Thursday, July 30, 2009

Holy Means Whole: According to the Forgotten Ways

When I first discovered the idea that holy means whole, I was a bit startled by its seeming novelty. I had never heard the idea before November 2004. That was until I researched the way the word for holy was translated in the King James Version, using Strong’s Concordance. There showed up the translation of the original for holy as wholly. This was what originally initiated my search. Since then, I have discovered that the idea was not novel, but forgotten.

Somehow the far right, the far left and the mushy middle forgot to pass it on to those of us who were born in the twentieth century. I’ve been asked how this could have happened or did happen. I think I can now venture a good idea as to how this happened. But before I say how it happened, I think it is important to point out that it happened for both unintended and intended reasons.

Sometimes crisis events prevail over accurate definitions. In the late 1800s, there are two crisis events that in turn changed the definition of holy. The first was a quest for clarity and a scientific basis for the meaning of biblical words. The second was a response to the quest to be clear and scientific.

I have to simplify the story, so I will make it about just two historical characters. The first is Julius Wellhausen. The second is Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Both are villains and heroes, depending on who you talk to and who knows who they are. Wellhausen is sometimes credited with first establishing credibility for the critical study of the Bible. Spurgeon is sometimes credited with first establishing a beachhead in response to critical study. Let’s live with these oversimplifications for our purposes.

Wellhausen had a pretty significant event in his life, when he had a falling out with his theological mentor, Ewald. From the climate of that time in Germany, there was a strong emphasis on being scientific. One had to have clear ideas in order for something to possess intelligence, to paraphrase Wellhausen. He did not find that in Ewald’s approach to the Bible.

Further, Wellhausen’s efforts had to be objective in order to be scientific. Part of this, was the conviction that a person must study, not just Hebrew religion and Christian religion, but also the other religions of the Ancient Near Eastern world. In this way, by demonstrating objectivity in at least initially treating all religions in that time and place as equals, one could establish credibility in the scientific realm.

Yet the implications were greater than that, because with this objectivity, there also was a belief that there might be themes that all religions held in common. One of those themes was believed to be a distinction between the taboo items of life and the ordinary items of life. Taboo things were things restricted to the sacred and the ordinary things were the common items of everyday life. The idea of holy in Judaism and Christianity supposedly were restricted by taboo and therefore sacred. They were set apart. The profane were the things not under restriction and therefore secular.

Being scientific about the meaning of holy in the original writings is a little more complicated than it is with many words. Some have what is called a clear etymology or a clear line from one word to another that helps us determine its meaning. For holy this is controversial rather than clear. This is the admission of every serious scholar. So into this vacuum stepped the insight of what was discovered in other religions, that there are items which are taboo or set apart and that there are items which are profane or common. So much for one part of our story. This is the root story for the far left side of the tracks.

Spurgeon’s efforts had to have credibility as well. He was not opposed to being objective, but he questioned some of the objectivity of Wellhausen and others, who felt comfortable with some critical views on Scripture that Spurgeon could not agree was objective. This came to a head, while he was part of what was called the Baptist Union.

Spurgeon ended up leaving the Baptist Union, following his accusation that some of its members were on a downgrade path in regard to Scripture. So the controversy became known as the Downgrade Controversy. Spurgeon’s favorite call to others of like mind was to “come out and be separate.”
This battle cry from the midst of a crisis, appears to have replaced Spurgeon’s earlier definition of holiness as wholeness. As he says in one of his sermons about holiness means wholeness, “as I have said many times.” Instead, following the controversy and even more his death not many years after, the definition for holiness took on the idea of “be separate.” So much for another part of this story. This is a root story for the far right side of the tracks.

The evangelicals at this time, were regarded by people like Spurgeon as weaker comrades in the battle against any kind of downgrade. The movement on the issue of holiness seems to have tried to steer a middle course in this controversy. It seems to have contributed very little, except perhaps wedding the idea of set apart to that of be separate. That was their so-called weaker course of peace. They later appeared more comfortable with the pursuit of being scientific in the twentieth century. So much for the final part of this story. This is a root story for the evangelical middle of the tracks.

What was lost in all of these movements and events was that the meaning of holy shifted. It shifted from primarily meaning whole according to Luther, Calvin (see later Jonathan Edwards), (Richard) Hooker, Wesley?? (see his favorite commentator, John Bengel), and Spurgeon. They did also recognize a secondary meaning of separate.

It did not matter whether losing the idea of whole as the primary definition was intentional or not. It got lost and forgotten. I want to recover our forgotten ways.

A forgotten idea may seem novel, until it is realized it was forgotten. It is no longer totally new when it is in fact old. If you want to see the tip of the iceberg of what was lost, please see my earlier posts, especially the oldest. We badly need renewal. A movement with ties to the past (re=again), with ties to the present (new) and ties to the future (al=for all of time). We need to continue improvements, yet we need the past too.

In Christ,

Pastor Jon