How Language Helps Us Appreciate God’s Holiness and the Gospel
Since I have to review/study for finals anyway, I figured I’d write some Humcore related posts that I’ve been meaning to do for awhile. Good luck getting through this! Hopefully these posts aren’t too dorky, and are somewhat helpful to those of you reading.Our first funny named man is a Jewish philosopher, and commentator on the Law named Maimonides (my original title for this series was “Men With Funny Names”). Most of Maimonides arguments hinge on two main premisces: 1. that God’s essence (that is, what is crucial and unchanging to his identity) is one of complete simplicity and incorporeality, and 2. that human language is woefully insufficient to describe Him.
Honestly, I think his first premisce is whack, and I don’t really understand how he get’s there. His arguments on language are much more interesting. Maimonides rejects the idea that you can apply any positive attributes to God, because God is incomparable, and any attempts to classify him necessarily rely on human analogies. For example, when we say that God is merciful, we posit what we know of human mercy on to God, and draw a relation between the two. Maimonides calls this flawed reasoning, because in order to make a comparison between two things, in this case human mercy and divine mercy, they must share a certain likeness, meaning that there “is a certain relation between two things” and be of the same species, meaning that “their essences are the same– even if those two things differ in regard to bigness and smallness or strength and feebleness, or in other similar ways”. We cannot compare things that lack these. For example we cannot meaningfully compare heat to color or voice to sweetness. Therefore, according to Maimonides, since there is no “relation between He and that which is other than He–it follows necessarily that likeness between Him and us should be considered nonexistent”*. Maimonides cites scripture references to back up his claims: “To whom then will ye liken Me, that I should be equal?” (Isaiah 40:25), “There is none like unto Thee, O Lord.” (Jeremiah 10:6) Maimonides concludes that since we lack any relations with God it would be futile to praise Him for human virtues. It would be “as if a mortal king who had millions of gold pieces were praised for possessing one hundred silver pieces.” What solutions does Maimonides propose? We can only begin to accurately describe God through negations: by saying what God is not, and through His actions– you can describe someone’s actions while not giving him attributes. Even then, we are left with only a vague apprehension of God.
Needless to say, it is a big problem if we as Christians can’t praise God for his attributes; if our praise is not only inadequate, but offensive since we fail to describe God as he really is in His perfection. I think Maimonides arguments, at least on language, are pretty spot-on; however, I would argue still that we can use language to describe and praise God, because one word makes all the difference: Holy. I will now rely heavily on R.C. Sproul to show how this works. First, he gives this helpful definition of holy:
“The primary meaning of holiness is “separate.” It comes from an ancient word that means “to cut,” or “to separate.” To translate this basic meaning into contemporary language would be to use the phrase a “cut apart”… God’s holiness is more than just separateness. His holiness is also transcendent. The word transcendence means literally “to climb across.” It is defined as “exceeding usual limits”… When we speak of the transcendence of God, we are talking about that sense in which God is above and beyond us. Transcendence describes His supreme and absolute greatness… It points to the infinite distance that separates Him for every creature. He is an infinite cut above everything else.”
Furthermore he adds this crucial distinction:
“God is called holy in a general sense. The word is used as a synonym for His deity. That is, the word holy calls attention to all that God is. It reminds us that His love is holy love, His justice is holy justice, His mercy is holy mercy, His knowledge is holy knowledge, His spirit is holy spirit.”
Do you see how this easily solves Maimonides’ dilemmas? Instead of writing a painfully dense treatise, Maimonides could have just called God holy and saved me a lot of time and effort! God, in his providence, created a word that can accurately capture his essence. When we call God merciful, we need not rely on fallible analogies of human mercy; instead, we call God and his mercy holy. In doing this, we acknowledge God’s transcendence: he is an infinite cut above us, and his mercy is infinitely beyond and set apart from our own mercy. In terms of application, I think this is helpful even beyond the nerdy realms of Humcore, as we seek to praise our great God and understand his character. When we call God holy, we praise for God being infinitely beyond us, so much so that it cannot even be expressed in language. We cannot even begin to comprehend how God’s ways surpass our own; our minds cannot formulate words or thoughts to grasp the eternal gap. I hope this can expand our understanding of God’s holiness, and leaves us in absolute awe before this God, who is not just once or twice Holy, but three times “Holy, Holy Holy!”
Furthermore, an understanding of Maimonides arguments should give us a greater appreciation for the Gospel. Maimonide’s studies through the Old Testament left him with a vague distant God so far beyond us that only the wisest of sages could begin to understand him. Praise God that he did not leave us to use our intellects to find him! He came to us: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory. glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) We need not wonder at who God is; we can behold the Son who came to Earth so that we could know Holy God.
“Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy. holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:2-3)
*It should be noted, Maimonides rejects the idea that Humans are made in the image of God due to premise 1. His belief of scripture is that it written as one cryptic parable for the intellectual elite, and not for the ignorant masses