Sunday, April 21, 2013

Grudem 12d: God's Moral Attributes (holiness)

... continued from last week.
9. Holiness
"God's holiness means that he is separated from sin and devoted to seeking his own honor" (202). God's people are to imitate God's holiness in the Old Testament, which for Grudem means not least that they are to be separate from evil. Christians are also to stay away from sin and evil in their striving for holiness.

God's holiness comes to involve what we think of as moral elements, but that is not the primary dimension in the Old Testament.  After all, God's holiness leads him to kill Uzzah simply for touching the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam. 6:7).  We may want to rationalize this event--maybe he wasn't a Levite, for example. But the biblical text does not say anything of this sort.  He just touched something that was set apart, something he was not supposed to touch. It was not an immoral act, it was a shal, an inadvertent wrong or error.

A person in a given culture will tend to have very clear ideas about what is moral and immoral, but a good deal of what seems obvious to us at any time may have to do with our culture and be a social construct.  What feels immoral or outrageous today may or may not feel the same tomorrow. An older person may be deeply offended that his or her grandchild is texting at the dinner table, while the young teen cannot figure out what the problem is. Hair length, clothing, places to avoid, people to avoid--at any one time a particular Christian group may have strong feelings about what God requires, only to find that its grandchildren do not at all feel the same.

All that is to say that the holiness of God in the Old Testament does not so much have to with what the New Testament thinks of as immoral act. These are not matters we would associate with God's moral attributes. In Exodus 15:11, the holiness of God is associated not with his moral uprightness, but with his awesome power.  The Sabbath is set apart as holy not by ceasing from immorality on Saturday but by doing something different--not working (e.g., Exodus 12:16). Isaiah 52:1 talks about how, because Jerusalem will be holy, no uncircumcised or unclean person will be allowed in--both things the New Testament does not consider immoral or of continuing validity in the new covenant.

In short, holiness in the Old Testament overwhelmingly has to do with setting something apart because it is strongly associated with God. It strongly involves the category of clean and unclean, and it can be conveyed or defiled by touching (e.g., Exodus 29:37). In the Old Testament, God is holy because God is God, not because he is supremely moral. Holiness is godness. It is primarily a category of awe and glory. God is holy by definition, not by action, and other things become holy because they are set apart to him or touch something set apart to him.

Nevertheless, it is true that certain actions we associate with morality come to be part of what the New Testament understands by holiness. 1 Peter 1:15 especially makes this connection in a way that the verse it quotes, Leviticus 11:44, does not.  Leviticus 11 makes this statement about God in the context of the food laws, not eating things like snake in particular.

So Grudem, as a pre-modern interpreter of the Bible, simply mixes together the moral element of New Testament holiness with the clean/unclean orientation of Old Testament holiness and projects moral holiness as a part of God's nature. To be sure, God always acts morally in this universe and expects us to model our behavior on his "nature." But the first meaning of God's holiness relates to what we have mentioned earlier as his otherness, his awesome godness.

So insofar as the holiness of God is a moral attribute, it simply relates to God's goodness. It more accurately and profoundly relates to God's otherness, his very godness, his awesomeness. It is rarely if ever associated with what we think of as God's justice.

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