Review: The Idea of the Holy

Full title: The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational

German title: Das Heilige: Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen


The Idea of the Holy (1917; English edition, 1923) is a religious philosophy book that famously gave the world the term “numinous” to describe the non-rational experience of holiness.

If you’re reading this review, you have probably read about Rudolf Otto in C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain. Lewis aptly summarized our response to “the numinous” as holy fear by comparing our responses to two statements. The first statement evokes fear: there is a lion in the next room. But the second statement evokes a different kind of fear: there is a ghost in the next room.

Lewis was a Oxford philosophy don and more conversant with Otto than most. For many readers, this book will be tough going, and I suspect most would be bored to tears. But because he describes holiness with fresh perspective, I’ve taken some time to go over the useful theological concepts here, disregarding many passages which were either outdated in approach or simply inscrutable. (“Chew the meat and spit out the bones.”)

Rudolf Otto was a philosopher, not a theologian or a Bible scholar. Even ambitious readers will be quite satisfied with the first six chapters (a quarter of the book) which describe “the numinous”. But there is much more to his book than we find in that little paragraph by C. S. Lewis.

Rational and Non-Rational (ch. 1)

First, Otto sees both rational and non-rational elements as essential to religion. “Religion is not exclusively contained and exhaustively comprised in any series of ‘rational’ assertions.” (ch. 1) Again, in the words of Tersteegen which Otto quotes:

Ein begriffener Gott ist kein Gott. (A God comprehended is no God.)

Gerhard Tersteegen, quoted in The Idea of the Holy, ch. 5

For Otto, the holy has basically twin elements: the first, rational, moral, ethical; the second, non-rational, incomprehensible, conceived a priori (that is, by the very nature of things).

Describing the Numinous (ch. 2-6)

Otto takes pains to describe the non-rational experience of holiness as something that cannot be exhausted by mere analogy to religion’s rational aspects. “The absolute exceeds our power to comprehend; the mysterious wholly eludes it.” (ch. 17) Numinous emphatically does not mean unrevealed: there are elements of the universe that only grow in mystery as they are revealed!

Otto’s most powerful explanation of the numinous is found in the Latin phrase “mysterium tremendum et fascinans”, meaning roughly “daunting and fascinating mystery”. Contact with the holy has the power to repel and attract at one and the same time. Otto finds these connected but contradictory aspects in all religions—not just biblical Christianity—and also sees the numinous in the animal kingdom, as well as music, architecture, and art. He points out the “daunting” and “fascinating” in many Bible passages, including the following rather odd phrasing of Mark’s Gospel, leading up to the Holy Week:

Jesus went before them: and they were amazed; and as they followed, they were afraid.

Mark 10:32, KJV, emphasis added

This leads us into a brief look at how Otto explains various Bible passages using his philosophy.

The Numinous in Scripture (ch. 10-11, 19)

Though not a Bible scholar, Rudolf Otto compellingly links a number of Bible passages to “the numinous”. Here is an overview of the more memorable:

  • Genesis 28—Jacob knows by some other-than-sensory experience that God was present at Beth-el.
  • Job 38—In the Book of Job, God takes no pains whatsoever to answer Job’s rational questions. God answers by referring to the “numinous” in his creation: animals that are mysterious beyond our reckoning.
  • Isaiah 6—The calling of Isaiah is a key passage referenced throughout The Idea of the Holy. Isaiah’s self-abasement, like those of Job and Peter, is not just repentance for sin. Rather, he is overwhelmed in the face of God’s mysterious self-revelation.
  • Matthew 8:8/Luke 7:6—The centurion’s self-abasement before Jesus.
  • Matthew 16:17—The above is particularly in the case of Peter: “flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee”.
  • Mark 10:32—Believers’ apprehension of Jesus as the Messiah is non-rational.
  • Luke 5:8—Peter’s miraculous haul of fish is compared to Isaiah’s call.
  • Romans 8—For Otto, the Pauline concept of predestination is a simple result of “creature-consciousness”, expressing the unrevealed and non-rational of our salvation; as such, it has no bearing on freedom of the will (contra Zwingli).

Perceiving Holiness (ch. 14-18)

In later chapters of the book, Otto contends for the holy is “purely an a priori category” (ch. 14). A concept is known ‘a priori’ if we conceive of it without reference to any experience or instruction, by the very nature of things. For Otto, this includes both rational and non-rational elements of the holy.

This has important implications. First, it means that moral obligation (= the rational side of the holy) is something we are born into (cf. Romans 1). Second, it means that the numinous (= the non-rational side of the holy) is arrived at without any cognitive or sensory stimulus. Otto uses the term “divination” for such non-rational intuitions—perhaps there was some difficulty in translation, or this term is used generally in religious philosophy. In Christian theology, this term would be unacceptable, replaced by something like “spiritual intuition” or even in Pentecostal parlance, “God speaking”! In his own terms, he means—

. . . groping intimations of meanings . . . the glimpse of an Eternal, in and beyond the temporal . . . the apprehension of a ground and meaning of things in and beyond the empirical and transcending it. . . . They are surmises or inklings of a Reality fraught with mystery and momentousness.

Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, ch. 18

In chapter 18, Otto inexplicably contends (contra Schleiermacher) that this faculty of “divination” is not available to everyone. Later on, he clarifies this by stating that anyone is capable of perceiving holiness (a priori), but not everyone in fact does so. The language here can be confusing, since Otto’s terminology is often couched quite independently from Christian theology.

In chapter 19, Otto argues convincingly that Jesus’ Messiahship was apprehended non-rationally (i.e. by “divination”) throughout the Gospels, especially by Peter, as already noted. In chapter 20, the same is true of believers today; “the witness of the Spirit” means that we do not depend on philosophical argument or intellectual apologetics to legitimize our own experience of Jesus. We have personal knowledge of him, and that knowledge coalesces with our own intuitions about holiness.

Otto concludes chapter 21 with a wonderful passage in which he celebrates Jesus as the greatest of all prophets and the consummation of holiness in the flesh:

The ‘Spirit’ is only ‘universal’ in the form of [the internal witness of the Spirit] . . . The higher stage is the prophet. . . .

Yet the prophet does not represent the highest stage. We can think of a third, yet higher, beyond him, a stage of revelation as underivable from that of the prophet as was his from that of common men. We can look, beyond the prophet, to one in whom is found the Spirit in all its plenitude, and who at the same time in his person and in his performance is become most completely the object of divination, in whom Holiness is recognized apparent.

Such a one is more than Prophet. He is the Son.

Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, chapter 21

A Final Note: Measure Your Ministry

My favorite passage in the second half was one I will give here at length.

The degree in which both rational and non-rational elements are jointly present, united in healthy and lovely harmony, affords a criterion to measure the relative rank of religions . . . Applying this criterion, we find that Christianity stands out in complete superiority over all its sister religions.

Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, ch. 17

It is convicting to see our own churches appraised by Otto’s criterion here. In my own experience, I find almost exclusively one-sided churches. We tend to either reject spiritual gifts and emotive expression in worship, or elevate them at the expense of careful expository teaching. On that note, let us take a moment to measure our own ministries.

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