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Systematic Theology - Volume I
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§ 11. Holiness of God.

This is a general term for the moral excellence of God. In 1 Sam. ii. 2, it is said, “There is none holy as the Lord;” no other Being absolutely pure, and free from all limitation in his moral perfection. “Thou Holy One of Israel,” is the form of address which the Spirit puts into the lips of the people of God. “Exalt the Lord our God, and worship at his holy hill; for the Lord our God is Holy.” (Ps. xcix. 9.) “Holy and reverend is his name.” (Ps. cxi. 9.) “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity.” (Hab. i. 13.) “Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for Thou only art Holy.” (Rev. xv. 4.) Holiness, on the one hand, implies entire freedom from moral evil; and, upon the other, absolute moral perfection. Freedom from impurity is the primary idea of the word. To sanctify is to cleanse; to be holy, is to be clean. Infinite purity, even more than infinite knowledge or infinite power, is the object of reverence. Hence the Hebrew word קָדוֹשׁ, as used in Scripture, is often equivalent to venerandus.”The Holy One of Israel,” is He who is to be feared and adored. Seraphim round about the throne who cry day and night, Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, give expression to the feelings of all unfallen rational creatures in view of the infinite purity of God. They are the representatives of the whole universe, in offering this perpetual homage to the divine holiness. It is because of his holiness, that God is a consuming fire. And it was a view of his holiness which led the prophet to exclaim, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the king, the Lord of hosts.” (Is. vi. 5.)

It is in their application to the moral attributes of God, that the two methods of determining his nature come most directly into conflict. If we allow ourselves to be determined in answering the question, What is God? by the teachings of his Word, and the constitution of our own nature; if we refer to Him, in an infinite degree, every good we find in ourselves, then we can have no hesitation in believing that He is holy, just, and good. But if the philosophical notion of the absolute and infinite is to decide every question concerning the divine nature, then we must give up all confidence in our apprehensions of God, as an object of knowledge. This Strauss, the most candid of the recent philosophical theologians, frankly admits. He says: “The ideas of the absolute and of the holy are incompatible. He who holds to the former must give up the latter, since holiness implies relation; and, on the other hand, he who holds fast the idea of God as holy, must renounce the idea of his being absolute; for the idea of absolute is inconsistent with the slightest possibility of its being other than it is. The impossibility of referring moral attributes to God had been admitted by some of the fathers of the Church.”446446“So wollen also die Begriffe des Absoluten und des Heiligen nicht zusammengehen; sondern wer das Absolute festhält, der löst die Heiligkeit auf, welche nur an einem in Relation gestellten Wesen etwas ist; und wer es umgekehrt mit der Heiligkeit ernstlich nimmt, der tritt der Idee der Absolutheit zu nahe, welche durch den leisesten Schatten der Möglichkeit, anders zu sein als sie ist, verunreinigt wird. Diese Einsicht in die Unanwendbar keit moralischer Attribute auf Gott hatten schon einzelne Kirchenväter . . . erkanute.” — Dogmatik, vol. i. p. 595.

The Reasons urged for denying Moral Attributes to God.

The grounds on which it is denied that moral attributes can be predicated of God, are such as these : —

1. To assume that God can delight in good, and hate evil, takes for granted that He is susceptible of impression ab extra, which is inconsistent with his nature.

2. It is said that moral excellence implies subjection to a moral law. But an absolute and infinite Being cannot be thus subject to law. It is true that God is not subject to any law out of Himself. He is exlex, absolutely independent. He is a law unto Himself. The conformity of his will to reason is no subjection. It is only the harmony of his nature. God’s being holy, implies nothing more than that He is not in conflict with Himself. On this point even the rationalistic theologian Wegscheider says: “Minime Deus cogitandus est tanquam pendens ex lege ethica vel eidem subjectus tanquam potestati cuidam alienæ, sed Deus sanctus ipsa ea lex est, natura quidam hypostatica indutus.447447Institutiones, p. 273.

3. It is said that moral excellence must be free. A moral agent, to be holy, must voluntarily do right. But this implies that he is able to do wrong. There must, therefore, be at least a metaphysical possibility of God’s being evil, or He cannot be good. But all possibility of the Absolute being other than it is, is inconsistent with its nature. To this it may be answered that the ideas of liberty and necessity are indeed antagonistic; but that liberty and absolute certainty are perfectly compatible. That an infinitely wise Being will not act irrationally, is as absolutely certain as that the self-contradictory cannot be true. The one is as inconceivable as the other. It is just as impossible that an infinitely holy Being should be unholy as that light should be darkness. The impossibility, however, is of a different kind. The former is what Augustine calls the felix necessitas boni, which is the highest idea of freedom.

4. Strauss says that those who attribute moral perfections to God, forget that a purely spiritual Being can have nothing of what we call reason, wisdom, goodness, wrath, righteousness, etc. “Strictly speaking,” he adds “the ascription of moral attributes to God supposes that He is material; and the most abstract theological ideas on the subject are really founded on Materialism.” This is founded on the assumption that spirit is impersonal, a generic force, which becomes individual and personal only by union with a material organization, just as the Realists define man to be generic humanity, individualized and rendered personal by union with a given corporeal organization.

It is surely most unreasonable to sacrifice to such speculations all religion, and all confidence in the intuitive judgments of the human mind, as well as all faith in God and in the Bible.

It is scarcely less destructive of the true doctrine, to define holiness in God as the causality of conscience in us. That we are moral beings is not admitted to be a proof that God has moral attributes. That the sun produces cheerfulness in us is no proof that the sun is cheerful. But if we know nothing of God except that He is the cause of all things, He is to us only an inscrutable force, and not a Father, and not a God.


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