Is God’s fundamental attribute holiness instead of love?
I was taught this in my Systematic Theology class back in Bible College. I rejected the teaching for years, however, thinking that God doesn’t really have a fundamental attribute. I stated my opinion as God’s love doesn’t cause him to be holy but his holiness didn’t require Jesus to go to the cross and die in the greatest act of sacrificial love of all time.
I don’t necessarily disagree with my stated opinion above but I have come to the conclusion that even if that opinion is true, God does have a fundamental attribute. The problem I had in seeing it is that I had a definition of “holy” that was too narrow. I suppose it was because of how I was raised but even though I knew the technical definition of the word as “set apart” I associated it with moral perfection. God is morally perfect and when he tells his people to be holy it means he wants them to be set apart from other nations in their moral excellence.
But that isn’t the totality of the meaning and when you get closer to the fuller meaning it becomes clearer as to why I changed my mind about this.
First I want to establish that definition. But I want to go beyond a strict dictionary definition of “holy” and its like forms. Back in grad school, my favorite professor, Dr. Wong Loi Sing, used to teach us to consider when doing hermeneutics what he called the “wording of meaning”. He distinguished it from the meaning of words. To give an illustration of what he meant by the difference, if I said you are the “apple of my eye,” then you would know that a strict dictionary definition of “apple” would be wrong. (A good dictionary will give idioms and the like, and that is the point.) A biblical example is when David writes in Psalm 139, ‘You discern my going out and my lying down”. He obviously means that God knows everything about him, and says so plainly in the same verse. But he uses two phrases that are not meant to be taken literally to get the totality of the meaning. This can be classified as a merism in Hebrew, which is when an author uses two extreme boundaries to speak to the entirety of something. Like English may say “I love you from your head to your toes” to talk about loving a person completely.
In all of these cases, how the words interact with each other in phrases and clauses—and not precisely what the words mean in a dictionary—is of utmost importance. Dictionary definitions matter, of course, but communication meaning resides more so with how we use words to make meaning.
So with that in mind, I want to look at ways the Bible uses the word “holy” in context of other words and terms around it and pull out a more fuller meaning than just “set apart.” Then I will examine why I think this definition fits with God’s core attribute.
1. The Sabbath Day
In verses like Gen. 2:3 and Ex. 12:16 God establishes this day as set apart in the sense that is was not like other days. Six days were for work, one was set aside for worship and rest. This day was unique. It was different. At its heart, it was opposite the previous six days.
“Now, therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (Ex. 19:5-6)
Again they were set apart, as special. They were treasured in a distinct way. They were not like other nations.
3. The Holy Place and The Holy of Holies
In reading chapters like Exodus 26, 28 and 31, we learn that only priests could enter into the Holy Place and it was separate from the people by a veil or a curtain1. Entering the Holy Place had to be preceded by quite an ordeal of clothing or death would result. That is how serious this separation of holy place from what was outside is.
The Holy of Holies was even more separated—only one man one time a year could enter it.
So you can get a sense of “holy” from the things God considered holy–days, people and places. Yet the Bible defines God as holy in the most extreme sense of “set apart”. It describes Him, as I did about Aslan the Lion from the Narnia series, as wholly unique, transcendent and “other.” No person or god or anything in all of the universe is like him. He hits upon this idea over and over in a long section near the end in Isaiah. Even though Isaiah does not use the word “holy” in all of these verses, this is what I think it means:
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Is 43:3)
I, I am the Lord,
and besides me there is no savior (43:11)
I am the Lord, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King. (43:15)
Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
“I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.
Who is like me? Let him proclaim it.
Let him declare and set it before me.” (44:6-7a)
Fear not, nor be afraid;
have I not told you from of old and declared it?
And you are my witnesses!
Is there a God besides me?
There is no Rock; I know not any. (44:8)
Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
who formed you from the womb:
“I am the Lord, who made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who spread out the earth by myself.” (44:24)
I am the Lord, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God; (45:5 ab)
For thus says the Lord,
who created the heavens
(he is God!),
who formed the earth and made it
(he established it;
he did not create it empty,
he formed it to be inhabited!):
“I am the Lord, and there is no other.”(45:18)
Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn;
from my mouth has gone out in righteousness
a word that shall not return:
‘To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear allegiance.’ (45:22-23)
To whom will you liken me and make me equal,
and compare me, that we may be alike? (46:5)
For I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ (469b-10a)
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another. Listen to me, O Jacob,
and Israel, whom I called!
I am he; I am the first, and I am the last. (47:11-12)
This is why I think holiness, and not love or anything else, is God’s fundamental attribute. If you asked me what God is like, there is nothing more essential to his being than that he is not like us. And different and unique in the most magnificent way possible. Worthy of worship and glory because of who he is. I will use words like “respect” and “honor” to describe how I react to my dad or my pastor. But there are some words and phrases I will only use for God: “worship,” “glorify,” “bow down to,” etc. This is the essence of God to me. His holiness doesn’t necessarily cause him to love, but it does mean his love is also unique and set apart, as Romans 5:6-8 explains that it is. Human love is not in the same universe as God’s love.
As the church we, of course, are supposed to be holy as Israel was commanded to be thousands of years ago in that we are different from the world–morally and in other ways—and unique as God’s special possession. The word church even literally means “called out ones”. But we can never truly be like God. Not when his holiness is understood most fully and completely.
And that is why I consider it his primary attribute.
- Words like “veil” and “curtain” conjure up more flimsy images of material than what this was—extra-biblical materials say that it was four inches thick and that two teams of horses pulling in opposite directions could not pull it apart. ↩