Definitions of this term tend to be either (a) intrinsic, or (b) functional. In the former sense, it connotes adjectively that which meets supreme standards of excellence or corresponds perfectly to an archetype. In the latter sense, perfect suggests a condition in which a person or thing is accomplished in knowledge or performance, or has its distinctive qualities fully developed.
Use of the term in Scripture
Theological significance of the term
As applied to God, perfection indicates the possession of every affirmative quality in superlative degree, so that He is above all comparison, admitting of no deviation from absolute completeness in the embodiment of every excellence. This does not militate against empirical expressions of His perfections in concrete ways in the experiences of men, so that He distributes the fruits of His benevolence without reference to the fitness of those who receive them. His perfection is to be the archetype of the perfection of His creatures (Matt 5:48), He being the common subject of all perfections, and specifically of absolute moral perfection. The Schoolmen expressed it thus: God is ens perfectissimum—thus having real existence and absolute perfection.
The attribution of perfection to God’s works frequently suggests completeness or the meeting of supreme standards of excellence. Thus is described “the law of the Lord” (Ps 19:7), God’s “way” (18:30), and His “wondrous works” (Job 37:16). Expressed here is the full congruence between God’s Person and the expression of His activity or energy among men.
The Biblical application of the term “perfect” to human beings is uniformly relative and teleological. Thus in the case of persons, perfection varies with the capabilities, the placement, and the state of knowledge that they enjoy, so that the one who is pronounced to be “perfect” embodies the divine ideal in terms of the possible realization of that ideal in his age. In this sense, Noah was pronounced a perfect man (Gen 6:9), and Abram was commanded “walk before me, and be blameless” (17:1). Similarly Job was pronounced to be “blameless” and “upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1).
The same form of usage appears in those passages in which men’s hearts were pronounced to be perfect (or lacking in perfection), as in 1 Kings 11:4; 15:14. The New Testament continues the teleological and developmental aspect of the usage. Jesus announced in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:48) that the evangelical objective is human perfection after the model of the divine perfection. The two stand related to one another as the relative to the absolute. In Matthew 5, the stress is upon inward righteousness, and thus moves beyond the commands of the Old Testament, where perfection frequently appears in contrast to participation in the conduct of the wicked.
Paul’s employment of the term in a more specialized manner appears in Philippians 3:12, 15. In the former usage of the teleological term, Paul seems to disclaim final certainty of his attainment of resurrection-perfection, whereas in the latter usage he identifies himself with “those...who are mature.”
In historical theology, it may be noted that Augustine felt that Christian perfection was theoretically possible in this life, since to deny this would call into question the grace of God. In view, however, of the power and pervasiveness of sin, he doubted whether many, if indeed any, attained it in human experience. The Roman Catholic Church placed, and continues to place, the stamp of perfection on the saints by canonization. Within monasticism, the mandate of Matthew 19:21 “sell what you possess” as the doorway to perfection has been maintained. During the late medieval period the mystics kept the aspiration toward perfection alive.
In more recent times, George Fox and the Wesleys articulated a view of relative, or “Christian,” perfection, emphasizing the rôle of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, esp. in the dethroning of self-love and the impartation of “perfect love” as the badge and seal of the “perfect” Christian. It was John Wesley who distinguished most sharply between the state of regeneration, and the condition of the one “made perfect in love.”
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
pur’-fekt, per-fek’-shun (shalem, tamim; teleios, teleiotes):
1. In the Old Testament:
2. In the New Testament:
In the New Testament "perfect" is usually the tr of teleios, primarily, "having reached the end," "term," "limit," hence, "complete," "full," "perfect" (Mt 5:48, "Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect"; Mt 19:21, "if thou wouldst be perfect; Eph 4:13, the King James Version "till we all come .... unto a perfect man," the Revised Version (British and American) "full-grown"; Php 3:15, "as many as are perfect," the American Revised Version margin "full-grown"; 1Co 2:6; Col 1:28, "perfect in Christ"; 4:12; Jas 3:2 margin, etc.).
Perfection is the translation of katartisis "thorough adjustment," "fitness" (2Co 13:9, the Revised Version (British and American) "perfecting"); of teleiosis (Heb 7:11); of teleiotess (Heb 6:1, the Revised Version margin "full growth"); it is translated "perfectness" (Col 3:14); "perfection" in Lu 8:14 is the translation of telesphoreo, "to bear on to completion or perfection." In Apocrypha "perfect," "perfection," etc., are for the most part the translation of words from telos, "the end," e.g. The Wisdom of Solomon 4:13; Ecclesiasticus 34:8; 44:17; 45:8, suntelia "full end"; 24:28; 50:11.
3. The Christian Ideal:
Perfection is the Christian ideal and aim, but inasmuch as that which God has set before us is infinite--"Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48)--absolute perfection must be forever beyond, not only any human, but any finite, being; it is a divine ideal forever shining before us, calling us upward, and making endless progression possible. As noted above, the perfect man, in the Old Testament phrase, was the man whose heart was truly or wholly devoted to God. Christian perfection must also have its seat in such a heart, but it implies the whole conduct and the whole man, conformed thereto as knowledge grows and opportunity arises, or might be found. There may be, of course, a relative perfection, e.g. of the child as a child compared with that of the man. The Christian ought to be continually moving onward toward perfection, looking to Him who is able to "make you perfect in every good thing (or work) to do his will, working in us that which is well-pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen (Heb 13:21).
J. S. Banks, “Perfection,” HDB, IV (1900), 745, 746;
C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, I (1909), 366-441;
F. Platt, “Perfection (Christian),” HERE, IX (1917), 728-737;
Tatian, Perfection According to the Saviour (1924), 5-41;
B. B. Warfield, Perfectionism (1931), I, 305-341, II, 561-611;
A. Köberle, The Quest for Holiness (1936-1938), 84-136;
W. L. Walker, “Perfect, Perfection,” ISBE, IV (1949), 2320, 2321;
H. Brandenburg, “Heiligungsbewegung,” RGG (1959), 182.