“God wants us to be holy as he is holy”: A conversation with Scott Hahn

Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets. Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.

“We need to know holiness not only by its effects on human beings. We need to know it for what it is in itself,” says Hahn, author of Holy Is His Name: The Transforming Power of God’s Holiness in Scripture, “Holiness is not primarily or essentially what God does to us. It’s who he is. And only he is holy.”

Detail from “Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant” (1800) by Benjamin West. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes the best books are those that we didn’t even know we needed. There might be a topic that we think we know well, or that we think has been addressed sufficiently, or that is so simplistic that a book-length treatment wouldn’t even be possible. Dr. Scott Hahn’s latest effort is an example of a book that we didn’t even know we needed.

Hahn is the author of dozens of books, including The Decline and Fall of Sacred Scripture: How the Bible Became a Secular Book (with Benjamin Wiker), the Catholic Bible DictionaryHope to Die: The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body, and Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism (along with his wife, Kimberly Hahn). He has also prepared (along with others) the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible.

His latest book is Holy Is His Name: The Transforming Power of God’s Holiness in Scripture (Emmaus Road, 2023). Holiness is a topic that seems straightforward enough, to the point that it probably doesn’t need much unpacking or analysis. But, as Hahn shows in this book, the truth is just the opposite.

Hahn recently spoke with Catholic World Report about his new book, the meaning of holiness, and how we can strive to be holy.

Catholic World Report: How did the book come about?

Scott Hahn: I arrived at a certain age when it’s normal to take stock and look back and try to get perspective on life. You return to first principles. I know that my primary vocation is holiness, and I have a dwindling number of years left to answer the call. I’d better have clarity about the basic terms. What better way to think it through than to write a book?

Writing Holy Is His Name gave me the opportunity to study the use of the term “holy” in the entirety of the Bible — and to see the gradual revelation of its meaning through the Old Testament and then the New Testament. The implications are fascinating and profoundly relevant to everyday life.

CWR: Why don’t we hear much about what “holiness” is?

Hahn: We become fixated instead on what it does to us. When I was a teenager, I was in big trouble. I’d been committing petty crimes, and I recognized that my life was spinning downward and out of control. I needed something to scare me straight. And the Calvinist conception of holiness did that for me. It trained my understanding of the wide gulf between God and creation, which included me. It inspired in me the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” that Rudolf Otto talked about.

I needed that. I still do. But by itself, it’s not enough. We need to know holiness not only by its effects on human beings. We need to know it for what it is in itself. But most people, I think, stop at the experience, instead of seeing the experience of “holy fear” as a gateway to divine love. Holiness is not primarily or essentially what God does to us. It’s who he is. And only he is holy.

To go forward from that experience of holy fear is even more fearsome, but I think it’s what we’re supposed to do. God is wholly other, and we couldn’t know his nature and essence apart from his self-disclosure. But the good news is that he has disclosed himself. He has made a public revelation in the Sacred Scriptures of his Church. He has even elected to share his divine nature and his holiness with his children.

CWR: In Isaiah 6, when the seraphim chant “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts”, it seems that holiness might be an attribute peculiar to God. Then there is 1 Peter 1:15: “But as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct” (cf. Leviticus 11:45). Is holiness something we are capable of?

Hahn: People sometimes ask if God has commanded the impossible. We’re supposed to be holy and be perfect, and yet we’re told that only God is holy and only God is perfect. The great Scripture scholar Rabbi Joshua Herman has noted that nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures is any man or woman called a saint. Yet in the New Testament, there are many references to the saints, and they are many, and they are identifiable men and women. We who speak English don’t always catch the difficulty here, but it’s apparent in other languages, where the same word means “holy” and “saint.” If only God is holy, then why have Christians since Day One been running around calling particular individuals “saints”?

Well, what is impossible for us is possible for God. God is not a boss giving us a performance review and expecting us to be flawless. He made us. He knows our flaws. And yet he wants us to be saints. He wants us to be holy as he is holy. And he’s willing to share his life and his nature with us in order to make our holiness possible.

CWR: Ok, so we are capable of being holy. But why should we be holy? This may seem obvious, but this is a question that many of us do not critically consider. Why should we be holy?

Hahn: Because only saints are in heaven. If we do not become holy — if we don’t correspond to God’s calling and his grace freely given — we will not be suited for heaven. For the unholy, heaven would be unbearable.

CWR: Jesus called us to be “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). Is holiness part of this striving for perfection that we are called to?

Hahn: Yes. Again, perfection here isn’t flawlessness. It’s maturity. God is our Father, and he wills what is best for us in every circumstance. He says to us what he said to St. Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul recognized this. He understood the distance between himself and an all-holy God. But he also knew the love of that God, and the divine desire to divinize us. This led him even to boast of his weakness!

CWR: Is holiness a greater challenge today?

Hahn: I don’t know. I do know it’s difficult, and I know it’s always been difficult. Search the New Testament on the word “strive,” and you’ll see that the apostles and evangelists expected holiness to be a challenge in their own generation — the first generation of the Church. But you can’t beat the rewards. And what are the alternatives? “Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

CWR: What do you hope readers will take away from this book? What do you hope it will accomplish?

Hahn: Well, it’s relevant to any number of issues in the news. The liturgy wars are so acrimonious because they’re all about holiness, but the warriors fail to understand what holiness is. I don’t think that word means what you think it means. I hope my book can at least help establish an informed, intelligent, and charitable discourse.

But my biggest hope is that readers will undergo what I made myself undergo. This was for me an examination of life and an examination of conscience. It was an exploration of my most fundamental vocation — and the essential identity of the God who created and redeemed me. He is all holy, and only he is holy. And yet …