The doctrine of Christian Perfection is often understood to be a Wesleyan or Methodist distinctive. It is something that is taught (or at least mentioned — albeit sometimes with embarrassment) in those Christian circles which have been influenced by the teachings of Wesley. It has sometimes been viewed as a Wesleyan oddity — even by those within the Wesleyan tradition itself.
But, I think we need to take a new look at that. Wesley didn’t understand himself to be teaching something new. He understood himself to be re-affirming something taught in the Scriptures and repeated in the teachings of the early Church Fathers.
The phrase “Christian Perfection” — which many of Wesley’s contemporaries found offensive and confusing — was nothing he invented. It was found in his sources. It was found in the Church fathers and the mystic writers that Wesley had read. Because Wesley studied the New Testament in the original language, he knew it was there too — in the use of the word τέλειος and its related terms. Where did Wesley get his distinctive teaching about the Christian life? He claims to have gotten it from the original sources. He says:
In the year 1729, I began not only to read, but to study, the Bible, as the one, the only standard of truth, and the only model of pure religion. Hence I saw, in a clearer and clearer light, the indispensable necessity of having “the mind which was in Christ,” and of “walking as Christ also walked;” even of having, not some part only, but all the mind which was in him; and of walking as he walked, not only in many or in most respects, but in all things. And this was the light, wherein at this time I generally considered religion, as an uniform following of Christ, an entire inward and outward conformity to our Master. Nor was I afraid of anything more, than of bending this rule to the experience of myself; or of other men; of allowing myself in any the least disconformity to our grand Exemplar.
Wesley claims he got the idea from reading the Bible.
In a very real sense the doctrine of Christian perfection goes back to the very beginnings of the Biblical story. It is the challenge that was first placed before Israel in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4,5 NRSV): “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” In essence it is the call to live our lives with a heart fully devoted to God, and fully devoted to the best interests of other people. This is what it means to live a holy life — this and this alone. And, everything in the Bible and in the teachings of the Fathers supports and re-enforces this call.
And, on this basis: I have a notion that may seem crazy to some. I think that even if people forgot about Wesley, and Fletcher, and Clarke, and the writers archived here and here — or even Finney, and Mahan, etc. — but would just come to the Bible with open hearts and minds, the holiness themes would re-assert themselves.
It’s the “open hearts and minds” part that is hard. We come to the Bible loaded with assumptions and expectations. But, still: people do sometimes question their own assumptions. They can discover anew the same themes — without any knowledge of those who found them before.
The language might end up being different here and there from the traditions that we currently know. There have been differences in how people express the message before. This is hardly the point. The important commonalities are about the Bible’s call to holiness, and the nature of Christian experience itself.
Yes, there was some wildness to certain aspects of the old holiness movement. Some of the teachings — and much of the emotionalism and legalism — of the movement were problematic. There were and are faults to the movement that I (for one) readily admit.
And some people do go off the deep end when they get caught up in the emotion of Spirit filled living. The history of the Methodist movement in Wesley’s day proves that as well — claims were made that went too far. There were extremists who had to be removed from the movement.
Consider this passage from T. A. Noble’s book Holy Trinity: Holy People: The Theology of Christian Perfecting:
To begin with, it is necessary to remember that there have been fanatics throughout the history of the church who have claimed absolute “perfection.” We do not have to search too far to find examples of unbalanced extremists who claimed to be “sinless,” and clearly that claim has to be rejected. Wesley had to dismiss two of his preachers, Maxfield and Bell, who made such exaggerated claims.
And yet that does not account for some of the greatest teachers of mainstream Christianity — Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius writing about Antony, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Cassian and Benedict, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, the Pietists Arndt and Spener, and the great evangelist John Wesley — who all gave measured teaching on Christian “perfection.”
But also, and most importantly, it is essential to note that the biblical writers and these great teachers of the church through the centuries were working with a somewhat different understanding of the word “perfection.” None of them ever taught “sinless perfection” — the idea that within this life, Christians could reach that final, absolute state of perfection where they were sinless and perfectly holy. Unfortunately, that is the idea our English word “perfect” conveys, a perfection of “zero defects.” But these great teachers of Christianity were working with the biblical concept of perfection, which is rather different. It works essentially not just with a negative understanding of “perfection” as merely the absence of sin, but primarily with a positive understanding of “perfection” as a fullness of love.”
This is what I mean by claiming that Christian Perfection is an ecumenical doctrine. It is part of the property of the church universal. It may seem strange to re-assert the Biblical and traditional “perfection” language — well, culturally, it is strange — but both the language and the challenge are there — the challenge to live a life wholly devoted to God.
Call it what you want. If you open your Bible the message is there. If you read the Church Fathers, the message is there.
Call me naive. Maybe I am. But, I can’t help but think that if people will read the Bible as Wesley did “as the one, the only standard of truth, and the only model of true religion” they will come to the same kind of conclusions he did — eventually.