God as Holy

When we say God is holy we struggle with what holy means. We define terms intensively and ostensively. Ostensively we point to examples of a thing to define it through these examples. For example, when talking to a child or someone who speaks a different language we can point to the color red as we say “red” to convey the meaning of the idea of “red.” Or we might define “tree” ostensively simply by pointing to a maple or poplar tree and saying “that is a tree.” Ostensive definitions work because although there may be some type of struggle in defining the term – be it comprehensiveness or different languages – we have a common starting point to work from. While every tree is different from every other tree in the world, there is enough similarity in the trees we all come across to know that we can come to a common understanding as we point ostensively to a tree as we say “tree” knowing that we each can to an understanding then. This is exactly why ostensive definitions are so important – because it is the simplest way to define things as we experience them, by simply pointing to them. Ostensive definitions rely on human experience to work.

Intensive definitions are the lexical definition of a term, which give a precise explanation of the idea behind the word rather than simply pointing to it. A way to think of these two types of definitions is to think of your dictionary. The intensive definition is the explanation written on the page. The ostensive definition is the picture next to it.

But when we define holy our struggle is that we combine an intensive and ostensive definition, not to point to what we mean when we say “God is Holy,” but to point to the boundaries of our understanding and to say “God being holy means something infinitely beyond these boundaries.” That is the best we can do. God is so holy! Or in Biblical language, God is Holy, Holy, Holy!!!

Here then is me pointing to these boundaries. God is holy in that:

  1. God is Good: He is wholly perfectly pure in every detail of his being and attributes.
  2. God is Great: He is supremely excellent above all others.
  3. God is Grand: He is transcendent and other. He is separate. He is different. He is one of a kind. There is none like him. He is infinitely and majestically supreme. He is the ontological king.
  4. God is God: Holy points to the all-encompassing synonym for God and is a constant reminder that we can only understand the things about God which he has revealed. Deuteronomy 29:29 reminds us that “The hidden things belong to the LORD our God, but the revealed things belong to us and our children forever, so that we may follow all the words of this law.”
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