Matthew 5.8: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
In taking a hiatus from theological and exegetical topics, I am hoping to give myself an opportunity to “stretch” the other part of my “spiritual muscles.” I have always been naturally inclined to the traditional “intellectual” topics of Christian faith such as theological doctrine and exegesis, but I felt like somewhere along the ways this was to my impoverishment, both intellectually and spiritually. Spiritual formation is something that over the years has drawn my attention, even though I have never given it dedicated focus. Understanding Spiritual formation is one of the places where the intellect meets the (affective) heart. While I am by no means an expert in Spiritual formation, I have a background in psychology, I have ruminated, investigated, and experience the work of the Holy Spirit, and I have a deep appreciation for the important of Pneumatology in the New Testament and theology.
So, my hope over the next few months is to read and think about the life of transformation through the Holy Spirit, largely from the Scriptures, some from the masters of Spiritual formation, and even occasionally through spiritual reflections on poetry. The hope at least is that by blogging about it, I will have that added motivation to really exercise myself in a way that I have not done so.
My first thought actually relates to what may be part of the reason I felt a desire to take a hiatus from exegetical and theological topics: I have an increasingly deep conviction that the Christian life is not about about right interpretation and right belief (orthodoxy) before it is about God’s vision of the good life for humanity in creation and His work to redeem us for that good life. Orthodoxy and exegesis is important, but it is instrumental to this deeper, more abiding purpose: to be transformed into the image of God in Jesus Christ in order to be fully restored to our God-given vocation in creation. Exegesis and orthodoxy are important in that while not all errors and wrong beliefs are dangerous, there are some beliefs, such as heresy and justifications of sin and injustice, that if they take a hold can cause great damage to others and can mislead people away from God’s purposes for humanity. However, not all errors are of the same degree of importance; most errors are opportunities to learn that we need to have the humility to understand but they do not present immediate threat or dangerous to the Christian faith.
However, there is a strand of intellectualization of Christianity that seeks to pursue what may be referred to as the “purity of doctrine.” I understand the “purity of doctrine” to refer to the intellectual motivation to get to the precise, correct, and exhaustive understanding of what is true about God, Jesus, the Bible, Christian doctrine, etc. This mindset is common in conservative Christianity, which historically was influenced by an aspiration to be an alternative Christian “enlightenment” to the Enlightenment.
Given my inherent penchant to notice errors and mistakes in myself, I have been tempted towards this route from time to time with the following implicit belief: if we can somehow find the perfect theological or Scriptural understanding, everything in our lives will be set right. Having come to faith in Christ from within the religious culture of conservative Christianity, my own sensitivity to error found an initially pleasant intersection with the aspirations for a “purity of doctrine” that often lead to social reinforcement: “Hey, you know a lot about theology.” “You are a dissertation idea machine.” “I have never seen anything like what you can do.” Combine this with my “theological ax” to grind against some of my Southern Baptist background, I had various motivations to try to find the “purity of doctrine.” However, underneath this intellectual life was a growing discontent; not with learning itself but with the fact that it left a continually gnawing sense of sadness and exhaustion underneath. I remember many times in college where I would dedicate large chunks of time to Bible study and theology to then conclude with a feeling of being tired and almost sad. Nevertheless, I persisted with the pursuit of “purity of doctrine” because I did find pleasure in the activity and it was often socially reinforced.
Somewhere along the way, I knew in my head that the “purity of doctrine” wasn’t enough but that what one does and the way one loves is of vital importance, but yet I still kept reaching for it. I knew one need to treat other people with grace, mercy, and kindness, but I was so increasingly focus on the “purity of doctrine” in myself and in others. I felt the appearance of a tension between grace and truth, which was really the tension between love and “purity of doctrine” that was increasingly motivated by a need to address every stray thought and idea. While I did not engage in such a pursuit with an idea of disdain for others as I myself saw myself filled with errors, there are some people who do not appreciate a striving for a “purity of doctrine” for various reasons. For some who struggle with self-esteem, the idea of being in error makes them feel attacked or worthless. For others who are in the beginning to learn, they may be overwhelmed by the information presented in pursuit of the “purity of doctrine.” For others with a more authoritarian streak, they may simply not want any accountability for or contesting of what they say or so. There are likely other motivations that I have yet to think of. Whatever the various motivations may be, when the “purity of doctrine” goes from being a personal goal to a social practice, it can feel like nails on a chalkboard to many. I myself have been guilty of letting the “purity of doctrine” needlessly lead my voice to become more like a noxious noise.
However, I don’t feel like I ever got to the worst form of pursing the “purity of doctrine,” though my own opinion does not exonerate me, but there is a darker, social impulse that this pursuit can present: the predilection towards judgment of all who do not share one’s ideas. When the “purity of doctrine” is motivated by a strong moral impulse that regards right belief as a deep, moral imperative, it has lead to endless amounts of spiritual and religious conflicts, if not even at times spiritual and religious abuse. I remember one time during seminary engaging with a fan of Karl Barth who was socially connected to a couple people who did not like me very much and in the midst of our back and forth on intense intellectual discussions, which I usually enjoyed, I was occasionally receive what seemed to be some personal jabs (and maybe he saw the same in me), including one time implying that I might be like those who say “Lord, Lord” in Matthew 7.21-23. I had experienced what seem to be the more toxic forms of “purity of doctrine,” where theology is used more as a weapon than it is as a tool for building up. Fortunately, I did not let that turn me away from learning the positives about Karl Barth later at the University of St. Andrews from scholars such as Alan and Andrew Torrance
The thing is this: Jesus does not call us to “purity of doctrine.” Again, certainly our teaching and thinking is important, but its importance is instrumental to the way it leads and protects our devotion to God away from heresy and injustice, not as an end unto itself. Jesus instead describes as blessed those who are “pure in heart.” Far from simply describing the affective life, the language of the heart indicates the whole of what leads and guides a person. This includes what we consider our emotions, our intelligence, and our motivations. The “purity of heart” is one that engages the full devotion of the whole person towards God’s will and purposes. If we can consider the Beatitudes as sort of a general description of people’s growth under the kingdom of heaven, then the “purity of heart” is the (long) step of Spiritual growth before becoming a peacemaker.
This is why the “purity of doctrine” is a potential diversion. The pursuit of a “purity of doctrine” doesn’t brings our whole hearts to God in Christ to form our right affect (orthpathy) and right practices (orthopraxy), but an *unrelenting* and *perfectionistic* concern for orthodoxy and right interpretation can squelch it. While orthodoxy and right interpretation is very instrumental in Spiritual formation as, among other things, it protects the way we know God through the three persons of the Holy Trinity, the relentless pursuit of the “purity of doctrine” risks engaging in a form of intellectual Pelagianism wherein our ability to get everything right and correct is practically considered to be the basis of our spiritual life, even if we repudiate Pelagianism intellectually. It in effect ignores the wisdom of the Proverbs 3.5-8:
5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
6 In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
7 Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.
8 It will be a healing for your flesh
and a refreshment for your body.
However, there is good news for orthodoxy. The well-formed emotional life by the Spirit and well-formed practice in following Christ can be instrumental in deepening our understanding of orthodoxy and the Scriptures, but with a view to the deeper significance that connects to the rest of our lives rather than simply an attempt to find a “purity of doctrine,” because it is the “pure of heart” who will see God so as to be able to understand Him as testified in the Scriptures and in the orthodox tradition of the Church. This is what I lacked in my pursuit of the “purity of doctrine” during my early exegetical and theological training. While I had love for God and others and I had a concern for the way of life that Christ called us towards, I had over-focused on my intellectual capacities.
Edited to add after the fact: After posting this, I saw the a statement from Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, abouit Black Lives Matters which can be read here:
When we read their comments and official documents, when we survey the policies they propose and the worldview that guides their moral claims, it is clear that the Movement for Black Lives promotes a revolutionary and destructive agenda that is completely antithetical to a biblical worldview.
Mohler then goes on to say in the next paragraph:
While we affirm the sentence “black lives matter,” without hesitation and with full enthusiasm, we simply cannot use the sentence, because it will be heard, nearly universally, as a movement, not as a sentence. The sentence is no longer a sentence—it is a movement, a platform, an agenda of revolution at odds with the gospel, contrary to and destructive of God’s creational order.
I will simply put forward this as an example where the pursuit of a “purity of doctrine” has some damaging social implications. Critique Critical Race Theory fairly and not simply based upon its historical emergence from Marxist theory, critique individual elements of their platform and how they may be not sustainable or are not compatible with the Christian life, but to give a wide-spread sweeping critique of a phrase that seeks to correct racial injustice on the grounds an organization that bears the name being in opposition to “a biblical worldview” I would suggest is more grounded in a concern for a “purity of doctrine” that minimizes and diminishes the concerns for justice through overemphasis on a supposed orthodoxy.1 May those who are seeking to be pure in heart see beyond the “purity of doctrine.”
Black Lives Matter and people with black skin deserve a Church that is seeking to be “pure of heart” and not simply aspiring to “purity of doctrine.”