Gentry gives address on meaning of holiness

Communications Staff — October 21, 2010

“Holy, holy, holy. Lord God Almighty.”

Many saints throughout the ages of the church have sung these words about the holiness of God. As noted at the close of the lecture by R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern, those who have heard Peter Gentry’s presentation on the holiness of God will sing it from now on with a more profound appreciation.

At the Sept. 29 faculty address, Peter Gentry, professor of Old Testament interpretation at Southern Seminary, said that the common understanding of God’s holiness is mistaken. Instead of defining it as transcendence and moral purity, he argues, theologians and biblical scholars should define the term according to the context of its occurrences in the biblical text.

In his address, Gentry argued that the biblical contexts indicate that holiness refers to a state of consecration or devotion.

“Unfortunately, the church of Jesus Christ, at least in the Western world, has not understood very well the meaning of the word ‘holy’ nor what it means to worship a holy God,” Gentry said.

Gentry illustrated this notion by examining the biblical texts of Exodus 3, Exodus 19 and Isaiah 6 in order to expound upon the meaning of holiness.

“Neither moral purity nor transcendence are fundamental to the meaning of ‘holy’ in either Greek or Hebrew,” he said. “The best approach to semantic analysis is an exhaustive study of all the available usage, not only for the literature in question, but also for contemporary documents in the cultures surrounding the original texts of the Bible.”

Mentioning such authors as Wayne Grudem, Millard Erickson, Stephen Chinnock and others, Gentry said systematic theologians have embraced a deficient understanding of the Bible’s teaching on holiness because of embracing a faulty etymology of the word qadosh (the Hebrew word for holy or holiness)  that dates back to the late 19th century.

In examining  Moses’ encounter with the burning bush in Exodus 3, he explained that rather than holiness pointing to man’s inaccessibility to God, the “holy ground” mentioned in the passage points to God’s initiative to meet with man, namely Moses in this instance.

“The qadosh ground,” Gentry said, “is not the place of distance or radical separation but of meeting and of presence – the meeting of God and man.”

Gentry turned to Exodus 19 to explain the meaning of holiness in relation to the consecration of the people of Israel as a “holy nation.” The five forms of the word qadosh found in Exodus 19 make it an important passage for the discussion, he noted.

As it is often misconstrued, the mountain where Moses meets with God on the people’s behalf is not regarded as holy because it is forbidden, but rather limitations for how the people of Israel were to approach the mountain were given because God consecrated the area, Gentry explained, and through Moses consecrated the people to His service. In the event at Mount Sinai as with the burning bush, the passage portrays meeting rather than separation.

“Israel as a [holy] nation is a nation given access to the presence of Yahweh and devoted solely to the service and worship of the Lord,” he said.

Gentry moved the discussion to Isaiah 6 to address how the term holy – if it means to be consecrated or devoted – applies to God.

“While God is awesome in His majesty, His holiness does not mean that He is the ‘totally other’ nor does it speak of His separation,” he said. “In fact, we see just the opposite [in Isaiah 6]. We see that God is coming to meet man. We see already the central theme of this new section of Isaiah – Immanuel, ‘God with us.’

“[God] is exalted because He shows himself holy in justice and righteousness,” Gentry stated after explaining the historical context of social injustice surrounding the passage. “We have a clear definition of the divine holiness: God demonstrates His devotion in that He is completely devoted to social justice.”

By social justice, Gentry said he was referring to the way of life prescribed for the people of Israel in the Torah. He noted that the Old Testament word pair “justice and righteousness” is a way of referencing the Torah – the document where God shows the people of Israel not only what it means to be devoted to Him but what it means to treat one another in genuinely human ways.

In his concluding comments, Gentry stated that this widespread misunderstanding of holiness serves as a warning to the church that “every generation needs to test theological traditions by means of fresh study of the Bible.”

The Southern Resources page provides Gentry’s faculty address, “No One Holy, Like the Lord,” in its entirety at

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