Whilst preparing to preach Leviticus 10 at CCC this past Sunday, I found Karl Barth's comments on the holiness of God particularly helpful. Barth deals with God's attributes - or as he calls them, God's "perfections" - in the latter part of CD II/1. He divides them into two sections - the perfections of the divine loving and the perfections of the divine freedom, in line with his basic thesis of the first part of II/1 - that God is the one who loves in freedom. Within each section, pairs of perfections are offered - holiness is paired with grace. But Barth is clear that these are not the sorts of things that could be played off each other. He really believes in the doctrine of divine simplicity; in the end, all the myriad perfections of God are really one. They are who God is.
So anyway, holiness.
God's love is holy, meaning that "it is characterised by the fact that God, as He seeks and creates fellowship, is always the Lord." God does not give himself away in his love, he does not make himself subject to the people with whom he seeks and creates fellowship. He is always God in this relationship. And what that means is that "He condemns, excludes and annihilates all contradiction and resistance to" his love. In his genuine love, he is genuinely Lord. The logic of pairing grace and holiness, then, is that they both "point to the transcendence of God over all that is not Himself." In both grace and holiness, God is the Lord.
And grace and holiness must be mentioned side by side. It seems like they are contradictory: "To say grace is to say the forgiveness of sins; to say holiness, judgment upon sins." But in fact they go together. "That God is gracious does not mean that He surrenders Himself to the one to whom He is gracious. He neither compromises with his resistance, nor ignores it, still less calls it good." In fact, it is only as he draws near in grace that God's holiness is shown and made known. Holiness in the abstract, which is not the holiness of God's opposition to sin in the very act of his gracious drawing near, is not the holiness the Bible describes. "Therefore, the one to whom He is gracious comes to experience God's opposition to him." When God creates fellowship with sinful human beings, they necessarily come to experience his opposition to them as sinners, even as (and only as) they come to see his grace in forgiving sin and creating that fellowship.
A brief aside on what this means for our understanding of Law and Gospel - "In Scripture we do not find the Law alongside the Gospel, but in the Gospel, and therefore the holiness of God is not side by side with but in His grace, and His wrath is not separate from but in His love."
"The holiness of God consists in the unity of His judgment with His grace. God is holy because His grace judges and His judgment is gracious." Barth adds, not without reason, "In this sense Jesus Christ Himself is the Holy One of God." Where do we really see God's holiness? Isn't it at the cross of Christ, where God judges sin and sinful humanity, and in judging overcomes sinful humanity and makes it fit for fellowship with him?
In Leviticus 10, God's desire to have fellowship with his people is threatened by the carelessness of his priests, who imagine that they can approach God casually, perhaps thinking that the newly en-tabernacled God is tamed and at their beck-and-call. If this line of thought were followed through, fellowship between God and Israel would be impossible. God will and must be himself; he will and must be Lord in the fellowship which he creates with Israel. Therefore, Nadab and Abihu must die. But this is not opposite to grace. It is grace. It is God in his grace creating, maintaining, and defending his fellowship with sinful Israel.
And of course it points forward. If sinful humanity is to have fellowship with God, the fire of God's holiness must burn away our sinfulness; the fire of his love must oppose and overcome everything in us which is unlovely. And where did the fire of God's love and holiness burn the brightest, consuming the one acceptable sacrifice?