Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy: Overrated

Rudolph Otto was a German Protestant theologian and historian of religion. In 1923 the first English translation of his German work The Idea of the Holy appeared. It has become, as Victor P. Hamilton’s says, “one of the books most frequently referred to in this area [holiness].” I was reading Hamilton's Handbook on the Pentateuch today, and he referenced Otto. In fact, Otto was the only author he referenced in his discussion of holiness in Genesis 1-2 (short paragraph).

Frankly, I’m weary of references to this book in contexts where the biblical meaning of holiness is discussed. Scholars regularly pay lip service to it as though it constitutes a signal contribution to our knowledge of God's holiness. Admittedly, Hamilton notes that “Otto does not address … the fact that God’s holiness gives the basis to his moral demands.” But the fact that his is the only work referenced by Hamilton suggests he is significant and worth reading. Today I looked up on the book on Google books and read around in it, particularly his chapter, “The Numenous in the Old Testament.”

The first thing I noticed is that the focus on the book is not on what holiness is in Scripture, but rather on the experience men have when encountering what they regard as holy. The subtitle of the book is significant: “An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational.”

John C. Durham accurately capture’s Otto’s understanding of holiness: “Otto characterizes the numinous as the holy (i.e. God) minus its moral and rational aspects. A little more positively, it is the ineffable core of religion: the experience of it cannot to be described in terms of other experiences. [Note that the German heilig can be rendered as either holy or sacred. The translator had to make a choice and chose holy. So in the context of Otto, for holy it is possible to read sacred: the religious experience he discusses is the experience of the sacred.]” (

Second, Otto’s work assumes an evolutionary, Hegelian view of religious development from the primitive to the advanced. This perspective is completely unbiblical and at odds with the current movements in Western religion. We’re heading polytheistic again.

Otto's treatment of the OT is shot through with rationalistic, history of religions assumptions: Again, Durham captures it well: “In the chapter on the numinous in the Old Testament, Otto discusses the transition of the Old Testament God from an early Yahweh, still bearing traces of the 'daemonic dread' of the pre-god stage of the numinous , to an Elohim in whom 'the rational aspect outweighs the numinous' [p 75], though the latter continues to be very much present.”

Third, as Durham's site points out, Otto never uses the Latin phrase most commonly attributed to him (Hamilton cites it): mysterium tremendum et fascinosum [sic]. According to Durham, the et fascinans was added to Otto's mysterium tremendum by Ninian Smart. This observation suggests what I have long suspected: that few of those who cite Otto have read Otto, and that he is cited because he "must be."

My conclusion: The Idea of the Holy book offers the bible-believing scholar nothing of value for understanding the nature of biblical holiness. Biblical scholars should stop citing it, except perhaps in discussions of what it is like to experience the "holy."

Edited 12/2010:
Thanks to my various commenters. You have helped me see that "worthless" as a description of Otto's work is too strong. Its worth lies in its narrow compass: analysis of the religious experience of what is heilig. Its worth does NOT lie in helping the believing reader of Scripture to understand God's holiness or the holiness He requires of us. Hence it should be referenced not in discussions on the definition of divine or human holiness, but in discussions on the psychology of human experiences of the "holy."


Randy said…
Ummm, how exactly do you feel about the book? :)
I've not read it. Don't think I ever cited it. Do own it somewhere.
Wanna buy it?
Philip Brown said…
:o) Did I sound peeved? Probably the result of a slow 20-year irritation that finally burst its way into prose in combination with a later than usual hour for writing.

I should give credit to Coppedge for taking Otto to task as unbiblical (p. 49) and to Oswalt Called to be Holy who also rejected his work as significant for understanding Biblical holiness.
Jason Button said…
The first time I was introduced to Rudolf Otto was by way of a video series on the Holiness of God by R. C. Sproul. The lectures presented were based upon Sproul’s book, The Holiness of God (Tyndale, 1985). I’m sure that you are aware of this work, but permit me to draw out an argument for continuing to reference Otto’s contribution.

Sproul mentions Rudolf Otto in the third chapter where he attempts to define holiness. Sproul begins this chapter in a very hesitant manner, wanting to throw down a simple definition, but realizing the impossibility of the task. He eventually deals with the “big word” transcendence and then adds to it consecration. After identifying these elements of holiness, he introduces the reader to Rudolf Otto and explains that Otto is helpful because he recognized and sought to grapple with the fact that “people have a difficult time describing the holy” (p. 59). In Otto’s words, his purpose was “to analyse [sic] all the more exactly the feeling which remains where the concept fails” (The Idea of the Holy, Kessinger Pub., 2004, p. vii).

Yes, Otto’s approach to this subject is very scientific in nature, and, yes, Otto was a student of liberal Protestantism. I can understand why a Biblicist would not want to give men like Otto the time of day, but scholarship should be able to see through the man and his faults to his contribution, as narrow as it may be. “Narrow” is the operative word here. The reason Sproul and others cite Otto is to acknowledge the necessity of coupling what “holiness” means about God with the manner in which humans respond to things considered to be “holy.”

I will admit that I have not read Otto’s book in its entirety. I browsed through it some time ago, and did so a bit more thoroughly this morning after reading your comments. I also spent some time this afternoon digging through my library reading in books that make reference to Otto’s work. Regarding V. P. Hamilton’s comments on Otto, it appears to me that Otto does not discount the moral and ethical aspects of “holiness,” as Hamilton implies. Rather Otto identifies these as only one side of the definition. The side on which Otto focuses throughout his book—a side that is often neglected—is that of the emotional response of humans to that which is holy. John Harvey, in his Translator’s Preface, tries to explain this aspect of Otto’s work. He writes:

‘Holiness’, ‘sanctity’, are words which are charged with ethical import. A large part, perhaps the chief part, of their meaning is moral. This, as the author maintains, is necessarily the case, inasmuch as, the better the character of deity and the divine becomes known, the more intimately it absorbs within itself all the highest moral and ‘rational’ attributes. But though, in our final experience of God’s ‘Holiness’, perfect goodness has an absolutely essential and central place, yet there remains a something beyond. Holiness or sanctity has an element in it independent of the category of the good. And to this the author gives the name of the ‘numinous’ element, form the Latin numen, the most general Latin word for supernatural divine power. ‘Numinous’ feeling is, then, just this unique apprehension of the Something, whose character may at first seem to have little connexion [sic] with our ordinary moral terms, but which later ‘becomes charged’ with the highest and deepest moral significance. And ‘the holy’ will be, in Dr. Otto’s language, a complex category of the ‘numinous’ and the ‘moral’, or, in one of his favourite [sic] metaphors, a fabric in which we have the non-rational numinous experience as the woof and the rational and ethical as the warp. (pp. xvi-xvii)

Also, regarding the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans, it is true that this phrase in toto does not appear in Otto’s book. That said, using this phrase, as such, really isn’t all that inappropriate. Otto writes of both of these human responses to things holy. He first deals with mysterium tremendum (fearful mystery) in chapters 4 and 5, pages 12-30. In chapter 6, he addresses the element of fascinans (fascination). So, in the book, Otto does address both the elements of mysterium tremendum and fascinans.

No, Otto’s work is not an exhaustive study of “holiness” in general, nor does it provide a complete handling of the doctrine of the holiness of God. A complete handling of this subject was obviously beyond the scope of his project. Does this mean that he was unconcerned with the moral and ethical elements of “holiness”? I doubt it. While Otto’s book presents a very scientific look at the subject, however, it does build upon Biblical texts that express human responses to the holiness of God. Other purely exegetical and theological works are available to the student, and Otto’s book is what it is: one angle out of many regarding a mammoth-sized subject.

Should Otto’s book be cited when writing on the subject of holiness? I think so, but for the “narrow” purpose it serves. It is the most significant work on the subject from his era. And it seems to be the best treatment of this “narrow” aspect of holiness (no one else is ever cited along with Otto or instead of Otto). Finally, it is not exhaustive and doesn’t purport to be so. The reader will be disappointed if he expects to find there a thorough treatment of all the angles of the subject, much less an evangelical appeal to morality and ethical living.
Philip Brown said…
Thanks for taking the time to respond at length, Jason. I am certainly in agreement with your statement that “scholarship should be able to see through the man and his faults to his contribution.” I try to practice this, though I’m sure I fail at times.

Let me concede a couple points: Regarding mysterium tremendum et fascinans, I concede that since Otto develops the idea of attraction and fascination as a corollary of horror and dread, it is legitimate to add et fascinans to mysterium tremendum as a comprehensive statement of Otto’s definition. Good point. I stand corrected. FWIW, Otto cites the Latin term fascinans on p. 52.

Also, I did not intend to imply that Otto discounts the moral and ethical aspects of holiness. He doesn't. He delimits them from his investigation.

On the other hand, I do not believe Otto's book is at all helpful when seeking to understand the nature of biblical holiness. I regard it is a egregious error to confuse or conflate the meaning of holiness with the human response to encountering a holy being.

I flatly deny that the term holiness either denotes or connotes (in Scripture) anything like Otto's mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

If I am right, then Otto deserves no mention or only passing corrective mention when discussing the meaning/definition/nature of biblical holiness. The "narrow" place where his work does legitimately fit would be in a discussion of human responses to encounters with God.

To reiterate my primary gripe: In my reading experience, Otto is often one of the first works cited in discussions on the meaning of holiness and is sometimes highly lauded as making a significant contribution to our understanding of the meaning of holiness. I do not believe this is so, hence I regard Otto as worthless for helping anyone understand the meaning of holiness.

Someone might offer as a counter-argument, "But, doesn't one need to account for whatever it is in the nature of a thing that elicits a predictable response from those who encounter it?" This is a good question. My response is that when a person has carefully considered all of what Scripture has to say about holiness, he/she will conclude that it is not God's holiness that generates mysterium tremendum et fascinans but rather God's being as a whole. Holy describes God because of who He is. God is not who He is because He is holy.
Laurie Baker said…
While I have not read his book, as a humble spiritual student directly experiencing the mysterium tremendum and fascinosum, I am exceedingly grateful for Otto's accurate and poignant description. There are few people who know of such things that one may speak to. Please forgive me if I seem disagreeable to its worthlessness.

Claude said…
Otto, indeed, never uses "tremendum et fascinosum" but "tremendum et fascinans". Tillich, for some reason, uses fascinosum in his 1923 and 1925 reviews of Das Heilige. That is about the time when my deceased friend Ninian Smart was born.

I am amazed that you dare make a comment - any comment - about a book that you admit not really reading. What is that!?

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