in a new religion, miraculous intervention by “God” or some special psychological appropriation of moral impotence.

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons and daughters of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. … You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.[3]

The last phrase “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” semantically parallels the Leviticus call to be holy, but it imposes a new meaning. What makes the Father “holy” and sets him apart from everything else for Jesus is the absolute universality of his generosity. He is perfect in giving: he treats absolutely everything and everyone the same by showering them with LIFE in rain and sunlight without regard for who they are. But astonishingly, according to Jesus, this “perfection” is also ours simply by imitation.  Just do it! he says.  There are no hidden details.  It is by being universally generous as “God” is universally generous — i.e., without regard to whom it benefits, even if it is those who hate us — that we become “sons of our heavenly Father.” “God’s” holiness suddenly no longer sets him apart from us; to the contrary it turns out to be what we have had in common all along.  There is no infinite gap between the Father and us. “God” does not “transcend” us; he is our genetic source, “our Father.” His holiness is already poured into us because we can do what he does. For Jesus we are not rotting matter facing a “Pure Spirit,” nor are we groveling degenerates begging the all-holy to make us human by the intervention of some miraculous power.  We are the proud legitimate sons and daughters of our Father; we share his genetic material; and we can be perfect as he is perfect.

I contend that the imitation of the selfless love and forgiveness of “God,” based precisely upon the genetic relationship to that “God” whom Jesus never referred to as anything but “Father” was the leitmotiv of his message, repeated in his preaching, his parables and his interactions with people. And I submit that it implies a religious vision that is antithetical to all of the notions of “holiness” derived from philosophical transcendence.

Jesus was not a philosopher.  But make no mistake.  That only means he did not express himself in philosophical terms.  It does not mean that he did not have a solid worldview that was completely consistent with the moral invitations he was issuing to his fellow Jews … invitations that even in his lifetime were recognized and responded to by those who were not Jews.  Jesus’ universal call and its universal recognition by people of various cultures and tongues even thousands of years after he lived and taught, and despite every effort to complicate his simple message and harness its energy to drive one particular political machine or another, still astonishes us.

The often self-aggrandizing attempts to understand why it is that Jesus’ message still has such appeal after so much time, collapse before the evidence that wells up even within the heart of the one searching: we know exactly why Jesus’ message has such appeal.  We hear the echo within us.  It vibrates at our own frequency.  No logic is required to convince us of the truth that simply restates what we intimately know about ourselves.

Be holy as he is holy” in Jesus’ vision of things ultimately means, “be holy, because it is genetically what you are … holiness resides in the very marrow of your bones.”  Be holy because you are holy.

 

 

[1] Adolf Harnack, History of Dogma, vol. VII, p. 127, Dover, NY, 1900

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Ch. XXIII, sect. 11

[3] Crossway Bibles (2011-02-09). The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (with Cross-References) (Kindle Locations 189810-189812). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.

 

Advertisements

One comment on “Divine Transcendence and the “Holiness” of “God”

  1. jorisheise says:

    With immense respect for your learning, insights and wisdom, I would like to suggest an alternative basis for your understanding of “holy.” I have grown to consider “holy” not so much as ritual purity (which is part of it), nor transcendence, but something else–the stuff–something-that divides life and death, the “important” stuff that need special consideration.It has the quality of difference from the ordinary When Isaiah confronts the Three-fold “holy” he awakens to the importance of the difference that God is and makes–the difference for us of life and death–he is told to make a difference.

    Now it is possible that the Greeks did misunderstand this dimension of the “holy” and equate it with “purity” and “mind” and “spirit” as opposed to “matter”and “flesh,” but I honestly do not think so. You do get somebody like Pope Pius XIII who thought his “pure spirituality” would get him to heaven, and his attitude towards the Nazis and Jews was not very relevant. It is a thread in the Christian and Catholic tradition, and you righty castigate the often Protestant notion of soiled souls and intrinsic depravity sometimes peached even by Catholic teachers. But that seems to me a lesser fault. “Holness” as in “hallowed be thy Name/Person” refers to making the Name/Person of our Father something altogether different–not necessarily transcendent.

    Even the context of 1 Peter suggests this meaning of holiness–be distinct from “this generation”–the culture and practices that are not the Will of our Father. Be different, as I am different.

    …one extra note that I often tack onto my comments. I believe the Name of God is “holy”–and therefore that invention of scholars, archeologists and a few ancient remote Jews, the “name” which occur these days–and which Pope Benedict urged be dropped from songs–and which you use to name our Father–is really just another name. I believe that the Name of God is unutterable–different. It is YHWH–with no punctuation, not alternate vowels, etc.. I do not believer that there ever was a (nature, storm, national) god of Israel with that name

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s