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The English Term Perfect:
Biblical and Philosophical Tensions
The word "perfect" that we knock around so much is often misunderstood.
We tend to apply an unqualified philosophical meaning to it and have it mean
"without flaw" or "without error" or put it into other absolute categories.
It then becomes easy to say that Jesus' command in the Sermon on the Mount
(Matt 5:48), "Be therefore perfect, even as your
heavenly Father is perfect," is a laudable goal, but one that
is impossible for human beings to achieve. That is even easier to do
from certain doctrinal or theological positions that assume human beings
cannot ever respond to God beyond their contaminated sinful nature (see
Body and Soul).
The problem in this thinking is that the Hebrew word (tam or
tamim) does not carry the meaning of "without flaw" as does the term
"perfect" in English. It normally means complete or mature
(for example, Lev 22:21). That meaning of mature
dominates most use of the equivalent Greek term in the New Testament (telos).
Something, or someone, can be complete or mature yet not be "without flaw."
In fact, it is much easier to be mature and still have flaws, than it is to
be without error or without flaw. Many people are mature, but few if any are
"without flaw." A six year old can be mature, and still have a lot of
growing to do, just like a person can be "holy" and have a lot to learn
about spiritual maturity.
John Wesley used the term "perfect" frequently and argued that it was a
biblical term. But, the term is only "biblical" in English. That is
what creates our problems since the word has a different range of meaning in
English than the biblical words it translates. I would certainly not
discount Wesley’s ability in biblical language, since he wrote grammars for
both Greek and Hebrew. On the other hand, in the past 250 years we have come
to understand a lot more about the biblical languages, especially the
thought world and culture that lay behind Hebrew. It is not that Wesley was
wrong. "Perfect" may have been the best choice for 1740. But perhaps if he
had the command of Hebrew and knowledge of Hebraic culture that we do today,
or if he were communicating in our culture, he would have chosen a different
way to express the idea.
The term "perfect" is associated with too many metaphysical connotations
in our culture, and describes something different than do the biblical terms
in either Hebrew or Greek. Most people in our western culture outside of the
church no longer use categories of thought that speak of
like perfection, especially applied to people, or if they do they reject
them as impossible. We quickly admit that such things are rare, especially
among human beings. We are much more inclined to think
in terms of how we function in the world at any given time. That is why I
think a more existential term will communicate better to people for whom the
term "perfect" identifies something that is impossible to achieve.
Both Hebrew and Greek terms carry much more that existential dimension of
meaning anyway than they do the absolute overtones that we have come to
associate with the term perfect. From the biblical perspective,
"perfect" describes something that functions as it was intended to function
or of someone who acts appropriately (note that in Romans 12:2, the Greek
term "perfect," teleion, is used with "good" and "acceptable"). And
of course for Wesley, perfect was always
qualified with the category of love, so
that any perfection of which he spoke was in the context of loving God and
neighbor. That is why the true Wesleyan concept is
perfect love, never perfection as
a general category.
Wesley himself fought against the concept of perfectionism, and
the accusation leveled at him by many Calvinists that he promoted it. Wesley
did not promote any form of perfectionism. Yet sadly, that strand of
thinking entered the American Holiness tradition
later and heirs of that tradition have been struggling with a tendency toward perfectionism ever
since. Modern Wesleyans do not believe in a perfectionism that translates
into "without error." But they do believe in being
perfected in love in which human beings are transformed as a result of
God’s grace into mature, growing, and healthy Christians governed by love
rather than self-interest. That is all Wesley ever meant by "perfect," and I
am convinced that is the meaning in Scripture, most especially in the Sermon
on the Mount in Matthew (5:48). That is why I think Jesus' command is
more than an impossible goal for which we struggle in vain strive. It is the
very achievable goal of all Christian living, as God enables us with his
strength (cf. Phil 4:13).
Bible in the Church
Issues in Interpretation