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The Necessity of Purity for Reading Holy Scripture

I am on research leave this semester. The best thing about research leave is time to read. Recently I reread Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine. I am also reading for the first time Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. Both books have been a blessing. Let me say a few words about why. I hope my reflections will encourage and motivate you to pursue “the holiness without which no one will see God” (Heb. 12:14).

In her book, Teresa writes, “Life without Thee is nothing but death many times over and constant dread at the possibility of losing Thee for ever.” Teresa’s “only pleasure consists in pleasing God.” These remarkable words stir my soul. For Teresa, there is nothing worse than life without God. Conversely, for Teresa, there is nothing better than life with God. And, as Augustine reminds us in Book 1, there is no perception of God without purity.

I used to think that spiritual formation was subsequent to doctrinal formulation. I now think otherwise. Exploration of God’s great goodness is itself a spiritual exercise. Augustine knows this, as does Teresa. Without love of God and our neighbor in relation to God, Scripture’s message remains opaque. Indeed, it is all too easy to bypass what Augustine calls “the remarkable humility of the Scriptures.” If we are not “pure of heart,” we cannot see what is in front of us, scripturally speaking (Matt. 5:8). The riches of Scripture — the great truths enunciated therein — not only compel but assume a particular form of life as a condition for their very reception.

Theological understanding is ascetic in nature. Without mortification of sin in the context of the church’s Word and Sacrament, the truths the church catholic holds historically dear will be but a “noisy gong or a clanging symbol” (1 Cor. 13:1). Teresa puts it this way: “It is by humility that the Lord allows Himself to be conquered.” Without humility, purity of heart, what Augustine calls “the double love of God and neighbor,” scriptural contemplation is not possible. We may be eloquent (or not), but regardless, what is “more important than any amount of grander of style … is the life of the speaker,” Augustine avers. Whether we are theological educators by vocation or front-line priests and pastors, our lives, their form, determine whether we peddle “milk,” or what is so much better, “solid food.”

“Solid food” is “for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14). Good theology assumes metaphysical and moral discernment. If our preaching, teaching, writing, and witness be of God, then God, following Teresa’s lead, must enter into “the center of our soul.” How can God enter there? Through his written Word, the Holy Scriptures, lovingly embraced.

One of my research leave projects is a book on the unity of Scripture, with a particular focus on Hebrews. How does Hebrews champion a positive valuation of the Old Covenant, especially those aspects abrogated by the New? This may seem like a counterintuitive question, and I suppose it is, on one level. But the more I immerse myself in the book, the more I see the goodness of the old order — centered on the sanctuary, Levitical priesthood, and what Thomas Aquinas calls “the ceremonies.” The old order — not least in its ceremonial dimensions — is from God, and God in his time sets it some of it aside in favor of something even greater. This should not surprise us, given who God is. As Teresa writes, “What will He not give Who so much loves giving and can give all that He will?”

Hebrews champions, to quote Brevard Childs, “the continuing vertical dimension.” The Old and New Covenant unite as they do with reference to God, specifically, “the blood of the eternal covenant” (13:20). God’s providence is relevant to how we think about the relation of the blood of “bulls and goats” to Jesus’ blood (10:4). Equally important, however, is the state of our soul. If we have faith, we will not turn back from something unimaginably great — “a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain” — in favor of what is simply good (6:19). Devotion to God, who moves what is good toward what is great, is crucial. Such devotion grants fresh sight with respect to how God moves things toward ever greater transparency to himself.

I suppose that reading Hebrews with Augustine and Teresa as my guides (among others) has shown me that systematic theological pursuits will not get very far if they do not assume the form of a spiritual exercise. Seeing how God providentially intensifies the Old in the form of the New requires us to be absorbed in God, who moves everything toward its divinely appointed end.

When Teresa counsels us to “strive all the time to advance,” she knows that humility is intrinsic to knowledge of God’s greatness. And the more we are conscious of God’s greatness, the more continuities we see between the Old and New Covenants. The more we have “supreme contempt for earthly things,” the more our “two-Testament Bible” (Christopher Seitz’s words) discloses its one reality, the “eternal covenant” (Heb. 13:20). Making progress with Scripture is possible, yes, but only with our God as our helper. Without God, we will emphasize scriptural discontinuity. With God, however, we have “something better,” “a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” the one God of the one “eternal covenant” (Heb. 11:40; 12:28) So Teresa: “For it is most harmful not to believe that God is powerful and can do works which are incomprehensible to our understanding.”

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