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Something that is sacred is dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity[1] or considered worthy of spiritual respect or devotion; or inspiring awe or reverence among believers. The property is often ascribed to objects (a "sacred artifact" that is venerated and blessed), or places ("sacred ground").

French sociologist Émile Durkheim considered the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane to be the central characteristic of religion: "religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden."[2] In Durkheim's theory, the sacred represented the interests of the group, especially unity, which were embodied in sacred group symbols, or totems. The profane, on the other hand, involved mundane individual concerns.


The word "sacred" descends from the Latin sacer, that is consecrated, or purified dedicated[3] to the gods or anything in their power, and to sacerdos and sanctum, set apart.

Distinction from "Holy"[edit]

Although there are similarities between the terms "sacred" and "holy" and they are sometimes used interchangeably, there are subtle differences.[4] "Holiness" is generally the term used in relation to persons and relationship, while "sacredness" is used in relation to objects, places, or happenings.[5] Thus a saint may be considered as holy, but would not be viewed as sacred. However, there are things that are both holy and sacred such as the holy bible.[4]

The English word "holy" dates back to at least the 11th century with the Old English word hālig, an adjective derived from hāl meaning "whole" and used to mean "uninjured, sound, healthy, entire, complete". The Scottish hale ("health, happiness and wholeness") is the most complete modern form of this Old English root. The word "holy" in its modern form appears in Wycliffe's Bible of 1382. In non-specialist contexts, the term "holy" is used in a more general way, to refer to someone or something that is associated with a divine power, such as water used for baptism.

While both words denote something or someone set apart to the worship of God and therefore worthy of respect and in some cases veneration, "holy" (the stronger word) implies an inherent or essential character.[6] Holiness originates in God and is communicated to things, places, times, and persons engaged in His Service. Thus Aquinas Thomas defines "holiness" as that virtue by which a man's mind applies itself and all its acts to God; he ranks it among the infused moral virtues, and identifies it with the virtue of religion, but with this difference that, whereas religion is the virtue whereby one offers God due service in the things which pertain to the Divine service, holiness is the virtue by which one makes all one's acts subservient to God. Thus holiness or sanctity is the outcome of sanctification, that Divine act by which God freely justifies a person, and by which He has claimed them for His own.[7]

Academic views[edit]


Hierology (Greek ιερος, hieros, "sacred" or "holy", + -logy) is the study of sacred literature or lore.[8][9]

History of religions[edit]

Mircea Eliade outlines that religion should not be interpreted only as 'belief in deities', but as 'experience of the sacred'. He analyses the dialectic of the sacred.[10] The sacred is presented in relation to the profane.[11] The relation between the sacred and the profane is not of opposition, but of complementarity, as the profane is viewed as a hierophany.[12]


French sociologist Émile Durkheim considered the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane to be the central characteristic of religion: "religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden."[13] In Durkheim's theory, the sacred represented the interests of the group, especially unity, which were embodied in sacred group symbols, or totems. The profane, on the other hand, involved mundane individual concerns. Durkheim explicitly stated that the dichotomy sacred/profane was not equivalent to good/evil. The sacred could be good or evil, and the profane could be either as well.[14]

Religious views[edit]


In Theravada Buddhism one finds the designation of 'noble person' or ariyapuggala (Pali). The Buddha described four grades of such person depending on their level of purity. This purity is measured by which of the ten fetters (samyojana) and klesha have been purified and integrated from the mindstream. These persons are called (in order of increasing sanctity) Sotāpanna, Sakadagami, Anāgāmi and Arahant.


More traditional denominations, such as the Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, and Methodist Churches, believe in Holy Sacraments that the clergy perform, such as Holy Communion and Holy Baptism, as well as strong belief in the Holy Catholic Church, Holy Scripture, Holy Trinity, and the Holy Covenant. They also believe that angels and saints are called to holiness.


John Wesley stated in The Plain Account of Christian Perfection that "On January 1, 1733, I preached before the University in St. Mary's church, on "the Circumcision of the Heart;" an account of which I gave in these words: "It is that habitual disposition of soul which, in the sacred writings, is termed' holiness; and which directly implies, the being cleansed from sin`from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit;' and, by consequence the being endued with those virtues which were in Christ Jesus the being so `renewed in the image of our mind, as to be `perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect."[15] In Methodism, holiness has acquired the secondary meaning of the reshaping of a person through Entire Sanctification.[16] It is understood as the purity of heart that occurs in a second definite instantaneous work.[17] The term owes its origin to John Wesley, who stressed "scriptural holiness", as well as Christian perfection.

The Holiness movement began within Methodism in the United States, among those who thought the church had lost the zeal and emphasis on personal holiness of Wesley's day. In the latter part of the 19th century, revival meetings were held, attended by thousands. In Vineland, New Jersey, in 1867 a camp meeting was begun, and the National Holiness Camp Meeting Association went on to establish many holiness camp meetings across the nation. Some adherents to the movement remained within their denominations; others founded new denominations, such as the Free Methodist Church, the Church of the Nazarene, and the Church of God (Anderson). Within a generation another movement, the Pentecostal movement, was born, drawing heavily from the Holiness movement. Around the middle of the 20th century, the Conservative Holiness Movement, a conservative offshoot of the Holiness movement, was born. The Higher Life movement appeared in the British Isles during the mid-19th century.

In the contemporary Holiness movement, the idea that holiness is relational is growing. In this thought, the core notion of holiness is love. Other notions of holiness, such as purity, being set apart, perfection, keeping rules, and total commitment, are seen as contributory notions of holiness. These contributory notions find their ultimate legitimacy when love is at their core (Thomas Jay Oord and Michael Lodahl).

Commonly recognized outward expressions or "standards" of holiness among more fundamental adherents frequently include applications relative to dress, hair, and appearance: e.g., short hair on men, uncut hair on women, and prohibitions against shorts, pants on women, make-up and jewelry. Other common injunctions are against places of worldly amusement, mixed swimming, smoking, minced oaths, as well as the eschewing of television and radio.



Among the names of God in the Quran is القدوس (Al-Quddus): found in 59:23 and 62:1, the closest English translation is "holy" or "sacred". It shares the same triliteral Semitic root as the Hebrew kodesh (see below). Another use of the same root is found in the Arabic name for Jerusalem: al-Quds, "the Holy".

The word حرام (ħarām), often translated as "prohibited" or "forbidden", is better understood as "sacred" or "sanctuary" in the context of places considered sacred in Islam, e. g.: the Masjid al-Haram, the Sacred Mosque in Mecca, constituting the immediate precincts of the Kaaba; al-Haramain or "the (two) Sanctuaries", a reference to the twin holy cities of Mecca and Medina and the Haram ash-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary, the precincts of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.


The Hebrew word קֹדֶשׁ, transliterated as qodesh, is used in the Torah to mean set-apartness and separateness, as well as holiness and sacredness.[18] The Torah describes the Aaronite priests and the Levites as being selected by God to perform the Temple services; they, as well, are called "holy."

Holiness is not a single state, but contains a broad spectrum. The Mishnah lists concentric circles of holiness surrounding the Temple in Jerusalem: Holy of Holies, Temple Sanctuary, Temple Vestibule, Court of Priests, Court of Israelites, Court of Women, Temple Mount, the walled city of Jerusalem, all the walled cities of Israel, and the borders of the Land of Israel.[19] Distinctions are made as to who and what are permitted in each area.

Likewise, the Jewish holidays and the Shabbat are considered to be holy in time; the Torah calls them "holy [days of] gathering". Work is not allowed on those days, and rabbinic tradition lists 39 categories of activity that are specifically prohibited.[20]

Beyond the intrinsically holy, objects can become sacred through consecration. Any personal possession may be dedicated to the Temple of God, after which its misappropriation is considered among the gravest of sins. The various sacrifices are holy. Those that may be eaten have very specific rules concerning who may eat which of their parts, and time limits on when the consumption must be completed. Most sacrifices contain a part to be consumed by the priests – a portion of the holy to be consumed by God's holy devotees.

The encounter with the holy is seen as eminently desirable, and at the same time fearful and awesome. For the strongest penalties are applied to one who transgresses in this area – one could in theory receive either the death penalty or the heavenly punishment of kareth, spiritual excision, for mis-stepping in his close approach to God's domain.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Durkheim 1915, p. 47
  3. ^ sanctumPurification =onepage true "Sacred", A Dictionary of the English Language (James Stormonth, Philip Henry Phelp, eds.), Blackwood & sons, 1895, p.883
  4. ^ a b "Difference Between Sacred and Holy",, September 26, 2013
  5. ^ McCann, Catherine. New Paths Toward the Sacred Thus, Paulist Press, 2008 ISBN 9780809145515
  6. ^ "Sacred", Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 5th edition, p.875
  7. ^ Pope, Hugh. "Holiness." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 20 November 2016. This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Oxford Dictionary Online
  10. ^ Altizer, Thomas J. J. (1968), Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. ISBN 978-083-7171-96-8.
  11. ^ Eliade, Mircea (1987), The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, translated by Willard R. Trask. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. ISBN 978-0156-79201-1.
  12. ^ Iţu, Mircia (2006), Mircea Eliade, Bucharest: Editura Fundaţiei România de Mâine, p. 35. ISBN 973-725-715-4.
  13. ^ Durkheim 1915, p. 47
  14. ^ Pals 1996, p. 99
  15. ^ Wesley, J. (1872). The Works of John Wesley (Third Edition, Vol. 5, p. 203). London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room.
  16. ^ Metz, Donald. (2004). Studies in Biblical Holiness. The Foundry Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8341-3896-4. OCLC 1120694694.
  17. ^ "Beliefs". God's Missionary Church, Inc. Retrieved 2020-01-23.
  18. ^ Blue Letter Bible. "H6944 - qodesh - Strong's Hebrew Lexicon (HNV)". Retrieved 28 Jun 2016.
  19. ^ Mishnah Kelim, chapter 1
  20. ^ Mishna, Shabbat 7:2


  • Durkheim, Emile (1915) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: George Allen & Unwin (originally published 1915, English translation 1915).
  • Eliade, Mircea (1957) The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Translated by Willard R. Trask. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World).
  • Thomas Jay Oord and Michael Lodahl (2006) Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love. Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill. ISBN 978-0-8341-2182-9
  • Pals, Daniel (1996) Seven Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press. US ISBN 0-19-508725-9 (pbk).
  • Sharpe, Eric J. (1986) Comparative Religion: A History, 2nd ed., (London: Duckworth, 1986/La Salle: Open Court). US ISBN 0-8126-9041-9.

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