Stephen Charnock’s treatment of the Holiness of God in The Existence and Attributes of God stands as the high watermark on the subject among Reformed Orthodox theologians of the period. Working my way through it, I’m struck by its comprehensive and seemingly exhaustive definition, defense, and exposition of the attribute. There’s much to dive into, but one particular section on the ontology of God’s holiness struck my attention.
To set it up, briefly, Charnock defines God’s holiness as:
Positively, It is the rectitude or integrity of the Divine nature, or that conformity of it, in affection and action, to the Divine will, as to his eternal law, whereby he works with a becomingness to his own excellency, and whereby he hath a delight and complacency in everything agreeable to his will, and an abhorrency of everything contrary thereunto.
God’s holiness is his utter purity of will, the love of the goodness which he has and is, as well as his opposition to everything opposed to that goodness which he is.
He goes on to clarify that this attribute is not a secondary, or ancillary perfection of God’s life, but one that is “essential and necessary” to his being. God would not be God without God being holy. God has been holy from eternity and will be holy forevermore.
Following this, he clarifies that “God only is absolutely holy: ‘There is none holy as the Lord’ (1 Sam 2:2).” This may strike some of us as odd because many things are spoke of in Scripture as holy besides God. In fact, isn’t holiness one of the communicable attributes which creatures can share with God? What could Charnock mean?
Well, he means that God’s holiness is qualitatively distinct and original to God. It’s not just that God is holy, he is, in fact, holiness itself. He only is originally holy and everything else is made holy as it is related to him (“by derivation”). Things set apart to the Lord become holy precisely because they are the Holy God’s. It’s borrowed holiness, in a sense, sort of like the light of the moon is borrowed from the Sun. And even then, their purity is just a dim reflection of the purity and holiness of God.
Charnock wants to drive home the qualitative difference between our holiness and God’s holiness. He compares God’s holiness with the holiness of the angels whom he has blessed with holiness and says their purity comes up short, causing them to cover their “feet out of shame in themselves” (Cf. Isa. 6). They know that:
…though they love God (which is a principle of holiness) as much as they can, yet, not so much as he deserves; they love him with the intensest degree, according to their power; but not with the intensest degree, according to his own amiableness; for they cannot infinitely love God, unless they were as infinite as God, and had an understanding of his perfections equal with himself, and as immense as his own knowledge. God, having an infinite knowledge of himself, can only have an infinite love to himself, and, consequently, an infinite holiness without any defect; because he loves himself according to the vastness of his own amiableness, which no finite being can.
Since love to God’s own perfection and goodness is the heart of holiness, only the perfection of God can muster it. Only the Triune God has the infinite capacity to love his infinite beauty properly, “according to the vastness of his own amiableness.” (I love that phrase.) And it’s precisely for that reason that his holiness is qualitatively distinct from all finite, creaturely holiness. What an astonishing and marvelous thought!
And it’s here we come to the fascinating passage that struck my eye.
Following off of this insight into the importance of God’s infinity for appreciating the distinctness of God’s holiness, he moves on to consider its immutability by comparison with changeableness of angelic and human nature. It’s a long quote, but worth it:
Holiness is a quality separable from them, but it is inseparable from God. Had they not at first a mutability in their nature, none of them could have sinned, there had been no devils; but because some of them sinned, the rest might have sinned. And though the standing angels shall never be changed, they are still changeable in their own nature, and their standing is due to grace, not to nature; and though they shall be for ever preserved, yet they are not, nor ever can be, immutable by nature, for then they should stand upon the same bottom with God himself; but they are supported by grace against that changeableness of nature which is essential to a creature; the Creator only hath immortality, that is, immutability (1 Tim. 3:16). It is as certain a truth, that no creature can be naturally immutable and impeccable, as that God cannot create any anything actually polluted and imperfect. It is as possible that the highest creature may sin, as it is possible that it may be annihilated; it may become not holy, as it may become not a creature, but nothing.
The holiness of a creature may be reduced into nothing, as well as his substance; but the holiness of the Creator cannot be diminished, dimmed, or overshadowed (James i. 17): “He is the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness or shadow of turning.” It is as impossible his holiness should be blotted, as that his Deity should be extinguished: for whatsoever creature hath essentially such or such qualities, cannot be stripped of them, without being turned out of its essence… The sun is essentially luminous; if it should become dark in its own body, it would cease to be the sun. In regard to this absolute and only holiness of God, it is thrice repeated by the seraphim (Isa. 6:3)…the holiness of God is so absolutely peculiar to him, that it can no more be expressed in creatures, than his omnipotence, whereby they may be able to create a world; or his omniscience, whereby they may be capable of knowing all things, and knowing God as he knows himself.
Humans and angels are changeable (mutable) beings. We came into existence and can wink out of existence. Our natures can shift from good to evil and evil to God. We have fallen, but thankfully we can be saved and sanctified to God once more (humans, at least). And we only stay holy by the mercy and sustaining perfection of God’s work in us.
And yet in the starkest contrast, God is unchangeable. He is immutable. There is no shadow of turning with him. And this holds true of his holiness as well. There isn’t the slightest chance that God could ever be less than the infinitely pure love of good. It is the distinct, sine qua non of the divine life. It is inseparable from him.
Besides the magnificence of this vision of God’s absolute holiness, what struck me about this was how thickly ontological this discussion was. It’s all too easy and common in some contemporary discussions to make clean distinctions between God’s “ethical” or “moral” attributes emphasized in Scripture and his more “metaphysical” or “ontological” ones derived from philosophical or “Greek” speculation. (Typically, the distinction is pressed by theologians looking to revise the ontological ones.) Charnock doesn’t play that game.
In fact, it is precisely the “metaphysical” or “ontological” qualities of God–his infinity and his immutability–that distinguish and characterize God’s holiness as his own. It is the limitless and unchangeable purity, rectitude, and love of all that is good and according to his own perfect will that makes God’s holiness what it is.
This is good news. For God’s holiness is a crowing attribute among the rest, giving them their distinct character:
As all would be weak, without almightiness to back them, so all would be uncomely without holiness to adorn them…As sincerity is the lustre of every grace in a Christian, so is purity the splendor of every attribute in the Godhead. His justice is a holy justice; his wisdom a holy wisdom; his arm of power a holy arm (Ps. xcviii. 1); his truth or promise a holy promise (Ps. cv. 42). Holy and true go hand in hand (Rev. vi. 10). His name, which signifies all his attributes in conjunction, is holy (Ps. chi. 1); yea, he is “righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works” (Ps. cxlv. 17): it is the rule of all his acts, the source of all his punishments. If every attribute of the Deity were a distinct member, purity would be the form, the soul, the spirit to animate them. Without it, his patience would be an indulgence to sin, his mercy a fondness, his wrath a madness, his power a tyranny, his wisdom an unworthy subtilty. It is this gives a decorum to all.
Praise God, then, that it is this holiness which is unchanging and without end.
Soli Deo Gloria