Holiness

Sometimes a word has been firebombed so hard by mis-usage, I wonder if it can even be re-habilitated for usefulness without waiting a generation. I have often wondered this about the word ‘holiness.’ The Church of the Nazarene in the U.S. has wrestled for all of its history with the annoyance that when you define holiness with specific do’s and don’ts, these are tied to specific time-and-culture variations, and so when those two things change, the rules you set up often look petty and/or legalistic. (I don’t’ think all rules are bad, I’d love us to keep some – how about the Ten Commandments for starters!)

When the robust, powerful biblical word ‘holiness’ then gets defined with a strong attraction to specific rules that look largely legalistic to many of your own people, we lose the good things that word can bring to us.

So I was happy when I saw a couple of chapter titles in a recently published book put out by Nazarene Publishing House. One is by Tim Green and called Shalom: The End of Holiness and another is Thy Kingdom Come: Holiness and The New Creation by Carl Leth. Both of these titles make me happy, as I think wholeness, shalom, and God’s intention for humanity are three of our best images for defining holiness.

The book is called The Heart of Holiness: Compassion and the Holy Life.

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The Point of Holiness

NT Wright has expended considerable ink in saying that the point of Israel was not for Israel itself, but for the whole world. Israel was chosen by God to be the vehicle through which He blessed the Gentiles with the knowledge of the One True God. Copious amounts of OT scriptures can be cited. Most Christians and Jewish folk themselves agree with this reading of the OT. Israel did not exist as an end in itself – all nations were to be blessed through Abraham’s descendants. Israel was called for the sake of the Gentiles.

In the same way, Christians living a holy life  – a human living as the kind of creature she or he was made to be – is not an end in itself. It is for the sake of the whole creation: reflecting the image of God into the world around, something the entire Creation is standing on tiptoe waiting expectantly for according to Romans 8:19. As Wright says of 8: 26-27 “…this is no incidental reference to prayer and the work of the Spirit. The whole point is that when we pray we are not merely distant or feeble petitioners. We are starting to take up our responsibility as God’s image-bearing human beings, sharing God’s rule over creation.”*

Paul’s climax in Romans 8, overlooked in the Western tradition for a thousand years, is not that we are holy and get to go to heaven, but rather that God’s plan is coming together: holiness as humans finally leading the way expressing God’s rule to the whole creation as His stewards in the way it was always meant to be. Holiness is not an end in itself, in the sense that it is for itself; no, it is for the sake of the whole Creation. God’s world can only be put right when its masters are right. And saying we can’t finish the job of New Creation is no way to shirking our calling and duty, anymore than saying I can’t resurrect my own body so it doesn’t matter what I do with my body!

The holiness tradition that I grew up in, and I think our Pentecostal & Charismatic cousins, missed something vital here. Holiness, as I was growing up, was a goal in and of itself, something you aimed at for its own sake. Once you had it, you had sort of arrived, and now just needed to help other people get it. It was because God wanted people to follow a certain standard… this is how God is, this is how you should be. But the why and for what sake was often left out. Connecting it to the larger story in Scripture was left out… or just seen as part of getting to heaven… we were good at quoting “without holiness no man shall see the Lord”. In the end it was self-serving. That’s because we had virtually no theology of the Creation and ecology. Back then people would have laughed out loud at the thought that holiness was for the sake of the planet. That’s because our Hal Lindsay / Left Behind theology had us thinking God intended to burn the planet up and throw it in the trash. Yes, God’s “very good” Creation extolled throughout Scripture.

Instead of repeating the latest idiotic responses of the Far Right, US evangelicals need to read and consider carefully the theology they will learn when Pope Francis releases his encyclical on the environment. It’s time for us to grow up. Just as Jesus-generation Jews mistaked their calling thinking it was only about Jewish folk rather than the nations, so modern Christians need to stop the mistake of thinking our calling is only about humans, rather than the whole created order.

 

*Wright, N. T. (2014-06-03). Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (Kindle Locations 1364-1366). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

There are no unholy things, only unholy actions

I don’t believe anything in the cosmos is unholy. It’s all sacred, by virtue of being created by God. (Which might lead us to why hell can’t be what modern evangelicals imagine it is, but that’s a talk for another time). {And Ken Ham’s assertion that any extraterrestrial beings from other planets would have been contaminated by Adam’s fall, yet outside the chance for redemption since Jesus was a man, is so utterly ignorant and idiotic I don’t even want to talk about it.} So: there are no unholy things, only unholy actions.

I believe the entire separation of ‘holy’ and ‘unholy’ or profane things in the Temple/Tabernacle/Levitical codes are one big object lesson. One bowl is not more holy than another. We cannot treat that as literal, intrinsic composition. Set apart or not, it’s not the point. In fact, “set apart” theology ultimately leads to screwed up, hideaway behavior by the community of faith when we pull back from the world in order to imagine we are holy and they are not. Contamination. Yes, it’s often been the story of 20th century Christianity, and we can see where that’s gotten us.

I don’t know too many evangelicals who think mixing meat and milk or wool and flax are inherently evil. Or that one shouldn’t trim the edges of their beard. These are object lessons. The rule had a telos, not a rule for the sake of a rule. It was a lesson, not an ontology.

Matter is not evil.  Irenaeus settled that well. By definition, anything made by God must be holy. God cannot make evil. There are unholy actions. Things we can do that are evil. There are not evil objects. When we apply ‘unholy’ to objects, we end up calling people evil or unholy: children conceived out of wedlock, people who haven’t heard certain things about Jesus, neighbors we know who are loving and kind but don’t know the Messiah consciously. To call them evil or unholy is a category mistake, an insult on the doctrines of creation and imago dei, a variety of Gnosticism, and very poor, unworthy theology.  People have used that kind of theology to justify killing others, including non-combatants,  for a long, long time.