The Meaning of “Holy”

During my training for an M.Div (now 40 years ago), my Systematics Professor sought to describe the meaning of “holy” as “otherness” or “out of the ordinary” which conformed with the then-current scholarship. The Hebrew of the biblical text is only consonants and the vowels need to be supplied. The form of the term “holy” is qds or its root: qd. My professor illustrated this “unusual” aspect by noting that the term “prostitute” is the same one as “holy.” He explained the conception of these terms: As the prostitute was outside the normal bounds of society, so “holiness” was something humans in their natural selves needed as being “outside” themselves.

This conception, of course, stayed with me as I sought meaning in my bible reading subsequent to my training. Somehow, the idea did not reconcile itself very well with the general tenor of scripture. This lack of cohesiveness, I believe, has been explained by further analyzing the term. This current understanding, however, was not readily accessible to most Christians and Peter Gentry has helped bring it to light. John Meade summarizes Gentry’s hour-long address:

It seems to me, Gentry had three objectives: 1) to summarize biblical scholarship on Hebrew qds (holy, consecrated, belonging to)(Baudissin to Costecalde) and to place the results of these technical studies in the context of systematic theology (e.g. H. Bavinck et al.). According to Gentry, through the past 100+ years systematic theology has understood qds through the lexical analysis of Baudissin, which suffered from an etymological analysis, which concluded that the original meaning of qd meant “to cut”. Costecalde’s study of 1985, almost 100 years later, was exhaustive and more linguistically thorough and he concluded that the evidence from the ANE and the Bible indicates that qds means “consecration” or “devotion” or “belonging to” not “separate” or “otherness”. The former study emphasized distance between God and man, while the latter emphasized “devoted to” or “belonging to”.  Unfortunately, this study was published in French and many systematic theologians have not utilized it. 2) To exegete the key texts where qds is used: Exodus 3 (“holy ground”), Exodus 19 (“holy nation”), and Isaiah 5-6 (Holy Lord, Holy, Holy, Holy, indicating that YHWH is devoted to social justice in the context). 3) Gentry closes his lecture with an exhortation to systematic theologians to continue the work of exegesis and not to continue accepting the viewpoints of the status quo.


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