What is holiness? Interview with John Walton, part 2

Thursday 1st August 2013

Professor John Walton is the Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, and one of the world’s leading scholars on the historical background and context of the Old Testament. He will be speaking in Sydney, this Friday and Saturday, in an event jointly sponsored by the Centre for Public Christianity and Gospel Conversations.

John Walton took the time to speak with Eternity ahead of his trip. In the first part of this interview, he spoke about how the context of Genesis helps us ask the right questions of the book. In this second part, he talks about how the picture of God in Deuteronomy has a massive significance for Christian life and holiness today.

What can we learn from the differences between Deuteronomy and the other ancient literature of its kind?

In the Ancient Near East, they really weren’t interested in being in relationship with their gods and their gods weren’t interested in being relationship with them. The whole structure of the interaction between the gods and people had to do with mutual needs, the gods needed food, they needed lodging, they needed care, and people were made as slave labour to provide that. Their rituals provided food through sacrifices. Their temples provided housing. They weren’t interested in relationship. They were interested in mutual needs being met.

Then the God of Israel comes along and he says, “First of all, get it straight – I don’t have any needs, and you’re not here to meet my needs. More imporantly, I want to be in relationship with you. So, even though I don’t have any needs, there’s something I expect. I expect you to be holy, as I’m holy.” And that’s what the law is all about.

“In the same way that the gods in the ancient world talk about protecting and providing for their people, I’m going to protect and provide for you, as long as you are keeping up your end, and being faithful and being holy. And keeping Torah and doing righteous deeds.”

It turns the whole system on its ear, because the heart of it is not need, but relationship.

What’s the best way we can import that understanding into Christian life today, living in the light of Jesus?

Well, God’s desire for relationship has not changed. After all, Christ came in order to make relationship possible, through his blood, through his death. Christ came to help us to be in relationship with God.

Even when he was ready to go away in John 14, he says, ‘I’m going away, but fear not, I’m going to prepare a place for you.’

That’s the same thing that God did in Genesis 1. ‘I’m going to prepare a place for you, so that where I am, you may be also.’

And you follow all the way through to Pentecost with the descent of the Holy Spirit to dwell within us: you have God’s presence, sacred space, relationship. And you go all the way through to New Creation in Revelation 21, and it’s all about sacred space, God’s presence and relationship. This is the big picture of the Bible. And it goes from Genesis 1 all the way through to Revelation 21, with all the major steps in between.

And if we don’t do Genesis 1 right, we miss the beginning of the story.

So then you don’t understand the whole story as clearly!

Exactly. Deuteronomy provides this linkage in the covenant, in our understanding of God’s desire to be in relationship with us. Deuteronomy is a major step, driving us to the work of Christ.

And your reading of Deuteronomy is that it is centred around the Ten Commandments, as the core of the book. Tell us more about that.

The Ten Commandments were viewed as a core of the legal curriculum. Already at that time, they were interested in seeing the ramifications, the implications of the ten commandments. I talk about the rest of the book of Deuteronomy as developing a legal portfolio around the different laws, to show that they go beyond themselves. It’s the same thing that Jesus does on the Sermon on the Mount: it’s not enough just to not murder, there’s more to it than that.

Deuteronomy starts what Sermon on the Mount picks up as a major theme.

Some of the arguments of the New Atheists pick up how archaic some of the Old Testament laws are. How do you respond that kind of claim?

Well, of course they are archaic! They’re rooted in the Ancient World – so, by definition, that’s not a surprise. But even though the laws are directed toward that particular culture, exisiting in that particualr time, the idea was that they have currency outside of that context.

But the main focus for us is to not try and make us live by Ancient Israel’s laws – we have to understand what the laws are doing, and how they’re functioning. Beyond the covenant stipulations literary frame in the Pentatuech, we have to move to ask, ‘What is it that laws are supposed to do?’ And the answer is the same all the way through: God wants holiness.

And no list will give you a comprehensive understanding of what holiness looks like. And so when you start thinking about holiness, what we have in the Pentateuch is, in that context, some of the ways of being holy. The ways we pursue holiness may change, but the principles and the goal are the same. Holiness is always the goal of the law.

Are there particular ways that we have lost sight of holiness today?

Yes, sometimes we think of holiness as piety, or spirituality, or in a devotional sense. And sometimes we look at the Bible and we think of holiness in ritual times – ritual purity. None of these are unassociated with holiness, but none of them hit it on the head. Holiness can’t be defined in those limited, restrictive ways. So by misdefinition, we’ve lost a sense of what it is that we’re supposed to be pursuing. No wonder then, that we find we have trouble doing it.

So what is holiness?

God’s holiness is not one of his many attributes. So, we don’t say God is truth, God is justice, God is love … and God is holy. Doesn’t work that way.

Holiness is the umbrella term that all of his other attributes contribute to. God is holy because he is just. God is holy because he is omnipotent. God is holy because he is all of those attributes. Those attributes define his holiness. And his holiness, defined by those attributes, are what distinguish God from his creatures.

Now, when we seek to be holy, as God is holy, that doesn’t mean we can be omnipotent, or omniscient, or imitate those attributes. But we can imitate the others: so when we are just, when we are good, when we are compassionate, when we are merciful, when we are doing those things that constitute God’s holiness, that is how we are being holy.

And that distinguishes us from the sinful world around us, and the world of our sinful nature. Not just to say, ‘I’m different’. But to say, ‘I’m reflecting the attributes of my creator. Of the one who loves me, and is in relationship with me.’

And so our holiness is reflected in the fruits of the spirit, but even that is just the beginning.

Before we wrap up, do you have a favourite verse, that sustains your own faith and life?

I think that I would have to choose Romans 11:33-36, the famous doxology: ‘Oh, the depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God. How unsearchable his judgements and his paths beyond tracing out. Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God that God should repay him. For from him, and through him, and to him, are all things, and to him be glory forever. Amen.’

What is it about those verses?

Apart from Genesis and Deuteronomy, I spend a lot of time in Job. And I think these verses are meaningful for all of those contexts, revealing the nature of God, and our own inability to understand all of what God is doing, whether its in creation, or in relating to us, or in the difficult things that we experience. To me, it’s very important to understand the Bible as God’s revelation of himself. This captures that very well.

Professor Walton will be speaking at Robert Menzies College, in Sydney, on Friday 2nd August at 7pm on ‘Did Moses write Deuteronomy?’ and Saturday 3rd August on ‘Deuteronomy and Sacred Service’. See the Gospel Conversations site for more information. The talks from his previous sessions on Genesis are also available there.

Top image used under a CC license from ampersand72.