Divine Holiness and Divine Action
- ISBN: 9780198864783
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: April 2021
The readers of Mark C. Murphy’s Divine Holiness and Divine Action should prepare themselves for a trek into the philosophically complex—chiefly: “to get clearer on what God’s holiness is” (1). If this seems a daunting task, it’s because it is; this tome is certainly written for a scholarly audience in mind and any reader, casual or academic, without a rather extensive education in the field of philosophy would be hard-pressed to make it through without a dictionary and multiple guides on the subject to reference for the sake of context. In essence, Murphy’s book “constructs and defends an account of divine holiness and puts it to work to improve our understanding of divine action” (9), addressing (according to Murray) a gap in contemporary philosophy of religion literature.
The book is cleverly—and helpfully—broken down into well-organized parts, chapters, and subsections, making it easy for Murphy and the reader to cross-reference prior and future points. The two parts of the book are divided, quite simply, into the title of the book: part 1 pertains to the nature of God’s holiness and part 2 to the manner in which divine holiness translates to divine action.
Part 1 begins by providing adequacy conditions for a theory of divine holiness and explains why some extant views of holiness are ultimately philosophically inadequate. This section explores connections between holiness as divinity, separateness, inherent moral goodness or higher moral standing, divine personality or compatibility with great power, and great status or privilege.
Though Murphy ultimately rejects these views of holiness as inadequate, he nevertheless pays their advocates their due, giving credit to his predecessors while also providing the reader with a rousing, if somewhat haphazard, crash-course in philosophy of religion, spanning from the likes of Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus to Immanuel Kant and his modern contemporaries. The author then continues with his determination of what “primary” holiness is—that which is holy is fundamentally separate and above (26)—and his endorsement of Rudolf Otto’s “numinous” experience with holiness, a double response articulated as the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” (“a mystery which repels and attracts”) formulation (25). Of course, the determination of a “primary” holiness without subsequent variations of holiness would be rather pointless; Murphy also discusses “secondary” holiness—the holiness of nondivine beings/ derivative holiness (59), as well as clarifies his understanding of the profane and unholy.
With the account of divine holiness secured, Murphy moves on to part 2: divine action. His “aim […] is to offer an account of how God’s absolute holiness makes a difference to how we should understand divine action” (74) and “characterize, and defend, that framework for divine action, the holiness framework” (108). This is first done by rejecting two motives for divine action: morality and love. It is at this point that the author adopts a Christian lens, dedicating a full chapter to holiness incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Given that Rudolf Otto was, indeed, a Christian and Murphy defends Otto’s philosophy, this example is understandable. With the argument made for Jesus’ absolute divinity and, therefore, absolute perfection, Murphy uses said argument “to examine how our understanding of God as an absolutely holy being should shape our understanding both of the problem that the Atonement is meant to solve” (187), particularly with credence to an Anselmian perspective towards atonement. Perhaps naturally, this is followed by a discussion regarding the possibility and implausibility of modes of the afterlife with the application of the divine holiness framework and, in the final chapter, the creation of a theorem on divine action and divine humility. He asserts: “everything God does for the sake of creation, for the well-being of creatures or the perfection of the creaturely order, counts as an instance of divine humility” (245). Thus concludes the second part of the book and the entire work itself — somewhat abrupt and gently urging the reader to refer back to the introduction to form a cohesive picture of divine holiness and divine action.
This is a work of significant ambition, written with passion and a clear expertise in philosophy of religion. Due to that very fact, a reader without Murphy’s vast knowledge and understanding of the themes referenced may struggle with the “dive right in” style of this book. The author introduces philosophers and complex concepts with no prior context and only occasional explanation. For example: “the extension of the Otto-inspired account by way of the Aristotelian notion of pros hen homonymy enables the theory of primary holiness defended in this book to meet the desideratum that an adequate theory of primary holiness must be extendible to serve as a basis for an adequate theory of secondary holiness” (73). In this passage, there exists no footnote or explanation in the text regarding Aristotelian thought and so on. In effect, the reader is simply supposed to know the literature and history that serves to contextualize this book. The very nature of the subject matter makes it difficult to avoid long, winding run-on sentences which can quickly turn into blocks of dense musings or asides. However, Murphy often gracefully extricates the reader from abstraction, usually in thoughtful or humorous ways, while never losing his erudite edge, by asking them to consider relatable, concrete examples of the human experience, from lost friendships to a particularly unfunny joke (21). The serious reader will be challenged, but rewarded, with a thought-provoking and well-researched foray into what it means to define holiness and observe the actions of said holiness.
Larissa Rosendale is a PhD student in religious studies at the University of Aberdeen.Larissa RosendaleDate Of Review:May 31, 2022