Very closely related to God’s goodness is his holiness. In the past it was described as “freedom from all defilement; … a purity that is total and utterly untainted.” Often it is not treated as a distinct attribute alongside the goodness, perfection, and beauty of God. Neither Lombard nor Thomas discusses it. Protestant theologians defined the holiness of God in essentially the same terms: it consists in “moral perfection” or “purity,” and it was sometimes more closely associated with God’s righteousness, his goodness, trustworthiness, or wisdom. Research into the biblical term “holy,” however, has gradually given prominence to another view. At present everyone acknowledges that the concept of holiness in the Old and the New Testament expresses a relation of God to the world.

There is disagreement, however, about the precise character of that relation. With a view to texts like Hosea 11:9; Isaiah 57:15; and Ezekiel 20:9ff., Menken associated holiness with God’s condescending goodness and grace. Baudissin, however, believed it was rather God’s utter transcendence and power over all creatures that was expressed in God’s holiness, and was supported in this view by Ritschl and others, who appealed to Numbers 20:13; Isaiah 5:16; Ezekiel 20:41; 28:25; and 36:20–24, and to the linkage between glory and holiness in texts like Isaiah 63:15; 64:11; Jeremiah 17:12; Ezekiel 20:40; and so forth.

Closely related to this is the view of Schultz, who, based on Exodus 15:11; 1 Samuel 2:2; 6:20; Isaiah 6:3; 8:13; and 10:17, associates God’s holiness with his flaming majesty, his inapproachability, the infinite distance that separates him from all creatures.Inasmuch as the greatest disagreement concerned the question of which divine attribute was in fact meant by God’s holiness, others believed that this term, so far from denoting an essential inner quality, only describes a relation and is therefore no more than a relational term. Especially Diestel argued for this view and persuaded many others to accept it as well. Also, those who do not believe that holiness can be completely described as a relation usually proceed from this idea in their definition of the concept.

The stem קדשׁ, related to חדשׁ, is usually traced to the root קד, meaning “to cut, separate,” and hence it expresses the idea of being cut off and isolated. The verb occurs in Niphal, Piel, Hiphil, and Hithpael stem forms; the adjective is קָדוֹשׁ, the substantive קֹדֶשׁ, and its antonym is חֹל (κοινος), from חִלֵּל, to make common (Lev. 10:10; 1 Sam. 21:5–6; Ezek. 48:14–15). It is related to, yet also clearly distinguished from, טָהוֹר (pure), whose antonym is טָמֵא (Lev. 10:10). Now the word “holy” is used first of all with reference to an array of persons and things that have been set apart from general use and placed in a special relation to God and his service.

So we read of:

  • “holy ground” (Exod. 3:5),
  • a “holy assembly” (Exod. 12:16),
  • a “holy sabbath” (Exod. 16:23),
  • a “holy people” (Exod. 19:6),
  • a “holy place” (Exod. 29:31),
  • “sacred anointing oil” (Exod. 30:25),
  • a “holy linen coat” (Lev. 16:4),
  • a “holy year of jubilee” (Lev. 25:12),
  • a “holy house” (Lev. 27:14),
  • a “holy field” (Lev. 27:21),
  • a “holy tithe” (Lev. 27:30),
  • “holy water” (Num. 5:17),
  • “holy vessels” (Num. 16:37),
  • a “holy calf” (Num. 18:17),
  • a “holy camp” (Deut. 23:14),
  • “holy gold” (Josh. 6:19),
  • “holy bread” (1 Sam. 21:4),
  • a “holy ark” (2 Chron. 35:3),
  • a “holy race” (Ezra 9:2),
  • the “holy city” (Neh. 11:1),
  • the “holy covenant” (Dan. 11:28),
  • a “holy promise” (Ps. 105:42),
  • and of the temple as “sanctuary” (Exod. 15:17),
  • with its “holy place” and “holy of holies,” “holy ones [the angels and the children of Israel]” (Deut. 33:2–3; Job 5:1; 15:15; Ps. 16:3, 10 kjv; 32:6; 89:6–8, 20; Prov. 9:10; 30:3; Dan. 4:17; 7:18, 21–22, 25, 27; Hos. 11:12; Zech. 14:5).

In all these instances the term “holy” does not yet refer to an internal moral quality but only indicates that the person or objects so described have been consecrated to the Lord, have been placed in a special relation to his service, and are therefore set apart from the common domain. The persons and things called “holy,” however, do not derive this special relation to God from themselves. By nature God and his creatures are dissociated, estranged, distinguished from, and opposed to, each other. By itself the entire world is חֹל, profane, not in communion with God, and unfit for his service, and even that which is pure is as such not yet holy. Nor can these persons and things sanctify themselves and assume for themselves that special relation to God that is conveyed by the word “holy.”

Sanctification proceeds from God alone. It is he who sanctifies Israel, the priesthood, the temple, the altar, certain special places, persons, and objects, who brings them into his service and communion, and sets them apart from that which is unholy. “I am the Lord, who sanctifies you” (Exod. 31:13; Lev. 20:8; 21:8, 15, 23; 22:9, 16, 32; Ezek. 20:12; 37:28).

Now this sanctification of persons and things by the Lord occurs in two ways: negatively, by choosing a people, person, place, day, or object and setting it apart from all others; and positively, by consecrating these persons or things and causing them to live in accordance with specific rules. God sanctifies the Sabbath, not only by setting it apart from the other days of the week, but also by resting on that day and blessing it (Gen. 2:2–3; Exod. 20:11; Deut. 5:12). He sanctified the whole people of Israel by choosing it from among all the peoples of the earth, by incorporating it in his covenant, and making his laws known to it (Exod. 19:4–6). The holiness of God is the principle marking the whole body of laws, the moral and ceremonial commandments, the entire revelation of salvation given to Israel, for the purpose of this revelation is nothing other than the sanctification of Israel (Exod. 19:4–6; Lev. 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:26).

Israel is holy because God makes Israel his own possession, comes to this people, dwells among them, and is their God (Exod. 19:4–6; 29:43–46). And within this circle he again especially sanctifies the firstborn by appropriating them for himself (Exod. 13:2); the people, by having them wash their garments and thus to prepare themselves to meet God (Exod. 19:10, 14); the mountain, by setting bounds about it (Exod. 19:23); the priesthood, by anointing them, sprinkling them with blood, and putting on them the garments of the priesthood (Exod. 28:3, 41; 29:1ff., 21); the tabernacle and the altar, by anointing (Exod. 29:37; 40:9ff.; Lev. 8:10–11; Num. 7:1); the anointing oil, by having it prepared in a special way (Exod. 30:22ff.); the Nazirites, by having them live in accordance with certain specific ordinances (Num. 6:2ff.); and so on.

That which has thus been made holy lives a life of its own, has a character of its own, and is set apart from the common life and laws of the other people. For example, it may not be touched (Exod. 19:23–24); it may not be eaten (Exod. 29:33) or used (Exod. 30:32ff.); it renders holy whatever it touches (Exod. 30:29; Lev. 10:2ff.; Num. 1:51, 53; 3:10, 38; Isa. 8:14). The positive action by which a thing becomes holy is not always identified; sometimes sanctification seems to consist in nothing other than separation (Lev. 25:10; 27:14; Josh. 7:13; 20:7; Judg. 17:3; 1 Sam. 7:1; 2 Sam. 8:11; 1 Chron. 18:11; etc.). Yet, sanctification is something more than merely being set apart; it is, by means of washing, anointing, sacrifice, and the sprinkling with blood (etc.), to divest a thing of the character it has in common with all other things, and to impress upon it another stamp, a stamp uniquely its own, which it must bear and display everywhere.

Now the ceremonies necessary to sanctification clearly indicate that also the impurity and sinfulness of the creature in question are considered, impurity and sinfulness which must be removed precisely in that manner. The washing, sacrifice, sprinkling with blood, and anointing served the purpose of cleansing from sin and of consecration (Lev. 8:15; 16:15–16; Job 1:5; etc.). The adjectives “holy” and “pure” are therefore synonymous (Exod. 30:35; Lev. 16:19). But the term “holiness” is not exhausted by that of “moral purity.” Granted, the latter is not excluded, but neither is it the only meaning, not even the primary one. Holiness in the Old Testament, especially in the Torah, has a much broader meaning.

The entire distinction and opposition between external and internal purity (etc.) has been derived from a later position and imposed upon that of the Mosaic legislation. Holy is that which has been chosen and set apart by yhwh; divested of its common character by special ceremonies, it has received a character of its own and now lives in this new condition in accordance with the laws prescribed for it. Israel is a holy people because God has chosen it and set it apart; it has been incorporated in a covenant and must now live in conformity to all his laws, including the ceremonial. Holy is that which in all things conforms to the special laws God has ordained for it. Holiness is perfection, not only in a moral sense, but in the comprehensive sense in which the unique legislation of Israel conceives it: a religious, ethical, ceremonial, internal, and external sense.

This concept of holiness only becomes fully clear, however, when we examine the sense in which it is applied to God. Cremer has correctly pointed out that holiness does not first of all denote a relation from that which is below to that which is above, but vice versa; it applies first of all to God and, subsequently, in a derivative sense, also to creatures.

Creatures are not inherently holy, nor can they sanctify themselves. All sanctification and all holiness proceeds from God. Because yhwh is holy, he wants for himself a holy people, a holy priesthood, a holy dwelling (Exod. 19:6; 29:43; Lev. 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:26; 21:8; Deut. 28:9–10). The predicate “holy” is often ascribed to yhwh (Lev. 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:26; 21:8; Josh. 24:19; 1 Sam. 2:2; 6:20; Ps. 22:3; 99:5, 9; Isa. 5:16; 6:3; etc.). Frequently Isaiah speaks of “the Holy One of Israel” (29:23; 40:25; 43:15; 49:7; 62:12; cf. 2 Kings 19:22; Ezek. 39:7; Hab. 1:12; 3:3). In addition, we also read of God’s holy name (Lev. 20:3; 22:32; 1 Chron. 16:35; Ps. 99:3; 103:1; 111:9; etc.), his holy arm (Isa. 52:10), and his holy majesty (2 Chron. 20:21).

Now, in the first place, yhwh is not called holy because of an immediately conspicuous attribute. He is rather called holy in a comprehensive sense in connection with every revelation that impresses humans with his deity. Holiness alternates with himself (Amos 4:2; 6:2). He is God, not a human, the Holy One in their midst (Hos. 11:9), the God or the Holy One of Israel. God’s holiness is revealed in all the relations that he has posited between himself and his people: in election, in the covenant, in his revelation, in his dwelling among them, and so forth (Exod. 29:43–46; Lev. 11:44–45; 20:26; Ps. 114:1–2). This relation, however, far from being an abstraction, is rich in content.

God himself ordered this relation in the laws he gave to Israel. Israel’s entire body of legislation is fundamentally stamped by God’s holiness and has its purpose in the sanctification of the people. What this sanctification by yhwh implies becomes evident throughout the law, and the people are holy when they conform to it. As the Holy One, he gave himself to Israel and dwells among its people, but now also continues to be faithful to his word and covenant (Ps. 89:35ff.), and over and over delivers Israel. God is the Holy One of Israel, Israel’s God, who is what his law shows him to be.

For Israel God’s holiness means deliverance (Ps. 22:3–4; 89:18; 98:1; 103:1; 105:3; 145:21), answer to prayer (Ps. 3:4; 20:6; 28:2), comfort (Isa. 5:16; Hab. 1:12), trust (Ps. 22:3–5; 33:21; Isa. 10:20). His holiness does not permit him to let Israel perish. As the Holy One, he is the creator, redeemer, and king of Israel (Isa. 43:14–15; 49:7; 54:5; 62:12). Accordingly, his redeemed people thank and praise him as the Holy One (Ps. 30:4; 71:22; 97:12; 1 Chron. 16:10, 35).

At the same time this holiness of God is the principle of punishment and chastisement. When Israel breaks his covenant, desecrates his name, and violates his laws, it is precisely God’s holiness that incites him to mete out punishment. His holiness demands that Israel be holy and sanctify him (Lev. 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:7, 26; 21:8). In the event of disobedience he chastises Israel (1 Kings 9:3–7; 2 Chron. 7:16–20). The same holiness that is the principle of deliverance and the object of praise is, for those who violate it, a principle of destruction and the object of dread. “Holy,” in the latter case, is synonymous with “zealous” (Josh. 24:19), “majestic” and “terrible” (Exod. 15:11; Ps. 99:3; 111:9), “glorious” and “lofty” (Isa. 6:3; 57:15). Among the gods he is incomparable: the Holy One (Exod. 15:11; 1 Sam. 2:2; Isa. 40:25).

To sanctify him is to fear him (Isa. 8:13; 29:23). When people desecrate his name and covenant, he sanctifies himself by justice and righteousness (Isa. 5:16; Ezek. 28:22). But even then he does not forget his people. To Israel his holiness remains the cause of their redemption (Isa. 6:13; 10:20; 27:13; 29:23–24; 43:15; 49:7; 52:10; Jer. 51:5; Hos. 11:8–9; etc.) and in the end this holiness will vindicate itself by making known to the Gentiles that he is the Lord (Jer. 50:29; Ezek. 36:23; 39:7) and will redeem Israel and cleanse it from all its iniquities (Ezek. 36:25ff.; 39:7).

This view of God’s holiness leads directly to holiness in a New Testament sense. Even the choice of the Greek word is significant. Σεμνος, from σεβομαι, denotes that which is venerable (Phil. 4:8; 1 Tim. 3:8, 11; Titus 2:2); ἱερος merely expresses a relation to the deity (1 Cor. 9:13; 2 Tim. 3:15; cf. Heb. 8:2; 9:8; etc.); ἁγνος means pure, chaste (2 Cor. 11:2; Titus 2:5; etc.). These words, however, are never used with reference to God. In the New Testament God is only called ὁσιος (Rev. 15:4; 16:5; cf. Heb. 7:26) and particularly ἁγιος (Luke 1:49; John 17:11; 1 John 2:20; 1 Pet. 1:15–16; Rev. 4:8; 6:10). In the Old Testament the holiness of God is not yet clearly distinguished from all the other divine attributes and still denotes the entire relation in which yhwh stands to Israel and Israel toyhwh.

For that reason yhwh could be called the Holy One of Israel, who had totally given himself to Israel and by various ways had maintained and preserved it as his own possession. For that reason as well, the people’s sanctification is not only religious and ethical in character, but also ceremonial, civil, and political. Just as in God his holiness is not yet defined alongside his other attributes, so also on the side of Israel, holiness embraces the entire people in all of its dimensions.

But in the New Testament, when the Holy One of God appears (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34; Acts 3:14; 4:27), the One who forms the sharpest contrast with the world (John 15:18) and in an absolute sense consecrates himself to God (John 17:19), the holiness of God ceases to be the principle of punishment and chastisement, and the Holy Spirit (rarely so called in the Old Testament [Ps. 51:11; Isa. 63:10–11] but regularly in the New), becomes the principle of the sanctification of the church. From now on the church is the “holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Eph. 2:19; 5:27), composed of the elect, the holy and blameless (Eph. 1:1, 4; Col. 1:2, 22; 3:12; 1 Cor. 7:14), completely freed and cleansed from sin and eternally consecrated with soul and body to God. The holiness by which yhwh put himself in a special relation to Israel and which totally claims Israel for the service of yhwh is finally supremely manifest in that in Christ God gives himself to the church, which he redeems and cleanses from all its iniquities.