Lecture 1. The Idea of the Holy in the New Testament

Lecture 1: The Idea of the Holy

After nearly a century it is impossible to approach the subject of the idea of the holy from any other angle than that of Rudolf Otto, whose great book, The Idea of the Holy, first appeared in German in 1917, English translation in 1923. This is sub-titled an investigation into the non-rational in religion, for 'holiness is peculiar to the sphere of religion. It is only applied to ethics. It cannot be taught. It can only be evoked, awakened in the mind' (p. 7). Otto takes his point of departure from Schleiermacher, who spoke of a 'feeling of dependence'. Otto prefers the expression 'creature-consciousness' before a numen praesens, and compares this to other human feelings: 'Such feelings exist in weaker form in feelings of gratitude, trust, love, reliance, submission dedication'. It is worth quoting Otto at length:

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. 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 and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering. 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 (p. 12-13).

Joined with the feeling of dread (Goethe says in Faust, Das Schaudern ist der Menschheit bestes Teil) is a feeling of fascination, an allurement. Holiness is inherently attractive, even lovable. Although the Holy is beyond human reach, it is a human instinct to long for it and desire it. Augustine speaks of this feeling eloquently: 'Quid est illud quod interlucet mihi et percutit cor meum sine laesione? Et inhorresco et inardesco. Inhorresco inquantum dissimilis ei sum, inardesco inquantum similis ei sum' (Confessions 2.9.1). Otto comments this, 'The divine object may appear to the mind an object of horror and dread, but at the same time it is no less something that allures with a potent charm, and the creature who trembles before it has at the same time the impulse to turn to it, nay, even to make it somehow his own' (p. 31).

A third aspect of holiness which Otto isolates is the galvanic energy of the Holy: our God is a consuming fire (Dt 4.24, quoted Hebr 12.29). Mircea Eliade also, in The Sacred and the Profane (Harper, 1961, p. 12), in his account of sacred spaces and sacred times, stresses that places are chosen as holy - a sacred tree or a sacred spring - because they are reckoned to possess some intrinsic power, to release some beneficent energy. Similarly, times are prescribed as sacred as the moment when a particular energy is released, a moment of penetration through to the reality of things, the suitable time for making contact with the divine and tapping into its energy. I must say that this release of energy at holy places and times seems to me only one aspect of them. I would regard holy places not so much as wells of energy as islands of peace, places where one feels most profoundly in harmony with oneself and with the basic structure of the universe. This seems to me also the feeling expressed by the classical Greek and Roman attitude to the sacred grove, or the sacred spring, such as is expressed by Horace in his Odes to sacred places (e.g. O fons Bandusiae, splendidior vitro (3.13): Te flagrantis atrox hora Caniculae, Nescit tangere, tu frigus amabile Fessis vomere tauris Praebes et pecori vago). It is, of course, possible to regard such oases of peace as restorative of vigour, and in this way avenues to the energy of the Holy. This might be regarded as the message about the holiness of God conveyed in Elijah's theophany in the cave at Horeb, in the 'light murmuring sound' (1 Kgs 19.12). In the Bible, however, as in Canaanite religion (witness the ancient Psalm 29: The Lord's voice shatters the cedars, the Lord's voice convulses the desert), power is an inescapable concomitant of the deity. And of course Elijah's peaceful theophany is balanced by the fiery whirlwind in which he is taken from the earth (2 Kgs 2.11).

B. The Idea of the Holy in the Bible

Building on Otto's findings I would like to isolate certain aspects of the holiness of God as they appear in the Bible. The holiness of God in the Bible is a specific sort of holiness, which cannot be divorced from the whole conception of God known and shown by the biblical authors. Thus the elements isolated by Otto as elements of holiness are coloured for the God of the Bible in a way specific to the way God is there envisaged. The subject of our investigation is the holiness of God in the New Testament. It is, however, impossible to follow this up without first investigating the idea of the holiness of God in the Old Testament.


1. The first of these is Das Tremendum, for which Otto cites Ex 23.27, 'I shall send terror of myself ahead of you'. Every reader of the Bible has favourite passages where this is expressed. For me, many of them are associated with places I have visited. To anyone with a feeling for nature (and this feeling might be expected to be far more fully developed among the wandering Hebrews of the desert than among the city-dwellers that we are), some of these are naturally awesome. They are naturally holy places.. I could mention the awesome scene of Jacob's struggle with the mysterious spirit at the massive gorge of the River Jabbok, or the theophany on Sinai, when the holiness is such that the people must keep away from the mountain (Exodus 19.16-25 - and the barren and majestic peaks of Sinai, with their sombre, kaleidoscopic rocks, stripped bare of any earth, of themselves command respect; their very solemnity evokes a meeting with God), or the second theophany on Sinai when Yahweh puts Moses in a cleft in the rock to shelter him from the majesty, for 'no human being can see God and live' (Ex 33.20).

One of the chief expressions of awe at the otherness and incomprehensibility of God is the prohibition of making images of God. The prohibition of graven images is no doubt partly motivated by the desire to distinguish Israel from the neighbouring peoples, among whom statuettes and images of the gods were current coin, and to prevent the proliferation of such charms as cult objects, male and female fertility.figurines. If no human being can see God and live, it stands to reason that any physical representation of God is an absurdity and a betrayal, bringing God down to a level capable of being comprehended and encompassed by human senses, human eyes and hands. The creator cannot be reduced to the level of a wooden idol, whence the sarcasm of Deutero-Isaiah's polemic against the makers of idols:

The craftsman casts an idol, a goldsmith overlays it with gold, and casts silver chains for it. Someone too poor for a sacrifice chooses a piece of wood that will not rot and seeks out a skilled craftsman to set up an idol that will not totter. Have you not understood how the earth was set on its foundations? He who sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, the inhabitants of which are like grasshoppers, stretches out the heavens like a cloth (Is 40.19-22).

This feeling of the majesty of God comes to expression strongly in Isaiah, with the stress in all parts of the Book on 'the Holy One of Israel'. Isaiah's conception of God is one of holiness from the beginning. The opening vision of his call is centred on the Trisagion in the Temple, when even the confident Isaiah can only cower until his lips have been cleansed with a burning coal. The human response to this holiness must be the overwhelming feeling of unworthiness and insignificance. This is expressed in the standard reaction to the divine or to a vision: the falling to the ground at the feet of a heavenly messenger. In Isaiah perhaps this sense is expressed most strongly in the refrain of that early poem,

Go into the rock, hide in the dust

in terror of Yahweh, at the brilliance of his majesty

when he arises to make the earth quake (Is 2.10).

The echoes of Isaiah's opening vision of God seated on the throne in the Temple are heard again in two other theophanies, centuries apart, and clear signs of the dominance of this conception of the exaltedness of God. The first of these is the great opening vision of Ezekiel, the Chariot-Throne of God with the four living creatures, surmounted by 'a brilliance like amber, like fire, radiating from what appeared to be the waist upwards, and from what appeared to be the waist downwards I saw what looked like fire, giving a brilliant light all round. The radiance of the encircling light was like the radiance of the bow in the clouds on rainy days. The sign was like the glory of Yahweh. I looked and fell to the ground' (Ezek 1.27-28). This echo if Isaiah 6 in its turn is echoed by the second, the climax of Daniel's vision of the night, the One most venerable, whose throne was 'a blaze of flames' (Dn 7.9), to whom comes the one like a son of man.

2. Power and Wisdom

Another aspect of the holiness of the divinity comes in the Book of Job, which deliberately prescinds from the historic revelation of the Chosen People, setting the story in the mystic Land of Uz. Job's sense of the divine is no less for that, and it is centred principally on a power which cannot be matched. This is the climax of the Book. There Job is given his answer in the final poems which attempt to convey the power and the wisdom of God in creation, with their wonderful imagery, the sea leaping tumultuous from the womb, dawn grasping the earth by its edges (38.6, 12), and its awesome great beasts Behemoth and Leviathan, far beyond human control, but powerless creatures of God (40-41). Before this power and wisdom Job can only yield in submission: 'I retract what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes' (42.6).

But the characterization in Job is far more complicated than that. The holiness and otherness of God does not imply a complete separation. The gulf between God and his creatures does not suggest a God divorced from and uninterested in humantiy. This is no distant God; rather God is interactive with the world. The absolute power is God is daunting but is not repellent. Throughout the Book the divine holiness is seen in a fascinating love-hate relationship with God. Job feels oppressed by El Shaddai ('Am I the Sea or some sea-monster that you should keep me under guard? Will you never take your eyes off me long enough for me to swallow my spittle?' 7.12, 19). At the same time Job feels a fascination, a dependence and a security which draws him to God: 'Call me forward and I shall answer!' (13.22), or

Will no one hide me in Sheol, and shelter me there till your anger is passed,

fixing a certain day for calling me to mind - can the dead come back to life?

Day after day of my service I should be waiting for my relief to come.

Then you would call and I should answer,

you would want to see once more what you have made. (14.13-15)

Finally in all his distress and misery Job sees his only hope of vindication and safety in God. His oppressor is at the same time his only hope of defence:

I know that I have a living Defender

and that he will rise up last, on the dust of the earth.

After my awakening, he will set me close to him,

and from my flesh I shall look on God (19.24-25).

The same mixture of oppression and intimacy is seen in Psalm 139, often called 'The Hound of Heaven':

Where shall I go to escape your spirit? Where shall I flee from your presence?

If I scale the heavens you are there, if I lie flat in Sheol you are there.

If I speed away on the wings of the dawn, if I dwell beyond the ocean,

even there your hand will be guiding me, your right hand holding me fast.

The final chapters of Job are from the literary point of view perhaps among the most powerful passages of the whole Bible. The message they convey is that the power and the wisdom of El Shaddai are so far beyond the range of human comprehension that Job has no right - and indeed he then has no desire - to question the mighty dispositions of God. The holiness of God consists in God's unfathomable wisdom and uncontrollable power.

3. An interventionist God, directing the course of history

Power, wisdom, majesty, otherness are all concepts which demote remoteness. God is beyond our reach, beyond our comprehension. But this remotely holy God is not the God who reveals himself in the Bible. Such sanctity, such untouchability is treasured in the Bible and enshrined in the cultic laws of holiness, to which we will return another day. The holiness of the God of the Bible is, however, modified in two special ways, or perhaps one should say expresses itself in two special ways, has two special modalities. Firstly, God intervenes to draw a people to himself. He has chosen a special people and destined them for holiness. His people are holy because he is holy, and they must constantly imitate his holiness in all the activities of their lives

You have been sanctified and become holy because I am holy; do not defile yourselves with all these creatures that swarm on the ground. Yes, it is I, Yahweh, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God; you must therefore be holy because I am holy' (Lev 11.44-45).

This choice of the people to be his own possession, his segullah or 'treasure' (Ex 19.5, etc), is full of consequences for the modalities of the divine holiness of the God of Israel. Firstly, the love of God is a family love, a protective and caring love, like the love of a father, a mother or a spouse, prepared to go to any lengths, as we see in Hosea 2 (the passionate love of the spouse - 'I shall betroth you to myself for ever'), Hosea 11 (the tender, caring love of the parent - 'I led them with the leading-strings of love') or the Canticle (the absorbing engagement of the young couple - 'strong as death'). A second consequence is that as Lord of history God will intervene at the Day of the Lord to re-establish his people, to vindicate them and to punish those who have exploited them. This gives history its purpose and its whole forward thrust. It is expressed in the Bible with all the cosmic imagery of creation. In his holiness God will bring all the powers of the universe, earthquake, thunder, lightning, the stars of heaven and the terrifying power of the sea, to bear at his final Visitation to vindicate his people. The Day of the Lord is a subject on its own into which we cannot enter at length, but the terrifying final coming of the Lord dominates much of Israel's conception of the world.

4. A forgiving God

Most important of all is the second modality in which the holiness of the God of the Bible expresses itself. The holiness of God comports forgiveness. Consciousness of human failure is woven into the structure of the Bible. It is first seen in that analysis of the process of temptation and failure in the myth of Adam and Eve. After the exile to Babylon one can almost speak of a guilt-complex in such books as Baruch and many of the Psalms, full as they are of self-confession and bemoaning of sin.

Ability to handle human failure is one of the salient features of the religion of Israel. The logical Greeks could not rise to forgiveness. The gods preside only over vengeance.The endless cycle or revenge continues relentlessly through the Oresteia or the Oedipus plays. The tragedy is that fate is inevitable and cannot be turned aside. Mercy plays no role, but only toothless pity. By contrast, standing as a banner-headline over Israel's concept of God is that first exegesis of the name of Yahweh, 'Yahweh, Yahweh, God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and constancy, maintaining his faithful love to thousands, forgiving fault, crime and sin' (Ex 34.6-7). Yahweh had already revealed his name to Moses at the Burning Bush, but he gives its meaning only when the first massive failure of the covenant has occurred. It is then that God's dsx is revealed. This passage is quoted or alluded to again and again throughout the scriptures, in the ancient promise to David (Ps 89.16), that God's faithful love and forgiveness will never desert his descendants, in Jeremiah's purchase of the field as a guarantee of return from captivity (Jer 32.18), in Jonah's satirical petulance when his threats of disaster on Nineveh are foiled by their appeal to God's forgiveness (Jonah 4.2): 'Isn't this what I said would happen when I was still in my own country. That was why I first tried to flee to Tarshish, since I knew you were a tender, compassionate God, slow to anger, rich in fatihful love, who relents about inflicting disaster'. The satire is that Jonah is much more annoyed about the failure of his threats than he is delighted by the saving of the Ninevites.

So much as an outline of God's holiness in the Bible. God is wholly other, beyond human reach or comprehension. Yet this holiness is also of such a kind that it includes God's vibrant care for his creation. God does not simply set creation in motion and stand back to see what happens. He intervenes and with his sovereign power guides the course of history and cares for his own.

C. The Holiness of God in the New Testament

Almost in no other way is the continuity between Old and New Testament so clear as in the conception of God. Only now there is the staggering difference that with God is now associated the man Jesus. The holiness of God is more taken from granted than expressed; it is one of the conceptions that is carried over entirely from the Old Testament, and does not need to be re-iterated. Indeed, so central and obvious is this concept that it is used to express the close relationship of Jesus to God. The demons, who alone in Mark's gospel recognise Jesus for who he is, acknowledge him as 'the Holy One of God' (Mk 1.24; Lk 4.34, cf. Ac 3.14, 'you denied the Holy One of God'; 4.27 'your holy servant Jesus').

1. Das Tremendum

The best place to begin is at the end, for the Book of Revelation is dominated by the Trisagion.The only due reaction to the holiness of God is worship, and it is here that - almost uniquely - worship of God is portrayed. The imagery of the Book of Revelation receives all its sense from the constant allusion to the Old Testament, and the opening vision of the heavenly court (Rv 4-5) is no exception. This is, of course, built on the successive scenes of the heavenly court in 1 Kings 22.19-23, Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 7, drawing elements from each. From Ezekiel is drawn the jewelled throne, the thunder and lightning, the living creatures. From Isaiah the cry of Trisagion which initially sets the tone, 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty'. From Daniel the 'One seated upon the throne', the ten thousand times ten thousand attendants, and the refrain of the sevenfold doxology, 'Worthy is the Lamb to receive power, riches, wisdom, strength, honour, glory and blessing'. The novelty of the scene is that with the One seated upon the throne is now associated the Lamb standing as though slain. Not only is the relationship of the Lamb to the One seated on the throne obviously modelled on that between the one like a Son of Man and the One seated on the throne in Daniel. Further, the Lamb shares the throne, is in the middle of the throne itself (5.6).

Similarly in the final vision of the New Jerusalem at the end of the book. The Holy City is, and always was, made holy by the presence of God, just as it was the presence of God in the Tent of Meeting which made his people holy. Now, however, the presence of God has been expanded to include the Lamb. Consequently the throne of God is now 'the throne of God and of the Lamb' (22.1). The city is 'lit by the radiant glory of God', but at the same time 'the Lamb was a lighted torch for it' (21.22). 'The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, his servants will worship him' (22.3), not 'them', for the singular rather than the plural pronoun is used, showing that in the mind of the author God and the Lamb form one entity.. The holiness of the city is the consequence of the single presence of God and of the Lamb.

Allusion to the throne-visions of Ezekiel and Daniel also stands behind Jesus' declaration at the Sanhedrin trial. It is not easy to see why his reply to the High Priest immediately incurs the charge of blasphemy. The only satisfactory reply to my mind is that of JR Donahue, who sees in it this allusion. 'You will see the son of man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven' (Mk 14.62) carries the paradox that the son of man is both 'seated', stationary, and 'coming', mobile. This is reconcilable only if the cloud-throne on which he is seated is the very Merkabah throne of God. The scene is exactly similar to the final theophany of Revelation, a hideous blasphemy to Jewish ears, one at which the High Priest could react only by tearing his garments.

For many readers the apocalyptic genre, with its bright colours and lurid symbolism, is not the most natural way of expressing holiness. More impressive and convincing would be something more awesome, silent and mysterious. To this one can only reply that this mode of expression is part of the conventions of the apocalyptic genre of heavenly journeys, biblical allusion, otherworldly messengers, secrets revealed. That this expresses holiness is perhaps more obvious in the Qumran fragment about the merkabah throne:

The cherubim bless the image of the throne-chariot above the firmament, and praise the majesty of the luminous firmament beneath his seat of glory. When the wheels advance angels of holiness come and go. From between his glorious wheels there is as it were a fiery vision of most holy spirits. The whispered voice of blessing accompanies the roar of their advance, and they praise the Holy One on their way of return (4Q 405 20.2, Vermes p. 262).

Another way altogether in which the holiness of God appears as Das Tremendum is in the way the awesome personality of Jesus reflects the holiness of God. The divinity of Jesus is certainly not clear in the earliest gospel, Mark, but already there it is clear that God is at work in and through Jesus. This manifests itself in the authority of Jesus, an authority which makes a crescendo, an authority first over minds and personalities, then over bodies, then over morality and the Law, and before long over the elements themselves. The revelation of this awsome divine authority in Jesus is to me the basic meaning of the revelation of the person of Jesus in Mark.