There is not a word so exclusively scriptural, so distinctly Divine, as the word holy in its revelation and its meaning. As a consequence of this its Divine origin, it is a word of inexhaustible significance. There is not one of the attributes of God which theologians have found it so difficult to define, or concerning which they differ so much. A short survey of the various views that have been taken may teach us how little the idea of the Divine Holiness can be comprehended or exhausted by human definition, and how it is only in the life of fellowship and adoration that the holiness which passes all understanding can, as a truth and a reality, be apprehended.
1. The most external view, in which the ethical was very much lost sight of, is that in which holiness is identified with God's Separateness from the creation, and elevation above it. Holiness was defined as the incomparable Glory of God, His exclusive adorableness, His infinite Majesty. Sufficient attention was not paid to the fact that though all these thoughts are closely connected with God's Holiness, they are but a formal definition of the results and surroundings of the Holiness, but do not lead us to the apprehension of that wherein its real essence consists.
2. Another view, which also commences from the external, and makes that the basis of its interpretation, regards holiness simply as the expression of a relation. Because what was set apart for God's service was called holy, the idea of separation, of consecration, of ownership, is taken as the starting-point. And so, because we are said to be holy, as belonging to God, God is holy as claiming us and belonging to us too. Instead of regarding holiness as a positive reality in the Divine nature, from which our holiness is to be derived, our holiness is made the starting-point for expounding the Holiness of God. 'God is holy as being, within the covenant, not only the Proprietor, but the Property of His people, their highest good and their only rule' (Diestel). Of this view mention has already been made in the note to 'Sixth Day,' on Holiness as Proprietorship.
3. Passing over to the views of those who regard holiness as being a moral attribute, the most common one is that of purity, freedom from sin. 'Holiness is a general term for the moral excellence of God. There is none holy as the Lord: no other being absolutely pure and free from all limitations in His moral perfection. Holiness, on the one hand, implies entire freedom from moral evil; and, upon the other, absolute moral perfection.' (Hodge, Syst. Theol.) The idea of holiness as the infinite Purity which is free from all sin, which hates and punishes it, is what in the popular conception is the most prominent idea. The negative stands more in the foreground than the positive. The view has its truth and its value from the fact that in our sinful state the first impression the Holiness of God must make is that of fear and dread in the consciousness of our sinfulness and unholiness. But it does not tell us wherein this moral excellence or perfection of God really consists.
4. It is an advance on this view when the attempt is made to define what this perfection of God is. A thing is perfect when it is in everything as it ought to be. It is easy thus to define perfection, but not so easy to define what the perfection of any special object is: this needs the knowledge of what its nature is. And we have to rest content with very general terms defining God's Holiness as the essential and absolute good. 'Holiness is the free, deliberate, calm, and immutable affirmation of Himself, who is goodness, or of goodness, which is Himself' (Godet on John xvii.11). 'Holiness is that attribute in virtue of which Jehovah makes Himself the absolute standard of Himself, of His being and revelation.' (Kubel.)
5. Closely allied to this is the view that holiness is not so much an attribute, but the 'whole complex of that which we are wont to look at and represent singly in the individual attributes of God.' So Bengel looked upon holiness as the Divine nature, in which all the attributes are contained. In the same spirit what Howe says of holiness as the Divine beauty, the result of the perfect harmony of all the attributes, 'Holiness is intellectual beauty. Divine holiness is the most perfect beauty, and the measure of all other. The Divine Holiness is the most perfect pulchritude, the ineffable and immortal pulchritude, that cannot be declared by words, or seen by eyes. This may therefore be called a transcendental attribute that, as it were, runs through the rest, and casts a glory upon every one. It is an attribute of attributes. These are fit predications, holy power, holy love. And so it is the very lustre and glory of His other perfections. He is glorious in holiness.' (Howe in Whyte's Shorter Catechism.) This was the aspect of the Divine Holiness on which Jonathan Edwards delighted to dwell. 'The mutual love of the Father and the Son makes the third, the personal Holy Spirit, or the Holiness of God, which is His infinite beauty.' 'By the communication of God's Holiness the creature partakes of God's moral excellence, which is perfection, the beauty of the Divine nature.' 'Holiness comprehends all the true moral excellence of intelligent beings. So the Holiness of God is the same with the moral excellency of the Divine nature, comprehending all His perfections, His righteousness, faithfulness, and goodness. There are two kinds of attributes in God, according to our way of conceiving Him: His moral attributes, which are summed up in His Holiness, and His natural, as strength, knowledge, etc., which constitute His greatness. Holy persons, in the exercise of holy affection, love God in the first place for the beauty of His Holiness.' 'The holiness of an intelligent creature is that which gives beauty to all his natural perfections. And so it is in God: holiness is in a peculiar manner the beauty of the Divine being. Hence we often read of the beauty of holiness (Ps. xxix.2, xcvi.9, cx.3). This renders all the other attributes glorious and lovely.' 'Therefore, if the true loveliness of God's perfections arise from the loveliness of His Holiness, the true love of all His perfections will arise from the love of His Holiness. And as the beauty of the Divine nature primarily consists in God's Holiness, so does the beauty of all Divine things.'
6. In speaking of God's Holiness as denoting the essential good, the absolute excellence of His nature, some press very strongly the ethical aspect. The good in God must not be from mere natural impulse only, flowing from the necessity of His nature, without being freely willed by Himself. 'What is naturally good is not the true realization of the good. The actual and living will to be the good He is, must also have its place in God, otherwise God would only be naturally ethical. Only in the will which consciously determines itself, is there the possibility given of the ethical. The ethical has such a power in God that He is the holy Power, who cannot and will not renounce Himself, who must be, and would be thought to be, the holy necessity of the goodness which is Himself, -- to be the Holy. The love of God is essentially holy; it desires and preserves the ethically necessary or holy, which God is.' (Dorner, System, vol. i.)
7. It was felt in such views that there was not a sufficient acknowledgment of the truth that it is especially as the Holy One that God is called the Redeemer, and that He does the work of love to make holy. This led to the view that holiness and love are, if not identical, at least correlated expressions. 'God is holy, exalted above all the praise of the creature in His incomparable praise-worthiness, on account of His free and loving condescension to the creature, to manifest in it the glory of His love.' 'God is holy, inasmuch as love in Him has restrained and conquered the righteous wrath (as Hosea says, xi.9), and judgment is exercised only after every way of mercy has been tried. This holiness is disclosed in the New Testament name, as exalted as it is condescending, of Father.' (Stier on John xvii.)
8. The large measure of truth in this view is met by an expression in which the true aspects of the Holiness of God are combined. It is defined as being the harmony of self-preservation and self-communication. As the Holy One, God hates sin, and seeks to destroy it. As the Holy One, He makes the sinner holy, and then takes him up into His love. In maintaining His love, He never for a moment loses His Divine purity and perfection; in maintaining His righteousness, He still communicates Himself to the fallen creature. Holiness is the Divine glory, of which love and righteousness are the two sides, and which in their work on earth they reveal.
'Holiness is the self-preservation of God, whereby He keeps Himself free from the world without Him, and remains consistent with Himself and faithful to His Being, and whereby He, with this view, creates a Divine world that lives for Himself alone in the organization of His Church.' (Lange.)
'The Holiness of God is God's self-preservation, or keeping to Himself, in virtue of which He remains the same in all relationships which exist within His Deity, or into which He enters, never sacrifices what is Divine, or admits what is not Divine. But this is only one aspect. God's Holiness would not be holiness, but exclusiveness, if it did not provide for God's entering into manifold relations, and so revealing and communicating Himself. Holiness is therefore the union and interpretation of God's keeping to Himself and communicating Himself; of His nearness and His distance; of His exclusiveness and His self-revelation; of separateness and fellowship.' (Schmieder.)
'The Divine Holiness is mainly seclusion from the impurity and sinfulness of the creature, or, expressed positively, the cleanness and purity of the Divine nature, which excludes all connection with the wicked. In harmony with this, the Divine Holiness, as an attribute of revelation, is not merely an abstract power, but is the Divine self-representation and self-testimony for the purpose of giving to the world the participation in the Divine life.' (Oehler, Theol. of O. T. i.160.)
'Opposition to sin is the first impression which man receives of God's Holiness. Exclusion, election, cleansing, redemption -- these are the four forms in which God's Holiness appears in the sphere of humanity; and we may say that God's Holiness signifies His opposition to sin manifesting itself in atonement and redemption, or in judgment. Or as holiness, so far as it is embodied in law, must be the highest moral perfection, we may say, |holiness is the purity of God manifesting itself in atonement and redemption, and correspondingly in judgment.| By this view all the above elements are done justice to; holiness asserts itself in judging righteousness, and in electing, purifying, and redeeming love, and thus it appears as the impelling and formative principle of the revelation of redemption, without a knowledge of which an understanding of the revelation is impossible, and by the perception of which it is seen in its full, clear light. God is light: this is a full and exhaustive New Testament phrase for God's Holiness' (1 John i.5). (Cremer.)
This view is brought out with special distinctness in the writings of J. T. Beck. 'It is God's Holiness which, taking the good which was given in creation in strict faithfulness to that good and perfect will of God, as the eternal life-purpose of love, in righteousness and mercy carried out to its completion in God Himself to a life of perfection. God does this as the Alone Holy. In the world of sin Divine love can only bring deliverance by a mediation in which it is reconciled to the Divine wrath within their common centre, the Holiness of God, in such a way that while wrath manifests its destroying reality, love shall prove its restoring power in the life it gives.' (Beck, Lehrwissenschaft, 168, 547.)
'Holiness is the sum and substance of the Divine life, as, in comparison with all that is created, it exists as a perfect life, but as it, at the same time, opens itself to the creature to take it up into a Godlike perfection -- that is, to be holy as God is holy. Holiness is thus so far from being in opposition to the Divine love that it is its essential feature or norm, and the actual contents of love. In holiness there is combined the Divine self-existence as a perfection of life, and the Divine self-exertion in the realizing a Godlike perfection of life in the world. Holiness as an attribute of the Divine Being is His pure and inviolably self-contained personality in its absolute perfection. Hence it is that in holiness, as the absolute unity and purity of the Divine Being and working, all the attributes of Divine revelation centre. And so holiness, as expressive of the Being of God, qualifies the love as essentially Divine.
'Love is the groundform of the Divine will, but as such it receives its Divine filling and character from the Divine Holiness, as the Divine self-existence and self-exertion. As such the Divine will manifests itself in two modes -- in its pure love as Goodness, in its holy harmony as Righteousness. These two do not exist separately, but permeate each other in reciprocal immanence, just as God in His Holiness is love, and in His love is holiness. In goodness the Divine love shows itself as the pleasure in well-being. But in this goodness the righteousness of God, to secure the well-doing, also acts.' (J. T. Beck, Glaubenslehre.)
'God is holy, separate from all darkness and sin, but not in isolated majesty banishing the imperfect and the sinful from His presence: for God is light, God is love. It is the nature of light to communicate itself. Remaining pure and bright, undiminished and unsullied, it overcomes darkness and kindles light. The Holiness of God is likewise mentioned in Scripture, mostly in connection with love, communicating itself and drawing into itself. |I am holy| -- but God does not remain alone, separate -- |be ye also holy.|' (Saphir on Hebrews xii.)
'When we think of God as light and love, we realize most fully the idea of holiness, combining separateness and purity with communion.' (Saphir, The Lord's Prayer, p.128.)
'It is especially as the spirit of His Church, and as dwelling in the human heart, that God is the Holy One.' (Nitsch.)
That in the Holiness of God we have the union of love and righteousness, has been perhaps put by no one more clearly than Godet. In his Commentary on Romans iii.25, 26, he writes: --
'The necessity of the expiatory sacrifice arises from His whole Divine character; in other words, from His Holiness, the principle at once of His love and righteousness, and not of His righteousness exclusively.'
'In this question we have to do not with God in His essence, but with God in His relation to free man. Now the latter is not holy to begin with; the use which he makes of his liberty is not yet regulated by love. The attribute of righteousness, and the firm resolution to maintain the Divine holiness, must therefore appear as a necessary safeguard as soon as liberty comes on the stage, and with it the possibility of disorder; and this attribute must remain in exercise as long as the educational period of the creature lasts -- that is to say, until he has reached perfection in love. Then all these factors -- right, law, justice -- will return to their latent state....
'It is common to regard love as the fundamental feature of the Divine character; in this way it is very difficult to reach the attribute of righteousness. Most thinkers, indeed, do not reach it at all. This one fact should show the error in which they are entangled. Holy, holy, holy, say the creatures nearest to God, and not Good, good, good. Holiness, such is the essence of God; and holiness is the absolute love of the good, the absolute horror of the evil. From this it is not difficult to deduce both love and righteousness. Love is the goodwill of God toward all free beings who are destined to realize the good. Love goes out to the individuals, as holiness itself to the good which they ought to produce. Righteousness, on the other hand, is the firm purpose of God to maintain the normal relations between all these creatures by His blessings and punishments. It is obvious that righteousness is included, no less than love itself, in the fundamental feature of the Divine character, holiness. It is no offence, therefore, by God to speak of His justice and His rights. It is, on the contrary, a glory to God, who knows that in preserving His place He is securing the good of others. For God, in maintaining His supreme dignity, preserves to His creatures their most precious treasure, a God worthy of their respect and love.'
And in his Defence of the Christian Faith Godet writes, on 'The Perfect Holiness of Jesus Christ,' as follows: --
'The supernatural in its highest form is not the miraculous, it is holiness. In the miraculous we see Omnipotence breaking forth to act upon the material world in the interests of the moral order. But holiness is morality itself in its sublimest manifestation. What is goodness? It has recently been said, with a precision which leaves nothing to be desired, Goodness is not an entity -- a thing. It is a law determining the relations between things, relations which have to be realized by free wills. Perfect good is therefore the realization, at once normal and free, of the right relations to one another of all beings; each being occupying, by virtue of this relation, that place in the great whole, and playing that part in it, which befits it.
'Now, just as in a human family there is one central relation on which all the rest depend, -- that of the father to all the members of this little whole, -- so is there in the universe one supreme position, which is the support of all the rest, and which, in the interest of all beings, must be above all others preserved intact -- that of God. And just here, in the general sphere of good, is the special domain of holiness. Holiness in God Himself is His fixed determination to maintain intact the order which ought to reign among all beings that exist, and to bring them to realize that relation to each other which ought to bind them together in a great unity, and consequently to preserve, above all, intact and in its proper dignity, His own position relatively to free beings. The Holiness of God thus understood comprehends two things -- the importation of all the wealth of His own Divine life to each free being who is willing to acknowledge His sovereignty, and who sincerely acquiesces in it; and the withholding or the withdrawal of that perfect life from every being who either attacks or denies that sovereignty, and who seeks to shake off that bond of dependence by which he ought to be bound to God. Holiness in the creature is its own voluntary acquiescence in the supremacy of God. The man who, with all the powers of his nature, does homage to God as the Supreme, the absolute Being, the only One who veritably is; the man who, in His presence, voluntarily prostrates himself in the sense of his own nothingness, and seeks to draw all his fellow-creatures into the same voluntary self-annihilation, in so doing puts on the character of holiness. This holiness comprehends in him, as it does in God, love and righteousness; love by which he rejoices in recognising God, and all beings who surround God, as placed where they are by Him. He loves them and wills their existence, because he loves and wills the existence of God, and at the same time of all that God wills and loves; and righteousness, by which he respects and, as much as in him lies, causes others to respect God, and the sphere assigned by God to each being. Such is holiness as it exists in God and in man: in God it is His own inflexible self-assertion; in man it is his inflexible assertion of God.
'It is in Jesus that human nature sees how man can assert God and all that God asserts, not only humbly, but joyously and filially, with all the powers of his being, and even to the complete sacrifice of himself.'
Careful reflection will show us that in each of the above views there is a measure of truth. It will convince us how the very difficulty of formulating to human thought the conception of the Divine Holiness proves that it is the highest expression for that ineffable and inconceivable glory of the Divine Being which constitutes Him the Infinite and Glorious God. Every attribute of God -- wisdom and power, righteousness and love -- has its image in human nature, and was in the religion or the philosophy of the heathen connected with the idea of God. From ourselves, when we take away the idea of imperfection, we can form some conception of what God is. But holiness is that which is characteristically Divine, the special contents of a Divine revelation. Let us learn to confess that however much we may seek, now from one, then from another side, to grasp the thought, the holiness of God is something that transcends all thought, a glory not so much to be thought, as to be known, in adoration and fellowship. Scripture speaks not so much of holiness, as the Holy One. It is as we worship and fear, obey and love; it is in a life with God, that something of the mystery of His glory will be unfolded. As the Divine light shines in us and through us, will the Holy One be revealed.