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The Holiness of God in Yoruba Culture and Religion


One of the most fundamental features of God’s being is expressed in the word "holy". It is the transcendent moral essence of God. Holy, which in both Greek and Hebrew has the root meaning of 'separateness' is used primarily to refer to God’s separateness from all creation. It is from this that it derives its secondary meaning found mainly in the scriptures which connotes a separation from sin. Thus, holiness of God encapsulates righteousness, goodness, and purity; and it is distant and distinct from human expression of holiness, exceeding the realm of created things. Outside Christianity, this concept of God's holiness is shared by some religions of the world such as, Islam. Can we relate this to some cultures in the world where religious practices are not distinct from the culture of the people? Does this moral essence of God have a solid background in these cultures? If there is, then there is the need to explore how the culture propagates it. A closely linked culture and religion is found in the Yoruba people of Nigeria in the African continent. In exploring the culture and the religion, a look into the concept of God’s holiness will be carried out.


God is transcendental, and thus every concept and thought about God is not totally subjected to the physical, thus it requires an ascent to the transcendental to accept the truth of God; this ascent we know as religion. Religion, due to the transcendental nature of its subject matter is based on faith and belief, although it is not totally absent of reason, for faith and reason go smoothly with religion. Our understanding of the divine attributes of God is based on both our natural senses and our religious belief, which is reason and faith. Different religions may have their varied explanations and postulations about these attributes, they are however founded on the hinges of faith and reason which constitutes religion and its beliefs.

God created us with the five senses of sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing. They are meant to transmit information to the brain. The workings of the senses provide the needed data to process information, it is the same in the conception of God and His attributes; this is the reasoning faculty of the human person. The reason thus provides us with a concept higher in essence and pointing to a higher divinity with essential attributes as opposed to human attributes. However reason is not always sufficient enough, and this is leads us to the domain of faith. Faith invites us to explore the spiritual realm believing and acknowledging the divinity of God and the accompanying divine attributes. It is however not easy to place which one comes first, faith or reason, for some seek faith before giving thought to their convictions, while others apply reason and then ascent to faith. Nonetheless, every concept about God is based on religion which is often a mixture of faith and reason. Thus the acknowledgment of God’s holiness is bore out of religion.



The word ‘holiness’ in its etymology means ‘to separate’ or ‘set apart’. Holiness is expressed in His person as God and in His actions towards both those who He has called to be His and those who are far from Him: “Take action against the pagan nations and let them see your power; our sufferings proved your holiness to them, let their downfall prove your glory to us'' (Sir 36: 2-3). The holiness of God is the inaccessible centre of His eternal mystery. What is revealed of it in creation and history, Scripture calls glory, which is the radiance of His majesty.

In the scriptures, holiness as applied to God is seen in various ways. First, holiness sets God apart from all that is created. He is different, distinct and He is above all that there is. When the Bible calls God holy it means primarily that God is transcendentally distinct and separate from humans. He is so far above and beyond us that He seems almost totally foreign to us. To be holy is to to be different in a special way. Second, in every religion there is the distinction between that which is holy and that which is profane. Man does run across the scale of holiness and profanity, however God is constantly holy. To be holy is to be morally pure. God is holy and perfect. He cannot be said to be immoral, for in him lies the fullness of all perfection. Third, God is holy in relation to every aspect of His nature and character. What this means is that a lot of attributes are given to God as part of His nature, however, when God is called holy as one of His attributes, one is not just mentioning an aspect of Him, but talking about an aspect that is all encompassing. When we say God is holy, it means that His love is holy, His justice is holy, His mercy is holy, and His spirit is holy.

The Scripture defines God’s holiness in His actions, words, thoughts and deeds. God’s holiness is proclaimed most profoundly in His name. The Decalogue enshrined this when it gives the command to keep the name of God as holy. It is not to be called upon without reverence and awe. More so, Jesus in the scriptures taught us to revere God the father and give reverence to His name, for Holy is His name. Truly God is holy, only God hallows, makes holy, because he is intrinsically holy. Scriptures also makes us to understand that God’s holiness can be extended outwards towards His creatures and created things. God’s holiness is all encompassing and as such all that is related and connected to God receives this purity. Hence, God is holy, His Church is holy, His people are holy, His precepts are holy, and His abode is holy. The Bible expresses the tripartite holiness of God when it proclaims that God is holy, holy, holy. The Bible did not apply the same to God’s love, mercy, or justice. However it does says that God is holy, holy, holy, and the whole earth is full of His glory.



The Yoruba are one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, and they are also found in Benin Republic and Togo to a smaller degree. They are not a single people, but rather a collection of diverse people that all share a common language, history and culture and who have made an impact on sub-Saharan African. Two things about Yoruba culture that has fascinated many people is their religion and language. Although there are many who are Christians and Muslims, many Yoruba people still adhere to their traditional religion. Yoruba cultural religion is complex, featuring well over a hundred (100) deities, but only one supreme God that rules them all, named ‘Olorun’. Olorun is one of the principal manifestations of the Supreme God of the Yoruba pantheon, the owner of the heavens, and he is associated with the Sun known as ‘Oorun’ in the Yoruba language. The other principal name of the supreme God is ‘Olodumare’.

The Yoruba language belongs to the Congo-Kordofanian language family and classified under the Edekiri languages which together with the isolate Igala, form the Yoruboid group of languages within what we now have as West Africa. This language is shared by all Yoruba people although they may speak different dialects. It is a tonal language, which means that a single syllable can have multiple meanings depending on the intonation or how it is said. Both the religion and the language are related and intertwined such that through language, the religion is expressed.

The Yoruba people call God Olorun or Olodumare which means ‘The unique King who holds the scepter, wields authority and has the quality which is superlative in worth, and he is at the same time permanent, unchanging and reliable. When the word ‘unique’ is used, God is seen as having no equal; there is none like Him and He is the only one of His kind. This unequalled, permanent and unchanging quality of God makes Him high and noble above all such that He is seen in irreproachable light; He is unsearchable and unquestionable.



There is a sort of meeting point between the holiness of God in the bible and in the Yoruba cultural belief. This is based on the fact that both acknowledge the definitions and understandings of God’s holiness as expressed in His pre-eminence over all things and His constancy in righteousness with regards to man’s deformed nature.

The Yoruba culture has a robust expression of the holiness of God. Holiness or Holy in Yoruba is ‘Mimo’. Just like the biblical tripartite holiness acclamation of God, the Yoruba people also address God in like manner when they say: “Mimo, mimo, mimo, ni Olodumare” (Holy, Holy, Holy is God). The holiness of God is founded on past events that have proven to the people that God is far from all that is human and He transcends all things. He is different from the deities for He is perfect, truth, just, kind, unbiased and beyond reproach. He can’t be bribed, nor can anything be hidden from Him. He sees all things and acts without prejudice. This is why the Yoruba people call God ‘Awamaridi’, which means the unsearchable God.

In Christian theology, the holiness of God flows from His nature to His works and particularly His name. We see this in the special reverence the Jews gave to God’s name, which is also entrenched in the Decalogue. Jesus too expressed this important point by asking the disciples to keep the Lord’s name as holy in the Lord’s Prayer. In the Yoruba cultural religion, the holiness of God founded on past events are based in His name. The theology about God’s holiness gets its formulation from the special names that revere his person as holy. His revelation to his people is in a unique sense, the sense of the revealed name of God. Just as His supremacy and kingship is expressed in the names: Olorun and Olodumare; so too is His holiness expressed in these revered names.

The holiness of God is expressed in four (4) important names of God. These names are related and revelatory to how God is conceived and seen in the Yoruba culture and religion. First, God is ‘Oba ti kii n sojusaju’, this literally means ‘a king that sees everyone equally’, which refers to the just king. Justice in Yoruba culture is linked to holiness. A holy man will definitely be just in all his dealings. So also, God is just and holy and does not engage in bias and untruthfulness. He renders judgment without fear or favour, giving to each man what is due to him. The favour of the deities can be sought if the right sacrifices are offered regardless of the moral standing of the individual; they place individuals according to how frequently and bountifully sacrifices and obeisance are rendered to them. God however cannot receive sacrifices and so He is not move to favouritism.

Second, God is ‘Oba alaya funfun’, ‘the Immaculate God’. Alaya funfun means immaculate heart; that is, a heart that is unblemished, without contamination or stain. God is the unblemished King. His thoughts, deeds, words, actions, judgments, and gifts are as clear as the snow; they are without any atom of evil or imperfection. What proceeds out of His heart is extremely and profoundly good, such that He cannot but do good all the time. His immaculate heart makes Him holy and righteous. The deities cannot be of a pure heart because they cannot equal God in purity and holiness.

Third, God is ‘Oba t’o ninu mimo’, ‘the righteous king’. To have ‘inu mimo’ is to have a righteous heart, soul or spirit. God is the king with the righteous spirit. This is essentially holiness personified, that is, a being that is righteous. For the Yoruba people, ‘iwa mimo’ (righteous behavior) always proceeds from inu mimo, righteous spirit. God shares His righteous spirit (inu mimo) with man so that having a righteous spirit, man can exhibit righteous behaviour (iwa mimo). Thus all righteousness proceeds from God who is the pure righteous Spirit.

Fourth, God is referred to as ‘Olorun pipe’, the perfect God. Perfection means not lacking in anything. God is great, righteous, and good. All that is pure, immaculate and holy is in God. The perfection of His being implies that all that is imperfect in created things find perfection in God. These names basically give us the Yoruba peoples’ view about God. The God who is just, immaculate, righteous and perfect is essentially a holy God. For in the Yoruba cultural milieu, to be just is to be holy; to be immaculate in heart is to be holy; to be righteous in being is to be holy and perfection signifies holiness.

The scriptures and the Yoruba culture both acknowledge the fact that God is holy. God’s transcendent nature over all things and His unique being set Him apart from all things and greatly heralds the notion of His holiness. His attributes and His name also contributes to the understanding of His holy and perfect nature. God is holy in the scriptures and also in the Yoruba culture.