Perfectionism

The teaching that moral or religious perfection (in some cases sinlessness) is not only an ideal toward which to strive, but a goal attainable in this life. Within the Christian tradition, perfectionism has attempted to be faithful to certain neglected scriptural themes (cf. Matt. 5:48; 1 Cor. 2:6; Eph. 4:13; Col. 1:28; 4:12; Heb. 6:1; 1 John 4:18, etc.). Most proponents have identified Christian perfection with “perfect love.” Perfectionism in the early church reveals Gnostic and Platonic influence (cf. Clement of Alexandria*). Origen* developed perfectionism in the direction of ascetic and monastic renunciation of the world. This monastic ideal was dominant in the Middle Ages and remains a powerful force in Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Jerome* revealed Pelagian influence, and Augustine's* teaching tended toward perfectionism though he drew back from such conclusions in controversy with Pelagianism.* Mysticism* influenced perfectionism and became intertwined with it in the Middle Ages. The Reformers were generally anti- perfectionistic, though perfectionism appeared among some forms of Anabaptism and to some extent in Arminius and his followers. In Anglicanism the perfectionism of William Law* and Jeremy Taylor* deeply influenced John Wesley,* whose teachings on the subject became the central concern of Methodism, the major advocate of Christian perfection. Wesley distinguished absolute perfection from Christian perfection, and defined the latter as freedom from sin only in the sense of “a voluntary transgression of a known law.” For Wesley, perfection was received instantaneously by faith and confirmed by the witness of the Holy Spirit. In America a form of perfectionism was advocated by Asa Mahan and C.G. Finney* in the first half of the nineteenth century. At midcentury there emerged from Methodism the American Holiness Movement,* a more revivalistic and rigorist advocate of Wesley's perfectionism. From this developed the Church of the Nazaree, the Wesleyan Church, some forms of Pentecostalism, and other modern advocates of perfectionism.

J. Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (rep. 1921); B.B. Warfield, Perfectionism (2 vols., 1931-32); R.N. Flew, The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology (1934; rep. 1968); W.E. Sangster, The Path to Perfection (1943); G.A. Turner, The Vision Which Transforms: Is Christian Perfection Scriptural? (1964);

See also

  • Sanctification