Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

14 Mar 2013

Cultivating Fear by the Cross

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Often reason and experience are pitted against each other in discussions of Christianity. Some Christians accuse others of merely intellectual Christianity, while others retort back about an overly emotional worship. Recently, I finished a classic work that, while arguing for the necessity of both, emphasizes the non-rational or experiential aspect of religion. In The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto asserts that this non-rational element is a vital part of true religion. Indeed, this non-rational element serves as the very source of religion.

Otto focuses on the concept of “the holy” or holiness. However, the concept today has assumed an almost exclusively moral connotation. Otto wants to focus on the aspect of the term that was prior to and outside of moral goodness or rationalization. In order to convey this non-rational element, Otto offers the term “numinous” or “numen.”

The essence of a numinous experience is a creature-feeling, “the emotion of a creature, submerged and overwhelmed  by its own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures” (10). This religious experience Otto further describes as the mysterium tremendum. The tremendum includes elements of awefulness, of majestas (overpowering), and of urgency (13-24), while the mysterium points to the transcendent character of the numen: “The truly ‘mysterious’ object is beyond our apprehension and comprehension, not only because our knowledge has certain irremovable limits, but because in it we come upon something inherently ‘wholly other,’ whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb” (28).

Since reading the book, I’ve been considering its relevance for evangelical Christians today. Otto was responding to what he believed to be an imbalanced focus on rationality in religion. However, the problem for contemporary Christianity is not an undue attention on the rational aspects of religion but a failure to cultivate the proper non-rational elements. The lives of modern Christians display very little sense of true holiness.

The loss of the sense of the holiness of God is perhaps most evident in the loss of the fear of God among Christians. Modern Christianity does not lack emotion. The problem is that the emotions among evangelicals stem from a sentimental view of God rather than a holy view. Worship is often trivial with little that reflects awe, mystery, majesty, or reverence. Much is made of God’s love, mercy, kindness, and compassion, but His incomprehensibility, wrath, holiness, and righteousness are not as prominent.

What is the solution to this problem? I think the answer lies in a proper understanding of the cross. The cross is the supreme example of God’s holiness, because it addresses that which prohibits man from rightly relating to God—sin. In the cross, God’s holiness is seen in the depths of agony that must be endured in order to provide atonement for sin. Further, His holiness is seen in the offer of righteousness given to sinners through the cross. These truths are revealed through the rational message of the Gospel, not through religious intuition.

As believers begin to understand what occurred at the cross, they will begin to cultivate proper feelings and experiences. Reflection on the cross both destroys the guilty dread of God’s judgment—because there is no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus—and cultivates a holy reverence. As Christians realize the cost of their redemption from sin, they will develop a healthy fear of God’s holy person, a dread of displeasing this holy God, a wonder at the mystery of the Creator suffering for His creation, an awe at the wisdom of God’s eternal plan, and a deep-seated joy at being able to call this God “Father.” Thus, the proper rational elements of Christianity, especially the theological work of the cross, must be grasped if the proper experiential elements are to flourish.

“As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 17 And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, 18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. 20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake, 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.” (1 Peter 1:14-21)

4 Responses

  1. Bill Combs

    I wonder about these statements: “Otto asserts that this non-rational element is a vital part of true religion. Indeed, this non-rational element serves as the very source of religion.” And “the problem for contemporary Christianity is not an undue attention on the rational aspects of religion but a failure to cultivate the proper non-rational elements.”

    I have a problem with the idea of “non-rational elements.” I am not sure if it is just a semantic one or not, but I don’t believe there are any proper non-rational elements in genuine Christianity. I don’t believe there is any genuine experience of the believer that does not first pass through the mind. In other words, I don’t believe there is anything true about Christianity that is non-rational. There is, I believe, no way to bypass the mind of the believer in order to have a true, genuine Christian experience of any kind. Certainly, the experiential side of Christianity can be neglected, but I would not call any genuine experiential aspect non-rational.

  2. BE

    I think it depends on what you (or in this case, Otto or I) mean by non-rational elements. The meaning here is not irrational or contrary to reason. Nor does it necessarily exclude the mind. Rather, it is a contrast between those truths which are discovered through experience or reasoning and those which are innate or intuitive.

    In that sense, I think Otto has hit some truth in seeing religion in general as sourced in a non-rational or intuitive element, since I think that’s the way that all people know God and His law (Rom 1:21; 2:14-15). They do not know it through reasoning or experience but through intuition. Where I think Otto is wrong is that he fails to incorporate man’s depravity and ultimate rejection of that knowledge as part of the source of religion.

    Regarding the second statement, that’s probably not as clear as it should be. It’s not completely wrong, because I believe that our belief in God and His Word is intuitive and, thus, Christianity has non-rational elements that come into play. However, my primary point is that right understanding leads to right affection, so it would probably be better to state: “the problem for contemporary Christianity is not an undue attention on the rational aspects of religion but a failure to appropriate the proper rational and non-rational elements to cultivate proper affections.”


  3. Bill Combs

    I think my problem is mainly semantic–with the word non-rational. I guess I am uncomfortable with referring to our intuitive knowledge of God and his law as non-rational. But maybe that is just me.

  4. I agree with Dr. Combs. It is a nonsensical statement to talk about non-rational concepts or knowledge.

    Intuition is only a reference to how the knowledge is acquired. If something is an object of knowledge it is necessarily rational. The fact that a descriptive term can even be coined to describe the “numen” is itself an admission that we are working with rational concepts. If it were truly a non-rational element a book about it would be useless as it would be impossible to communicate anything meaningful about it from one mind to another through the use of language. If anything at all can be predicated then assertions are being made. The propositions related to the “numen” are therefore either true or false. How would we find out which is the case? We would have to evaluate them based upon the Bible, the revelation of God (standard of truth). If it can be evaluated this way then it is necessarily rational in some sense.

    If it were truly non-rational (a euphemism for irrational)it could not be reduced to propositions, would be neither true nor false and could not be communicated in language (which requires logical structure). We could therefore “know” nothing about it because it would not be an object of knowledge.

    I find it very difficult to see how something could be claimed as “a vital part of true religion” that we cannot evaluate with scripture or even talk about meaningfully. I suspect that we would find that anyone asserting such a thing has a problematic definition of “religion”.