Holy. What’s in a word?

This will be just a short post. It’s primary purpose is to urge anyone reading to go listen to Fr. Thomas Hopko’s podcast, Jesus – The Holy One of God. It’s the most recent one of his Names of Jesus podcast series, all of which are well worth the time it takes to listen to them. Fr. Thomas does a really good job of explaining the way that holy doesn’t describe an ethical or moral system, but rather the way God is wholly (pun intended) separate or apart. He is the uncreated and all else is creature or created.

I’m still really digesting this podcast and will probably listen to it several times, but even on an initial read, I picked up something I had never really heard before. Unlike most languages, including Hebrew and Greek, English has two words that translate the same word. Holy and saint both translate exactly the same word. Obviously there has to be some rhyme and reason surrounding the way interpreters have chosen to use those two English words. I have no particular insight right now into that thought process, but I know it exists and my interest is piqued.

There are a host of other reflections on ‘holy’ in the podcast. That’s just one little tidbit that leaped out at me. I definitely recommend listening to the entire thing at least once.

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  1. Dana Ames
    Posted June 14, 2010 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Yup, the two main streams of English do it again. Same thing with “righteousness” and “justification”, which are those dik- words in Greek. The German stream is “righteous” and “holy”; the Latin stream is “justify” and “saint”. It is interesting how the one or the other of the words gets picked, somewhat inconsistently…


  2. Posted June 14, 2010 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Yes. I was familiar with the … confusion in the way righteousness and justification were chosen. But as much as I’ve worked to understand the meaning of qadosh and hagios (neither of which describe a moral or ethical framework), it never clicked in my head that holy and saint translated the same word until I heard Fr. Thomas’ podcast. Not really sure why. In retrospect, it’s obvious.

    But it does raise the question of why translators chose two different words to translate the same word and why they chose one word in some places and elsewhere the other. Language is a fluid things and how you use words frames their meanings. I can’t help but note that most of the English translators were Protestants of various sorts and then wonder if that influenced their word choice. If so, then why and how?

  3. Dana Ames
    Posted June 14, 2010 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    Indeed. It would be interesting to compare the KJV and the Douai (R. Catholic English) versions as to how the dik- passages were translated. No time to do that, but it would still be interesting!


  4. Posted July 2, 2010 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    Scott, this was very interesting to read, for I’ve just had a discussion with some Protestant friends about how they consider us to be justified once for all in the eyes of God but progressively sanctified over the course of our lifetime, whereas they believe Catholics consider us to be sanctified once for all and progressively justified. Is that accurate, and if so I wonder if some of that stems from this translation of the same word into 2 different English ones?

    To my uneducated eye, “saint” implies something you become in an instant while it takes time to become holy… But I grew up in Protestantism. Do you see the complete opposite?

  5. Posted July 2, 2010 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Hi Joy, It would probably make it easier to understand the shape of my thoughts on “holy” if you read these two posts on the subject.

    Holy, Holy, Holy

    God Is Holy

    Personally, I’ve never found the various forensic/legal frameworks that both Roman Catholics and many Protestants use to describe the way we relate to God (and often the way he relates to us) particularly useful or helpful. I more or less understand many of them, but have never been inclined to adopt any of them for myself. With that said, you can’t really talk about “Roman Catholic belief” as though it were single thread. I mean, you could pick of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which I have sitting on my desk) and find a present-day “official” answer to most questions, but there is a lot of history behind that catechism. For the first 800 years or so, the Patriarchal See of Rome and the other ancient Patriarchates were unified on the central matters of the faith. Within that unity, there was and has always been rich diversity, and sometimes that diversity incorporated views (mostly about who Jesus actually was) that actually constituted a different faith and required that a boundary be set. But when you read the ancient Fathers, you find a rich tapestry of different ways of expressing the same faith.

    After Rome fell and the West descended into what we now call the “Dark Ages”, Rome was faced with the reality of being the only Apostolic See in that part of the world trying to maintain the light of Christianity in a sea of chaos. In addition to that, it seems to me that they became less comfortable with Greek over time (we already see that with St. Augustine) and narrowed not just their Scriptures to the Vulgate but began to engage less and less with the interpretations of the Greek Fathers. Over time, they became entrenched within the emerging feudal order which returned some stability to the West. And I think it was out of that process over centuries that the forensic framework emerged. It’s roots seem to lie to me within the feudal order than strictly in Augustine (where most people seem to place it). After all, however much Augustine may have used a forensic framework, the perception and understanding of the Latin Church didn’t actually broadly change until centuries later.

    While the Roman Catholic Church did much to preserve civilization in the West, they also acquired much power and incorporated feudal structures. Bishops actually functioned as feudal lords. And in the process they brought the assumptions of feudalism into their perspective of the Kingdom of Heaven. Their actions were certainly noble and perhaps even necessary, but they came with a price. They became increasingly separate from the rest of the Church (eventually resulting in schism) and the power they had accepted in the vacuum of the Dark Ages (even as the Roman Empire continued strongly centered in Constantinople) became a corrupting influence. So Roman Catholicism in the medieval period did not look much like its earlier self or much like its present-day incarnation.

    Most of the abuses of power that formed the landscape for the Reformation were legitimate. However, it’s important to realize the Reformation was as much political as spiritual. The European nations that supported the Reformers did so as part of a struggle against the political power (and wealth) of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. Without that political support (which the Reformers certainly returned as they supported their states in turn), Protestantism would have nothing like its present shape. The Reformers, however, didn’t really shift from the medieval Roman Catholic forensic framework. They tweaked some aspects of it, but still operated from the same basic perspective. It was more a change in nuance than any sort of fundamental shift. The Reformers certainly did not return to anything like the historic interpretation and practice of the faith. If anything, they were more influenced by the cultural ideas of their time on Natural Law.

    In Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church actually returned to something more like the ancient historical faith. For instance, they dropped the medieval declaration that no human being who was not in visible communion with the Pope of Rome could be saved. Instead, they returned to the more traditional understanding that, though we can say where the fullness of the Church is present, we cannot say where it is not. They returned to the traditional Christian teaching that the Holy Scriptures and the liturgies could be translated into any language and retain all that they are. There were a lot of shifts like that.

    Most of the discussions like the one you described about “Catholics” in which I’ve sat and listened to among my fellow Protestants (I rarely say much, since it’s hard to find a place to start) have little sense of the historical context and present reality.

    “Saint” comes from the Old English “sanct” (adopted from Latin) and the Old French “seinte” (also from Latin influence). “Holy” comes from the pre-Germanic and Goth stream. Both words are used to translate the same Greek word “hagia”. The differences we read into “saint” and “holy” aren’t present in the Greek. (And honestly, most of the ways they are defined today seem to me to have little connection to hagia.) Justification and righteousness are also two different English words for the same Greek word (coming from the Latin and Germanic streams into English) as Dana noted.

    I don’t really know how to answer your question other than to say that I view the entire reality of being or becoming Christian as a lifelong process. We need to be healed and grow in communion with God and neither of those happen “in an instant.”

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