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Spring 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 1 · pp. 22–32 

The Holiness of God

Cornelius Wall

Introduction to Cornelius Wall’s
“The Holiness of God”

Vic Froese

Cornelius Wall was born in 1893, in the Mennonite colony of Molotschna in South Russia. Some years later, he and his wife Agnes suffered through Russia’s post-revolution civil war, the Makhno terror, as well as famine and near-starvation before emigrating to the United States late in 1922. After graduating with a BA from Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas, Wall spent the next twenty years teaching at various mid-western Bible schools and even serving as a pastor. In 1946 he and his family moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where he studied at Princeton Theological Seminary (Presbyterian), one of the finest and oldest seminaries in the US. He graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity and a Master of Theology degree at age fifty-five. He and Agnes subsequently served with MCC among refugees in Europe for two years, after which Cornelius accepted an invitation to teach at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College (MBBC) in Winnipeg. He was there only until the end of 1952 when he and Agnes returned to Europe for another six-year term of service with MCC. During that time, Cornelius also helped establish a Bible school in Switzerland (later known as the Bienenberg Bible School). When the couple returned to Winnipeg in 1958, Cornelius resumed teaching at MBBC, retiring in 1962. 1

It was during his first stint at MBBC that Wall wrote the article reprinted below. “Die Heiligkeit Gottes” (The Holiness of God) is noteworthy for at least three reasons. First, published in 1952, it was the first theological article to appear in the new MBBC journal, The Voice. The journal promised readers that its articles would “set forth the doctrinal position of the institution.” 2 “The Holiness of God,” thus, implicitly came with the imprimatur of the College. {23}

Second, the article exemplifies the attraction of MBBC faculty in the 1950s for the Reformed Baptist theology of August H. Strong (1836-1921). In his day, Strong was “the leading North American Baptist Conference theologian, educator, and author.” 3 His Systematic Theology 4 was a popular college textbook. Wall and several other MBBC faculty assigned the three-volume work as the text for theology courses. 5 The book continued to be cited among other Mennonite academics as late as 1954 when J. C. Wenger included the Systematic Theology in a list of important theological works. 6

And thirdly, it is an essay in theology in the older sense of rational reflection on the nature of God. Wall cites Scripture, of course, but his argument often appeals to reason. When he speaks of the priority of God’s holiness over his love, for example, he supports the claim on rational grounds. That opinion runs against the grain of some scriptures, e.g., the unambiguous “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16), and Wall acknowledges this. But he seems to have considered reason, aided by the Spirit and revelation, a surer guide to theological knowledge than Scripture alone. On this question too, he followed Strong who suggested that “reason itself prepares the way for a revelation above reason and warrants an implicit trust in such revelation when once given.” 7

Among weaknesses in Wall’s discussion of God’s holiness is the absence of a trinitarian dimension, which plays a central role in Strong’s Systematic Theology. Another is the lack of an Anabaptist perspective on the subject. These shortcomings, however, do not critically damage Wall’s apparent intention in this short article: to ground holy Christian living—being a follower of Jesus—in the holy character of God.

NOTES

  1. For more details, see Cornelius Wall and Agnes Wall, As We Remember (Hillsboro, KS: Mennonite Brethren Pub. House, 1979); Christine Wiebe, “Cornelius Wall,” in Something Meaningful for God, ed. Cornelius J. Dyck, John Allen Lapp, and Robert S. Kreider, The Mennonite Central Committee Story 4, Biographies (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980), 194–214; and David Ewert, “Cornelius Wall (1893-1985),” in Ewert’s Honour Such People (Winnipeg: Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1997), 19–34.
  2. From the verso of the cover of every issue of The Voice until July 1969.
  3. Howard John Loewen, “Augustus H. Strong: Baptist Theologian for the Mennonite Brethren,” in Mennonites and Baptists: A Continuing Conversation, ed. Paul Toews (Winnipeg, MB; Hillsboro, KS: Kindred Press, 1993), 193.
  4. Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology: A Compendium Designed for the Use of Theological Students (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication {24} Society, 1907).
  5. Others who used Strong’s Systematic Theology as texts in their courses were J. B. Toews, G. D. Huebert, and John A. Toews. Loewen, “Augustus H. Strong,” 253n11.
  6. J. C. Wenger, Introduction to Theology: A Brief Introduction to the Doctrinal Content of Scripture Written in the Anabaptist-Mennonite Tradition (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1954), 10. In noting the value of Strong’s Systematic Theology, Wenger followed the lead of Daniel Kauffman nearly thirty years earlier, who referred positively to Strong’s book in his Doctrines of the Bible (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Pub. House, 1928), 33.
  7. Strong, Systematic Theology, 29.

The Holiness of God*

Cornelius Wall

Translated by Vic Froese

1. EVIDENCE FROM SCRIPTURE

A reader of Holy Scripture will repeatedly encounter the holiness of God. The Lord God reveals himself to his servants as the Holy One. He describes himself as such. In Leviticus 19:2: “I the Lord your God am holy.” And in Isaiah (43:3) He calls himself the Holy One of Israel. The holiness of God is therefore the stuff of revelation. Without enlightenment from above, humankind would never have arrived at this view of God. This is confirmed by the fact that pagan religions do not have such a concept of God. 1

This revelation of God to his messengers echoes in their writings. The Psalmist sings, “But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel” (Ps 22:3 KJV, passim). The prophet prays, “Art thou not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One?” (Hab 1:12). Peter justifies urging the church to be holy by reminding them of God’s holiness (1 Pet 1:15–16).

And ultimately, God’s behavior toward the world and humanity mirrors his holiness. It sounds as if the great God is offended that people think he could be satisfied with an artificial worship service: “Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream” (Amos 5:23–24). And historical facts drive the apostle Paul to warn with inner trembling, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” [Gal 6:7]. The Letter to the Hebrews contains a verse intended to have a sobering effect: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31). {26}

2. THE NEED FOR DISCUSSION

In considering holiness an essential divine attribute, one often risks rushing past holiness itself and being satisfied with pondering its effects—like justice and righteousness. And yet dogmatics and systematic theology are very concerned to linger at the discussion of holiness. For justice and righteousness have real content and justification only when they are anchored in the holiness of God. Only that which corresponds to the nature of God’s holiness is right and just. Justice and righteousness are terms that characterize God’s behavior toward creatures, that characterize his reign. Holiness, however, characterizes God himself. It is a feature of his being. Holiness was his defining quality from eternity. Thus, he did not become holy by observing certain limits; rather, he has distinguished himself as the Holy One from eternity. Holiness is more than being unable to tolerate sin and evil. It is an attribute belonging to the nature of God. 2

3. DEFINITION

We are confronted, then, with the task of finding a definition of holiness. Theology does not go far enough if it defines holiness as separation, since separation does not indicate a character trait of the one who separates. In defining holiness, we must necessarily ask about its inner nature. In his book, Systematic Theology, Strong seems to me to offer the most appropriate answer. He divides his definition into three parts: (a) Holiness is absolute moral purity, which (b) which finds positive and active expression by (c) affirming itself. 3 Let me briefly elaborate.

a) Holiness is absolute moral purity. This absolute purity is an essential character trait of God, not something he learned. This assertion is justified by James’s statement: “God cannot be tempted with evil” [Jas 1:13]. He is absolutely pure, and evil never makes contact with him. Holiness requires purity, that is, moral qualification. It is impossible to speak of holiness without this purity, as will become evident in what follows. Only a being distinguished by immaculate purity of essence can be called holy. The Scriptures present our God as such, and for this reason he is called the Holy One.

It has been suggested that the moral element in God’s nature is the product of divine will. The pure is pure because God wanted it to be pure. Had God willed it, what we now recognize as evil would have become the moral norm, and good would have become a satanic feature. 4

Such a conclusion is unjustified because divine perfection could not be determined by his will; because the will must have some existing thing to which it reacts. The will is conditioned by essence, not essence by will. God’s essence determines his will, not vice versa. So one may {27} conclude: God could never have raised evil to the moral norm because doing so is incompatible with his essence.

b) The holiness of God finds positive and active expression. It is not content to do nothing; it must be active to really come to light as a character trait. The negating factor is submerged. The affirming factor stands out in stark relief. But what is affirmed by active holiness? This takes us to Strong’s third part.

c) Holiness is the absolute purity of the personality, which always affirms itself in its conduct. In other words, holiness is (i) purity, which (ii) finds expression in (iii) such conduct as is in harmony with absolute purity. God proves by his actions above all that holiness is the keynote of his essence. He always affirms himself. Therefore, he establishes perfect harmony between divine being, which is perfectly pure, and his conduct. This inviolate harmony is holiness.

Absolute evil stands in stark contrast to holiness. Satan is represented as one whose essential attribute is evil and who consistently acts in accordance with this attribute. In this case too there is harmony between being and conduct, but it lacks the basic condition of holiness—moral purity. And for this reason Satan’s harmony of being and conduct cannot be called holiness.

The idea that holiness is the harmony of good character with conduct also applies to human beings, but only to a degree. It would be false to claim perfect purity and perfect conduct. A person’s ethical conduct depends on their spiritual development. Paul calls perfect those who are born of Christ, who chase and strive after the goal set before them, after the jewel that represents the heavenly calling (Phil 3:12-15). Being touched by Christ, which is experienced through rebirth, gives them the content of their being. Another ideal enters their soul. Saints are people who realize this ideal in their actions. One element in this new life direction is an attitude that takes sin seriously. Where one recognizes that one has not acted in accordance with the new ideal, one is covered by the cross. This is the holiness Christ acquired for us, but it never absolves a person of the obligation to harmonize their being and behavior to the best of their abilities. Indifference to the burdened conscience cannot be reconciled with sonship to God under any circumstance. God demanded a way of being from Israel when he said, “You shall be holy.” The same demand is asserted by Peter, who quotes the expression [1 Pet 1:15–16]. God requires of us as his children no less holiness than the harmony between the ideal of perfection suspended before our soul and our conduct and actions in daily life. {28}

4. IMPRESSIONS OF THE REVELATION OF GOD’S HOLINESS

The holiness of God has always made tremendous impressions on people.

a) They are overwhelmed by a feeling of nothingness and helplessness when in the presence of God’s holiness. Rudolf Otto calls this sensation “creature-feeling.” 5 There is a difference between God and humankind that must not be described as a difference of levels. The relationship is that of the Creator to the creature. Despite humankind’s likeness to God, there is an essential difference between them. Therefore, the expression “creature-feeling” is probably appropriate. Abraham sees himself in this relationship to his God and says of himself that he is dust and ashes (Gen 18:27).

b) People experience a holy trembling. They see the majesty of God, the holiness in the sublime, before which they collapse and worship. Something of this trembling must have shot through Jacob when he saw the ladder to heaven at Bethel and exclaimed, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not. . . . How holy is this place! This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen 28:16f).

c) Holiness captivates people. There is something mesmerizing about it. Despite the dread and terror, people feel attracted and engrossed. Peter was overwhelmed by the holiness of Jesus after the great fish catch. His words prove it: “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” [Luke 5:8]. From the way he acted, however, we must conclude that he felt gripped and delighted by the Master; for he did not run from him as might have been expected, but to him, and fell at his feet.

d) The revelation of God’s holiness brings about a proper realization of the distance between God and humankind. This sense of distance comes from an awareness of humankind’s sinfulness. Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me, I perish! For I am of unclean lips, and dwell among a people of unclean lips” [Isa 6:5]. The prophet’s cry of distress is proof that he correctly recognized his condition. The distance became clear to him, hence the cry of distress. In his case, it is not a matter of individual transgressions that had gone unpunished but an awareness of the sinfulness that brought him to the point where he saw himself as completely dependent on divine grace. The Lord comforts Isaiah through the angel who touches his lips. This is the assurance of God’s grace, which knows how to deal with sinfulness. But the distance between the holy God and the sinful prophet remains.

Indeed, it is important to learn to take this fact to heart in the face of facile exaggerations. Deism makes the distance between God and man so infinitely great that the Holy One actually completely loses his meaning for humankind. He no longer has influence on his creation, and {29} all responsibility of human beings toward him vanishes. The distance between God and humankind is thought to be too great, hence the distortion of the relationship.

The other extreme is the facile identification of humankind with God. Pantheism identifies the universe with God, and in humankind this “God” becomes conscious. Liberalism elevates humankind itself to the status of God. In both cases, the identification is a certain downgrading of God to the realm of human beings and thus of creatures. With that, the distance between them is completely obscured and the sobering effect that comes from a true representation of the relationship between God and humankind is lost.

And a facile arrogance can be detected in the false mysticism that sets itself the task of losing itself in God, of working its way into a state in which a person is absorbed into God. The effort is directed toward elevating oneself to God and thus becoming united with him. This quest, however, involves obscuring the distance that God has established and wants respected.

The absurd quest to consort with the holy God also belongs to this category. The Lord has offered to be our Father and invites us into the relationship of a child. But the distance must remain. Those who communicate with God as if he were their neighbor next door will soon find that the Lord will turn out to be the Other and will again draw attention to the distance. Let us beware of an overly intimate attitude towards God. It leads to foolishness.

The correct relationship is expressed in Christian mysticism, which emphasizes the intimate interaction of believers with their heavenly Father, in which the distance between them is always kept in mind. God always remains the Other, the Lord to whom believers are responsible, from whom they get instruction, to whom they submit. In this relationship of believers to God, the holiness of God is properly acknowledged, and the fellowship between God and believers rests firmly on a biblical basis.

5. JUSTICE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS IN RELATION TO THE HOLINESS OF GOD

I have already explained under point 2 that justice and righteousness refer to the conduct of the holy God toward his creation and that they are anchored in the holiness of God. A few things could be added. From God’s conduct toward creation, regulations arise for how human beings should regard the work of the Master. Holy Scripture provides instructions enough about that.

Laws concerning justice and righteousness are properly applied only when they are seen as grounded in the holiness of God. Those who do {30} not regard justice and righteousness as the result of divine holiness soon lose any standard for these values. For them, justice and righteousness do not derive from God’s holiness but from tradition. They are products of circumstance or “historical observance” as van Oyen calls it. (See the article, “Biblische Gerechtigkeit und weltliches Recht,” Theol. Zeitschrift, July/August, 1950, p. 272.) On this he remarks: “As soon the jurist himself considers the law merely a phenomenon of historical observance and as a product of circumstances, it is not surprising that brutal political feeling for power is allowed to tear apart the thin fabric of convention and tradition which holds together the elements of the social legal order.” 6 Thus, as soon as law is regarded as a human invention, the sense of responsibility fades away, and one is inclined to ascribe to the strong the right to be arbitrary. When that happens, law loses its norm and becomes a mere guide.

However, those who consider justice and righteousness in the spirit of the holy Lawgiver will necessarily see God’s holiness as their critical yardstick, to which alone they must submit their judgments. This attitude makes it impossible to adapt justice and righteousness to prevailing circumstances.

In this connection it is appropriate to refer to the incorruptible conscience, which is not guilty of conformity but judges from the holiness of God, despite its dependence on the state of humankind’s development. 7

6. HOLINESS AS THE DOMINANT TRAIT OF THE DIVINE PERSONALITY

Every personality has a dominant trait that permeates all others. The person is judged by this trait. A lazy person, for example, not only has laziness as a characteristic, but this trait colors their whole being. Thus, any trait can dominate and stamp the personality.

When considering the personality of God, one must not think of divine attributes as isolated components, each complete in itself and independent of others. For in such a collection the divine personality would be the sum of its many qualities, but not a unified personality. Unity as a basic condition for personality would be missing.

This raises the question: What is the central element in God’s personality? The tendency to consider God’s love the central element seems to have gained a foothold in many circles. There is much talk about the God who loves, who could not gaze with indifference upon humanity in its misery. Certainly, the emphasis on love is justified. It is biblical. But we must be careful how far we take this emphasis. If we expect that the loving God will also take the unrepentant to heaven, then {31} we are certainly not on scriptural ground. The apostle Paul assures his readers that without holiness no one will see God [Heb 12:14]. Despite all love, God will be unable to bring the unrepentant to blessedness. Why? Because love is under control. Figuratively speaking, it must still get permission for its activity. It must be in harmony with the whole. It is the same with other attributes of God. 8

A brief remark seems appropriate here. The emphasis on love as the basic trait of the divine character seems, from ancient times, to have caused the abuse of Christian freedom. Paul warns that freedom can become a cover for sin. Lawlessness is never the content of the gospel, but rather super-lawfulness. Only they are free from the law who are obedient to Jesus Christ, who are under the control of the Spirit. Christians should be warned against an unwarranted emphasis on freedom since it quickly degenerates into carnality. And the beginning of this may well lie in the assumption that the basic trait of the divine character is love.

Then what is the unifying factor in God’s personality? In my opinion, holiness occupies first place. 9 Holiness appears to be the basic characteristic of the divine personality. Everything in his nature is conditioned by holiness. All his deeds must take holiness, but not [necessarily] other attributes, into account. Love cannot possibly animate the story of Job, but holiness can. One must even think of the redemptive act of Jesus as an expression of God’s holiness. Love delivered the sacrifice needed to satisfy the justice and holiness of God. 10

This places before us the inescapable obligation to keep God’s holiness chiefly in mind and to remember that we are accountable to a holy God.

Again, there is a danger here. We may become people of the law by imagining and imputing special merit to our works. Legal righteousness is not an overemphasis on the holiness of God but a wrong emphasis on human works. So it is necessary, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to find the right attitude.

The holiness of God requires those who let themselves be called God’s children to be guided by the principle that God himself has established, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 11

TRANSLATOR̓S NOTES

  1. This statement may be based on a faulty recollection of Alexander McLaren’s comment as quoted by A. H. Strong in Systematic Theology: A Compendium {32} Designed for the Use of Theological Students (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907): “Does God’s love need to be proved? Yes, as all paganism shows. Gods vicious, gods careless, gods cruel, gods beautiful, there are in abundance; but where is there a god who loves?” (114).
  2. In this introduction and much of what follows, Wall relies heavily on A. H. Strong’s Systematic Theology.
  3. Strong, Systematic Theology, 268–75.
  4. Strong, Systematic Theology, 299.
  5. Here, Wall cites Rudolf Otto’s article in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 2. Aufl. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1927-1932), 1723. Cf. the English translation of Otto’s Das Heilige by John W. Harvey: The Idea of the Holy (London; New York: Oxford University Press, 1958, 1917), 8–11, esp. 10: Creature-feeling “is the emotion of a creature, submerged and overwhelmed by its own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures.”
  6. Van Oyen, “Biblische Gerechtigkeit und weltliches Recht,” Theol. Zeitschrift (July/August, 1950), 272.
  7. Strong accepted the evolutionary idea that human beings had a long history during which their religious conceptions, including that of holiness, slowly unfolded. Strong, Systematic Theology, 268–69.
  8. Strong, Systematic Theology, 297.
  9. See Strong, Systematic Theology, 295ff.
  10. Strong, Systematic Theology, 297.
  11. Lev 20:26 and elsewhere.
* First published as “Die Heiligkeit Gottes,” in The Voice 1, no. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 1952): 7–11.

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