Theological Dictionary Roulette: Perfectionism

Each Friday, I’ll add a post on the blog that tries to highlight theological words from my Christian heritage. I’ll do this by taking out my copy of the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell. I will open the book to a random page, close my eyes, and then point to a word. I will then make a short post about that word. I call this “Theological Dictionary Roulette.”

Today’s word: Perfectionism

Perfection is a Bible word, showing up in the OT and even in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says,

“Be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

The original language of the Bible sketches a startling idea about perfection, that it has less to do with “making every free throw or ace-ing every test.” The word means, “integrity, uncalculating, sincere, simple,” values that people crave even in our modern, advanced, hyper-connected world.

In NT Greek it carries a similar meaning to telos, or “reaching an end or goal.” Perfection is about reaching a desired end, even if there are bumps along the way while we get there.

Perfectionism as a theological idea has had a checkered history. On the one hand, Christian Platonists, Monastics, and Pietists sought to follow Jesus whole-heartedly, taking the Matthew 5:48 command seriously. For the most part, this pursuit has been pure and at other times, some unneeded restrictions had been placed on the Christian life that we chuckle at now. The heart was in the right place but the application could get wonky, at times.

On the other hand, others in the Christian tradition rejected the thought of perfection, insisting that the Christian is deeply flawed, even after an experience of regeneration. Jesus command in Matthew 5:48, then, is not meant to be kept but serves as an impossible standard to remind us that we don’t measure up and that we rest on God’s sheer grace is Christ.

The question remains, then, is there a way to inspire a Christian to a depth with Christ without unrealistic (and helpful) demands and without insisting that the Christian is one his/her own in working out their salvation? (Phil. 2:12-13)

I have found it helpful to look at the issue of holiness/perfection with the idea of “wholeness.”

We should ask ourselves, “Am I a whole person? Would my inner and external life be congruent? Would people in every area of my life sketch a similar picture of who I am? Do I have one self or multiple selves, some of which would not get along if they had to run next to one another on the treadmills at the gym?”

The process of wholeness takes both effort from within ourselves and help from God. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we embrace an axiom that says, “Work as if it depends upon you, but pray as if it depends on God.” Such ideas are probably inspirational, but ultimately short-circuits itself.

I’d rather rely upon Dallas Willard’s claim, “Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.” For I am convinced that the grace to give the effort is first a work from God and that God delights in our thoughtful intentions of following in the way of Jesus.

 

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