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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Purity (2)

PURITY.—To form a clear conception of purity in its Christian sense is a matter of some difficulty, for two reasons. Historically, the idea has undergone great changes, and the terms by which it has been expressed have been applied to very different qualities, which to-day we should classify as physical, ceremonial, and moral purity,—qualities which have nothing necessarily in common. On the other hand, if the idea in its highest significance be considered, it is singularly elusive, and therefore exact treatment is hardly practicable. It will be necessary to meet these two difficulties separately, and therefore to subdivide the subject.

1. In the Jewish world, wherein Christianity arose, purity occupied a commanding position. Since the return from the Exile, and especially since the reconstruction under Ezra and Nehemiah, there had been a strenuous and sustained endeavour to secure the purity of both the national and the individual life by means of the jealous exclusion of all that could cause impurity. The Law laid down in detail the requirements of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean,’ alike in matters of worship, of food and conduct, and of relations with the heathen world. Purity of descent in Israel also involved great insistence on genealogical records. And all these questions had received further elaboration at the hands of the later scribes. In this way the idea of purity had become increasingly artificial and external; till at last it became an obsession which went far to destroy the spontaneity of life, and to obscure the positive aspects of virtue and religion (cf. Acts 15:10, Colossians 2:20-23). It follows that in most of the passages in the Gospels in which purity is mentioned, it is this current conception of it which is referred to; a conception which was almost entirely negative, and was mainly ceremonial, though not without confused intermixture of elements which were strictly physical, and others which were really spiritual.

There are two groups of words by which purity is expressed, alike in the Greek and in the English NT, though these do not answer strictly each to each. In the Greek the first group consists of καθκρός, καθαριζῳ, καθαρισμός (frequently); καθαίρω, διακαθαριζω (twice each); καθαρότης, κάθαρμα, τερικαθαρμα (once each); and ἀκαθαρτος, ἀκαθαρσια. In the English (Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 ) these are most often rendered by ‘clean,’ ‘cleanse,’ etc.; but often by ‘pure,’ ‘purify,’ etc. The other group consists of ἁγνος, ἁγνιζω, ἁγνισμος, ἁγνότης, ἁγνια, which are found less frequently, and which in the Authorized and Revised Versions are always rendered by ‘pure,’ ‘purify,’ etc., never by ‘clean,’ ‘cleanse,’ or the like. The failure of the Authorized and Revised Versions to distinguish these terms is, however, of no great importance, inasmuch as the Greek words themselves appear to be used as completely equivalent. This appears well in Hebrews 9:13 ἁγιάζει πρὸςκαθαροτητα; in the parallel use of αἱ ἡμέραι τοῦ καθαρισμοῦ (Luke 2:22) and αἱ ἡμέραι τοῦ ἀγνισμοῦ (Acts 21:26); and in the use of καθαρισμός twice (Acts 2:6, Acts 3:25) and of ἁγνιζω once (John 11:55) in St. John’s Gospel to stand indifferently for the customary purifying of the Jews. It is, however, worth while to notice that, with the exception of the last mentioned instance, the second group of words is never met with in the Gospels. (For use of κοινοω in the sense of making impure, see below).

The important point is to observe how Christ altered the significance of καθαρός and its cognates, correcting and deepening the idea of purity which they served to express. Often He used these terms in the senses which they currently bore. He employed them in connexion with physical disease: ‘The lepers are cleansed’ (Matthew 11:5, cf. Luke 17:17, Mark 1:41); and of the vine in a figure where more is symbolized by the want of physical vigour (John 15:2). He spoke also of ‘unclean spirits’ when treating those ‘possessed’ (Matthew 12:43, Mark 5:8). But His characteristic habit was to look below the outward and visible evidences of purity and impurity, whether these were physical or ceremonial, to the purity or impurity of the heart. The leading instance is Mark 7:14-23 ‘Nothing from without the man going into him can defile (δύναται κοινῶσαι) him.… These evil things proceed from within and defile the man.’ Here the Evangelist expressly notes that the saying ‘makes all foods clean.’ And other passages show the same teaching if less fully expressed: e.g. the Pharisees are denounced for their hypocrisy in cleansing the outside of the cup and platter while inwardly full of extortion and excess, whereas practical love shown in alms would have made all clean to them (Matthew 23:25-26, cf. Luke 11:41); and they are also condemned for being ‘like whited sepulchres, full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness,’ which is defined as ‘hypocrisy and iniquity’ (Matthew 23:27-28). So He gave His blessing to the ‘pure in heart’ (Matthew 5:8), setting the ideal of purity which He would have His followers share with Him. And that this is to be understood in no negative sense is made very plain by Christ’s teaching elsewhere. In John 13:1-11 the practice of the Lord’s own humility is taught as the means of purity in His followers: in John 15:3 He says, ‘Ye are clean because of the word that I have spoken unto you,’ with which should be compared St. Peter’s words, ‘cleansing their hearts by faith’ (Acts 15:9); while in Luke 11:24-26 || it is expressly taught that a merely negative purity of heart, due to the extrusion or exclusion of evil, is hopeless, and ‘the last state of that man becometh worse than the first.’

It is in the fullest accordance with Christ’s habitual standpoint and with His teaching elsewhere that He adopted baptism, which had long been a symbolic and ceremonial rite of purification in Judaism, as a fundamental ordinance for His followers: but it is equally in character with His mind and teaching that in the place of its old negative significance He gave it a new and positive meaning, by making it baptism into the Divine Name He had revealed, and into the practical observance of His commands, and the enduring possession of His Spirit (Matthew 28:19-20). The reference of Christian baptism is thus far less to the past-which it was in Jewish usage-than to the future; to the life, i.e., to be found and shared in the ‘true Israel of God.’

2. But when the lesson has been learnt that purity can never consist in externals or negations, but must be a positive characteristic of the heart or inner man, there still remains the harder question, Wherein does such purity consist? This has often been discussed by moralists, and it is curious how little they have to give in answer. No definition based on acts can be framed, for the same act under different conditions may be pure or impure. Nor is it easy to find one by the analysis of motives, as the treatment of the matter by the casuists clearly shows; for they have almost always ended in defining impurity only—a thing best left alone. A clue to the answer may, however, be found in Christ’s teaching, though not one admitting of any formal analysis or definition. He laid it down emphatically that evil things proceeding from within can defile (δύναται κοινῶσαι). The word employed is most instructive; and the more so when one recollects that it occurs again in this sense in the decisive lesson taught St. Peter as to the nature of purity (ἃ ὁ θεὸς ἐκαθάρισεν σὺ μὴ κοίνου, Acts 10:15; Acts 11:9; cf. Acts 21:28). To make common, i.e. to vulgarize, is the way to make impure: profanity is the ruin of purity. A well-spring of living water, fenced about by reverence—that is purity. When reverence is broken through, or when careless frequency leaves the bulwark open, every beast may enter and foul the spring after slaking its thirst; then purity is gone. Not that purity is the flow of living water, but its characteristic so long as it is guarded. The water-spring may be a fount of truth, or love, or life; it may be an aspiration, a resolve, an idea; it may consist in an opportunity met with, or an experience felt; it may be a holy memory, or an act of worship; sometimes it will be the new perception of some beauty natural or moral, and sometimes an inborn faculty of service for others. Round any or all of these God sets reverence in our hearts for a fence, and bids us bare our heads as we draw near to what for us is holy ground. If we give no heed, but vulgarize by common use that opening which was afforded us to be a ‘window in heaven,’ we may do this, but at the cost of purity. God endows all with faculties of body, of intellect, of soul, which He means to be exercised and kept pure; but used without reverence, and viewed without wonder, they miss their purpose. It was the sense of what true purity consists in that led an old writer to say, ‘Keep thy heart above all that thou guardest, for out of it are the issues of life’ (Proverbs 4:23),—a saying which half-anticipates the Beatitude promising the vision of God to the pure in heart. Reverence is the root from which purity grows; and never was the essential nature of purity set in more vivid contrast with that blind and brutal profanity which is its opposite, than in Christ’s striking utterance, ‘Give not that which is holy to the dogs, nor cast your pearls before the swine, that they may never trample them between their feet, and, turning, rend you’ (Matthew 7:6).

Literature.—W. M. Ramsay, ‘Greek of Early Ch. and Pagan Ritual’ in ExpT [Note: xpT Expository Times.] x. (1899) 107; J. Smith, Chr. Character as a Social Power (1899), 143; H. Bushnell, The New Life, 176; W. J. Dawson, Threshold of Manhood (1889), 102; F. W. Robertson, Serm., 3rd ser. (1876) 122; A. Maclaren, Serm. in Manchester, 2nd ser. 112; R. W. Church, Village Serm., 2nd ser. 180; J. R. Illingworth, Univ. and Cath. Serm. 99; H. C. G. Moule, Need and Fulness (1895), 57; C. G. Montefiore, Truth in Religion (1906), 73.

E. P. Boys-Smith.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Purity (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/p/purity-2.html. 1906-1918.

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