Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Problem of Perfectionism?

Earlier this month, I read an article on Anglican Mainstream entitled The Problem of Perfectionism.  It was written by Michael Jensen and originally appeared at Sydney Anglicans.  -  I regularly read Anglican Mainstream and, as one ordained in the Church of the Nazarene (a Wesleyan-holiness expression of Methodism), this article caught my attention.

However, as I read the article, and then especially as I read the comments on the Sydney site, I must say that I was quite disappointed.  Both, the article, itself, and the comments demonstrated only a cursory (mis)understanding of Wesley's teachings.

(I should say, before I go any further, this post is not a defence of the group at Sydney University.  If the understanding of the group put forth in the article is correct [and there is a question, here, because it is clear that Wesley is misunderstood], then they, too, strayed from Wesley's teaching of Scripture.  -  And now, to continue . . .)

It was even more amazing how Jensen identified, "among the descendants of perfectionist teaching," only two, viz., the Keswick Movement and Pentecostalism.  Neither of these two movements, as movements, have followed Wesley's teachings (though there are certain of the Pentecostal-Holiness denominations that have, indeed, sought to stay true to Wesley on perfectionist issues.).  It is quite reasonable to include in such an article various expressions of perfectionist groups, but if one wishes to invoke John Wesley's teachings, one would expect some mention of the Wesleyan-Holiness Movement within the larger Methodist tradition.

Beyond the absence of Wesley's descendants in the article are the misunderstandings found in the article, as well as (and especially) in the comments.  Many of these comments are the very kind of things that Wesley spent much of his life correcting.

For example, Wesley never argued for a "sinless" perfection.  Also, though Wesley did talk of a willful transgression of a known law of God being the definition of sin "properly so called," he also taught that those "sins improperly so called," nevertheless still remained in need of the atoning work of the blood of Christ.  He retained in the liturgies sent to the Methodists in North America the corporate confessions of sins, as well as the Lord's Prayer with it's petition for forgiveness.  Still, he felt that there is Scriptural warrant for talking about a difference between such  "involuntary transgressions" or "sins of ignorance" and those that are willful transgressions of a known law of God.

What, I suppose, was most disappointing was the implication of the posting of this article on Anglican Mainstream.  That implication is that the Conservative/Orthodox Anglican movement (as represented by Anglican Mainstream) has rejected Wesleyanism as a viable expression of Conservative/Orthodox Anglicanism.

Let me simply express that what Wesley talked about as Christian Perfection is nothing other than the "perfection" to which we are called in Matthew 5:48.  Read in its context, it becomes clear that it is a call to love our neighbors, even those who are enemies, even as God loves.  In other words, the perfectionism that Wesley spoke of was a fulfilment of the Great Commandment; to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind; and to love your neighbor as yourself.   It is the "perfect love that drives out fear," which St. John talks about in 1 John 4:18. 

It is not the absolute or angelic perfection that St. Paul denies having attained in Philippians 3:12, but it is the "perfection" or "maturity" (same Greek root word in verse 12 & 15) that St. Paul does claim in verse 15. 

Let me be clear.  It is NOT a love or "maturity" or "perfection" which we can attain on our own, but it only comes to us as a gift of the grace of God. 

It is, as St. Paul prays in 1 Thessalonians 3:12-13, "And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints."  And, again, in his benediction, "May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The one who calls you is faithful, and HE will do this" (1 Thessalonians 5:23-4, NRSV, emphasis mine).

It is nothing more than the love of God so filling us.

And, if my reading of the implications of this post appearing on Anglican Mainstream is correct, it is especially disappointing, because the essence of Wesley's teaching on Christian Perfection is the very thing found in prayer prayed by every faithful Anglican as they gather each Lord's Day:

"Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord.  Amen."

I believe it was Phineas Bresee, primary founder of the Church of the Nazarene, who asked the Episcopalians why it should seem strange that the Nazarenes claimed that God answers the very prayer that they pray each week.

It seems to me that, contrary to the implications found on Anglican Mainstream, Wesley was quite true to his Anglicanism in his teaching about the Scriptural doctrine of Christian Perfection.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is fascinating that Wesley spent his whole life raising the same defenses over and over again and people today still raise the same criticisms.

Good post.