A New Definition of Holiness?: Placing Peter Gentry and John Bainbridge Webster in Conversation

After lecturing at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, John Bainbridge Webster’s proposed in his monograph, Holiness, that modern definitions of holiness suffered from poor exegesis, citing Rudolf Otto’s Idea of the Holy and Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology and The Experience of the Holy as premiere examples. Critiquing Otto, Webster argued Otto subordinated biblical language to his own created religious phenomenology. In systematic theology this meant attributes of God which meant to give shape to confessing God’s name became “the nameless and voiceless whence of some sense of the numinous, an ineffable and indefinite deity.” Further, Webster argued that Paul Tillich’s abstract ideas of holiness, “has been accorded priority over exegesis, and has in effect swamped the specificity of a Christian understanding of holiness.” Webster concluded that refreshed exegetical work regarding holiness was required for theology to come closer to a biblical definition of holiness.

Likewise, during his lecture at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Peter Gentry argued for a reassessment of the lexical understanding of holy. Gentry furthered his argument at the Evangelical Theological Society in 2022, updating his argument for this reassessment. Gentry argued the lexicographical understanding holy from the Hebrew “to cut” lacked linguistic evidence. He concluded further linguistic study requires an understanding of holy which does not mean “set apart” or “taboo”.

While both scholars concluded that holiness relates to God’s living and active presence, no one has brought these two scholars into conversation. In 2022 Gentry himself noted that Webster’s work intrigued him, but he set it aside, since Webster was not interested in the same lexicographical work. Since both Gentry and Webster argued for a new definition of holy based on a closer examination and exegesis of the biblical text, there is great benefit to placing these two scholars in conversation with each other. A comparative conversation may help further a new definition of holy in theological and biblical studies. The benefit of a possible new definition of holy based on Gentry’s lexicographical reassessment and Webster’s systematic theological critiques would be far reaching; it would reject both an abstract experiential holiness and a legalistic idea of holy separation rampant among liberal and conservative evangelical churches.

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