One of the great joys of this time of formation and learning known as “going to seminary” is the opportunity to pull together pieces of learning and devotion that I thought were long ago lost and abandoned. Right now, I am especially enjoying a class called “Introduction to Judaism,” for just that reason. A very wise friend asked me if I thought that I might be bored in this class, given that my Masters in history focused on the Middle East and Judaica. But this class has not only given me the opportunity to remember much of what I learned, but the chance to experience as a living, breathing faith the things that I studies as abstract anthropology and history.
And the way in which our Rabbi structures the class is most thought provoking: from a list of words that represent important concepts and practices (in both Judaism and Christianity), we each choose two and write short papers on the topic “what X means in my faith tradition”. Being the Baptist in the room, I feel obliged to include a little Baptist history in each, but both have been an eye-opening experience for me. Unlike my colleagues in the room, I have no church hierarchy to instruct me in a set of beliefs. So each time I have to face one of these papers, I have to dig deep and ask myself “What do I believe about X?”.
The following paragraphs are the paper I wrote on the concept of holiness. As we get ready to walk that journey that is known as Holy Week, these thoughts are still bouncing around in my spirit and sometimes that means I just need to share. I hope that as we enter this time that is “set apart” for remembrance, each and everyone one of us has wonderful moments amid the busy-ness when we ourselves can touch the holiness of this gift in our faith.
I chose this concept because I didn’t really know what I believed about it – the concept of holiness is one of those that I’m sure many non-theological types simply accept as a given. Yes, of course God is holy. Imagine my surprise as I followed this word down the rabbit hole.
My simple response: holiness is an aspect of God, hence, the attempts to define the nature of God and Christ through the Trinitarian theology of the Christian faith. Our human participation in that aspect of the divine (referenced in Hebrews 12: 10: “but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.”) is most often called sanctification, or, in the most Baptist of phraseology “being saved by the Holy Spirit.”
There are, of course, Holiness Baptists. This particular flavor developed in 19th century Georgia and adopted John Wesley’s teaching that holiness, or Christian perfection, resulted from grace received by faith, and that receiving of grace was followed by gradual sanctification. The Holiness movement in Baptist life gradually split; in the early 20th century many drifted to the new Pentecostalism movement, others formed associations that focused on single features of worship, such as communion.
Sadly, the words “saved by the Holy Spirit” have become in our culture a caricature of the worst kind of uneducated worship experience and so, along with words like sin and atonement, they are words seldom uttered in a progressive Baptist context—we might be confused with the “other” Baptists. The definition of sanctification – that to be set apart for a special use—also presents complications for those who understand God’s love and saving grace to be universal and open to all. When you add the ongoing argument about whether touching God’s holiness, or our saving (sanctification) is a onetime event or a process in our lives, well, you can see that there are more questions than answers.
For me, I believe this: God is a holy presence, creation bears witness to and carries in it God’s holiness; Jesus was the great human manifestation of that holiness on earth. As a disciple, I can touch that holiness, I can experience it, and I can live a life that leads me to a greater communication with that holy nature each and every day.