Surely it is no accident that in the two visits that readers of the Bible are permitted to take to heaven, one in the prophecy of Isaiah (6:3) and the other in the Revelation of John (4:8), that in each case the angels are saying the same thing about God: “HOLY, HOLY, HOLY is the Lord of hosts.”
What does it mean that the holiness of God is announced again and again? Perhaps we learn from this repetition something of the intensity of God’s holiness. If you’ve had the privilege of studying Hebrew you’ll know that superlatives, extremes, perfections are expressed by doubling a word. In Hebrew, the most furious rage is expressed as “anger, anger.” The most pure gold is “gold gold.” Here holiness is tripled, rather than doubled – maybe the point is that God’s holiness is somehow beyond the highest heights of holiness. He is holy, most holy, and then even more holy!
Perhaps we are to learn from this repetition that the angels never cease to praise God for his holiness – one seraphim calls out to the other in antiphonal praise; the other responds, never tiring in their amazement.
Certainly we are to learn from this repeated praise of the holiness of God something about his very nature. As one commentator has noticed, it is a curious thing that the two greatest theologians of the medieval period, Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas, give so little attention to the holiness of God; the theologians of heaven make no such mistake.
But what is this holiness? I suppose, in the first place, that we need to see that to be holy, is to be separated, to be set apart. In saying that God is “holy, holy, holy”, we are saying that he is in a class to himself; he is separated, set apart. God the Creator is distinct from anything else that ever could be, is, or will be. Holiness, for God, expresses who he IS. To be holy, for God, is not merely to do something, but to BE something.
But in the second place, holiness is moral purity. God in his holiness is perfect and unpolluted; it is a synonym for his uprightness and integrity. His holiness is the thing that makes all his other virtues beautiful, or right. God’s virtues without holiness would be like a muscle without strength, a laugh without humor, a fire without heat, a sunset without beauty, a song without a tune. God’s holiness informs all that he is. God is holy in his words, in his love, in his kindness, in his grace, and in his anger. And without holiness, all that he is and does would be less; if it were possible, he would be imperfect, impure, tarnished. The puritan theologian, Stephen Charnock once went so far as to say about God that “if we conceive him destitute of this excellent perfection, and imagine him possessed with the least contagion of evil, we make him but an infinite monster.”
In considering the holiness of God, I believe that we are not going too far if we say that God is holiness itself. We can say this safely because Holiness so captures the perfection of God, that the word “holy” is sometimes substituted for everything that God is.
When a child gets dressed up for a school picture, a parent hopes they’ll take the time to wash their face and comb their hair. Parents may even require this personal grooming. They do this because we expect a school photographer to take a picture of the child’s face. Parents pay for a representation of some part of the child that best represents the whole. I suspect no mother would be satisfied with a wallet-sized photo of their children’s stomach. It’s not that stomachs are unimportant. I’m not sure that someone can be a someone unless they have a stomach. Nonetheless, if we are going to paint or sketch or photograph someone, we try to capture their face because it is in the characteristics of their face that we get the best summary of the whole.
The holiness of God is something like this. Nothing else so captures the character of God as does his holiness. Its not that his power or righteousness or omnipresence are not important to the person or character of God. It is just that no one thing can stand for the whole of who God is as his own holiness. Holiness is like the face of God.
Dr. Chad B. Van Dixhoorn
Chancellor's Professor of Historical Theology, Associate Professor of Church History
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.