A Biblical-Theological Review of Michael Allen’s Sanctification, Part 3: Chapter 2: God

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Chapter 2 critiques classic, modern, and confessional definitions of divine holiness. Classical theologians equate divine holiness with righteousness, justice, or moral purity, e.g., Aquinas, Turretin (47-48). Moderns identify holiness with “causality that legislates in the corporate life of man” (Schleiermacher), divine jealousy (von Rad), or merely narratival radical otherness (Brueggemann; 48-50). Allen even rejects the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s tethering of divine holiness to the moral sphere (52). Allen turns instead to the category of metaphysical singularity or uniqueness found in Bavinck, Vos, Barth, and Colin Gunton and seeks to extend it (50-51). His twin thesis is that divine holiness expresses “the transcendent singularity of the triune God” and that “the metaphysical facets of divine holiness shape and condition the moral aspects of the doctrine” (53). He argues that Yahweh’s holiness means He is incomparable, “set apart in a class of his own” (60), first in his singularity (appealing to Deut. 6:4), second, in his transcendence and life-giving presence and word (appealing to Rev. 22:9; Exod. 15:17; Hos. 11:9; 62-65), and third and consequentially, in his moral, covenantal character (66-68). Essential to his account is the claim that “God’s ontological singularity grounds and implies God’s moral incomparability as the canon and rule of ethical purity, righteousness, and goodness” (68-69).

Affirmation

There is a great deal to affirm in Allen’s treatment of divine holiness: his recognition that divine holiness is metaphysical as well as moral; his connection of God’s metaphysical holiness to the first three of the Ten Words and the Shema of Deut. 6 (57-61), his observation that sinless seraphim veil their faces and feet in the presence of the Holy One, thus highlighting the “incomparable singularly of the transcendent LORD” (66-67), his note that metaphysical incomparability both illumines moral impurity and responds graciously to confession bringing both expiation and atonement (67).[1]

Perhaps most commendably, Allen does not allow the reality of believers’ remaining sinfulness to overshadow their grace-enabled capacity for personal holiness. Allen unapologetically asserts, “We cannot imitate God’s singular role as the moral register and foundation of covenantal life … However, we are called, and we are capable—with God’s grace—of mirroring God’s moral standards, materially speaking. … we can be conformed to a patient and gentle character by God’s grace.” This assertion resounds throughout the book, strikingly without caveat or confessional mitigation.

For example, WLC 149 or WSC 82 are common Reformed caveats: “Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God? A. No man is able, either of himself, or by any grace received in this life, perfectly to keep the commandments of God; but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed.” Allen no doubt affirms this assertion, but his characterization of the Christian life reflects the terminology and emphasis of Scripture admirably. In reference to the Corinthians, Allen writes, “Paul has already addressed these ecclesiastical misfits as those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. … These saints or holy ones suffer many maladies – they were ‘foolish’ and ‘weak’ (1:27), ‘low’ and non-existent (1:28). They continue to struggle with respect to schisms (3:1-4), sexual immorality (5:1-2), and any other number of issues involving liturgical, moral, communal, and theological error. Yet they are called saints and are ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus’” (29).

Critique

First, throughout the book Allen correctly reverts to “set apart” language as the basic sense of holiness. Nonetheless, exegetical grounding of that language would have been helpful and theologically fruitful. For example, attention to sanctification as separation from the common and ordinary as well as from the sinful and defiling has implications for human sanctification. God calls His people away not just from sin, but also at times from ordinary pursuits, e.g., personal convictions addressing the idiosyncrasies of individual fallenness.

Second, although Allen invokes trinitarian language and asserts the necessity of trinitarian theologizing,[2] he doesn’t press into the implications of God’s tri-personal nature for divine holiness or the doctrine of sanctification.

Third, the chapter’s key weakness is that Allen makes holiness a “central character trait that takes in God’s singularity” (54) or regards it as an “ingredient in the divine fullness” (64). This problematizes the relationship of other “central character traits” such as transcendence and immanence or love and righteousness, given Allen’s affirmation of divine simplicity. Worse, cross-grain to Scripture’s presentation, it seems to make divine moral holiness one among many attributes to which we must conform.

All these problems resolve when we recognize that divine holiness, both metaphysical and moral, is a consequential category. By that I mean what sets Yahweh apart transcendently, incomparably, and singularly from all others is the unique excellence of His being and character. Holiness is therefore a term that denotes first God’s transcendent metaphysical separateness as a consequence of all that He is: infinite, eternal, immutable, self-sufficient, omniscient, etc. Another way to say this is that God’s holiness metaphysically encompasses everything that sets his being apart, including such “comparative” attributes such as singular, unique, incomparable. God’s holiness morally denotes his moral separateness due to the unique excellence of his ethical character, viz., his set apartness due to the presence of all good and the consequent absence of all non-good.  Divine moral holiness, therefore, encompasses, sums up, gathers in one, everything that sets his character apart ethically.

For God to be ‘majestic in holiness’ is to say that the awesome splendor effulgent from the totality of the Most High King is a component of His holiness. It would follow then that divine holiness is a component of nothing else. There is no descriptive category larger than holy.[3] All that sets God apart is comprehended in his “holiness.”

Extension

Three dimensions of divine holiness which I could not discern in Allen’s work are: 1) Yahweh’s self-sanctification (Ezek. 28:23; 36:23), 2) human sanctification of Yahweh (Num. 20:12; Isa. 29:23), and 3) worship as a response to divine holiness (Psa. 30:4 “give thanks”; 105:3 “glory in”; 145:21 “bless”). Each dimension is rich with gospel holiness import. For example, Yahweh’s sanctification of himself in Ezekiel alters nothing about himself, but it does alter how he is perceived by others. His reputation or name is seen as it is in fact—truly transcendently separated from all contenders for greatness due to the unique excellence of his character and being exhibited in his mighty works. This perceptual sanctification links divine glory and sanctification, providing a basis for understanding how God is sanctified by us when he is glorified by us. The holy God who graciously sanctifies us generates in us the appropriate response of our grateful sanctification of God. Sanctification begets sanctification, though our responsive sanctification certainly differs in many ways from God’s sanctification of us.

 


 

Originally published at Exegetical Thoughts and Biblical Theology.

[1] Although Allen doesn’t note this, Isaiah 6 exemplifies the principle articulated in Isa. 57:15 “For thus says the high and exalted One Who lives forever, whose name is Holy, “I dwell in a high and holy place, And also with the contrite and lowly of spirit In order to revive the spirit of the lowly And to revive the heart of the contrite.”
[2] “Trinitarian theology must orient both [ecclesiology and ethics] in an operative way” (26).
[3] For a more extended argument for this understanding of divine holiness, see my 2010 Chamberlain Holiness Lecture “Divine Holiness and Sanctifying God: A Proposal.”

Philip Brownhttp://apbrown2.net
Dr. Philip Brown is Graduate Program Director and Professor at God's Bible School & College. He holds a PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of A Reader's Hebrew Bible (Zondervan Academic, 2008).