Saturday, July 26, 2008

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."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Defining Holiness: Where to start?

I find it a very common practice by theologians to insist upon beginning with God when defining holiness. With the resurgence of trinitarian theology, the focus has been on beginning with God’s trinitarian nature and relationships as the matrix for holiness. Some have gone so far as to assert that if one’s definition of holiness does not work within the Trinity before creation it is incorrect.

Logically, it makes sense to begin with God. Clearly, God is holy (Exod. 15:11). He is incomparable in holiness (Isa. 40:25). What interests me is that God does not start our understanding of holiness where theologians think He should. (Who knows where He started Adam’s?!) If we take the canonical order of the Torah as His chosen starting point for preserving His revelation for our understanding, then God starts teaching us about holiness with non-personal items: a day, some dirt, and an assembly.

A holy day
In Gen. 2:3 God makes the seventh day holy because in it He rested from all his labors. Several things are noteworthy here:
• “To sanctify” here denotes God’s action in setting the day apart from the other six days on which He worked unto a special purpose: rest.
• The sanctification of the day made it special. In other words, it is not an ordinary day but a special day by virtue of having been set apart (made holy) for rest.
• Without any preconceived idea of what the verb qadash means, it is clear that it involves separating something from the ordinary unto the special.

Holy dirt
In Exod. 3:5 God tells Moses that the dirt he is standing on is holy. What made the dirt holy? I take it that God’s special presence made the ground holy. I note here that …
• holy ground requires special treatment. Moses had to take off his sandals.
• the fact that it was “holy” meant it had been separated from ordinary use unto special use by God.
• Here again separation from the common/ordinary unto special use/treatment by God is at the core of the meaning of holy.

A holy assembly
In Exod. 12:16 God designates the first and seventh day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread as days upon which a “holy assembly” was to be held. The text does not specify the purpose of the assembly, but Ezek. 46:3, 9 indicate it was for the purpose of worshiping Yahweh.

What is “holy” about this assembly? The text reveals that no work was to be done on these days, except for the work needed to cook. Again, God separates a day from ordinary days by prohibiting work and separates it unto a special purpose: assembly for worship. Holy in this context appears then to have the sense of “special as a result of a having been set apart by God.”

In each of the first three pentateuchal texts where God calls something holy, the meaning of the word holy involves the ideas of “separated from common use/activity unto special use/activity by God” or “special because of having been separated for a special purpose.”

Surprised by covetousness

On Tuesday, I was reading Romans 7 as part of my Scripture reading during my personal worship time. Verse 7 stuck out since we are teaching our son, Allan, the ten commandments.

Romans 7:7 Τί οὖν ἐροῦμεν; ὁ νόμος ἁμαρτία; μὴ γένοιτο· ἀλλὰ τὴν ἁμαρτίαν οὐκ ἔγνων εἰ μὴ διὰ νόμου· τήν τε γὰρ ἐπιθυμίαν οὐκ ᾔδειν εἰ μὴ ὁ νόμος ἔλεγεν· οὐκ ἐπιθυμήσεις.

What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, "You shall not covet." (NASB)

I was surprised to see that the noun “coveting” = ἐπιθυμία; the verb is a form of ἐπιθυμέω. The standard words for desire, strong desire, frequently translated "lust" by the KJV! Is that what coveting is--desire?

So I checked the LXX. It uses ἐπιθυμέω in Exod. 20 and Deut. 5. Then I checked BDAG, Louw-Nida, and Friberg. None of them list “covet” as a sense of ἐπιθυμέω! Then I went to the Hebrew: חמד is the verb translated “covet.” HALOT does not list ‘covet’ as a sense. It lists “to desire.”

So I looked up “covet” in the Oxford English Dictionary and it lists the 10th commandment under sense three “to desire culpably, to long for (what belongs to another). Sense 1 was ‘desire, eagerly desire.’ Sense 2 to desire with concupiscience or fleshly desire.

Conclusion: “Covet” is not a technical term distinct from other terms for desire. It is the normal word for desire.

This shifts my understanding of the commandment. You shall not desire your neighbor’s wife. You shall not desire your neighbor’s house. When something belongs to another, to desire that very item is wrong. To desire an item like it, then I assume, is not wrong. To desire a wife like one’s neighbor’s wife is ok.

Wow, this ties into 1 John 2:15-17 and worldliness. Since "the things in the world" are lusts -- ἐπιθυμία -- all worldliness is a violation of the 10th commandment as well as a violation of the 1st commandment.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Holiness through the OT looking glass

In He Gave Us Stories Richard L. Pratt calls the OT text a three-fold looking glass: a translucent window that opens upon events in the ancient world, a stained-glass window that presents a highly selective, ideologically focused drama, and a silvered mirror which shows us ourselves in others' garb. Pratt’s metaphor deserves the biblical theologian’s regular meditation. Most of us easily forget Scripture’s stained-glass nature and think only of it as a transparent pane, however circumscribed, for viewing God’s Kingdom plan unfolding step by step, phase by phase.

Such forgetfulness leads to serious exegetical error. First, we think that because the text does not say the ancients knew something, therefore they did not know it. This is a conclusion unreasonable and unsustainable.

The NT off-handedly attributes knowledge to OT characters of which there is not the slightest hint in the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, Jude tells us that Enoch prophesied Yahweh’s coming in judgment with multiplied thousands of his holy ones (Jude 1:14). While most would relegate any apocalyptic knowledge or interest to millenniums later, it in fact existed at least a mere seven generations from Adam, if it was not known from the beginning.

The bounds of inscripturated revelation have never compassed the totality of special revelation. That is to say, God revealed (many?) things to those who were His people that Scripture does not tell us.

What does this mean for a study of holiness? It means the biblical theologian must not assert that the near absence of holiness terminology in Genesis reflects a relatively great ignorance of its meaning and nature by the characters in Genesis. It also means that the biblical theologian should be refuse the temptation to trace boldly the historical development of this concept, since he have no way of knowing what was known when, unless the text tells him.

The second danger of such forgetfulness is the temptation to follow Scripture’s canonical sequence in the false assumption of chronological sequence. We do not know when, during Moses' lifetime, Genesis was written, but we do know that Exodus 1-13 was likely to have been written after Exodus 19-23.

How do we know this? Did Moses chronicle his birth, flight, the ten plagues, the Exodus before arriving at Sinai? I think it most unlikely. It seems far more likely that the 38 years of wilderness wandering provided Moses time for the inspired literary activity that gave us the narrative framing of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers.

What does this mean for a study of holiness? It means the biblical theologian who follows the canonical path through the Pentateuch does not follow the chronology of special revelation. He follows the literary path laid down by the Spirit's inspiration of theological narrative.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Survey of Holiness in the OT

I just finished, last night, a journey through every OT text that has any of the cognate Hebrew terms for holiness. There are 823 instances of the following cognates: the verb q-d-sh, the noun qodesh, and the adjectives qadosh and qadesh. I’ve been on the journey off and on for about a month.

Three things prompted my study. First, my SS class asked for a study on holiness and its related topics. Second, Dad and I have been discussing the nature of God’s holiness for a couple months. Third, in his book Portraits of God, Allan Coppedge asserts, “A survey of the data indicates that the meaning of holiness has six major components. They [are] the concepts of separation, brilliance, righteousness, love, power and goodness” (p. 51).

My previous studies of the concept of holiness had lead me to conclude that holiness at its essence is separateness. When applied to human persons, it is separation unto God from the common and ordinary as well as the sinful and defiling. When applied to God … well, I wasn’t exactly sure. I’d been taught it was his transcendence and moral purity or perhaps his moral excellence. But Coppedge’s statement challenged my previous understanding. Hence the current study.

I’m still sifting through the data, but several things stand out to me.
  1. Having surveyed the data, I have not found any data that supports Coppedge’s assertion that the meaning of holiness includes the concepts of brilliance, love, power, or goodness. The data overwhelmingly points toward separateness as core to the meaning of holiness. I’ll say more about holiness and righteousness later.
  2. I was reminded that the term “saint” or “holy one” is not coined by Paul in the NT, but used by Paul in the same way it is used in the OT (Psalm 16:3; 34:9).
  3. Several texts jumped out at me as establishing the conceptual basis for Peter’s admonition to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts” in 1 Peter 3:15.
  4. The first petition of the Lord’s prayer has roots in Leviticus, Isaiah, and especially Ezekiel that I’ve never heard articulated in the pulpit.
  5. Jesus’ sanctification of himself (John 17:19) has a parallel in Yahweh’s sanctification of himself (Ezek. 38:23).

In subsequent posts, I plan, Lord willing, to develop these concepts.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

RHB: 1st Printing Sold; 2nd Printing Has Arrived

I just learned from Zondervan that the first printing of A Reader's Hebrew Bible has completely sold out (hence the "out of stock" notice on

The good news is that the second printing has arrived and will soon be shipping to suppliers. The second printing includes a significant number of corrections, including the unfortunate tsere-segel problem in Genesis. For a complete list of errata, including the corrections included in the second edition as well as those to be fixed in future printings, click here.