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The English Term Perfect:
Biblical and Philosophical Tensions

Dennis Bratcher

The word "perfect" that we knock around so much in theological and biblical discussions 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 same meaning of "without flaw" in an absolute sense as does the term "perfect" in English.  Tamim basically means complete or mature or healthy (for example, Lev 22:21). There are some sacrificial passages in the Priestly codes that describe animals acceptable for sacrifice as tamim. Some might take this in an absolute sense as "without flaw."  However, the sense is really "healthy" in the sense of "free from any mark or damage" (BBE), or with "no blemish" (NRSV, KJV). In other words, it must be a healthy animal and not be lame or sick or one that has obvious deformities (note Mal 1:8, 13; compare similar regulations for priests in Lev 21:16-21).

That meaning of healthy, whole, or mature dominates most use of the equivalent Greek term in the New Testament (telos or teleios). Something, or someone, can be complete, healthy, 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. 

So, while there are places in the New Testament that translate the word telos as perfect, other places reveal that it carries the meaning of healthy or mature.  For example, in Ephesians 4:13

4:13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

Here the word translated "maturity" is the word teleios, which is the same word translated "perfect" in Matthew 5:48:

5:48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

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 problems when we try to use the English word in theology, 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 ultimate absolutes 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 existentially 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, but sadly, that strand entered the American Holiness tradition later and we have been struggling with a tendency toward perfectionism ever since. We do not, as Wesleyans, believe in a perfectionism that translates into "without error." But we do believe in being perfected in love in which we 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).

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2011, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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