Friday, July 11, 2014

The Holiness of God

You have heard that it is said that the basic idea of the word "holy" in the Bible is seperate or set apart. God is holy because he is seperate from all evil and sin, set apart in his purity.

At EMA this year, Sinclair Ferguson suggested (if I heard him correctly) that this is an inadequate understanding of the holiness of God if we think of holiness as one of his attributes. Considered in himself as eternal, what sense does it make to describe God as set apart from evil? There was no such thing as sin.

Of course a similar argument could be made about other characteristics of God. If we called wisdom only lack of folly similar considerations would apply.

No doubt it is helpful to make such negative statements about God to distinguish him from creatures and indeed from fallen creatures. For example, it makes sense to say that God is timeless even though (if?) time is a created thing.

But what positive account of the holiness of God would we give? We want to think of God's holiness as more than a privation or lack of evil, right?

And how, if at all, would we distinguish it from God's goodness?

One thing we can say is that God has all his attributes in a holy manner: he has the kind of goodness and wisdom suitable to an unchangable, eternal, Trinitarian God. Something of God's holiness then is his uniqueness. He is special.

(I think Dr Ferguson may have gone on to speak of God as the intensity of his glory and talk about places in the Bible where the holiness and glory of God are associated such as Is 6:3).

Muller quotes Leigh who describes God's holiness as "original, absolute and eternal..., the incommunicable eminence of the divine Majesty, exalted above all, and divided from all other eminences whatsoever... (Is. 17:7; Hab. 1:12)." (PRRD vol 3 p498) For Brakel, God's holiness is "the brightness of all his perfections." (p499) Leigh says: "Holiness is the beauty of all God's Attributes, without which his Wisdom would be subtlety, his Justice cruelty [etc.]"  (p499) Ridgley says God's holiness is "not so much one perfection as the harmony of all [God's] perfections, as they are opposed to sin." (p500)

One way of describing holiness is as conformity to God's will. God's nature and will are one. God perfectly conforms to who he is, which is also who he wants to be. (Muller p500)

Muller says, "God's holiness is in a sense the foundation of all his other virtues or "excellencies. God's self-enjoyment and the fact that he has himself as his higest end and good depends on the purity of his nature or holiness (p500).

(In the article cited in the comments, James Robson discusses the connection between God's holiness and love esp. in the OT. Part of his conclusion is worth quoting in this connection:

Holiness as something proper to God has often been located along the axis of separation and moral perfection, expressed in unapproachability, on the one hand, and judgement against sin, on the other. These are important, and should not be lost. But from within divine holiness, rather than from a separate source, comes YHWH’s love, a love expressed in selfdisclosure, in saving activity, in a desire-to-be-in-right-relationship. There is a dimension of divine holiness that declares “Come close, but on my


Anyway, perhaps you'll forgive my thinking out loud. I'd like to think about this a bit more sometime. Do please tell me if this is heretical / where I'll find the best account of the holiness of God.


Thomas Renz said...

James Robson, “Forgotten Dimensions of Holiness” Horizons in Biblical Theology 33 (2011): 121-46. See

Marc Lloyd said...

Thank you, Thomas, I look forward to reading that.

I guess it would be true to say that all the characteristics of God are perspectives on one another: his love is holy and his holiness is loving and so on with his wisdom etc.

Interesting too to think through which attributes are most prominent in the Bible and which are directly predicated of God.

Marc Lloyd said...

It seems we heard a version of that paper at Oak Hill in 2007: