Monday, September 19, 2011

Edwards and Barth on God's Holiness.

I was assigned to read an essay by Nicholas Wolterstorff entitled "Liturgy, Justice, and Holiness". Wolterstorff discusses the unseeming but necessary connection between the recognition of God's holiness and the pursuit of justice that takes expression in the liturgy. In the first part of the essay, Wolterstorff explores the view of God's holiness from the perspective of two prominent theologians: Jonathan Edwards and Karl Barth.

Wolterstorff explains that Edwards maintained that God's holiness compels human creatures to love God and it is the very holiness of God which serves as grounds for our love of God. Holiness, above all else, draws the creature to the Creator. In short, it should come as no surprise that Edwards believed that holiness is "the totality of God's moral excellencies." Prior to reading this essay, I knew that I was not fond of Edwards conception of God. But this essay helped to clarify my disagreements more sharply. The entire time that I was reading this small excerpt regarding Edwards, I kept thinking God's love and not God's holiness reveals the essence of God's inner being. God's love and holiness are not opposed, but the latter is a manifestation of the former. Edwards maintained the opposite.

Thankfully, Wolterstorff immediately turned to Barth for a necessary "step beyond" Edwards in order to offer a better understanding of God's holiness (though I would say this is not merely an addition but a reorientation). Wolterstorff writes,
Karl Barth, in his discussion of God's holiness, enables us to take a necessary step beyond Edwards. Rather than seeing God's holiness as the totality of God's moral excellencies, Barth sees God's holiness as a facet of God's grace; and God's grace he sees, in turn, as one of the perfections of the divine love. One of Barth's concerns is to avoid the picture, with which Edwards operates, of holiness as one-among-other excellencies of God. On Barth's view grace is, as it were, an adverbial qualification of God's love - God loves in a gracious manner. And holiness is in turn an adjectival qualification of God's grace - the graciousness of God's love has a holy quality to it. 'When God loves,' says Barth, 'revealing His inmost being in the fact that He loves and therefore seeks and creates fellowship, this being and doing is divine and distinct from all other loving to the extent that the love of God's being in so far as it seeks and creates fellowship by its own free inclination and favour, unconditioned by any merit or claim in the beloved, but also unhindered by any unworthiness or opposition in the latter - able, on the contrary, to overcome all unworthiness and opposition. ... to say grace is to say the forgiveness of sins; to say holiness, judgment upon sins. But since both reflect the love of God, how can there by the one without the other, forgiveness without judgment or judgment without forgiveness? (CD, II/1, p. 353, 360)'"
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, "Liturgy, Justice, and Holiness" in Hearing the call: Liturgy, Justice, Church and World, 65-66.

This quote is a breath of fresh air and I was compelled to take a deep sigh of relief and thankfulness. If the totality of God's being is holiness, how is this good news for the creature? As Wolterstorff points out, Isaiah's response to the holiness of God was not one of pleasure and delight (though this is not altogether excluded) but rather terror and fear! Truly, the Gospel message does not exclude the holiness of God's judgment. But isn't the good news precisely that in God's gracious unmitigated love, God took the deserved judgment upon Himself in the cross of Jesus Christ in order to reconcile humanity onto the Father? In this act, God revealed His identity to humanity as the God who lavishly loves His creatures without hindrance. For this reason, we worship Him as the holy One.

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