Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Holy: Understanding it Better Through Its History

My primary purpose in this blog is to provide direct evidence for meaning of holy.  But also, to deal with emotional hang ups that some people have, there are a number of my entries in this blog that indicate the history of the interpretation of the word that is translated as "holy".  That is the driving force behind this entry.  It is to deal with people's fear. 

The history of the interpretation of holy does not prove the meaning of the word, but it does help us overcome fear.  There is danger in assuming that the present prevalent view on the meaning of holy as "set apart" has been the only meaning of holy that interpreters have assigned to the word.  With that assumption, the problem becomes that people are fearful of any another option.  So I hope this entry might help some people to alleviate any fear of other options for the meaning of holy. 

But also in some very recent entries, I describe how to handle practically the element of uncertainty for the meaning of holy that might also lead to fear.  In this one, I want to quote dirrectly from an important author from the 1800s, who elsewhere I mention as among those, who see holy as moral wholeness or the sum of all God's atributes (character traits).  In Baptist circles in the 1800s, he was a significant theologian in the United States. 

Quoting directly, J. L. Dagg, he says:


Goodness, truth and justice, are moral attributes of God.  Holiness is not an attribute distinct from these; but a name which includes them all, in view of the opposition to contrary qualities.  It implies the perfection of the assemblage; - the absence of every thing that is conrary to the properties included.

Men are unholy.  Even the purest of men have their spots.  It is useful to contrast the character of God, in this respect, with that of men.  It increases our admiration and love, adds fervor to our devotion, incites to worship him in the beauty of holiness, and to imitate him in our character and lives.  "Be ye holy, for I am holy." 

His footnote of verses dealing with the topic of holy are: Ex. 15:11; Lev. 11:44; 1 Sam. 2:2; Job 4:18; Ps. 5:4,5; 22:3; Isa. 6:3; Hab. 1:13; 1 John 1:5; Rev. 4:8.

This quote comes from the following book:

Dagg, J. L. Manual of theology: A Treatise on Christian Doctrine and A Treatise on Church Order.  (New York: Arno Press, 1980), p. 86.   [It was originally published in 1857]

The most important words to pay attention to from the quote are these about the meaning of "holy": "a name which includes them all" with the "all" referring to "goodness, truth and justice".  (He also could have included love.)  The idea that holy inclues them all is an allusion to the idea that holy is the sum of all God''s attributes.  For an American and as a Baptist, he may have been familar with the works of Jonathan Edwards, who held this view, and he also may have been familiar with very popular Baptist and contemporary in England, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892). 

The difficulty is that neither of these two people were strictly speaking biblical scholars.  One was more of a theologian, the other more of a pastor.  What is more interesting is what scholars they were using to get this meaning and what was the argument supporting the meaning?  Those questions are a lot harder to answer. 

I am in the early stages of trying to uncover that history, but more importantly the basis for the meaning of holy that they proposed.  I am particularly interested in the work of Johann Reuchlin at this juncture, because of his influence on Christians in the area of studying Hebrew at the time of the Reformation. 

So J.L. Dagg's view is another example that might alleviate a few people's fears about considering another option beyond the one that they are popularly taught.  But beyond all this is the desire to then consider the evidence from the biblical text directly.  So hopefullly some of you can go from fear to confidence to evidence to boldness regarding the actual meaning of holy in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. 

In Christ,

Pastor Jon

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Holy: Understanding it Better through Andrew Murray's Holy in Christ

Andrew Murray's great volume, Holy in Christ, is now available on-line and I thought it would be helpful to make this easily accessible to my readers.  It may be that it has been accessible for some time already.  You can find it on biblos or better yet by clicking on the following link:

The best part is that the on-line version includes Murray's notes from the back of his volume on the meaning of holy.  He gives some wonderful insight on the scholarship for the meaning of holy at his own time of the late 1800s (and early 1900s).  He also points out the meaning of holy used by people like Jonathan Edwards.  Part of my work will be to dig up some of the work of these older scholars that he mentions and to make their commments easily accessible on the internet. 

The other thing is that Holy in Christ is often difficult to find, since some publishers elect to use a different title.  I hope you will do some of your own digging now that it is more easily accessible. 

The digging might include digging into the scholarship he mentions, because the works of these people are also becoming more accessible through the internet, the far reaching services of public libraries, and through publishers who care to preserve books of the past.  Google Books also allows you to download some of the older sources as a free E-book.  The only downside is that some of them are incomplete at this point.

Enjoy your hunting!  I hope you will discover both new things and old things.

In Christ,

Pastor Jon

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Holy: Understanding it Better Through Genesis 2:1-3, cont.

How can we know for certain what holy means?  Is it by reading a great number of lexicons written by scholars?  I've discovered that this method is applied more than most of us realize.   In February, I posted an entry on Genesis 2:1-3 dealing with holy's use in context.  I plugged both possible meanings into the context rather than testing only one alternative with a heavy reliance on etymology (the root meaning for a word).   I would like to re-visit this text and add some things to what I said then.  My simple answer to the opening question is using context along with the other methods like etymology that have been applied to holy's meaning in the original languages. 

If you have not read my February post yet, you may want to start there first and then return to this post.  The key that can open many doors to certainty about the meaning of holy is to look at the very large number of contexts of holy's use in the Bible.   This is sometimes referred to as a large corpus and that is a big advantage in solving the problems of the unknown or the uncertain.  Other methods of trying to solve this problem are valuable togther with looking at context, but I think this method has to be a big contributor for the possibility of producing confidence or certainty about its meaning. 

Some begin the discussion of the meaning of holy by refusing to admit uncertainty about its meaning.  It could be that this is because eternity is on the line and holy is an extremely important word.  They are correct!  It is not a word on the periphery of biblical language. 

This unwillingness to admit uncertainty is generally driven by fear associated with the question of eternal salvation and the failure to recognize a very healthy way to deal with this instance of uncertainty.  It is also driven by the fear of questioning the experts in the field, biblical scholars, that sometimes fails to recognize that questioning can be done very respectfully and in a context of trust.  There is an ancient method used by biblical scholars or scribes, who recorded the original texts in Hebrew to deal with both concerns of respect and trust.

Their method was to preserve both options (one in the text and another in the margin) until the uncertainty is removed perhaps at a later date.  So step one is that we have to get past the fear of uncertainty or the fear of questioning experts by producing certainty or security in another more healthy way, like the way used by the ancient scribes.  That is what those early copyists did and thank goodness that they used that method!  They made a very robust decision rather than avoiding risk altogether or accepting risk that is unacceptable.  They wrapped certainty around uncertainty by keeping both options, knowing with higher certainty that one of the options is correct.  Lives are on the line, when we refer to a word like holy that has to do with God's character and our own. 

This entry along with my previous one on Genesis 2:1-3 focuses on plugging both possible meanings ("set apart" or "whole") equally into the contexts of holy's use in the Bible.   But also I need to comment further on context, because sometimes context is used in a way that does not observe the best rules for context. 

Context can give us clues that also wraps certainty around uncertainty.  It can contain highly important clues, but there has to be rules for this method or otherwise too many definitions can be assigned to one word. 

Here are the rules I have learned over the years from widespread teaching and reading on the topic:
  • Contexts that have a fixed parallel that is certain in its meaning are most valuable.  Contexts in general are not as valuable as those that have well understood parallels.  (ex. The Rosetta Stone where a known language helped in the discovery of meaning for an unknown language.  ex. The parallels used to find the meaning of many Mayan glyphs [meaning like that in hieroglyphs].) 
  • Some contexts are not very valuable because of the context working with more than one plausible meaning.  (ex. Johann [John] Bengel's use of the context of name to define the word "holy" in Hebrew and Greek.  Did the comprehensiveness of a name support his idea or does name more centrally focus on the personhood of the name?)

  • In using the information found in a context, the more immediate context takes precedent over more remote contexts.  (ex.  Dr. Daniel P. Fuller used this rule extensively in his inductive bible study classes and I experienced its value many times over.  The best clues are right there in the immediate context, while those furthest away had the greatest likelihood of producing error, because the meaning of words is not always the same, even if related.)

  • These twin rules are related to the prior rule.  It is easier to solve problems using the most immediate context.  It is more difficult using the more remote context.  This is because the possibility of corruption from outside sources increases.  I have found that the more immediate context simply needs more observation and more focus.  This is easier once you discipline yourself to do it.  (ex. The story of a student who was to observe a fish in his lab and record his observations.  After thinking early on that he had completed all the observations he could make, the professor told him to continue to examine the fish.  With continued time and effort the number of observations that the student made from observing a dead fish on a tray increased dramatically.  It was astounding.)

  • There is a reason why the immediate context is more helpful.  If the is from the same same location and time - immediate, there is then more of a connection or more of a bond in that context.   There is also a reason why the remote context is less helpful.  If the context is from a different location and time - remote, there is less of a connection or more of a barrier in that context.  (ex. You see an illustration of this every day, when history is lost because of the greater distance in time or when people from different distant parts of the world have a harder time understanding cultural practices.)

  • Change is likely greater or more likely over a longer distance and a longer time leaving open an increasing possibility of corruption.  This can be overcome, but it most be consciously addressed as a potential problem rather than ignored as not an issue.  (ex. In linguistics time and location are important factors in language change)
  • The synonyms in a context can be very helpful, because words of the same class of meaning (amount, relationship, whole, action, and thing) will behave or function like other words in the same class, when it comes to he elements of the context around it.  (ex. If holy  means whole, then it will behave or function like other words for whole that are in that same class of meanings.  If it means set apart or separate, then it will behave or function like other words of that same class.)

These rules applied to the context of Genesis 2:1-3, yield some interesting results.  The first is that Genesis 2:1-3 is more immediate and perhaps more valuable than all of chapter 1 and the first 3 verses of chapter 2.  Yet there are things in chapter 1 that are significant, when it comes to days and when it comes to the meaning of blessing. 

Blessing as it is used in Genesis 2:1-3 seems to be best understood from blessing's use in chapter 1 and its immediately connected concept of "be fruitful and multiply".  So you can't leave out the full context of Genesis 1:1 -2:3.   These 7 days of creation seem to make together a full unit and story.  So 2:1-3 is not a separate unit as far as the first full account of creation is concerned. 

But also in the larger context, we also find words that could be called synonyms for both possible meanings of holy.   We find the word "divide" feartured in the creation story as a potential synonym for "holy".  Yet we also find potential synonyms for "holy" that mean "whole" in the context of 2:1-3. 

So this context is going to require more observation.  It is a context that on the surface of context can be argued from the rules of context in both directions.  This is no worse than a textual variant, provided we keep both plausible ideas in mind and we continue to search deeper. 

In the future, I hope to approach this passage from 5 different angles by creating 5 separate entries on this porton of Scriptjure.  This entry has focused mainly on the relational or "transering" (see my May entty and other entries) angle of this passage.  It will likely take the other angles to solve this problem in a way that advances either argument.  Don't worry in the meatime.  It can be solved and you are likely already better off, because at least you know the two most plausible definitions already for holy in Genesis 2:1-3 and are not eliminating either one prematurely. 

In Christ,

Pastor Jon