Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Holy Means Whole: According to Its Reference

Martin Luther is a pretty highly regarded theologian. At least, he should be, and I know I highly respect his contribution to my own faith in Christ. Yet even he made mistakes in understanding. I think it is important though not to exaggerate his mistakes and say an error in understanding is “dead wrong.” I believe the same thing about the error of believing that holy means separate. It is wrong, but it is not “dead wrong.”

Let me explain, using the example of one of Luther’s primary errors in understanding, that is yet also full of valuable insight. He spoke a tremendous amount about law and gospel, yet I think he misunderstood something very basic about the use of these words in Scripture.

I am not going to rehearse all the arguments for my position. There is not nearly the space, and I wrote an entire paper on it in seminary that covered well over 10 pages and maybe even covered 20 pages. So I can’t do the subject justice here. Let it instead suffice for me to give a summary of my conclusions and use it as an example, and not as a place to prove my position.

I concluded that Luther misunderstood the meaning of law and gospel, based on the biblical text and that numerous scholars who understood the Jewish context were correct in questioning Luther’s interpretation of the relationship between law and gospel in Scripture. Likewise, some of my own professors reached very similar conclusions, based on their knowledge of the Greek text. Luther saw law and gospel as related in the way of contrast rather than continuum. Law thundered God’s requirements while gospel softly spoke of God’s gift to us according to his understanding.

I think scholars are right to question his understanding that these two words are related by contrast. Yet I think they need to concede that they are equally wrong to miss the value of his reference point in speaking of contrast. I have written earlier about reference and non-reference. Each word should signify a point of reference. I do think Luther was incorrect in designating the reference for law and the reference for gospel as being in contrast to each other. Rather the gospel seems to be a continuation and fulfillment of the law itself. But what cannot be lost, is that Luther was making reference to a biblical contrast that does exist in reality.

It is the contrast between what God requires of us and what He freely gives us through his Son. This reference is to a very real thing. Luther’s incorrect reference point for gospel is to a correct and real reference point to things like God’s kindness, mercy, grace, compassion and longsuffering (slowness to anger). Likewise law is among those things like charges, judgments, laws, commandments and statutes that show us what is required of us.

So let’s look at people’s understanding of holy in this same light. I am convinced that seeing holy as referring to separate, whether according to English historical roots or according to Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek is an error, but it is not a “dead wrong” kind of error. Second, it is impossible for it to mean both whole and separate as reference points, since in each case the two meanings belong to two entirely separate reference points that are not linked by etymology. And it does not solve the problem to alter which is primary and which is secondary. It may make things worse to keep the two together, since the etymological roots are clearly separate from each other and they could lead to greater errors than they would apart from each other.

Yet, having said separate is a wrong reference point for holy in Scripture, I am not prepared to say that separate is a “dead wrong” meaning. Rather I think the concept of separate points to a very real thing in Scripture. And I agree with Andrew Murray that clearly other Hebrew words have this as their point of reference.

So in the end, let us be clear on something. Holy means whole, does not mean that separate has no valid point of reference within Scripture. Rather it is only wrong to say that this is the point of reference for holy. Separation remains a very valid point of reference in the Biblical worldview through a number of other words in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. I don’t consider being separate a thing we want to throw out with the bathwater. Rather we ought to save it and restore it after a good washing.

In Christ,

Pastor Jon