Chapter Eight: The Holiness of Jesus Makes Him Unpictureable

The Holiness of God Transcends Pictureability

Because of the holy nature of God, Jesus Christ, who is the second person of the holy Trinity, cannot be pictured by the art and imagination of man.

Because the triune God is holy, no member of the triune Godhead can be pictured: God’s holy nature separates Him from artistic creation. The holiness of God’s nature reveals that He is a separate category of being, ontologically separate from the world, unpictureable by means of art.

“Wholly-other” is a term helpful in conceiving of the holiness of God. Another word is “transcendent,” if understood in the sense that God ontologically transcends the being of the world. The holiness of God must be understood in this unpictureable dimension; otherwise we slip into errors of confusing God with the world through our art.

The purpose of this chapter is to show that the holy God of the Bible cannot be pictured. Here is evidence to show that the basic meaning of the “holy” is that of separation.

1. Separateness is revealed by the meaning of the words for “holy” used in the original Biblical languages (Hebrew and Greek).

2. This separation of the holy is also revealed by the Levitical system of separations which created awareness of the separateness of God.

3. Confirmation of this separateness comes from modem scholars who conclude that the holy God is separate from the created world. Even Rudolph Otto, who was schooled in liberalism’s view that God is continuous with nature, concluded that the Holy is a separate category of existence; of course, the linguists who researched the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words show that separation is the basic Biblical meaning of the holiness of God’s nature.

By Definition God’s Holiness Is Separate From Created Pictures
“Holy images” is an oxymoron: images cannot reveal God’s holiness. Separation is basic to the meaning of holiness. God’s holiness is “other” than the world. While it is true that man can dedicate things to God—set them apart unto God—those things are not holy in the sense that they become God. Consecrated things, whether consecrated by man or by God, never become God-like.

The Hebrew and Greek words for holy and holiness show that holiness means separation, something set apart. The fact that holiness means a separation appears regularly in both scholarly and popular definitions. For instance, the scholarly Hebrew lexicon, edited by Brown, Driver, and Briggs, says that the word kadhash (holy) means “to be set apart, consecrated.”

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, in its article on “Holiness,” says the Semitic root KSDH (holy) possibly came from an old Assyrian word meaning purity or clearness, but “most modern scholars incline to the view that the primary idea is that of cutting off or separation.”

Separation, says the ISBE, seems to best express the various ways the word holiness is used. “In primitive Semitic usage ‘holiness’ seems to have expressed nothing more than that ceremonial separation of an object from common usage (which other religions might describe as a ‘taboo’).”

In the Bible, continues the ISBE, holiness is ascribed first “not to visible objects, but to the invisible Yahweh” and then to places, seasons, things, and people “only in so far as they are associated with Him.” (ISBE, p. 1403)

Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says that the holiness of God’s name “contrasts with everything creaturely.” It traces the development of the word “holy.” The Name, Word, and Spirit of God are all involved in God’s revelation of Himself, and as holy, they are “set in antithesis to everything worldly or creaturely, so that even the cultic is almost consumed by the divine.” God’s holiness thus expresses His “perfection of being which transcends everything creaturely.”

At Mt. Sinai, where God disclosed His holy name to Israel, Israel began to learn that she, too, must be holy because she belonged to God. Being holy, she must separate herself from religions and rites of other nations. She must worship Yahweh as her only God.

Only Yahweh God is holy—and whatever He sanctifies. Yahweh makes things holy when He separates them unto Himself. The place where He manifests His presence is holy at that time. (Ex. 3:5). The tabernacle (and later the temple) in which His glory was revealed was holy. (Ex. 28:29; 2 Ch. 35:5). So were all its sacrifices (Ex. 29:33), ceremonial materials (Ex. 30:25), and utensils (1 Kings 8:4). The Sabbath was holy because it was the Sabbath of the Lord (Ex. 20:8-11).

Even the holiness of men depended upon their being made holy by the Lord. God made priests and Levites holy because He set them apart unto Himself (Ex. 29:1; Lev. 8:12,30). Israel, despite her sins and shortcomings, was holy because God separated her from other nations for divine purposes (Ex. 19:6, Lev. 20:24). (Kittel, I, 89).

The Levitical System Shows That The Holy God Is A Separate Being

Israel’s first lesson was to learn that God’s nature is separate from the nature of the created universe. Then the separated people began to learn the ethical nature of holiness. Knowledge of this ontological separation of God from the created universe preceded—and provided the basis for—Israel’s knowledge of the moral nature of God’s holiness. To know the ethical nature of God’s holiness it was necessary to know first that God’s holiness separated Him from the world; He is a different order of being.

A progressive sequence of separations taught this meaning of holiness. James Walker, in his insightful book, The Philosophy of the Plan of Salvation, shows that the Levitical system of worship was a system of separations that taught God’s people His separation from the world. God is always beyond any created thing. At Sinai the people of Israel were little acquainted with any attribute of Yahweh. Walker asks, “How could the idea of God’s holiness or moral purity be conveyed to the minds of the Jews?” Walker suggests three “principles” that served as guidelines:

1. No object in the material world can convey the idea of God’s holiness.

2. The idea of holiness, therefore, must be created in our minds by means of a process designed for that exact purpose.

3. The design that will create in our minds the idea of holiness must consist of a series of comparisons.

Walker emphasizes that all practical knowledge comes to the understanding via the physical senses. But the physical senses in themselves cannot touch or show forth the holy. The holy is always beyond reach of the physical senses. This separation of God is shown to the senses by the series of comparisons which show that the holy God is always beyond the senses. The holy God is Someone transcending physical apprehension. (Walker, p. 81.)

Now, says Walker, see how God’s Levitical system taught the Israelites the knowledge of His holiness by means of the series of comparisons. See how the Levitical system met the requirements imposed by the laws of the learning process.

First, the animals were divided into two groups: clean and unclean. This distinction made Israel think of one class as being separate, better than the other.

From this purer class, one was set apart to be offered for a sacrifice. This sacrifice must come from the clean class; furthermore, it must be set apart from that class as being without spot or blemish.

This sacrifice must be offered by a separated priest, a mediator. Most of the holy people were not to consider themselves worthy to offer this sacrifice. The sacrifice was to be made by the Levi tribe of their people set apart to be the priests. The tribe of Levi was set apart to the priesthood, but not even all Levites were allowed to serve as priests. For instance, women were excluded. Boys were excluded.

The place of the sacrifice was carefully set apart from all other places. The sacrifice was further set apart by washing. In some cases, the priest had to wash himself, too.

Walker’s emphasis on the cleansing and ethical aspect of holiness does not obscure that a very basic factor of the idea of the holy is that of separation.

The camp was purified, the people were purified; everything was purified and re-purified, and each process of the ordinances was designed to reflect purity upon the others, until finally that idea of purity formed in the mind by the focused convergence of so many lines. This, by comparison, referred to the idea of God. Thus they learned that God is of too pure eyes to look upon iniquity. (Walker: 83-84) By this process they learned to separate their concept of Yahweh from their idea of the world and its common things and its worldly concepts of deity.

The tabernacle also pictures this series of separations. The separation of the holy God from the eyes of the pagan world, and even from the eyes of the people of God meant that no one could see Him to make an image of Him. Pagans and unclean Israelites could approach only as far as the outermost wall. They could not step inside any gate.

Ordinary Jewish people could go only as far as the next wall. They were separated from the Holy Place. Certain separated priests could go into the Holy Place to perform required rituals. But only the High Priest could go into the Holy of Holies, the place where God dwelt in thick darkness. Only once a year could the High Priest go into that most holy place. This most holy man could only go into the most holy place at the one holy time.

There, in the Holy of Holies, the chosen man could see no form for God. He only knew that God promised to dwell there and meet with Israel. That imageless, empty space between the cherubim images above the ark was the place where God said He dwelled. The holy God still remained separate and beyond the vision of even the most separated holy man in Israel.

Rediscovery of The Separateness of God

The history of God’s people, Israel and the Church, shows how frequently they have lost or lapsed from knowledge of God’s holiness. They turned to idols, saying they were turning to God. They identified God with nature and the natural world. This happened in modern times in Protestantism’s liberalism. But in the midst of liberalism one man became famous for discovering the separateness of the holy God.

Early in the twentieth century Rudolph Otto’s book, The Idea of the Holy, rediscovered the idea of the separateness of God. God’s separateness contrasted against liberalism’s concept of God being continuous with nature.

Otto, widely quoted by twentieth-century theologians, said the idea of the holy belongs to an inexpressible category. It is set apart from the rational; it eludes apprehension in terms of concepts.

The word “holy,” Otto realized, had come in his day to be so completely identified with the idea of the ethical “good” that it was necessary in his time to coin a new word (“numinous”) to get back to the original meaning of holy. “Numinous” means:

1) Schleiermacher’s “feeling of dependence” (but only if it is dependence on something outside the self)

2) “Awfulness” (associated with the mysterium tremendum, and other such concepts as the wrath of God) suggests something of the fear and awe inspired by the numinous;

3) “Overpoweringness” (majestas); ana

4) “Holy” can also be thought of as the “Wholly Other” (hateron, anyad, alienum), according to Otto.

Otto found that in the New Testament the idea of holiness usually is expressed by the Greek word hagios and its derivatives. This Greek word corresponds closely to the Hebrew KDSH group in the Old Testament, so hagios is the word used in the Septuagint. (Note: The origin of the word hagios is not certain, but it may have come from the combination of Greek words for “not” and “world” (ha=“not”; ge=“world”: ge as in “geography”. Support for this interpretation comes from the similarity of hageios which means “landless, homeless”. Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon gives an example where hageios (landless, separated from land) evidently was used for hagios. That holiness is separateness and does not come from this world is implied in the development of the word for “holy”)

Yahweh God is holy. Contrast Him with the unholy gods of the nations that surrounded Israel. God is a spiritual being infinitely different in the nature of His being (ontology) from the gods of this world—and yet He is most present in the world.

His identity is completely separated from the gods of the Gentile nations: they are unholy, He is holy. They were worshipped in carved wood and stones. They were representations of powers found in nature. They were worshipped by rituals that attempted to unify the worshipper with a worldly god. In contrast to all this, Yahweh God is transcendent, alone, holy.

He dwells in a separation inapproachable by human effort. In His inapproachable holiness, God claimed the reverence and exclusive worship of Israel. Beside Him they were to have no other object of worship. No image in the form of anything in the earth or the skies could stand as a likeness for Him. Thus, God rose above all naturalism in Israel’s thinking, and God’s holiness set Him apart from anything in the world.

Otto concluded that, when once it is grasped that the holy was not originally a moral category, the most obvious meaning is the category of the transcendent. (p. 54)

Summary: The Holy God Is Separate From Man’s Artwork

We have seen that the Biblical words (in both Hebrew and Greek) for the holy convey the idea of a separation from the worldly.

We have seen that the Levitical system taught Israel that a basic aspect of the holiness of God is his ontological differentiation from the created universe. One genius of the Law is that it sets up a series of comparisons which show God is always separated in His being from any created thing. God’s holiness is beyond the realm that can be created or represented by man’s imagination and artwork. Israel’s holy God is a being who is completely other, even other than the most holy created being in the universe.

We have seen that in modern times, even with its liberal emphasis on the continuity of God with nature, there has been an occasional scholar, such as Otto, who has recognized that the holiness of God means that God is in an ontological category outside the continuum of nature.

Conclusion: Christ, The Revelation Of The Holy God, Is Not Revealed By Images

Whatever is true of God is true of Jesus Christ. God is holy: therefore Christ is holy. The holy nature of God is unpictureable: it is a different kind of Being than the being of the created world. Therefore, the holy nature of Christ is unpictureable.

Bibliographic References & Notes

Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and Chas. A. Briggs, eds. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. (London: Oxford, n.d.). See definition of kadhash (holy).

Lambart, J. C. “Holiness,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Vol. 3, 1915.

Kittel, Gerhard, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament G. Bromiley, trans., Eerdmans, 1964;1, 89).

Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon regarding hageios (landless, separated from land), and hagios (holy).

Otto, Rudolph. The Idea of the Holy (Oxford University Press, 1923,1946).

James B. Walker, The Philosophy of the Plan of Salvation (Cincinnati: Cranston and Curtis; NY: Hunt and Eaton, n.d.).