This came up in a Bible Study recently. It's an enigmatic statement when taken on its own, but there is a context in terms of false teachers. Can anyone shed light on what it means in the context?
Paul's Epistle to Titus was intended for all of the Christians in Crete, addressed specifically to Titus, whom Paul had tasked with establishing the Christian community there. A modern Eastern Orthodox commentary on Titus explains:
The Christian community in Crete was diverse. Typically Cretan moral problems - lying, laziness, and avarice - as well as the confusion sowed by the Jews among the Christians, all presented serious pastoral issues. Moreover, Titus himself was a Cretan1, and so it was necessary to bolster his authority with those who might know him too well. The epistle was also a necessary written instruction to supplement any oral instruction that St. Paul may have given Titus. Having received these written instructions, Titus could act more boldly and decisively, bolstered by the authority of the apostolic epistle.2
Titus 1:14-15 applies to the confusion spread by certain Jews among the Cretan Christians - hence the reference to not giving heed to Jewish fables. The admonition to the pure all things are pure refers superfluous Jewish customs that were introduced by said Judaizers above. Following the same modern commentary:
Not giving heed to Jewish fables (1:14) - Theodoret (393-457) explained that the apostle here speaks "not of the Law, but of the Jewish interpretations of the Law."3 . We also can assume that Paul speaks here of the Judaizing temptation concerning the necessity of fulfilling all the ritual obligations of the Mosaic Law (such as circumcision, the Sabbath, and rules concerning purity of food), even after Christian baptism. Thus Paul continues, To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled (1:15).4
John Chrysostom, writing in the 4th century, expands on this:
The Jewish tenets were fables in two ways, because they were imitations, and because the thing was past its season, for such things become fables at last. For when a thing ought not to be done, and being done, is injurious, it is a fable even as it is useless. As then those ought not to be regarded, so neither ought these. For this is not being sound. For if thou believest the Faith, why dost thou add other things, as if the faith were not sufficient to justify? Why dost thou enslave thyself by subjection to the Law? Hast thou no confidence in what thou believest? This is a mark of an unsound and unbelieving mind. For one who is faithful does not doubt, but such an one evidently doubts.
Things then are not clean or unclean from their own nature, but from the disposition of him who partakes of them ... The swine therefore is clean. Why then was it forbidden as unclean? It was not unclean by nature; for, “all things are pure.” Nothing is more unclean than a fish, inasmuch as it even feeds upon human flesh. But it was permitted and considered clean. Nothing is more unclean than a bird, for it eats worms; or than a stag, which is said to have its name (ἔλαφος) from eating serpents. Yet all these were eaten. Why then was the swine forbidden, and many other things? Not because they were unclean, but to check excessive luxury. But had this been said, they would not have been persuaded; they were restrained therefore by the fear of uncleanness. For tell me, if we enquire nicely into these things, what is more unclean than wine; or than water, with which they mostly purified themselves? They touched not the dead, and yet they were cleansed by the dead, for the victim was dead, and with that they were cleansed. This therefore was a doctrine for children. In the composition of wine, does not dung form a part? For as the vine draws moisture from the earth, so does it from the dung that is thrown upon it. In short, if we wish to be very nice, everything is unclean, otherwise if we please not to be nice, nothing is unclean. Yet all things are pure. God made nothing unclean, for nothing is unclean, except sin only. For that reaches to the soul, and defiles it. Other uncleanness is human prejudice.5
1. According to ancient Church tradition. See, e.g., Simonas Petra Synaxarion, Vol. 6 (tr. from Greek; Monastery of Simonas Petra, Mt. Athos, Greece), p.602ff
2. Averky Taushev, Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament, Vol. IV (tr. from Russian; Holy Trinity Seminary Press, 2018), p.147
3. Interpretation fo the Epistle to Titus
4. Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament, p.149
5. Homily III on Titus (tr. from Greek; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series, 1.13)
The operative word (adjective) here is καθαρός (katharos) (= "pure"), from the cognate verb καθαρίζω (katharizó) meaning to make clean usually by cleansing. The adjective is used to describe both physical objects (Matt 23:26) and moral ideas as in Titus 1:15. See also John 13:10, 11. The NT, and Paul particularly, uses this concept often. It is often translated "clean". All the references below use the Greek word καθαρός (katharos).
Things that are declared "pure"/"clean":
- Matt 5:8 - pure in heart for they will see God.
- John 13:10, 11 - 11 of 12 disciples were pure but Judas was not.
- James 1:27 - Pure religion that visits orphans and widows in their distress.
- Rev 15:6, 19:8, 14 - the white and pure robes of those that follow Jesus
Things that make a person pure or clean:
- John 15:3 - Jesus' word made the disciples clean/pure
What comes from a pure person/heart:
- 1 Tim 1:5 - love comes from a pure heart
- 1 Tim 3:9 - holding to the mystery of faith
- 2 Tim 1:3 - Christian service for the Christian community
- 2 Tim 2:22 - those who call on the Lord and pursue righteous, faith, love and peace
- Titus 1:15 - all things are pure
- 1 Peter 1:22 - love for the brethren
Note that Paul uses κοινός (koinos = "unclean") as the antonym of καθαρός (katharos = "pure") as can be deduced in Rom 14:14 vs v20. Here and elswhere
From all of this it appears that those of a pure heart are those that think well of others by loving them, serve them, and provide for those in need. Thus, Paul's advice in Titus 1:15 is a summary of the transformation of the person who loves and imitates Jesus. This is the antithesis of the false teachers that Paul condemns in v10-14 who are obsessed with meaningless ceremonies and regulations; and think evil of every situation.
The Pulpit commentary notes the following for Titus 1:15.
We learn also from Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8; and elsewhere, what were the kind of questions which agitated the Judaizing Christians. But St. Paul in a few wise words shows the utter worthlessness of such controversies. "To the pure all things are pure." "There is nothing from without a man," said our Lord, "that entering into him can defile him" (Mark 7:15); "Neither if we cat are we the better, neither if we eat not are we the worse" (1 Corinthians 8:8); "The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost" (Romans 14:17). But unto those that are defiled by what comes from within them, and have no faith (Romans 14:23), nothing is pure. Their mind and conscience, being defiled, defile everything they do. The words καθαρόν and μιαίνω are the proper words for ceremonial "cleanness" and "defilement" respectively.