The quest for religious perfection has been an important goal throughout Judeo - Christian history. Both biblical and theological evidence reflects this continuous concern. Although interpretations have varied with reference to methods and chronology of attainment, most Christian traditions recognize the concept.
The Biblical Emphasis
The OT roots for religious perfection signify wholeness and perfect peace. The most frequently used term for "perfect" is tamim, which occurs eighty - five times and is usually translated teleios in the LXX. Of these occurrences fifty refer to sacrificial animals and are usually translated "without blemish" or "without spot." When applied to persons the term describes one who is without moral blemish or defect (Ps. 101:2, 6; Job 1:1, 8; 2:3; 8:20, etc.). This term is also applied to Jehovah's character, and this dual usage may suggest the resemblance between persons and God.
Cognate forms of tamim are tom, tam, and tumma. These terms have connotations of "integrity," "simple," "uncalculating," "sincere," and "perfect." This spiritual wholeness and uprightness, especially as one is in right relationship to God, reflect a relational / ethical perfection which is patterned after the character of God.
Another Hebrew term for perfect is salem, an adjectival form of the root slm, which means "peace." This term has a covenant background and indicates the loyalty and purity of motive which are characteristic of a moral and intellectual life of integrity before God (1 Kings 8:61; 11:4; 15:3). The root idea connotes fellowship between God and his people and a right relationship with the One who is the model of perfection.
The NT vocabulary reflects the OT interpersonal concepts rather than the Greek ideal of static and dispassionate knowledge. The emphases are on obedience, wholeness, and maturity. The Greek words derived from telos reflect the ideas of "design," "end," "goal," "purpose." These words describe perfection as the achievement of a desired end. Paul uses teleios to describe moral and religious perfection (Col. 1:28; 4:12). He contrasts it to nepios, "childish," which connotes moral immaturity and deficiency. The "perfect man," teleion, is the stable person who reflects "the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" in contrast to the children who are tossed about by every new wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:13 - 14). James uses teleios to describe the end result of spiritual discipline. The trying of faith develops patience and character that the disciple may be "perfect and entire, wanting in nothing" (James 1:3 - 4).
Responsible, spiritual, intellectual, and moral development which conforms to the desired pattern is perfection. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses teleios to exhort believers to be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). This use of the future tense indicates a moral obligation, however, and not an absolute perfection identical to that of God. Jesus is emphasizing the need for having right attitudes of love which are acceptable to God, not the accomplishment of perfect conduct.
The concept of corporate perfection seen in a community united in love is expressed by the verb katartizein. The moral integrity and spiritual unity of the community are aspects of wholeness and completeness connoted by this term. Interrelatedness in love is a necessary part of the "perfecting of the saints" (1 Cor. 1:10; Eph. 4:12; Heb. 13:21). Other usages imply putting into order those things which are imperfect (1 Thess. 3:10 - 13), fitting and adjusting (Heb. 11:3), and mending (2 Cor. 13:11; Mark 1:19).
Ethical righteousness is expressed by the words amemptos and amemptos, "blameless" or "without fault or defect." The piety of Zacharias and Elizabeth is amemptoi (Luke 1:6).
Personal fitness and perfection in the sense of properly using spiritual resources is denoted by artios (2 Tim. 3:17). The believer who is sound and lacks nothing needed for completeness is holokleros (James 1:4; 1 Thess. 5:23).
The biblical emphasis on perfection, then, does not imply absolute perfection but an unblemished character which has moral and spiritual integrity in relationship to God. The goal of spiritual maturity is set forth, and the believer is charged with making sincere and proper use of the spiritual resources available through Christ in order to attain this maturity in fellowship with Christ and the Christian community.
Theological Issues and Historical Heritage
The Command of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matt. 5:48), is central to the issue of human perfection. This text has been variously interpreted and even rejected as inauthentic in the attempts to arrive at theological understanding.
Clement of Alexandria and the Christian Platonists sought for perfection in the transfiguration of earthly life, a hallowing of the secular. Faith and knowledge lifted some believers to an experience of religious perfection in which the purposes and desires of the soul were harmonized in love. In his Miscellanies, the ideal was the attainment of uninterrupted communion with God. Paradoxically, Clement insisted on God's unlikeness to man while insisting on the possibility of the perfected Gnostic's becoming like God.
Thus perfection was obedientiary, not absolute, and was attained through obedience to God in prayer and keeping the commandments. The weakness in Clement's view follows from his Platonic tendency to view God as apathetic and without predicates. Although God was active for the salvation of men, Clement emptied both Father and Son of emotions. This hellenization of God is somewhat incongruous with his view of God as the Father persevering in love. His view of perfection, then, emphasizes that the "Christian Gnostic" rises above human emotions by contemplation of God and is "translated absolutely and entirely to another sphere."
Clement's illustrious pupil, Origen, proposed a view of perfection which explicitly reflected the presuppositions of Platonic philosophy. He separated faith and knowledge, with faith being the basis of salvation and knowledge being the means to perfection. A prerequisite to perfection is an ascetic rejection of the external world and all human emotions. His approach was basically humanistic, even though he asserted that human effort must be assisted by grace. Also, his Platonic negative evaluation of the human creature required that perfection be essentially a victory over the body, and more specifically over the sex drive. Furthermore, he anticipated the monastic emphasis of perfection through asceticism and a distinction between the ordinary and the spirtually elite Christian. This tendency toward a double standard of morality reflected the influence of Gnosticism on early Christian thought in that ordinary Christians lived by faith while the enlightened elect lived by gnosis. This dual level of spirituality became more pronounced as the chasm between clergy and laity widened in the medieval period.
One of the most extensive attempts at attaining Christian perfection is found in monasticism. Leaders such as Antony of Egypt and Pachomius went into solitude to practice their disciplines with the aim of achieving spiritual perfection. They were overwhelmed by the sense of their own unworthiness and by the increasing worldliness of the church. The attaining of their goal involved renouncing all encumbrances of the world, taking up their cross, and praying without ceasing. The ideal of perfection became socialized as expressed in the rules of Basil and Benedict. Monastic communities developed which not only sought perfection by resignation from the world and asceticism, but also attempted to transform the world through extensive missionary efforts and the preservation of spiritual, aesthetic, and intellectual life.
Some of the most profound spiritual insights are found in the Fifty Spiritual Homilies of Macarius the Egyptian. Greatly admired by William Law and John Wesley, Macarius stressed the worth of the individual human soul in the image of God, the incarnation as the basis of the life of the soul, moral purity, and love as the highest measure of the Christian life. His stress on union with Christ is commendable, but his goal of perfection still is a retreat from reality into ecstasy, lacks a relevant ideal for common humanity, and is excessively individualistic.
Gregory of Nyssa was one of the greatest Eastern leaders in the struggle for perfection. He saw Christ as the prototype of the Christian life in his On What It Means to Call Oneself a Christian and On Perfection. The responsibility of the Christian is to imitate the virtues of Christ and to reverence those virtues which are impossible to imitate. Gregory saw the truth of the participation in Christ, which results from rebirth "by water and the Spirit." In this interpersonal sharing the Christian perfects the resemblance to Christ which comes through the continual transformation into his image.
Augustine and Pelagius
In the fourth century the reaction against perfectionism was typified by the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius. Although Augustine affirmed an ideal of perfection, the summum bonum, it was a perfection attainable only in eternity. He felt that human perfection was an impossible moral ideal in this life because of the sinfulness of mankind resulting from the fall.
Pelagius attributed the moral laxity of the church to the kind of blasphemy which told God that what he had commanded was impossible. He rejected the concept of original sin and asserted that persons are born with the free capacity to perfect themselves or corrupt themselves as they choose. Sin is simply a bad habit which can be overcome by an act of the will. Since sin is avoidable, however, Pelagius tended to judge severely those who fell into the slightest sin.
The response of Augustine was that neither education nor human effort could lead to perfection and the only moral progress persons could make in this life was solely the result of God's grace. He tended to equate sinfulness with humanness in general and with concupiscence in particular, and saw the path to perfection as one of celibacy and virginity. While rejecting the attainment of perfection in this life, Augustine made great contributions to spirituality with his emphasis on contemplation, although he tended to diminish the humanity of Christ because of his aversion to the physical. He was certainly correct in his rejection of Pelagius's exclusive emphasis on moral effort and in his emphasis on grace, but his tendency to identify sinfulness with the physical world is an unnecessary vestige of Greek philosophy.
Often called the "Angelic Doctor," Thomas Aquinas has greatly influenced Roman Catholic theology. He was convinced that although Adam lost the gift of divine grace which enabled mankind to enjoy God fully, the free grace of God can restore humanity to God's favor and enable the Christian to follow God's precepts in perfect love. Final perfection and the beatific vision of God were reserved for the life to come, but through contemplation a perfect vision of God and perfect knowledge of truth can be enjoyed in this life. His concept of perfection, however, involved a disparagement of the world and an understanding of the desires of flesh as evil. Thus the elimination of bodily desires was a prerequisite to perfection, and in this aspect he equated perfection with renunciation. Furthermore, he saw perfection as carrying with it human merit, and thus he contributed to the idea of the treasury of merits from which the imperfect can draw at the discretion of the church.
Finally, he formed a hierarchy of the state of perfection which corresponded to the levels of the religious orders. Although he did not deny the possibility of perfection for all persons, religious vows were certainly the shortcut to meritorious perfection. He thus perpetuated the spiritual dichotomy between clergy and laity.
Francis of Sales
The possibility of perfection for all Christians was emphasized by Francis of Assisi and the Friars Minor, and Francis of Sales presented this doctrine with clarity in his treatise On the Love of God. He rejected the banishment of the devout life from the experience of common people, and opened up the benefits of spiritual contemplation to all Christians.
Amid the profligacies of the court of Louis XIV, Fenelon taught his followers to live a life of deep spirituality and introspection. He saw perfection as totally a work of God's grace, not meritorious human effort. The perfect life is carefree and Christlike loving fellowship with others. In Christian Perfection he presented single - minded devotion to God as the ideal in attaining perfect love. This perfect life is the imitation of Jesus, and its main obstacle is egocentricity, which must be overcome by an inward act of sanctification by God's Spirit. Thus Fenelon moved the quest for perfection away from its preoccupation with renunciation of the physical and its monopoly by the elite, and focused on God's work of grace which is universally available to the seeker.
Both the Lutheran and Calvinist Reformers reflected the Augustinian position that sin remains in humanity until death, and therefore spiritual perfection is impossible in this life. Calvin explicitly stated that while the goal toward which the pious should strive was to appear before God without spot or blemish, believers will never reach that goal until the sinful physical body is laid aside. Since he saw the body as the residence of the depravity of concupiscence, perfection and physical life are mutually exclusive.
Luther also retained the connection between sin and the flesh. However, he did emphasize a new center of piety, the humanity and work of Jesus Christ. While the previous seekers after perfection focused on the knowledge and love of God which was grasped through contemplation, Luther focused on the knowledge of God through God's revelation in Christ. Faith in Jesus Christ therefore brings an imputed perfection which truly worships God in faith. This true perfection does not consist in celibacy or mendicancy. Luther rejected the distinction between clerical and lay perfection and stressed that proper ethical behavior was not found in renunciation of life, but in faith and love of one's neighbor.
With the pietists arose a Protestant rejection of the pessimism with which the Lutherans and Calvinists viewed the quest for perfection. Marked by the quest for personal holiness and an emphasis on devotion rather than doctrine, seventeenth century leaders such as Jakob Spener and A H Francke stressed personal holiness marked by love and obedience. Perfection was reflected in works done solely for the glory of God and in the ability to distinguish good from evil.
While tending toward narrowness and provincialism and often deteriorating into a negative scrupulosity, the pietists developed strong community contexts for nurtue and motivated extensive missionary endeavors.
Inspired by a desire to return to the attitude of the NT, George Fox taught both personal responsibility for faith and emancipation from sin in his doctrine of the inner light. He declared a doctrine of real holiness rather than imputed righteousness. This perfection was relative in that it dealt with victory over sin rather than absolute moral development. Fox believed that as a result of the new birth into Christ by the Spirit the believer was free from actual sinning, which he defined as transgressing the law of God, and is thus perfect in obedience. This perfection, however, did not remove the possibility of sinning, for the Christian needed constantly to rely on the inner light and must focus on the cross of Christ as the center of faith. Fox tended toward fanaticism with his teaching that a Christian may be restored to the innocency of Adam before the fall, and could be more steadfast than Adam and need not fall. William Penn and other Quakers qualified the doctrine to guard it from such overstatement.
The strength of Fox's emphasis is that the center of perfection was in the cross of Christ. The cross was no dead relic but an inward experience refashioning the believer into perfect love. This is a celebrating of the power of grace. While his refusal to be preoccupied with sin was a needed corrective to the Puritan pessimism over the profound sinfulness of man, Fox did tend to distrust the intellect and to suspect all external expressions of faith such as the sacraments. His refusal to be satisfied with sin and his concentration upon a perfection of life through grace found direct application in commendable attempts at social justice. This message of renewal and hope for the poor and disenfranchised was certainly motivated by the conviction that the quality of life and faith is not predetermined by a radical sinfulness which is resistant to actual moral transformation by grace.
The author of A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life and Christian Perfection, William Law was an eighteenth century Anglican nonjuring cleric who influenced John Wesley and was admired by Samuel Johnson, Edward Gibbon, John Henry Newman, and many others. Positively, he affirmed the necessity of divine grace for performing the good and the importance of taking up the cross of Christ. He called for absolute dedication of one's life to God and complete renunciation of every aspect of the world. He saw Christian perfection functioning in common ways of life. He rejected the need for retirement to the cloister or the practice of a particular form of life. The whole life is rather an offering of sacrifice to God and praying without ceasing. Christlikeness is the ideal of perfection, and this is accomplished by performing one's human duties as Christ would.
The weaknesses of Law's system are in his somewhat unrealistic ideals for human achievement, his failure to see meaning in actual life itself, and his tendency to see grace as a means of supplanting nature rather than transforming it. Furthermore, he tended to deprecate religious fellowship and all institutional religion.
John Wesley was inspired by the perfectionist themes of the early saints and by the devotional literature of Thomas a Kempis, Jeremy Taylor, and William Law. Seeing self - love, or pride, as the root of evil, Wesley taught that "perfect love" or "Christian perfection" could replace pride through a moral crisis of faith. By grace, the Christian could experience love filling the heart and excluding sin. He did not see perfection as sinlessness, nor did he understand it to be attained by merit. He thus combined some aspects of the Catholic emphasis on perfection with the Protestant emphasis on grace.
In contrast to Augustine's Platonic view of sin as being inseparably related to concupiscence and the body, Wesley saw it as a perverted relationship to God. In response to God's offer of transforming grace, the believer in faith was brought into an unbroken fellowship with Christ. This was not an imputed perfection but an actual or imparted relationship of an evangelical perfection of love and intention. In this life the Christian does not attain absolute Christlikeness but suffers numerous infirmities, human faults, prejudices, and involuntary transgressions. These, however, were not considered sin, for Wesley saw sin as attitudinal and relational. In A Plain Account of Christian Perfection he stressed that Christian perfection is not absolute, nor sinless, nor incapable of being lost, is not the perfection of Adam or the angels, and does not preclude growth in grace.
In removing from the idea of perfection any idea of meritorious effort, Wesley resisted any tendency to exclusiveness and elitism. His relational understanding of sin resisted the hellenistic equation of sin with humanity. A reform of personal and social morality resulted to a large degree from the spiritual renewal which accompanied his work. Thus perfection for Wesley was not based on renunciation, merit, asceticism, or individualism. It was instead a celebration of the sovereignty of grace in transforming the sinful person into the image of Christ's love.
Wesleyan perfectionist thought was, however, not without liabilities. Although Wesley defined sin as involving relationships and intentions, he did not adequately guard against allowing it to become understood as a substance or entity which was separate from the person and which must be extricated. Some of his followers did tend to develop this substantialist understanding of sin and a resulting static concept of sanctification. He also tended to narrow sin to include only conscious will and intent. Consequently, some of his interpreters have been led to rationalize serious attitudinal aberrations as expressions of unconscious or unintentional human faults. Finally, Wesley expressed an inward asceticism which tended to derogate the aesthetic, and his emphasis on simplicity was too easily distorted by his followers into a legalistic externalism.
Wesley's emphasis on perfection has been preserved in some circles of Methodism, and continues to be promoted in the denominations associated with the Christian Holiness Association.
In addition to the Gnostic dualism of the early centuries, perfectionism has expressed itself in varying forms on the fringes of Christianity. The second century Montanists taught that men could become gods. In the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries the Albigensian heresy contended that the human spirit was capable of freeing itself from the flesh in order to become one with God. The late medieval period also saw the condemnation of the Brethren of the Free Spirit, who believed that man could advance in perfection beyond God, who then became superfluous. The English Ranters saw it as logically impossible for perfected man to sin. Other communal approaches such as the nineteenth century Oneida community sought for ways of reconciling perfected sinlessness with the impulses of the flesh.
All these heterodox expressions of perfectionism contained forms of antinomianism and egoism. They were condemned by orthodox Christianity with varying degrees of severity. Characterized by utopian views of human ability and by mystical practices, they tended to ignore divine grace and ethical integrity, and deteriorated because of their own inherent weaknesses.
R L Shelton
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)
L Lemme, S H E R K , VIII; L G Cox, John Wesley's Concept of Perfection; W S Deal, The March of Holiness Through the Centuries; R N Flew, The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology; R Garrigou - Lagrange, Christian Perfection and Contemplation; W M Greathouse, From the Apostles to Wesley; J A Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man; W E Sangster, The Path to Perfection; M Thornton, English Spirituality; G A Turner, The Vision Which Transforms; B B Warfield, Perfectionism; M B Wynkoop, A Theology of Love; J K Grider, Entire Sanctification.
Christian and Religious Perfection
A thing is perfect in which nothing is wanting of its nature, purpose, or end. It may be perfect in nature, yet imperfect inasmuch as it has not yet attained its end, whether this be in the same order as itself, or whether, by the will of God and His gratuitous liberality, it be entirely above its nature, i.e. in the supernatural order. From Revelation we learn that the ultimate end of man is supernatural, consisting in union with God here on earth by grace and hereafter in heaven by the beatific vision. Perfect union with God cannot be attained in this life, so man is imperfect in that he lacks the happiness for which he is destined and suffers many evils both of body and soul. Perfection therefore in its absolute sense is reserved for the kingdom of heaven.
Christian perfection is the supernatural or spiritual union with God which is possible of attainment in this life, and which may be called relative perfection, compatible with the absence of beatitude, and the presence of human miseries, rebellious passions, and even venial sins to which a just man is liable without a special grace and privilege of God. This perfection consists in charity, in the degree in which it is attainable in this life (Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 13:10; Galatians 5:14; 1 Corinthians 12:31, and 13:13). This is the universal teaching of the Fathers and of theologians. Charity unites the soul with God as its supernatural end, and removes from the soul all that is opposed to that union. "God is charity; and he that abideth in charity abideth in God, and God in him" (1 John 4:16). Francisco Suárez explains that perfection can be attributed to charity in three ways: (1) substantially or essentially, because the essence of union with God consists in charity for the habit as well as for the endeavour or pursuit of perfection; (2) principally, because it has the chief share in the process of perfection; (3) entirely, for all other virtues necessarily accompany charity and are ordained by it to the supreme end. It is true that faith and hope are prerequisites for perfection in this life, but they do not constitute it, for in heaven, where perfection is complete and absolute, faith and hope no longer remain. The other virtues therefore belong to perfection in a secondary and accidental manner, because charity cannot exist without them and their exercise, but they without charity do not unite the soul supernaturally to God. (Lib. I, De Statu Perfectionis, Cap. iii).
Christian perfection consists not only in the habit of charity, i.e. the possession of sanctifying grace and the constant will of preserving that grace, but also in the pursuit or practice of charity, which means the service of God and withdrawal of ourselves from those things which oppose or impede it. "Be it ever remembered", says Reginald Buckler, "that the perfection of man is determined by his actions, not by his habits as such. Thus a high degree of habitual charity will not suffice to perfect the soul if the habit pass not into act. That is, if it become not operative. For to what purpose does a man possess virtue if he uses it not? He is not virtuous because he can live virtuously but because he does so." (The Perfection of Man by Charity. Ch. vii, p. 77). The perfection of the soul increases in proportion with the possession of charity. He who possesses the perfection which excludes mortal sin obtains salvation, is united to God, and is said to be just, holy, and perfect. The perfection of charity, which excludes also venial sin and all affections which separate the heart from God, signifies a state of active service of God and of frequent, fervent acts of the love of God. This is the perfect fulfilment of the law (Matthew 22:37), as God is the primary object of charity. The secondary object is our neighbour. This is not limited to necessary and obligatory duties, but extends to friends, strangers, and enemies, and may advance to a heroic degree, leading a man to sacrifice external goods, comforts and life itself for the spiritual welfare of others. This is the charity taught by Christ by word (John 15:13) and example. (See THEOLOGICAL VIRTUE OF LOVE).
Christian perfection, or the perfection of charity as taught by our Saviour, applies to all men, both secular and religious, yet there is also religious perfection. The religious state is called a school (disciplina) of perfection and it imposes an obligation, more strict than that of the secular state, of striving after perfection. Seculars are obliged to perfection by the observance of the precepts or commandments only; while religious are obliged to observe also the evangelical counsels to which they freely bind themselves by the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The counsels are the means or instruments of perfection in both a negative and positive sense. Negatively: the obstacles in the way of perfection, which are (1 John 1:16) concupiscence of the eyes, concupiscence of the flesh, and pride of life, are removed by the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, respectively. Positively: the profession of the counsels tends to increase the love of God in the soul. The affections, freed from earthly ties, enable the soul to cling to God and to spiritual things more intensely and more willingly, and thus promote His glory and our own sanctification, placing us in a more secure state for attaining the perfection of charity.
It is true that seculars who also tend to perfection have to perform many things that are not of precept, but they do not bind themselves irrevocably to the evangelical counsels. It is, however, expedient only for those who are called by God to take upon themselves these obligations. In no state or condition of life is such a degree of perfection attainable that further progress is not possible. God on his part can always confer on man an increase of sanctifying grace, and man in turn by cooperating with it can increase in charity and grow more perfect by becoming more intimately and steadfastly united to God.