New user? Register here:
Email Address:
Password:
Retype Password:
First Name:
Last Name:
Existing user? Login here:
 
 
Comment >

Why do Evangelicals like purity?

Click to enlarge

by Giles Fraser

The Evangelical Alliance has just published an impressive report, taking stock of where Evangelicals find themselves now (News, 27 October). For those who find them a frustrating puzzle, as I do, it’s a very helpful summary.

What I had never appreciated is the extent to which Evangelicalism seems to resemble a purity cult, not unlike that of the Pharisees or the Essenes. To those of us who don’t get it, the purpose of Evangelical Christianity can be mistaken for a re-assertion of an understanding of holiness that looks surprisingly like the religion of Jesus’s enemies.

The idea that one of the essential characteristics of God is purity is common enough — hence the need to protect God from impurity: things such as bleeding, disease, and death. From this starting point, the world is divided up into the pure (or the holy) and the impure. It follows that policing the division between the pure and the impure comes to be seen as the main task of religion.

Walter Brüggeman has argued that the Hebrew scriptures present an extended battle between this theology of holiness and a very different theology that understands proper holiness to be centred on questions of justice. Roughly, Jesus sided with this latter position, infuriating the advocates of purity theology, the Pharisees, by touching dead bodies, menstruating women, and so on.

Moreover, the very idea of the incarnation — of God’s being born in a shed — is impossible for purity theology. The conclusion of Christmas is that, for Christians, purity theology cannot apply, because the barriers between the sacred and the profane are now collapsed. Yet some Evangelicals seem desperate to reinvent them. They call Christians to a pure life, which is interpreted as waging a war against anything sexually messy. They want to build up the barriers between the sacred and the secular — contemporary equivalents of the holy and profane.

What is so extraordinary here is that it was the first Protestants who challenged these divisions in the Roman Church. Whereas Roman Catholics thought of vocation as about setting oneself apart (hence the insistence on clerical celibacy), the Reformers spoke of a vocation lived out in ordinary life, and of the clergy getting married and thus living a secular life.

Some Evangelicals seem to have missed the genius of the Reformation: its attack on misplaced claims to power that built up in theologies of the sacred; and its celebration of the secular as properly able to reflect the glory of God.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford.

Job of the week

Ecumenical Chaplain

Wales

G4S An equal opportunities employer Ecumenical Chaplain HMP Parc, Bridgend £29,920 pa | Full time As the world's leading security solutions group with operations in over 120 countries an...  Read More

Signup for job alerts
Top feature

Putting Passion into performance

Putting Passion into performance

Pat Ashworth talks to the originators of two home-grown Passion stagings, one musical and the other theatrical  Subscribe to read more

Question of the week
Should parishes be able to sell treasures that no longer reside in their churches?

To prevent multiple voting, we now ask readers to be logged in. This is free, quick and easy, honestly. Click here to login or register

Top comment

My faith in the Church of England

David Cameron expresses his pride in its openness, beauty, social action, and pastoral care  Read More

Mon 21 Apr 14 @ 7:35
RT @CofEWorcesterVery sadly, Denise Inge, wife of @BishopWorcester died this afternoon. An amazing & inspirational woman. http://t.co/fPAz61ImOQ.

Sun 20 Apr 14 @ 16:11
RT @nickbainesThe appointed day -the Diocese of @wyorksdales is born! Happy Easter! A new day dawns http://t.co/niyNdoDTE2