Diderot’s “Holiness”

I have been reading some Denis Diderot for fun these past few days. I looked at his Encyclopedia today and found this definition for “holiness”: “the quality of state of a saint or without sin.”

Full disclosure: I have been influenced by Peter Gentry’s work on this. Found here.

In his lecture, Gentry argues that “holy” and its cognates ought to be conceived as “that which is dedicated to someone or something.” I find this immensely helpful because you can even sense Diderot’s difficulty in finding an adequate definition when getting to the issue of those things used in service to God. Although he offers it as a secondary definition, it ought to be a primary definition.

What’s the cash value of saying that “holy” is equivalent to saying “dedicated to”? I think the immediate result is a re-fashioning of what we understand of God when we say that he is “holy.” Surely the concept ought not to only mean “without sin”–though it is by no means any less than this! For example the preeminent text regarding God’s holiness is Isaiah 6, where Isaiah sees YHWH is resplendent glory and the attendant angels cry out unceasingly that YHWH is “holy, holy, holy.”

Surely they are saying more than YHWH is unblemished by sin, though, again, the implication is there when contrasted with Isaiah’s claim to be a man of sinful lips among sinful people.

Given the rest of the book of Isaiah (since this is our ad hoc test case), “dedicated” makes much more sense with how the rest of the book plays out. You have the bloodthirsty Assyrians and Babylonians who are hell bent on exalting their kingdoms by denigrating and enslaving and destroying all those in their way. They fight with reckless abandon for their own glory. YET, this pride will not go without answer from the Most High.

The balm of chapter 40 is applied to the wounds of God’s people.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,    and cry to herthat her warfare[a] is ended,    that her iniquity is pardoned,that she has received from the Lord‘s hand    double for all her sins. (vv.1-2)

How is this comfort to be administered?

By the proclamation of one crying out in the desert to prepare the way of YHWH. The comfort is only possible because of the Lord’s commitment to his word (v.8).  The comfort is only realized when he shpeherds his people with grace (v.11). The comfort is made palpable when the one who holds all kingdoms in the hollow of his hand–to squeeze or to release (vv.12-17). All this comfort is made true when YHWH exercises his prerogative to flex his arm of salvation. Why does he do this? Because he fully committed to showing his right to do all that he pleases in heaven and on earth.

This provides the solace and justification for our confidence in the midst of darkness. Because YHWH is dedicated to his fame and his renown throughout Creation and has bound displaying this holiness through redeeming his people, we can confidently weep and humbly shout.

Of course I would be remiss if I did not draw the fullness of this holiness to the person and work of Jesus. This is relayed in the wilderness prophet, John, as he cried for all of us to make our hearts clean through repentance. The One most holy, most dedicated to the glory of YHWH would step forward to fulfill all righteousness. His holiness would redound through the splinters of the cross and in the echoes of the empty tomb. This holy and wholly dedicated Christ would free us from our captivation and captivity to other kingdoms. Because of his holiness and unfettered commitment to the vindication of God’s righteousness on behalf of his people, Jesus reigns victorious in resplendent glory in holiness.

This is the cash value. Don’t underestimate a definition.

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