I was struck by this quote from James D.G. Dunn on holiness in the Bible:
I still want to maintain that wherever the concept of ‘holiness’ appears in the biblical material, underlying it is the sense of the mysterious otherness and aweful power of the divine, of God, and that the holiness of people, places and things is essentially derivative from that primary source of holiness, ‘holy’ as related to the divine, to God (169).
This is from Dunn’s chapter entitled “Jesus and Holiness: The Challenge of Purity” in Holiness: Past and Present (ed. Stephen Barton; T&T Clark, 2003). A couple of reflections:
Holiness is essentially mysterious in the sense that, apart from divine revelation, it would remain hidden from us. It is other than us and alien to us. Thus, any holiness that is manifest in the life of a human being is derived; it is not absolute. God alone is perfectly holy. God alone is the origin of holiness, the “primary source.” We can only be holy if God shares his essential holiness with us.
This means that the character of true holiness is not up for debate or negotiation. God is who he is, and God’s holiness is what it is. If we want a part in the holiness of God, we must accept it as God gives it. We do not have the authority to define holiness as we like, and any attempt to do so is a departure from true holiness.
That holiness necessarily comes from God highlights the reality that the holy life is a work of grace. We can actually be holy because it is something God does in us. “Now may the God of peace sanctify you completely…He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thes 5:23-24).
Taken this way, holiness must also be understood in relational terms. If God alone is holy, and if holiness in us comes only from God, then we must be properly related to God in order to receive his holiness. The people who are in covenantal relationship with God are holy and are to be holy.