Hospitality and the Grammar of Holiness
By John L Drury
For: WTS 41st Annual Meeting
Nazarene Theological Seminary
For the progeny of the holiness movement, the call to holiness and the call to hospitality are often heard in tension with one another. How can we be both separate and welcoming? How do discipleship and evangelism relate? How does the church go about being in but not of the world? How can we “befriend sinners” without becoming “friends of the world”? Although numerous attempts have been made to relate the two, little has been done to make hospitality and holiness internally related. This is what I propose to do: argue that hospitality is actually definitive of holiness properly understood.
In order to argue this thesis, I will perform a grammatical analysis on the concept of holiness. By parsing the way holiness is used in theological language, I will exhibit the strength and weakness of numerous definitions of holiness. Hospitality will be shown to be conceptually adequate to the theological grammar of holiness.
This analysis will begin with an abstract lexical definition of holiness as perfect love, followed by a discussion of the syntax of holiness language. Who is the subject of this perfection? Who or what is the object of perfect love? What does the verb “love” mean? Views of holiness as performance, intention, wholeness, and devotion will be described and critiqued according to these grammatical categories. Hospitality will be offered as a grammatically adequate definition of perfect love, for only holiness defined as hospitality permits the subject, object and verb of perfect love to be used consistently for both divine and human holiness. Some practical implications will flow naturally from this definition of holiness as hospitality.
The Lexicon of Holiness: Perfect Love
What is the theological valence of the word “holiness?” In the Hebrew Bible, the term most often refers to people, places and things that have been set apart for God. Although this is a good place to start, such a basic definition is inadequate for two reasons. First of all, being set apart for God is too abstract a definition to do any theological work. Such a state tells us nothing about how or why it is being used. Moreover, “holy” is not only a predicate of creatures in the Old Testament, but also of God. How exactly can God be set apart for God? Whatever holiness means, it must be able to apply to both God and creation.
It is precisely this connection between the holiness of God and the holiness of God’s people that points us toward a basic definition of holiness. God says to God’s people: “Be holy as I am holy.” The crucial word in this phrase is the particle “as.” For the command to make logical sense there must be some material parallel between the holiness of God and the holiness of humanity. But what could that parallel be?
New Testament usage of this command provides a clue. I Peter quotes the phrase in typical fashion: “For it is written, ‘you shall be holy for I am holy’” (NASB). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes use of the command in an alternative version: “Therefore, you are to be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matt NASB). These two passages indicate that there is some connection between holiness and perfection. Despite potential differences in valence, they can be used interchangeably. Although this would seem to complicate the matter, the original sense of perfect (Grk: telios) as “mature” or “complete” illuminates the command to be holy as God is holy. Human holiness is parallel to divine holiness because the humans are called to be complete as God is complete. Of course, being completely human is different than being completely divine. But the modifier “complete” has a relative stability of meaning in each case. Thus holiness understood as completeness fits the logic of the command to be holy as God is holy.
This definition of holiness as completeness indicates a formal parallel between divine and human holiness. But such a definition alone does not supply any material parallel. What material term could be added to this definition to fill it out? This is where the Scriptural phrase “perfect love” comes in handy. I John 4:17-19 speaks of the perfecting of our love in response to God who first loved us. Perfect love is the material parallel between divine and human holiness. Thus “perfect love” can stand as a basic definition of holiness.
The Syntax of Holiness: Views of Perfect Love
While helpful for setting the terms of the discussion, such a basic definition tells us little about how the term “holiness” might be used in theological discourse. Defining holiness as “perfect love” is uncontroversial, and therefore uninteresting. When it comes to developing a theology of holiness on the basis of this definition, a number of logical alternatives present themselves. In order to assess their adequacy, I will submit each alternative to a grammatical analysis. According to each perspective, what is the subject of holiness? What is its object? How is the verb being used? Does the syntax of the sentence remain stable for both God and human holiness? Such an analysis will reveal the strengths and shortcomings of each view.
Holiness as Performance
The first alternative is to understand holiness as performance. Perfect love has to do with ethics, obedience, and following the law. Although this sounds crudely legal, we must remember that Jesus’ sums up the law with his twofold command to love God and love our neighbor. Holiness is the performance of this law of love. Surely God measures up to this law, and so should we. To be perfect to is to love rightly and consistently.
How might we express this understanding of holiness in grammatical terms? Holiness as performance indicates a subject’s complete performance of the law of love. The subject of holiness is either divine or human. It is typically singular in number. The object of the sentence is the law of love. A secondary object might be those we love according to this law. But the focus is on an inanimate object: the law. The modifier “complete” or “perfect” is applied to the verb. The performance, not the performer, is complete.
What are the strengths and shortcomings of this view? The obvious benefit of such an understanding is its activism. Holiness as performance keeps the ethical dimension in the forefront. This strength brings with it the corollary weakness of legalizing love. Love becomes sidelined as the content of the law that must be performed rightly. In principle, the law could command something different than love. Thus, love becomes a contingent aspect of holiness. Furthermore, love is not perfected in this view, but rather the performance. The two defining aspects of holiness – perfection and love – are disjoined. Finally, the syntax of this view cannot remain stable in both divine and human contexts. Is it apt to speak of God performing God’s law of love? No. God simply is love. The law of love is an expression of the command to be perfect in love as God is perfect in love. The law is not definitive for a comprehensive view of holiness that can be predicated of both God and humans.
Holiness as Intention
In light of the logical inadequacies of understanding holiness as performance, the alternative view of holiness as intention immediately presents itself. Surely the law cannot be performed perfectly by sinners. Yet God calls us to be perfect. Since God is not a liar, God must mean something other than perfect performance of the law when he calls us to holiness. Instead, God wants to purify our intentions. We are to perfectly intend to love God and our neighbor. Though I may make mistakes, my heart is in the right place and that is what counts. That is what it means to have perfect love.
How might this alternative be rendered in grammatical terms? Holiness as intention indicates a subject’s complete intention to perform the law of love. Note that despite the material differences, this view is only a minor modification of the syntax of defining holiness as performance. The subject still stands alone. The object is still the law of love. Completeness continues to modify the verb, separated from love.
Accordingly, this view falls into some of the same difficulties as the first alternative. It has the strength of focusing on one’s attitude, but logical problems remain. As above, the syntax must shift when applied to God. Does God merely intend to love? Are not God’s intentions and actions united? Do they not both flow from God’s character? Intentionality may avoid the impossibilities of fulfilling the law, but it does not get us any closer to a comprehensive understanding of holiness.
Holiness as Wholeness
In contrast to these varied legal definitions of holiness, one can turn to an understanding of holiness as wholeness. God is not concerned with perfect performance or intention with respect to a law. Rather, God wants us to be complete human beings. God wants us to be whole as he is whole. The law is concerned with our well-being as God’s creatures. Holiness is thus about humanizing humanity. Sanctification is the restoration of the image of God in humanity. Sin is a dehumanizing power. But when we let God guide us, we can enjoy our human nature as it was created to be.
How does this view sound in grammatical terms? Holiness as wholeness indicates a complete subject. That’s it. There is neither a verb nor an object. The focus is on the subject. Unlike the previous alternatives, the subject could easily be found in the plural. As there is no verb, it appears that love is absent from this definition. However, love could be understood as an aspect of the completeness of the subject. Nevertheless, the syntax of defining holiness as wholeness absorbs everything into the subject.
Such a focus on the subject of holiness has a number of strengths. As noted, it permits a more communal definition of holiness. Wholeness is achieved in community, so we are all being perfected together. Furthermore, holiness as wholeness appears to capture the parallel between divine and human holiness. The syntax remains relatively stable across the ontological divide. Unfortunately, the complete lack of a verb or object renders this perspective inadequate. Love is a verb. Furthermore, love is a transitive verb. Therefore, any elaboration of “perfect love” must produce a complete sentence with subject, verb and object. Only then will “perfect love” be adequately described.
Holiness as Devotion
How might we steer clear of the previous legal understandings without losing track of the predicate? One way to do this would be to understand holiness as devotion. Holy living is the life of devotion to God. We are to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul. To love God perfectly is to love him completely. We are to be wholly devoted to God. Holiness of heart and life means a singular focus on God. Such a life of devotion is expressed in both personal spirituality and acts of service. But the point is not what we do, but rather that everything we do it done to the glory of God.
In grammatical terms, holiness as devotion indicates a subject’s complete devotion to an object. Here, as with the performance-based perspective, completeness modifies the verb. However, in this case the verb is intrinsically related to love. Also, the object returns as crucial to the sentence. And this object is not an impersonal law but the personal God.
The benefit of this perspective is its unrelenting focus on the object. Although completeness modifies the verb, the accent falls hard on the object. For performance and intention, the emphasis was laid on the verb. For wholeness, the emphasis was on the subject. But devotion emphasizes the object. Such an others-centered approach is helpful when explaining a concept like holiness, which lends itself so easily to self-righteousness. Nevertheless, such a definition is incomplete. First of all, it supplies only half an object, as the love command surely applies to both God and neighbor. But we are not “devoted” to our neighbor the way we are “devoted” to God. So the view of holiness as devotion must treat the second greatest commandment as an implication of the first, rather than part of the twofold love command. It thus risks the mistake of pitting the two loves against each other. Furthermore, the syntax of the sentence lacks consistency when applied to God. Is God completely devoted to God? Or is God completely devoted to something else? Although these are both possibilities, they necessarily shift the sense of the definition. If holiness is devotion, then we are not being holy as God is holy.
The Semantics of Holiness: Perfect Love as Hospitality
What logical alternative might be left? One way to avoid the problems of the previous viewpoints is to define holiness as hospitality. Holy living is not about my completeness or the completeness of my love, but rather the completeness of the recipient of my love. The “perfect” in the phrase “perfect love” refers to the object of love. I do not just pick and choose who I might love. Rather, to love perfectly is to love everyone without prejudice. Holiness as hospitality means welcoming the other. Only then will we love as God loves, for God so loved the world.
How does this definition work in grammatical terms? Holiness as hospitality indicates a subject’s hospitality toward a complete object. All three elements – subject, object, and verb – remain in tact. The major shift is that “completeness” now modifies the object. The object is what is perfect, lacking nothing.
Unlike the previous definitions, holiness defined as hospitality is able to be predicated of God and humanity with syntactical consistency. God the subject has hospitable love for the whole world. In the same way, we are called as subjects to be hospitable to that same world. Since “perfection” modifies the object of love, the definition remains stable across the ontological divide. Thus defining holiness as hospitality adequately represents the logic of the command to be perfect as God is perfect. In other words, we are to love the whole world as God loves the whole world.
Such an understanding of holiness as hospitality not only satisfies the logical requirement of this command, but also is the only view that fits the context of the command. The command to be perfect in the Sermon on the Mount does not stand alone but comes at the end of a section on enemy love. Notice how the logic of perfection applies to the object of love:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than other? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:43-48 NASB)
If we want to bear a family resemblance to God, than we ought to love both our friends and our enemies. Hospitable love is thus the essence of divine and human holiness.
Hospitality not only stands on its own as a viable alternative definition of holiness, but also displays assimilative power to embrace the strengths of the previous views. Hospitality retains the activism of the performance view without its legalism. Hospitality captures the attitudinal thrust of the intentionality perspective without positing the dubious split between intention and action. Hospitality functions as a communal practice not unlike the wholeness model, but in a more others-centered way. Hospitality shares with devotion the unrelenting focus on its object, yet without making neighbor-love a secondary aspect of true piety.
Although the foregoing grammatical analysis exhibits that this definition is logically possible and even commendable, its novelty among these more well-known definitions begs for theological development. Briefly, how might we construct a theology of holiness defined as hospitality?
God in himself apart from the creation of the world is a hospitable God. How can this be? How can a sole God be considered hospitable? God is hospitable in himself because God is triune. There is otherness in God: God the Father begets God the Son in the mutual love of God the Holy Spirit. The persons of the trinity in eternity love one another. The very fact of their procession signifies a posture of hospitality toward otherness within God. This hospitality within God is the condition for the possibility of a creaturely otherness outside of God. As the Father begets the Son, so God creates the world. God is not threatened by the otherness of creation, but embraces it hospitably in accordance with his nature. Even when humanity becomes God’s enemy by rejecting his hospitality, God continues to love his beloved creature. While we were still sinners and enemies, God sent his Son to die for us. Thus God’s justification of the sinner is the ultimate display of his hospitable character.
In response to this great hospitable love of God, we humans are called to a life of hospitality. We love others because he first loved us – as others. Thus God’s sanctifying work in us is parallel in content to God’s justifying work for us. Wesley brilliantly describes the formal parallel between justification and sanctification in his sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation.”[i] He shows the process of each to be equivalent. However, he does not define the content of justification and sanctification in a parallel way. God’s justification of us and our sanctified lives do not bear material resemblance. But that is exactly the logic of the New Testament: just as God loved us, we love others. The parallel force of the “as” in this sentence is not just formal but material. The predicate remains the same; only the subject changes. As God loves the world, so we love the world.
Holiness as hospitality thrusts the Christian community into the world. The world becomes the object of its perfect love, and thus holiness is no longer something that separates us from the world but propels us into it. Therefore, holiness defined as hospitality is inherently missional.[ii] The ecclesial context and creational horizon of the Christian life are internally related to such a definition of holiness.[iii] Hospitality is done by a particular community for all other particular communities. Armed with such a definition of holiness, we will no longer have to make the clarifying claim that there is no holiness that is not social holiness. Holiness does not have a social dimension; holiness is social.
Conclusion: The Praxis of Holiness
If defining holiness as hospitality is theologically sound, it must also be practically viable. What does a hospitable community look like? One way of putting flesh on this otherwise abstract definition is to tell stories of hospitality. Hospitality must be practiced in a highly contextual way since by definition it respects the otherness of the object of love. So it does not admit of rules or procedures. Stories, on the other hand, will broaden our imaginations by displaying concrete hospitable practices. We can tell the story of Le Chambon where Christians welcomed Jews into their homes during WWII.[iv] We can turn to resources such as Christine Pohl’s book Making Room, full of specific examples of Christian hospitality.[v] We can unmask our pretence of holiness without hospitality by sharing the wisdom of the Benedictine Abbots who would break their fast to eat with a guest.[vi] Whatever stories we tell, the common purpose will be to exhibit that hospitality is not just a practical implication of holy living but the core of holiness itself.
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[i] John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” in John Wesley’s Sermons (Eds. Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991) 372-380.
For more on the missional church from a Wesleyan perspective, see Howard
Snyder, The Community of the King (
[iii] For more on the creational horizon of Wesleyan theology, see Theodore Runyon, The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998).
See Philip P. Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed:
The Story of the
[v] Christine Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999).
[vi] The Holy Rule of St. Benedict, translated by Rev. Bonfiace Verheyen (Atchison, Kansas: St. Benedict’s Abbey, 1949) ch. 53.