Cultural Apologetics Pt.3: A Holy People

If God is holy it follows that this creation is fashioned according to the model or principle of God’s holy personhood.

In this time of cultural collapse and social unrest, this is an exciting time to be a Christian. Though the world rejects our message, there has doubtless never been a time when it needed it more. So for genuine human flourishing and for the glory of God our Creator and Redeemer, the world needs to hear the message of authentic, life-giving holiness.

 

In modern times there has been a long-standing debate. The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804 – 1872) deeply criticized Christianity as a merely human invention, and influenced other thinkers like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Liberals have often said since Feuerbach that all theology is anthropology, that God is man writ large. This sounds philosophically clever but it does not explain where human cleverness comes from. Scripture teaches the opposite, that all anthropology is theology, that man is derivative from God, and that we cannot understand man, as Calvin said, until we understand God.

This is good news since from God flows the fact of human dignity. If God is holy it follows that this creation is fashioned according to the model or principle of God’s holy personhood. As we noted, God blesses the seventh day and makes it holy “because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (Gen 2:3). Thus the seventh day of the human week carries the sign of holiness in recalling forever both the God who is distinct from the creation and the manner in which he made it, with work and rest. But the principle of “holy” separation is operative for everything God makes, especially human beings where each one is separately valued.

The summit of the glory of God’s handiwork is captured in the Bible’s view of humanity as a glorious and wonderful creation, as the psalmist blurts out: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is Man that you are mindful of him!” The Psalmist goes on: “You crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet.” (Ps. 8:5-6). That crowning with glory first consisted of God placing on humanity his Trinitarian image and giving him dominion over the creation. That glory of the image is also bound up with his carrying the sign of holiness as distinctly male or female persons (Gen 1:27), declared by God to be “very good” (Gen 1:31), or as the great German Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad translates the phrase “completely perfect.”[1] Human sexuality is submitted to the one-flesh structure of heterosexual life-long marriage, which is the complementary Twoist relation of a man and a woman who contribute different but equally important functions to the marriage. This is what makes matrimony “holy.” To this structure, the wife in particular is called to “submit” (Eph 5:22), though the husband must submit to the perhaps difficult role of loving his wife more than himself. Gay marriage, on the other hand, is cosmologically “unholy” because it embodies “sameness,” and thereby suppresses or merges difference, and thus conflicts with the biblical holiness of complementary difference. From a cosmological perspective, these two agendas are radically opposed and cannot be reconciled, however much “Christian” homosexuals try.[2]

The summum of God’s creative holy work is Man, but our first parents fell from their glorious innocence, so a New Man, a Second Adam reflecting the holy image of God had to come and save us. Both God’s holy nature and the holy, created cosmos constitute the basis of the particular holiness of God’s people, who reflect their Lord in an unholy world, whether in the Old or New Testament. The Apostle Peter exhorts his new covenant flock to be holy but cites the command already given to old covenant Israel: “[A]s he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct; since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pet 1:15–16; Lev 11:45).[3] The believers are called “saints;”[4] they are collectively and individually “a holy temple” (1 Cor 3:17; Eph 2:21, 5:27), and “a holy nation” (1 Pet 2:9); they are exhorted to bring “holiness to completion” (2 Cor 7:1) and to be “holy and blameless” (Col 1:22). In a word, they are called and set apart to holiness (1 Thes 4:7; 2 Pet 3:11).

 The apostle Peter exhorts: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy.  Paul says the same thing in Romans 12:1–2 about not conforming to this world.  How do we not conform to “the former lusts” or “this world”? By putting into practice the principles of holiness. This means, as Paul and Peter say, adopting the biblical cosmology of holiness as the basis for witness in word and deed in an unholy world now profaned by the very humans created to enjoy and watch over it. Alas, the unholy is all around us. The creation is marred and people are inclined to evil. In spite of the unholiness all around us and in us, the world needs hope and help. That hope and help is Jesus himself, before whom the demons shrieked in fear when confronted with “the Holy One of God” (Mk 1:24). The crowds were amazed and blurted out: “What is this? A new teaching with authority” (Mk 1:27)! Just as these saw, recognized and honored Jesus the Messiah, so our world needs to see lived-out holiness and hear a clear explanation of it. The Holy Spirit of God makes this possible as those who live near Christians are confronted through the “saints” with the “Holy One of God.”

The classical scholar, Sarah Ruden, with her deep knowledge of Roman life, in particular, military life, has a fascinating take on the language Paul uses. She interprets Paul’s notion of submission in terms of the Greco-Roman empire and its notions of privilege by which military service was understood. She shows that the verb submit (ʻupotassw) really presupposes a statement of dignity. Ruden understands submission not as grudging obligation but as honorable “self-deployment” and states with vivid language:

…when Paul wrote about “subjection,”…the images his readers had were not of shoveling manure or being beaten into submission. They were of respected, rewarded functions. He was in effect urging his followers to become stakeholders, leaders themselves through their cooperation.[5]

“Stakeholders” of a holy cosmos, “vice-regents” as Psalm 8 indicates, is the privilege to which human beings are divinely called. This is what Paul is presupposing when he states that God is a “God of peace not disorder” (1 Cor 14:33, 40) and in congratulating the Colossians on their “good order” (Col 2:5). With such terms Paul is presupposing that behind everything there is an ordained structure or coherent cosmology. So from this perspective, sin is the rejection of God’s creative, well-structured imaginative work. “The sinful mind does not submit to God’s law” (Rom. 8:7) and “does not submit to” what God has ordained. On the other hand, Christians submit both from respectful admiration and “for the sake of conscience” (Rom 13:5).

In this time of cultural collapse and social unrest, this is an exciting time to be a Christian. Though the world rejects our message, there has doubtless never been a time when it needed it more. So for genuine human flourishing and for the glory of God our Creator and Redeemer, the world needs to hear the message of authentic, life-giving holiness.

[1] Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961), 59.

[2] See the latest attempt by Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian (New York: Convergent Books, 2014), and the responses by Michael Brown Can You Be Gay and Christian?: Responding With Love and Truth to Questions about Homosexuality (Frontline, 6 May 2014) and Al Mohler, “God, the Gospel, and the Gay Challenge—A Response to Matthew Vines,” AlbertMohler.com (22 Apr 2014).

[3] Exodus 22:31; Leviticus 20:7; 20:26; 21:8; Deuteronomy 7:6, 28:9.

[4] Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 6:9; etc. In Romans 15:16 Paul speaks of the Gentile or pagan converts as now “acceptable, sanctified, [that is, made holy] by the Holy Spirit.”

[5] Sarah Ruden, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His own Time (New York; Image Books, 2010), 138.

Dr. Peter Jones is scholar in residence at Westminster Seminary California and associate pastor at New Life Presbyterian Church in Escondido, Calif. He is director of truthXchange, a communications center aimed at equipping the Christian community to recognize and effectively respond to the rise of paganism. This article is used with permission.