A little bit on holiness

A God who is inherently separate as regards to his holiness is, in essence, a God who has to split from himself in order to put right what went wrong in human sin. Donald Bloesch sums up a standard theological position when he writes:

Biblical faith portrays God as having two sides: holiness and love. These are the perfections that shape the interaction of God with his people. They are integrally related, and yet they coexist in a certain tension, one that highlights their paradoxical unity rather than dissolves it. God’s holiness is his majestic purity that cannot tolerate moral evil. God’s love is his outgoing, tenderhearted embrace of the sinner. God’s holiness is his separateness from what is unclean and profane. God’s love is his willingness to identify with those who are unclean and profane. God’s love is his willingness to identify with those who are unclean in order to help them. God’s holiness transcends the passing world of decay and death. God’s love incarnates itself in this world corrupted by sin.[1]

Bloesch continues, noting that on this account there develops two strands of theological emphasis, each preferring one attribute over the other as ontological priority. One emphasizes God’s love and the other emphasizes God’s holiness.[2] This is not simply an amicable preference for study, this distinction is at the heart of some of the most explosive theological battles of the last two centuries.[3] In effect, the division between God’s holiness and his love makes for a situation in which God is both “good cop” and “bad cop,” the one countering the other in an attempt to best deal with the complicated situation at hand.

Barth, according to Bloesch, sought “to hold the two together in a paradoxical relationship,” two sides of God that are not inherently opposed, each expressions of God’s inner nature, with the Father associated “with holiness, the Son with mercy, and the Spirit with love.”[4] Bloesch himself prefers this middle ground of Barth and Brunner, writing, “From my perspective God’s love and holiness coalesce in such a way that we may speak of the holy love of God (as did Forsyth) and of his merciful holiness.”[5] Rather than clarifying the distinctions, however, this middle approach seems rather to attempt to put divergent terms in rhetorical unity in a way that does not better describe the inner reality of God as both holy and love. Each term remains exclusive, but in God’s reality these exclusive terms can somehow exist in unified expression of the Triune persons.

Bloesch’s position seems to be not too far from Pannenberg’s at this point. God’s separateness, as understood in von Rad’s definition of holiness, is apparently in need of God’s love in order to reach out to the corrupted finite. “The holiness of God, then, may be seen primarily in his judgment,” Pannenberg writes, seeming to affirm the traditional approach.[6] Yet, Pannenberg does not here move into a discussion of God’s love, but rather presses deeper into the concept of holiness and in doing this blurs the separation others have emphasized.


The holy is not threatening because humans dare to approach it from their positions of corruption. The holy is threatening precisely because it is the power of God’s identity who has chosen, in spite of the corruption, to reach out to this world. “The holy,” Pannenberg writes, “threatens the profane world because God does not remain a totally otherworldly God but manifests his deity in the human world.” The holiness of God is not his inner sanctum, his place of protection. It is his being, as his eternal self. We are confronted with this when we encounter God, and so in that encounter we become fully aware of our finitude and the gap between our attempts to overcome our non-identity.

Jesus is not the expression of God’s love in contrast to the Father’s holiness. This is a false division, asserting theological definitions as priorities over the divine essence. Jesus, as fully God, is the expression of God’s love and God’s holiness, and as such to see Jesus is to see God’s holiness, his identity, for what it is revealed to be. This was the continuing revelation of God’s earlier revelation. “The power of the holy, which is a threat to life in its destructive force, invades the human world in order to incorporate it into its own sphere. Thus Yahweh elects Israel to participation in his holiness: ‘You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy’ (Lev. 19:2).”[7]

This election is not to participate with God in his separateness from his creation, or to be removed from this world of profane corruption, a lifting out and away from what is common, and mean, and flesh. The election is not a salvation from, but an election to, an invitation of holy to the holy, to be with God as he is himself, in his future and in our present.[8] Our selves with God’s self, in his eternity.

[1] Bloesch, 140.

[2] See Bloesch, 140

[3] . This tension is still quite evident in contemporary theology, especially in its more popular forms. This might, in fact, be the best way of understanding the divisions which have occurred in the emerging church over the last five years or so, with three distinct movements expressing positions on this long-standing spectrum. See Robert Webber et al., Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches : Five Perspectives (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007). for a curious, because it is unintentional, expression of this divide, as it is happening, among previously united figures. Mark Driscoll, on page 30,notes, “In saying that God is holy, Scripture teaches that God is absolutely separate from every evil.” He continues on page 33 noting, “God is holy and righteous, and our sins against him cause his wrath to burn against us, which can continue forever. Nevertheless, in his mercy, God does grant salvation.” This is assuming a definition of holy, then applying that to topics as important as the atonement, and then using this stance to make charges against others who disagree in the guise of “biblical orthodoxy.” Such figures as Tony Jones and Brian McLaren stand on the other side of this divide, emphasizing the love of God as priority, and distancing themselves from what they see as the harsher, judgmental aspects of Evangelicalism. Dan Kimball, on page 44 notes in response, “Finally, Mark’s approach seems to be filled with issues of power… The offensiveness of this view may have little to do with the gospel and more to do with one view of the gospel in competition with all other understandings.” This is not limited to Driscoll’s view, as any priority of holiness over love, or love over holiness is, in effect, an attempt to form God into the image of our priorities, and, in effect, projecting a power over some aspect of church or society in the name of theology.

[4] Bloesch, 141. A mostly understandable emphasis given traditional theological focus, though curious given the application of love with the Spirit, no doubt giving Roman’s 5:5 an interpretive priority.

[5] Bloesch, 141.

[6] ST 1:398.

[7] ST 1:398.

[8] Pannenberg writes, “Obviously, the ecstatic power of the spirit and, especially of love elevating man beyond the limitations of the conditions in his natural and social environment and in himself, is weaker than one should expect on the basis of the New Testament assurances concerning the presence of the Spirit in the Christian community. As Christians, we may deplore this fact. But, as things are, mere moralistic criticism of the weakness of Christian love seems insufficient and inefficient. One has to look at the reason for this phenomenon. Then, one may conclude, it is the private conception of Christian love that makes it largely inefficient today. But to become fully aware of what this means, one has to take into account the distortions of faith and hope as well. For these represent the motivation of Christian love, and if the latter is weak and the spirit cannot get through the channels of human action, the clot may well be in the conception of faith or hope. Especially faith only too often narrows the outlook of the Christian instead of broadening it. It still seems to be an exception rather than the rule among Christians that faith means the awakening to freedom, to a new vision of human life. Instead, faith is still, and preeminently, understood as acceptance of a number of rather strange propositions which have little to do with the realities of everyday life in the modern world. Underlying all this is what I want to call the dogmatic distorture of faith. Few Christians are aware of the consequences of the fact that faith, above all, is trust uniting a person with Jesus and that the power of this faith is beyond comprehension.” Wolfhart Pannenberg, Spirit, Faith, and Church (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), 24.

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