The New Covenant of Christ provides a pure conscience.
Readership: Christians, especially those who were involved in the Purity Movement;
In a previous post, Patheological Weddingsday – Did Purity Culture Undermine Christian Identity? (2020 September 9), I covered an article written by Jackson Wu. This post will take a look at his second, follow-up post on Patheos, entitled What is purity actually about? (2020 August 12)
To kick start his article, Wu poses the question,
“What is the relationship between purity and the concepts of honor and shame?”
Then he explains the reason for adopting this frame.
“Understanding how the language of (un)cleanness works can help us in several ways. For example, we can discern the broader connotation of such imagery in the Bible and in our lives. We can improve our ability to interpret the Bible and contextualize its message.”
I totally agree here. This is the reason why I delved into this philosophical frame way back in late 2018.
- Σ Frame: What does it mean to be Unclean? (2018 December 2)
- Σ Frame: What does it mean to be Defiled? (2018 December 9)
Let’s see what the author has to add to the discussion.
“Some people, like Tom Steffen, think purity-cultures exist alongside guilt-, fear-, and honor-cultures. I respectfully disagree. I think purity language falls under the honor-shame category. Separating them seems redundant to me.”
I’m not sure what he means by “separating them seems redundant”, since he just identified a unique relevance to the Honor vs. Shame system, in essence separating them.
The concept of sexual purity may exist in any culture, because it is fundamental to human mating strategies. Likewise, shame tactics can be implemented in any culture. But in general, the practice of using shame and public humiliation against those who have lost their sexual purity (or for anything, really) as a means of social control and regulation, falls within the Honor vs. Shame ethical system.
The Righteousness vs. Guilt system adheres to the recognizance of moral law and relies on an internal sense of guilt among its constituents. However, when certain individuals are lacking any sense of internal guilt, others in the culture often resort to shame tactics in order to preserve cultural order. This is especially pertinent in the case of sexual sin, because for some reason, sexual sins seldomly produce guilt.
“But there’s a bigger point to make than how one classifies cultures. Whether one is “pure” or “unclean” is no small matter; it frequently speaks to one’s identity, status, and character. As mentioned in my previous post, we often use purity metaphors when speaking about morality…”
“He’s a filthy pig!” “They have a dirty mind.” “No one has clean hands.”
Yes, this is the fundamental idea behind the concept of defilement. The Old Testament called for the death of those having certain kinds of defilement, and I believe this is because defilement is irreversible. So yes, it is a serious matter, and no, this impression cannot be removed by changing cultural norms nor through teaching philosophical sophistry.
Unfortunately, I’ve noticed a subtle flattening of the metaphor among people. They treat it as though it primarily were legal language. For instance, “The judge will wipe it off your record.” Or, “You have a clean slate.” In these sentences, “clean” and “wipe” act as dead metaphors. They lack potency. One hardly notices the imagery. They simply mean, “No crimes are charged against you.”
This kind of assessment hearkens back to the basic message of the penal substitutionary gospel, which has been ubiquitous in Christianity for ages.
However, we do not invoke a mere “legal” metaphor when we speak of (im)purity and (un)cleanness. Fundamentally, purity is not a legal category. If we miss this point, we can overlook the effect of such imagery and its significance in Scripture.
I need to point out that the opposite of purity is uncleanness or defilement. (See the posts listed above on these topics.) Purity and its opposite, defilement, are dichotomous spiritual states, meaning that one cannot be both pure and defiled at the same time. Although purity and defilement are spiritual states, and not legal categories, the Old Testament law had impeccably clear instructions about how to deal with individuals in various states of uncleanness and defilement from a legal perspective. So defilement is not disassembled from the laws of the covenant, but is in fact, an integral part of it.
What is Purified in Hebrews?
Christians often use generalized phrases to describe salvation. “He has washed away my sin.” “He has cleansed me.” These certainly have roots in the Bible. The sacrificial system in Leviticus famously describes how the people of Israel removed ritual impurity through sacrifice.
Concerning these sacrificial practices, the writer of Hebrews says,
“…gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation…”Hebrews 9:9-10 (ESV)
Someone might easily interpret him as if to suggest the purification rituals are archaic and antithetical to Christianity. However, we find that the author of Hebrews does not dismiss such language; rather, he reappropriates it.
Hebrews 10:1–2 expands on the imagery of Hebrews 9. It says,
“1 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have a conscience for sins?Hebrews 10:1-2 (ESV)
In light of the new covenant, Hebrews 9:14 proclaims,
“…how much more will the blood of Christ… purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”Hebrews 9:14 (ESV)
“let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.”Hebrews 10:22 (ESV)
The wider context adds further support. Hebrews 8:10, 10:16 repeat the promise from Jeremiah 31:33, where the Lord says,
“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds.”Hebrews 10:16 (ESV)
The other two verses are similar.
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”Hebrews 8:10 (ESV)
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.Jeremiah 31:33 (ESV)
The NKJV translation says,
“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”Jeremiah 31:33 (NKJV)
I am emphasizing this passage because this idea is stated three times in scripture, so this is a major concept! Here are other translations, if anyone wishes to compare.
Now going back to Wu’s post…
When Christ “purifies our conscience,” he cleanses our hearts (cf. 10:22). In effect, Hebrews refers to the fulfillment of the new covenant promise foretold in Jeremiah.
I agree with the citations from the scriptures, that the promises of the New Covenant are important, but he doesn’t specifically address the issues of sexual purity or the Purity Movement.
More Thoughtful Use of Purity
Across time and culture, people intuitively appeal to purification language to draw comparisons about morality and identity. At least we can all be more thoughtful about how we use such comparisons. When the Bible speaks of our being cleansed or purified, writers are not merely saying, “You have no crime on your permanent record.”
Of note, this is another reference to the penal substitutionary theory of the gospel that is prevalent within Protestantism. So I can guess that Wu is Protestant.
While that language has validity, it only scratches the surface of biblical meaning.
The Bible is concerned with far more than external or legal purity; it can hardly be called salvation if our legal record is erased but our hearts are contaminated with the basest of desires. God cares about our hearts. This is why he grants us new hearts. The Spirit transforms our sense of honor and shame.
I like Mr. Wu’s writings because he’s been focusing on scripture. In this post, he has described how the New Covenant entails the cleansing and renewing of our hearts. Although this renewal is characteristic of justification and salvation, it seems that Wu is suggesting that this is what purity is all about. But this is only one form of purity. Purity is much more nuanced.
I’m somewhat disappointed with this article because he did not address the question contained in the title (What is purity all about?) within the context of the Purity Movement. But perhaps he only posed this as a rhetorical question to provoke the reader’s thoughts. We’ll see where he’s taking this argument in his third post, which I will cover next Wednesday. I suspect that he will make the common mistake of overlooking the critical distinction between Coram Mundo and Coram Deo.
- Σ Frame: Picking through the fruit of the Purity Movement (2020 April 20)