HOLINESS IN HISTORY: HOW DID THE CHURCHES UNDERSTAND HOLINESS?
by Vijay Chandra
So rich is the theme of ‘holiness’ which has yielded a variety of emphasis in the church’s history. For the early apostolic church, the nature of holiness was conformity to Christ. Christlike purity was the main goal. In the patristic church [that is, early church Fathers], holiness was largely viewed as withdrawal from the contaminations of the society.
- Ascetic: In this tradition, holiness was pursued by forsaking the world literally, that is by leaving secular jobs, marriage, worldly goods and by engaging extensively in prayer, fasting, ‘living in the caves’, self-mortifications. Only those who reached this ‘high level’ were regarded worthy to be reckoned as saints. ‘Sainthood’ was not normative among Christians, but reserved largely for ascetics. Hence, a double standard evolved. ‘Saintliness’ came to be applied to the ‘religious’ person [that is priests, monks, nuns] whereas a ‘lower attainment’ of holiness necessitated by remaining in the world was tolerated in the ordinary secular or ‘lay Christian’.
- Mystical: According to the medieval mystics, holiness was not to be attained so much by leaving the world as by rising above it. Holiness could be viewed as a ladder with various stages of spiritual absorption into God, such as purgation, illumination, and contemplation [all these are Hindu concepts].
The danger of this view is twofold. Mysticism tends to lose sight of the Scripture as the touchstone for all faith and practice and is prone to forget the calling of the Christian to be salt in the earth and light on the hill.
- Sacramental: This form of holiness was available to all, since sanctification was automatically regarded as being imparted when the mass’ wafer was lifted by the priest. Regardless of personal lifestyle, anyone who witnessed this event received, according to Roman Catholicism, an ‘objective fusion of holiness’ without any of the struggle involved in the ascetic and mystical views of holiness. The danger here is obvious. The sacrament is prone to replace the need for the personal subjective work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of a sinner.