A Few Observations about Holiness

SeparationI am teaching a course, The Doctrine of Holiness.  It’s a seminar, so students are presenting.  Since I want someday to write a book about holiness, I decided to keep track of ideas and insights this semester.  Here are some thoughts I’ve had about holiness as I’ve listened to the presentations this week:


The Bible contains a dialog about holiness and separation.  On one hand, there are plenty of texts that assert the importance of separating the holy people of God from the pagan world–think of Ezra demanding that Jewish men divorce their non-Jewish wives (Ezra 10).  On the other hand, there are passages that are less concerned with separation and instead emphasize God’s desire for inclusion.  Ruth, for instance, was from Moab and thus not part of the holy people, yet she plays a vital role in the history of salvation.

This dialog within the Bible insists on two points: 1) God’s people must be ethically separate from and different from their pagan neighbors and 2) God’s project in the world is to demolish walls of separation.

The book of Acts is suggestive in this regard.  It abounds with gratuitous uses of holy: the prophets are holy (3:21), the temple is holy (21:28), angels are holy (10:22), and so on. Holiness in these contexts implies difference and separation.  At the same time, one of the lead items in Acts’ agenda is to erase the distinction between Jews and Gentiles–Peter says that we are to call no one, even Gentiles, unclean or unholy.  So, Acts simultaneously emphasizes holy people and things and their distinctiveness and also subverts the distinction between the holy and the profane, between the clean and the unclean.  Is Acts saying that every person is holy and clean? Is there no distinction between the holy and the profane?

Luke’s gospel has something to say about this as well.  It contains several episodes that involve a reversal of expectation:

  • Take the parable about the person giving a banquet who discovers that none of the invited guests can attend (14:16-24).  Enraged, the host orders his slaves to round up people who would otherwise be unworthy of such a banquet–the poor, the crippled, the blind, and so on.  This parable is about membership in the holy people of God. At the beginning of the story, we assume that the attenders will be those with social standing; but at the end, we realize that it is the unworthy who have been selected. The holy people thus comes to consist of the unworthy, while the worthy folks are de-selected.
  • Or, take Jesus’ harangue against the Pharisees in 11:37-44.  The Pharisees want every Jew to live in a priest-like state of purity; they try as hard as they can to remain pure.  But Jesus declares that they are like unmarked graves–they are an unwitting source of defilement.  Thinking that they are upholding standards of purity, it turns out that they defile anyone whom they contact.
  • In the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (18:9-14), it is the publican who is declared to be righteous, not the Pharisee.

These parables make it difficult to know what separation means.  As the parable of the Good Samaritan shows, knowing who is and who isn’t a member of the holy people can be difficult to determine.

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