Friday, December 30, 2011

Holy: Understanding It Better Through the Classic Argument

I think I finally understand one of the classic biblical arguments for holy meaning whole.  By biblical, I mean that it tries to argue from the context of Scripture rather than from an extra-biblical source or from some form of derived etymology.  The argument may even be central for earlier scholars, who believed that holy in the original languages meant whole.  It primarily is a grammatical argument and also seems to follow a simple logical form.  It moves from the nature of personal names to the nature of the word holy as a character trait or quality.  That is its primary logic or argument. 

The argument is that a name is a comprehensive word for a person.  That is the nature of a name.  From this nature of a name, it is argued that its substitute also has that same nature.  That becomes the point of comparison in the metaphor of "holy is his name" in comparison to "Yahweh is his name". 

The key here is how "holy" can replace the name "Yahweh".  How can it be put in a parallel location to Yahweh?  With a parallel location as a substitute, what is the meaning that God's name and God's character have in common?

No other word that functions as a ethical or moral quality is substitued for the personal name like holy.  In grammar, many learned that a noun replaces a noun.  That is one reason why the parts of speech are taught.  It is because what is learned is what can substitute for another and what cannot.   So it is a kind of figure of speech to substitute an adjective or quality for a noun or name.  The question that then follows is what is the point of comparison between these two that they share in common that makes the comparison possible? 

A name like Yahweh is generally placed by grammar in the category of nouns.  The particular characteristic that is assigned to a name is that it is considered a way of expressing some quality or characteristic or descriptive in this case of a person.  To put a quality like holy in the place where we would normally would expect to find a name would highlight the comparison of quality or character. 

One of the character traits of a name is that it is a way to speak comprehensively about a person.  If someone calls me by the name "Jon", they are usually referring to all or everything about me.  They would not refer to my my leg amputated from my body as "Jon".  They would instead call it "Jon's leg" or a part of who I once was.  My name speaks to my whole person. 

This comprehensiveness appears to be the quality that the classical argument sees as the primary point of comparison between a name and the quality of holy.   In other contexts, the point of comparison may be different.  This is not the only kind of comparison that is possible, but rather what past writers have considered made the most sense based on the context. 

I am not making here an evaluative judgment on the effectiveness of this argument, but only a statement that I think this is how they arrive at holy being compared to a name at the point of wholeness or comprehensiveness.  I do, however, think that the argument has merit and deserves to be tested as one possible biblical argument for the meaning of holy.  Combined with other arguments it may be helpful in confirming the meaning of holy, provided we truly understand the nature of names. 

From everyday speech, we might say:

Kermit (the frog) is his name.
______ is his name. (points out a placement for a possible substitute)
Green is his name. (could be a point of comparison for trying to make a point of a character trait of Kermit)

The statments in Scripture that make the point of comparsion both consist of those where God's name is explicitlyYahweh and where we find a substitute where we would expect to see the name Yahweh.  So in Scriptue we read:

His name is Yahweh.
His name is _______.  (points our where the substitution happens)
His name is holy.
Holy (hallowed) be his name. (another similar statement where a quality replaces a name)

Interestingly in contrast we do not read:

His name is righteous (and just).
His name is true.
His name is loving.
His name is good.

These qualities are not put in the place where we would expect to find his name.  The point of comparison cannot be made to work with them.  Certainly God is righteous (and just), true, loving and good according to the Scriptures, so they must lack the point of comparison where holy succeeds.  Since each of these character traits are distinct from each other, the reason they may not work is that they are not comprehensive like God's name of Yahweh or like the character trait of holy which might include them all under its single heading.  Here I am evaluating the possible merit of the argument. 

So finally the point in the classical argument for the meaning of holy is that holy and God's name must share some common characteristic.  What earlier biblical scholars (like Johann/John Bengel) determined was that the common point of comparison was that of being comprehensive.  I think this argument was one of the classic supports for the idea that holy means whole.  This is pershaps why you see John Howe or Jonathan Edwards later calling holy "an attribute of attributes".  We might call it the "quality of qualities".   I leave it up to you to decide or comment on the merits of their argument and I hope you understand that the type of argument that they made has determined the way I have written this entry.  I could not use a lot of stories or narrative in the case of an argument that depends a lot on grammar and simple logic.  That is why I remained quite logical in trying to make their case:

His name (for the whole person) is Yahweh. 
His name (for the whole person) is ______.  (a substitute or parallel to fill the blank)
His name (for the whole person) is holy. 

That is how I think they saw it.  A name was the way to speak of the entire or whole person.  It was once said about a person: "The criteria for being a person ... are designed to capture those attributes which are the subject of our most humane concern with ourselves and the source of what we regard as most important and most problematical in our lives".   Notice the concern that the criteria of a person be made up of attributes or qualities.  Certainly being holy as an attribute of a pesron ranks as one of the most important concerns. 

The chief merit in the classic argument is that it is an attempt to use the context of Scripture to determine the meaning of a word from an exact parallel.  This is one basic argument in its starkest or simplest form.  Now the big question is, how do you see it?  Do you agree with their argument? 

In Christ,

Pastor Jon