What is holiness?

Sometimes as Orthodox and Protestant Christians we find ourselves “separated by a common language.” A friend wrote and asked what I mean by “holiness” since it’s clearly carrying some different freight in OrthoTalk from how it’s used in some other contexts. That’s a topic that deserves a book-length response, but here are some thoughts to start a conversation.

I came from a tradition that defined holiness primarily in moral terms, and was opposed to worldliness in quite specific terms: card-playing, movie-going, and dancing were worldly; women wearing make-up was worldly. On a less culturally-specific level, sanctification was seen first as the work of the Holy Spirit, delivering a person from life-controlling sins, and secondarily as the believer’s intentional struggle to reform his behavior, doing good instead of evil.

But scriptural holiness is only secondarily a matter of morality; being good is a result of holiness, not a synonym for it.

The word used for holiness in the Hebrew scriptures – qodesh – is not original to Moses: in contemporary Canaanite and Babylonian religion it referred to purification from sickness. But under the Mosaic law, holiness gained the additional meaning of setting apart for divine use: “Whatsoever toucheth the altar shall be holy” (Ex. 29:37); “And thou shalt sanctify them, that they may be most holy: whatsoever toucheth them shall be holy” (Ex. 30:29).

The Lord does not limit this consecration to ceremonial vessels and altars; He repeatedly refers to the whole people of Israel as consecrated to Him (e.g. Ex. 22:31) and He makes their setting-apart a statement about Himself: “Ye shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44-45).

The theme of separation is prominent in Israel’s ceremonial law. That law forbids the Hebrews to sow a field with seeds of different kinds, to wear a garment made of mixed fabrics, to let different breeds of cattle breed together, or to plow with animals of mixed kinds (Lev. 19:19; Deut. 22:9-11). More importantly, Israel is forbidden to marry outside their nation; their race is to remain strictly separate from other peoples. In Genesis, Babel teaches typologically that proliferation of tongues and (consequently) of nations is associated with divine judgment (Is. 28:11-12; 1 Cor. 14:21), while Israel’s repeated chastisement for intermarrying with the nations continues through the last-written books of the Hebrew canon (Ezra 9-10).

This emphasis on preserving otherness is tied to the revelation of the divine nature as uniquely Uncreated. The people of God must be separated, other, unassimilated – this is specifically as a result of God’s holiness: “Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16; Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7).

This Hebrew concept of God’s holiness and the resulting theme of purity, separation, and otherness for God’s people find a parallel in the Greek assertion that the Deity is unapproachable, unknowable, and incompatible with the gross physicality of created matter.

The Incarnation proves a scandal to both Jews and Greeks. Plato correctly intuited that the Deity must be ontologically other than the creation, and the Jewish law emphasizes His separateness – but Christ the God-man unites the two disparate natures in His own person.

The Church confesses in the Liturgy, “One is holy, one is Lord: Jesus Christ.” But the Church is also called to be made holy and meet for the Master’s use, for without holiness no man shall see the Lord (2 Tim. 2:21; Heb. 12:14). Saint Peter confirms holiness as a characteristic of the new Israel when he writes, “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15).

In Christ’s teaching on Himself as the vine (John 15) and in St Paul’s metaphor of Christ as an olive tree (Romans 11:16ff) we see the Church participating by grace in the nature of God: “If the root be holy, so are the branches.” The same life acts in both the Head and the body.

This can be generalized to every other action of God toward the believer. Sanctification and justification are not discrete things God gives to an individual; our salvation is not so impersonal. Instead, the Church participates in the life and nature of God in union with Christ, and the results of that communion affect us as branches to whatever degree we personally abide in Christ. The Church’s communion with the Holy One makes her holy, but we as members must still “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt. 1:4), “perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).

What American popular religion calls a “personal relationship with God” is not prior to the personal union of God and man in Christ. The manifestation in this world of the reality of communion with God is encountered in the form of the Church. And this communion is not a concept, but a fact experienced in the lives of the saints (which of course literally means “the holy ones.”) There are in any generation persons who here and now partake so thoroughly of grace that miracles occur around them – they are already participants in the life of the age to come.

Without an understanding of both the holiness of the unapproachable, uncreated God and the Church’s union with God in Christ, we will end up in one of two errors. Either we will reduce God to a comprehensible, knowable, finite being, different from man only in degree and unworthy of worship; or we will make God and man strangers and turn salvation into an impersonal matter of divine fiat.


Author: Father Silouan Thompson

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