Thinking about Holiness

Bernie Van De Walle

I sometimes find what Scripture says to be puzzling. I doubt that I am alone. Yet, at other times and perhaps even more often, I find the way that many self-professing Christians respond to Scripture to be just as puzzling, if not more so. Recently, the ways the church and some of her members respond to the Bible’s message about holiness engenders a sense of puzzlement. In spite of Scripture’s many, direct, and weighty commands to holiness, many in the contemporary church seem disinterested in them at best, and, consciously disregarding of them at worst.

Even more puzzling is how this disinterest seems to be true for those who pride themselves on their piety, who profess to take Scripture seriously, and who self-identify as “people of one Book.” I am talking about Evangelicals. Even more surprising is how this disinterest exists among those Evangelicals who have historically emphasized the doctrine of holiness, those who rest in the theological wake of John Wesley, the man who trained up others, famously, “to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” Here, of course, I am speaking of Methodists, of those traditions that were part of the so-called Holiness Movement, and even of many Pentecostals. Instead of granting holiness the principal place that Scripture grants it, many within these traditions treat holiness as ancillary to both Christian faith and life. That is, they often treat holiness as either a practical or soteriological appendage, or sometimes, both. Although they admit that holiness is a key emphasis within Scripture and embrace the notion of holiness as attractive and even desirable, practically speaking, they rarely consider it necessary or essential to salvation or to Christian living.

Some might suggest that this attitude is simply a reflection of the spirit of the age. I would suggest that it is founded on a fundamental misunderstanding of the true nature and essence of Christian holiness. It seems that many think of holiness, essentially and fundamentally, to be a matter of ethics. That is, holiness is primarily about one’s behavior and moral state.  Holiness, therefore, becomes something that one either achieves or maintains, or both. Such a perspective, however, is not only unbiblical and incorrect, it is actually fatal to true holiness. In fact, I would suggest, this approach is ultimately fatal to true Christian behavior and morality. To interpret holiness principally as a moral or ethical matter is fundamentally to misunderstand its true nature and essence; not even to mention, its divinely ordained role in Christian belief and practice.

Rethinking Holiness: A Theological Introduction (Baker, 2017), I suggest (contrary to popular opinion) that Scripture does not identify holiness as something primarily ethical in nature; instead, the Bible asserts that holiness is fundamentally an issue of ontology. In other words, holiness, rightly understood, is ultimately a matter of being. While holiness is certainly concerned with ethics and behavior, a proper Christian understanding realizes that it is, first and foremost, an ontological subject. Only subsequently (thought still necessarily) is it a matter of scruples.

In spite of the church’s seeming disinterest in holiness and its tendency to treat it as passé, I point out in my opening chapter that the desire and need for holiness still abounds. One simply needs to keep one’s eyes open and know where to look. Further, I suggest that the desire for holiness is not restricted to the church, but manifests itself even beyond its walls. Within the church, the desire for holiness is manifest in a number of ways, including (but not limited to) the resurgence of ancient liturgies and an attentiveness to a holistic gospel that attends not only to one’s soul but also one’s physical nature. Beyond the walls of the church, this desire is seen, for example, in the contemporary pursuit of “spirituality” and the various calls to the church to live out her supposed holiness. Moreover, the desire for holiness is not solely a human interest; it is also the desire of God. The holy God expects holiness of his creation, particularly of those created in (and being recreated in) his image.

Holiness, though, is not only desired, it is required. For the church, holiness is necessary in order to fulfill its divine calling. More importantly, it is a prerequisite to seeing God. For those outside the church, holiness is essential if they are to be evangelized, and therefore, if they too are to see God. In spite of this clear desire and need for holiness, I conclude the chapter by discussing a number of contemporary “Hurdles to Holiness.” In the end, none of these hurdles is necessary and many of them are self-imposed.

In the second chapter (“Biblical Definition of Holiness”), I unpack what is meant by the terms “holy” and “holiness.” Even though these terms are employed frequently, there is little clarity and agreement on what exactly these terms communicate. Many would be hard-pressed to define them, especially with any depth, precision, or clarity. In this chapter, therefore, I endeavor to define what Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments, means by the term “holy” and its derivatives. I conclude that “holiness is defined as the transcendence or absolute otherness that is basic to God’s being” rather than referring primarily to a form of behavior. In other words, holiness is a term that properly belongs to God alone; it refers primarily to his mode of being. Although Scripture refers to other things as “holy,” this holiness is always and everywhere a derived holiness. It is always and everywhere tied to one’s intimate and direct relation to the Holy One himself.

In my third chapter (“A Theological Investigation of Holiness”), I explore a select number of God’s central attributes and examine how each one relates to and reveals his holiness. I go on to note that the term “holy” has at least two facets, even in relation to God himself. First, it denotes transcendence and otherness. Second, it communicates the ideas of morality and ethics. Furthermore, I assert that the former is more fundamental than the latter. As the chapter draws to a close, I note how Jesus, the one who is “in very nature God” (Phil 2:6), reveals the holiness of God in both of these aspects.

Holiness is not, as some might be tempted to think, an isolated doctrine.  Not only is it central to Scripture, it plays a key role in the shaping of other central doctrines. In the remainder of my book, I explore the way in which a right understanding of holiness can fundamentally shape other doctrines such as anthropology (what it means to be human), hamartiology (what we mean by sin), soteriology (what it means to be saved), and ecclesiology (what it means to be the church).

In the fourth chapter (“Holiness and the Nature and Purpose of Humanity”), I explore how, although humanity has been universally corrupted and maligned by sin, the Christian theological tradition asserts that this is an abnormal condition. “Christianly speaking, true humanity is what came from the hand of God, unspoiled and untwisted, which is exemplified in the person of Jesus Christ and will inhabit the coming heavenly kingdom” (76-77). In short, this chapter reminds us that humanity was created in the image of God (imago dei). Beyond that, it asserts that humanity was created in the image of a God who is, himself, intrinsically holy. Humanity, therefore, is essentially, and in spite of evidence to the contrary, “a holy creation.” I conclude with a discussion of natural (and good) human limitations, human innocence, and moral perfection, especially as each relate to what it means to be holy.

It might seem out of place to devote an entire chapter to sin in a book that has holiness as its focus. Yet, that is exactly what I do in the fifth chapter (“Holiness and the Nature and Problem of Sin”). This displacement may seem especially acute since I have argued that holiness is neither solely nor fundamentally an issue of morality and ethics. Yet, sin has “tarnished the imago dei in humanity and so it plays an unavoidable role in any discussion of holiness” (93). In short, I engage in a discussion of sin, not for its own sake, but in order to, in some way, enable holiness. Through an examination of the variety of scriptural metaphors for describing sin, I go on to say that in all of its forms, sin is an attack—therefore, an affront to God, the Holy One. I conclude with a discussion about how an unbridled culture of toleration and political-correctness will unavoidably result in a “sin-shrinking”; and thus, “God-shrinking” world.

In the sixth chapter (“Holiness and the Nature and Goal of Salvation”), I suggest that one of the greatest hindrances to both an interest and pursuit of holiness, is popular evangelicalism’s significant misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of salvation. Falsely, it has believed that salvation is primarily about “spiritual geography”—where one goes after one dies—rather than understanding that salvation is primarily about ontology­—what one becomes, what one is. That is, the Christian vision of salvation is not primarily about transportation—about spending eternity in one place rather than another. It is, instead, focused on transformation which, like holiness, is about ontology, a change in humanity’s very mode of existence. The Christian view of salvation (soteriology) is primarily about humanity’s being recast into the imago of himself that God created it to be. This chapter reminds its readers that salvation is primarily about humanity being renewed into the image of God, and more particularly, of Christ, the Holy One. In the end, all of the other soteriological blessings—blessings that we are apt to overemphasize—are simply consequent to this more basic one. I conclude the chapter by noting how a misunderstanding of the proper relation of holiness to salvation will inevitably lead to one of two errant ditches: legalism or license.

In chapter 7 (“Holiness and the Nature and Purpose of the Church”), I suggest that in spite of appearances to the contrary, the church not only aspires to and anticipates holiness, it is, in fact, holy even in its present state. As the historic creeds note, in addition to being one, apostolic, and catholic, the church is holy. This is because, first, the church is in exclusive, intimate, and dependent relation to the Holy One. To quote Thomas Oden, “The church is holy because her Lord is holy” (134). Second, the church is holy in that, even if imperfectly, it alone strives, even if imperfectly, to reflect the character of the God who indwells it by the power of the Holy Spirit and with whom it is in relationship. Finally, based on the previous discussion, this chapter cautions its readers to resist the rampant evangelical temptation slide toward Donatism, an errant ecclesiology that ultimately misunderstands the nature of the church’s holiness and leads to, and even glories in, division.

As noted previously, Scripture’s commands to holiness are many, direct, and weighty.  Therefore, the attentive believer cannot but heed them. The pursuit or acquisition of holiness must occupy the attention of every believer. Yet, as I note in my conclusion, the consideration of or pursuit of holiness must not and cannot begin with a how to. Instead, every pursuit of holiness must begin with the contemplation of what is. After all, how one understands the latter (what is) will undoubtedly promote some approaches and dismiss others (how to). In the end, I note the following central assertions of an accurate theology of holiness: 1) Holiness is fundamentally a way of being and only consequently a way of behaving, 2) Holiness is proper only to God Himself, 3) All other forms of holiness while real are, therefore, derived and constantly dependent, and 4) Human holiness is, therefore, grounded in one’s union with Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Posted May 21, 2018