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.]” (www.bytrent.demon.co.uk/otto1.html).
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."
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."