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

“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 Dictionary, Hope 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 on 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 particular 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 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 …

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About Paul Senz 120 Articles
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.


  1. God is Holy by nature. We are holy by redemption and adoption…by sactifying grace.

    Secondly, we must be holy to enter into God’s presence in the life beyond this one. One who is not holy could not tolerate being in God’s presence. And for this simple reason, one who is not holy should not be receiving Holy Communion (message to McElroy, Cupich, Gregory et al).

  2. Scott Hahn!! I have read many of his books and have enjoyed them all. Theologically sound, but written with heart. Totally enjoyed the book he wrote on his conversion to Catholicism: Rome Sweet Home. Thank you Scott for the contribution you have made to the church and to help light the way for the rest of us with your engaging writing.

  3. I would think that Adam and Eve were Created holy. Adam and Eve were immortal, because death only entered the world after they sinned. We know that Adam and Eve were not saints. The question becomes, If Adam and Eve would have never sinned, would God have eventually made them saints, and would they have needed the Blood of Jesus for God to do so?

    • Steve,
      You ask a weightier question than you might know. It is more fully addressed in the theology of the Franciscan Duns Scotus, more or less alongside Thomas Aquinas. Namely, would the Incarnation event have happened in the absence of a sin “original” to ourselves rather than to the Creator?

      The Rev. J.B. Carol, O.F.M, in his exhaustive “Why Jesus Christ?” (Trinity Communications, 1986), summarizes: “…Adam and the permission of his sin are willed by God FOR THE SAKE OF CHRIST [italics]—not the other way around” (p. 473); “…we always seem to arrive at the same conclusion: the existence of Christ and Mary was not contingent on the Fall as foreseen through the scientia visionis [historical events like the Fall as already known by God’s eternal vision]” (p.147).

      Meaning (as a non-theologian, I hope I have this right!) that from “the beginning” the coming of Christ in time is a superabundance of divine charity, more than only a contingent act of damage control for the Fall. Perhaps only the bread would be consecrated at the Mass–since the consecrated wine, the sacrificial at-one-ment, would not be necessary? Or, did the “original [and retained] innocence” still await a categorically higher/ totally self-donating (!) level of grace for our sacramental incorporation into Christ as the incarnate Second Person of the Trinity?

      Carol’s volume includes 208 pages of detailed documentation of support from 307 Thomists and 1,179 Scotists, from the 13th through the 20th centuries.

  4. I have very few complaints about the Catholic upbringing I received in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Some important topics were not covered, but everything that was covered was covered in a strictly orthodox fashion. I do not, however, recall any book or lecture to which I was exposed that even attempted to define the term “holy”. I recall thinking about this as a child, and wondering if I was supposed to understand this as a consequence of breathing.

  5. It’s who he is. And only he is holy (Hahn).
    Scott Hahn in the realization that holiness is identified in God took an apparent contemplative approach to the seeming impossibility of being as perfect as God.
    Like all created things that reach their perfection in accord to their natural end, fulfilling their ordained nature perfectly – so Man as Hahn alludes doesn’t arrive at ‘flawless’ perfection, rather maturity. We attain the impossible through God manifesting his goodness within our weakness.
    We reach our perfection within our natural capacity with and in Christ. Flaws included. For us, if I may add here it is submission to the alluring good, the holiness that is God.

  6. There aren’t saints in the OT because Christ hadn’t come yet. The Redemption brought in its order of fulfillment. Rabbi Joshua Herman is asserting that the Messiah is still to come and the only guide is the OT.

    In that reckoning he might be insinuating as well that when the Messiah comes there will be no need for saints. Whatever he intends to say, the BVM a Jewess has already put him completely in the wrong and trounced it!

    Just as in those days so many Jews did not recognize the BVM, the same again in the present. She brought forth the Messiah in due time “as God spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed forever”.

    • “The great Scripture scholar Rabbi Joshua Herman has noted that nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures is any man or woman called a saint.”

      NAB (1970 edition) Wisdom 5:5
      See how he is accounted among the sons of God; how his lot is with the saints!

      JOB 38:7
      Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid the cornerstone, While the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

      NABRE (present edition) Wisdom 5:5
      See how he is accounted among the heavenly beings; how his lot is with the holy ones!

      Matthew 22:29
      Jesus said to them in reply, “You are misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven. And concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”

      Hello Elias,
      I think that “The great Scripture scholar Rabbi Joshua Herman”, as Jesus says, “You are misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God”. God exists outside of physical time in the spiritual realm. There is no moment to moment in the spiritual realm. God exists in Omni-Presence in a Spiritual Eternal Now. According to Jesus, Saint Abraham, Saint Isaac and Saint Jaccob, all who must go through Christ’s future physical realm, blood on the cross to become Eternal, exist as Saints in heaven, in the spiritual Eternal Now, before Christ’s death and Resurrection in the physical realm. It seems Saint Abraham, who only enters into Eternal Life after Jesus’ physical realm death and Resurrection, was present in the Eternal Now spiritual realm, even upon Creation of the physical realm. The Apostles even saw the Saints visit Jesus at the transfiguration.

      Mark 9:2 The Transfiguration of Jesus.
      After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus.

      • It’s in the danger of over-confidence Jesus warned about and phantasms of competence.

        The Jews can arrive at the same idea you present but it would be Christ-less and it would make Hebrew Scripture an end unto that. A denial of faith.

        Like tangled up in tassels and phylacteries.

  7. I took to reading up on Berman and found some of what he is/seems to be propounding:

    – acceptance of observance as a choice
    – standing before the Almighty in all realms
    – finding Orthodoxy for the world the Almighty placed us in
    – having honesty as central in Orthodoxy
    – injecting vitality in the religion advancing the vision of Orthodoxy
    – realizing full potential and greatness in confidence and courage.

    By this composition he elucidates his own ethos as well as the hermeneutic/methodology in his study and exposition of the Hebrew Scriptures.

    He seems to see this as his “call”.

    From my own knowledge, I gather that “observance” is Jewish and something formally crucial substantiating what follows from it.

    Is Hahn leading that there is some kind of kinship there?


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