OF CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALITY
“The kingdom of the heavens is similar to a bit of yeast which a woman took and hid in half a bushel of dough. After a while all the dough was pervaded by it.” Jesus of Nazareth
“And his gifts were that some be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God. . .to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine.
. . .Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.” Ephesians 4.11-16
“You must have often wondered why the enemy [God] does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree he chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the irresistible and the indisputable are the two weapons, which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to over-ride a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet they; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve. . . . Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs--to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. . . . He cannot “tempt” to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand. . . Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why He has been forsaken, and still obeys.” Uncle Screwtape, C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
In considering the theme of “perfection” according to the New Testament, we must not limit our reflections to the two places where the term “teleios” is used--Matthew 5.48 and 19.21. We must inquire where the matter of perfection is being referred to in the four Gospels, in the form of the Imitatio Christi in particular.
In the first passage, Christ speaks to this in the framework of The Sermon on The Mount, which constitutes the climax of a series of logia, vs. 43-47 (cf. P.J. du Pleissis,, Teleios: The Idea of Perfection in The New Testament (Kemper, 1959, p. 168), if not the whole series of antithesis of chapter five which is colored by a conscious contrast with the legalistic piety of the Scribes and Pharisees who do not enter the kingdom of heaven themselves and hinder those who were entering. (du Pleissis, op cit, p. 168; W.D. Davies, The Setting of The Sermon on The Mount, 1964; compare with G. Friedhamder, The Jewish Sources of The Sermon on The Mount (Library of Biblical Studies, ed. H.M. Orlinsky, 1969, p. 84; R. Schnackenburg, Christian Existence According to the New Testament, I 1967; pp. 140-146). Already from this contextual relationship the word in Matthew 5.48 cannot be considered as an isolated moral imperative which would imply the teaching of ethical sinlessness or perfectionism (see esp. H. Hindlisch, The Meaning of The Sermon on The Mount (E.T. 1950, pp. 19ff; 121ff.)
The meaning of the term spirituality is uncertain partially because Scripture uses so many images and concepts to teach us about our Christian experience. Among the most salient images and concepts are several that have implications for our understanding of Christian Spirituality, including fruitfulness, growth, maturity, sanctification, holiness and love.
While none of these biblical images is the same as spirituality, each contributes to our understanding the above. These are just some of the concepts which contribute and fuse victorious Christian living. We must therefore place Christian spirituality in Postmodern perspective. Paul declares that the true measure of Christian spirituality is Love (I Corinthians 13.1-3--compare with 14.1-25). Love creates community (John 13.34), provides motivation (II Cor 5.14), prompts obedience (John 14.26), transforms character (Colossians 3.12-17), provides purpose (I Peter 4.8-10), stabilizes relationships (Col. 3.12-17, Philippians 2.2), compels concern (I John 3.16-18).
We have noted the wellspring that vitalizes and characterizes the true Christian life where there is always fruitfulness, growth, maturity, sanctification, holiness and love. (1) Fruitfulness in the Old Testament is the product of plants or the offspring of annuals or human beings. Fruit also represents the consequences of human choices and acts. Isaiah 5 is a powerful example of this use. God personally planted His people Israel as a farmer plants a vine. God placed His people in good ground and tended them carefully. Although He looked for justice and righteousness, the fruit that Israel produced was bloodshed and cries of distress.
The New Testament uses fruit in the same three senses where it refers to words and actions and reveals a person’s character (Matthew 7, Luke 6). Perhaps the central passage is John 15.1-26. Here Jesus is pictured as the root and trunk of the vine, to which believers as branches are linked. Jesus warns, “apart from me you can do nothing” (vs. 5). Jesus emphatically declares that only intimacy is maintained by obedience, saying, “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love” (vs. 10).
The Book of Galatians uses fruit in essentially the same as the Old Testament. The fruit which grows from the sinful nature of human beings is “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy, drunkenness, orgies and the like” (Galatians 5.19-21). In contrast, the Holy Spirit produces a fruit in the believer, which is a quality both of our inner life and of our relationship with others. The Holy Spirit’s fruit in human lives is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fruitfulness, gentleness and self control” (vs. 22-23). Fruitfulness is not spirituality. But the life of the spiritual person, lived in intimate relationship with Jesus and marked by obedience to Him, will be rich in the love, joy, peace and patience, which God’s inner work provides.
(2) Growth--of the three Greek words linked with the word growth in the New Testament, the most powerful is “auxanolauxo” (grow). Used 22 times, the word group (see the Domain Lexicon) suggests natural processes which God has structured into His universe. The word is used of plants, human development and of numerical growth of the Church (see the “growth” word in Acts; the domain contains numerical as well as spiritual maturity).
In II Corinthians 10.15, the individual believers grow in faith, in knowledge of God (Col. 1.10), and in grace (II Peter 3.18). There is also corporate growth for the body of Christ as it matures (Ephesians 2.21; 4.15-16). All such spiritual growth is superintended by God (I Cor 3.6-7; Eph 2.21; 4.15). Christian growth, however, is not automatic, nor are believers passive. Christians are to feed on God’s word (I Peter 2.2; Hebrews 5.11-14) and to be rooted deeply in relationship with others in the community of faith (Eph 3.1-19; 4.13-16. Growth is not spirituality, yet the spiritual life draws us to the process of growth (I Cor 3.7). All disciples are responsible to stand firm in the will of God (Col. 4.12).
(3) We attain Maturity as we bond with other believers, living together as Christ’s Church (Eph 4.12,13); as we persevere in our trials (James 1.4) and as we exercise our faculties by using God’s word to guide our choices (Heb 5.14). Maturity is not spirituality, yet the spiritual person is on the way toward maturity.
(4) Sanctification--There are two Greek words translated in this domain (hagiazo and hagiasom). These same words mean “make holy” and “holiness” which suggests that the concept of sanctification and holiness overlap and at times are identical. Hebrews 10.29 affirms that Jesus’ blood has sanctified the believer. “. . .by one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy (vs. 10.4) (Note the participle, constantly being made). The New Testament is emphatically clear that we fall short of actual holiness. Our “state” does not match our “standing.” The New Testament emphasizes a process of sanctification by which we stand; Jesus prayed that followers might be sanctified by God’s word (John 17.12,19). The Holy Spirit is also spoken of as the agent of sanctification (Romans 5.16; see also I Cor. 1.2, 6.11). Paul emphasizes the process--“may your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thess. 5.23). Sanctification is both a reality and a process. Christ has won it for us; the Holy Spirit continues to empower our growth in holiness. Sanctification is not spirituality but spiritually is rooted in Christ’s sanctifying work on the cross and by His resurrection.
(5) Holiness--This vital concept is developed in both the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew term means “to be consecrated” or “to be dedicated.” Thus the Holy is set apart in the faith of Israel. Like holiness is both cultic and moral, morally Israel was called to be holy “because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19.2). The Old Testament stressed strict separation between sacred and the holy. The New Testament emphasizes a dynamic inner holiness which remains unaffected by external contact with the unclean. A marvellous example is expressed by Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees who were upset and angry at Jesus, whom they accused of keeping company with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees’ concept of Holiness demanded strict separation from sinners and could not grasp His meaning. Jesus’ holiness overcomes evil and even brings healing to the sinners, for Jesus’ holiness is inner and a dynamic quality of His life. Paul applies this theme in his letter to the Corinthians. “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people (I Cor 5.9-10). No behavior which threatens the individual or the Church’s commitment to Jesus is acceptable. Holiness remains essential to our calling. God still commands us to “Be holy, because I am holy” (I Peter 1.16; 2.11; Col. 2.20-23). We are God’s chosen people, “holy and dearly loved” (Col. 2.12), and our commitment is to kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
(6) Love--Love must be included in our last of the images vitally linked with Christian spirituality. The Corinthian Church was a problem Church. The problem of gifts (chps 12-14) is not an ultimate criterion of true spirituality; love in chapter 13 is the answer to true spirituality. Love in the individual and the Christian community is crucial for our present discussion. (1) Love creates community (Jn 13.34); (2) Prompts obedience (14.21,23); (3) Provides motivation (II Cor 5.14); (4) Transforms character (Col. 3.12-17); (5) Provides purpose (I Pet. 4.8-10); (6) Stabilizes relationship (Phil 2.2) and (7) Compels concern (I Jn 3.16-18). Love (agape) (Jn 3.16) is the wellspring, which vitalizes and characterizes the truly Christian life. Our love is our response to God’s love (I Jn 4.7; I Pet. 1.22, Eph. 5.2). Love is not spirituality but true Christian spirituality could not conceivably exist apart form a deep and overflowing love (see summaries in Laurence O. Richards, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words (Zondervan Pub., 1985).
The magistral passage of scripture describes the Church’s ministry, the nature of spirituality for all the people of God. The Church of Jesus Christ is a crucible of spirituality guiding persons in faith and ministry for the “edifying” of the entire body of Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ must encourage Christians in the pursuit of a mature spiritual life--“together participating in the perfecting of the saints....”
The spiritual legacy of the scriptures perhaps can be categorized under three factors: (1) Spirituality informs every facet of the Church’s life. It is not limited to certain “sacred” moments when the people of God are being indefinably “pious or spiritual.” Through spirituality, The Church of Jesus Christ seeks to conform to the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 14.11). Christ is the center, the model for the Church’s spiritual identity; (2) Spiritual maturity is inseparable from theological nature. To be a Christian means growing up in the faith so that we are no longer children, tossed about by “every wind of doctrine,” easily manipulated by every new theological fad or super apostle who appears on the scene (II Cor 11.13-14). Rigorous theological investigation, prayer and study are also a part of the spiritual pilgrimage that leads to theological maturity; (3) Spirituality leads to action--a caring response to human need. Constantly carrying out the Samaritan example. Jesus spent much time both “speaking the Truth” as well as “doing the truth”--offering tangible response to the outcasts of His society. Christian spirituality entails more than spiritual observations of the human condition. Spiritual exploration will help us experience God’s presence and express God’s love in the Church and throughout our postmodern global village.
In our postmodern twenty-first century, all kinds of people are yearning to be “spiritual.” New Agers, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals and secular humanists have attached such a diversity of opinion, the confusing condition overwhelms definitions. So often among diverse groups from all over our country, spirituality is slippery and individualistic; but what does all of this have to do with the biblical mandate for His Church “to be Holy as I am Holy”? (See my paper, “Postmodern Spirituality As Contentless, Highly Subjective and Culturally Irrelevant.” The literature on the Postmodern view of spirituality is legend.)
The challenge is so enormous that our brief paper will seem futile to some. The ensuing account attempts “to map out our spiritual journey.” What does Christian Spirituality mean?
The foundation of the Gospel Message is that God initiates something in our lives. Spirituality is not grasping and groping after God. It is no more an individualistic accomplishment than is salvation, sanctification or bodily resurrection only when God draws near that we might draw near to Him (James 4.8). God is not only the source for spirituality, but God is also the goal.
God’s priority in spirituality has several implications: (1) It encourages and enables us to continue down paths, even when the going is arduous. God will provide the resources we need to follow the spiritual path. God’s priority also enables us. “I believe, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9.24) (2) God’s priority guides us. There is a direction in the spiritual journey. It is not just a walk with God, it is a path that leads somewhere. The destination is none other than Jesus Christ, the human face of God. The Gospel according to Hebrews says “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12. 1,2) (3) God’s priority cautions us. Spirituality is one area of our journey in discipleship that we cannot dominate. Our rhythm of spiritual life must be “wait upon the Lord.” The spirituality of discipleship has its own trajectories of growth. The language of spirituality is relational (see my study on all the “one another” passages in the New Testament). Though our source for mapping our spiritual journey must always be the Word of God, we surely can benefit from the spiritual classics such as the following:
Michael Horton, In the Face of God (Dangers and Delights of Spiritual Intimacy (Word Publishers, 1996); Donald Coggan, The Prayers of The New Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1967, pb.); Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (Harper and Row, 1998); and Richard J. Foster, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Tradition of Christian Faith, esp. the section on “Significant Movements in Church History”, pp. 303-378, (Harper, 1998). Foster’s work marvellously traces the changing paradigms of the Spiritual Journey in the History of The Church: (1) Imitation: The Divine Paradigm; (2) Contemplative Tradition: Discovering The Prayer-Filled Life; (3) Holiness Tradition: Discovering the Virtuous Life; (4) Charismatic Tradition: Discovering the Spirit Empowered Life; (5) Social Justice Tradition: Discovering the Compassionate Life; (6) Evangelical Tradition: Discovering the Word-Centered Life; (7) Incarnational Tradition: Discovering the Sacramental Life.
(Compare these alternative paradigms in the context of Mark Nolls, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of The Church (InterVarsity Press, 1997). My paper, “Qualifications For All Believers” (Moral Description for All Disciples in the New Testament). Only “able to teach” is not used to describe all Christians throughout the New Testament. There is only the Priesthood of Believers versus the CEO concept of leadership and discipleship presented in the New Testament.
Building on the Scriptures as the foundation for our Spiritual Pilgrimage, some of the classic works on Christian Spirituality are: (1) Augustines’s, The Confessions; (2) The Desert Fathers (the denial of life on earth has been the incalculable enriching of it); (3) The Little Flowers of St. Francis (the story of the Little Poor Man of Assisi); (4) The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a’Kempis (a book of meditations directing the Christian life); (5) The Freedom of The Christian by Martin Luther; (6) The Interior Castle (St. Teresa of Avila, seven mansions of the soul’s spiritual growth); (7) The Book of Common Prayer, a manual of prayer and worship; (8) The Practice of The Presence of God (Brother Laurence), the secret of unbroken fellowship with God; (9) Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, an allegory of Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City; (compare this with C.S. Lewis’ book, Pilgrim’s Regress); (10) Journal of John Woolman, a Quaker witness against slavery and other social evils; (11) The Self Examination, Soren Kierkegaard’s spiritual reality of cross-bearing; (12) Way of the Pilgrim (Russian Orthodox, “Wanderer for Christ” who found the secret of prayer without ceasing); (13) Creative Prayer, E. Herman’s principles and practice of prayer; (14) Prayer, O. Hollasby on instruction for an effective prayer life; (15) The School of Charity, Evelyn Underhill (meditation and Inner life; (16) Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (prerequisites and patterns of community living).
This brief study precludes serious analysis of the history of this controversy, but I will give suggestions as to the extent of Church discussion of the issue. Any serious engagement with the history of Spiritual Formation in the individual disciple and the body-corporate-of Christ sends us first to the three general characteristics of “Perfectionist Movements”: (1) All types of perfectionism arose as a reaction against contemporary religious moral lethargy or apostasy. (2) All perfectionist groups, if not in the beginning, led to the establishment of a more or less separate religious community apart from the main body of believers (cf. Monasticism became incorporate with the Roman Catholic Church as a legitimate way of perfection). (3) The creation and recognition of a new standard or authority became the source of “individualistic” perfectionism. The higher standard/authority was invariably a new revelation or a new interpretation (hermeneutic). (See particularly H.K. LaRondelle’s work, Perfection and Perfectionism (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1984).
The Old Testament cultural context of especially Mesopotamia and Egypt, expressed mythopoetic concepts of perfectionism. The same holds for perfectionism in non-Christian religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. The Qumran community was supreme example of preoccupation with ‘religious perfectionism.’ The same emphasis is evident in Graeco-Roman concepts of perfectionism. We will limit our New Testament analysis to just two issues, (A) Romans 7 in the first section of our study. We must keep in mind that not one congregation of disciples mentioned in the NT is still alive today, but the Church is; and (B) Warning Exhortation sections in Hebrews; we operate with biblically grounded holistic hermeneutic versus the use of a number of radically disparate passages of scriptures as “proof texts.”
Serious attention would need to be paid to the Distinctive Idea of Divine Perfection in the Old Testament, especially human perfection in Israel’s protology. The function of Genesis 1, Men -the Imago Dei, function of God’s rest and blessing on the seventh day, perfection, the aim of “probationary command,’ God’s answer to The Fall, human perfection in Israel’s cultus and ethos, culture, Imitation Dei, the religious, moral ground plan of the Psalms and Wisdom literature does not define perfection as sinlessness (see esp. Perfection in cultus and ethos: Sinlessness in Psalms 15.19; individual confessions of innocence and perfection in Pss. 7, 18, 26, 37, 101, 119, eg. Rabbinic and Hellenistic perfectionism.
Qumran perfectionism see esp. H. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism; H.H. Brownlee, The Meaning of The Qumran Scrolls and The Bible; L. Bronner, Sects and Separation During the Second Jewish Commonwealth; Josephus, Wars II, 8; Antiquities; H. Braum, Qumran XVIII ch. I and und das New Testament I/II extensive bibliography in vol. II, section 3-5; B. Rigaux, “Revelation des magisteries et Perfection a Qumran de New Testament.” NRS, IV 1957-88, 23-70.
The Qumran community did not hesitate to call themselves “the perfect ones” (IQ. S.3.3 Temimin 4.22; 8.1). “The men of holy integrity (IQS.8, 20) and the “council of holiness” (IQS, 8.21). The multitude of regulations for ceremonial purity and intense exclusivism. . . and to “preserve their holiness” (B. Gaertner, The Temple and the Community in Qumran and the New Testament). A deep consciousness of men’s inherent sinfulness is especially prevalent in the Thanksgiving hymns or Psalms.
As is widely known, the doctrine of predestination, at least since Augustine, has always tended to prevent to neutralize the idea of human meritorious and law-righteousness, i.e., all forms of synergism. Strangely enough in late Medieval Scholasticism, the doctrine of predestined grace (sola gratia) could be combined at the same time with the doctrine of justification of works alone (solis operibus) (See H. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology, pp. 175ff.) The tension between absolute Justification and non absolute Sanctification from Roman Catholic sacerdotalism to the Wesleyan revolution and pentecostal absolute sanctification as a second work of grace--“complete sanctification.”
Beyond the New Testament period the most important representative of Perfection is the apologist Tatian, a disciple of Justin Martyr. Tatian’s ascetic ethical imitation of Christ is the definite perfectionist element. Implicit in this viewpoint is not only that Christ “can” be imitated, but that all true disciples “must” imitate Him. (see Irenaeus, Adn.Haer., I, 28; Eusebius EH, IV, 29 regards Tatian the origin of Perfection, in Tatian, Oration to The Greeks.)
The fertile Phrygia Valley was the geographical home of The Montanist Movement. The movement was called “The New Prophecy” before and “The Phrygian Heresy” after its excommunication. This movement produced several persons who claimed to have “particular prophetic charion.” The imminent return of Christ was fundamental for their emphasis on the perfectionism of the bride of Christ. The Montanist movement represented prophetic inspiration rather than Jesus and His disciples. Only those who followed new Montanist prophecy were “true spiritualists” (pneumatkoi).
The guiding principle of the Novations were to establish and maintain a “pure Church.” The Novations called themselves the Catharists (katharoi) (Eusebius vi, 43).The moral purists after Novation’s excommunication began to organize the “holy counter Church” (Eusebius, EH, IV, 43). The emphasis on the “communio sanctorium” and the sanctified life of the baptized believers surely preserved an important element of apostolic Christianity. Ultimately, the Novation churches speedily ceased to be any stricter than the other groups in their renunciation of the world. (Harnack, History of Dogma, II, p121).
Another group with emphasis on perfectionism was Pelagianism. Pelagius was strongly influenced by Aristotelian and Stoic philosophy and ethics. He desired to lead the Church to “monarchist, ascetic perfection” Harnack, V. pp. 170ff). His concern for “sinless perfection” appears most strikingly in his letter to the noble virgin Demetrias. Pelagianism only became “problematic” and even heretical when Augustinianism became its forceful counter, which ultimately triumphed at the Council at Carthage (418 A.D.). Pelagius’ call to sinless perfection (amartetos) after baptism was not an innovation. Both Justin and Athanasius were Pelagians before Pelagius in this respect. The other critical Pelagian emphasis was justification sola fide. Augustine failed to perceive this Pelagian feature and only after the recovery of the of his Exposition of Thirteen Epistles of St. Paul in the 20th century (J.A. Robinson, 3 volumes 1922-1931 reprint 1967 and R.F. Evans, Four Letters of Pelagius, 1968, pp. 34ff. and his Pelagius Inquiries and Reappraisals, 1968, p. xiv. Augustine refers to Pelagius work in The Peccatorum Metos et Remissione, III, 1.1 as he discusses Pelagius’ three major errors: (1) Denial of original sin; (2) Meritorious character of grace; (3) Possibility of sinless perfection after baptism (this emphasis will appear again in the Wesleyan Theological Paradigm (see esp. Ferguson’s Pelagius (Cambridge, 1956, p. 47). Pelagius uses the verb perficere in various semantic domains in his expositions, always referring to “accomplishment” of good works (complete list of his use of perficere in Four Letters, p. 81; see also Pelagius expositions of II Cor. 5.9; 4.13, 16; 6.23; Gal. 3.11). Pelagius’ insistence that we can be without sin is an emphatic assertion of the doctrine of creation by a just God--“it is nothing more and nothing less” (Evans, Pelagius, pp. 22, 100-106). By adjudging the Pauline doctrine of fide in an exclusively judicial sense, Pelagius divorced the sola fide from the way of sanctification. This judgment places him closer to Seneca and Stoicism than to Pauline theology. Since Pelagius wanted to be orthodox, he came to define grace as the infused capacity for sinlessness. Augustine sought to respond to Pelagius in his De Natara et Gratia. (See my discussion of “grace” in Pelagius and Augustine in my forthcoming Narrative Displacement in The Nature of Grace)
The biblical paradigm of holiness, both Old and New Testament, excludes the notion of inherent sinless perfection. The decision of the Council at Carthage in 418 A.D. is justified in rejecting the static moral perfectionism of Pelagianism (see C.J. Hefele, A History of The Councils of The Church from Original Documents, II, 11896 E.T., pp. 458ff.)
Perfectionism’s long history continued through the Christian Platonist of Alexandria. Clement calls this sinlessness “deification” which later penetrates Eastern Theological Orthodoxy (see Flew, Idea of Perfection, p. 142ff). Clement seems to be the historic origin of two levels of grace (saving changes): (1) From unbelief to faith and (2) from faith to knowledge. The Gnostic Christian is already deified (cf. H.E.W. Turner, The Patristic Doctrine of Redemption, 1952, p. 79).
The high point of perfectionism was reached in Origen. He was a master of spiritual life, possessed by the idea of experiencing the ideal of Christian perfection (see esp. Danielou, History of Theology, p. 56 and W. Voelker, Das Voilkomenhertsideal des Origenes, 1931). His theory of perfection underlies his hermeneutics, exegesis and spirituality. “Just as there is a movement onward from the literal meaning to the allegorical meaning, so there is a transition from the common faith to gnosis and there is a progress from ordinary Christian life to perfection, spirituality forms the inward dimension of this ladder.” (Danielou, ibid, p. 60) Origen’s perfectionism ultimately entails to restoration of all things in their original perfection. This is the apokatastasis panton of Acts 3.19 (Harnack, II, pp. 377-78; Danielou, Origen, pp. 209-220; 271-310).
Perfectionism in Monasticism: Monasticism is the boldest attempt to attain to Christian perfection in all the long history of The Church, according to R.N. Flew’s Idea of Perfection, p. 158, esp. 158-88, “du Plesis, Teleios , in the New Testament. In monastic perfection the Imitatio Christi came to mean perfect renunciation and “complete impassivity as regards actual living” (Flew, ibid, p. 167ff.).
One ultimate consequence of the Monastic way of life was the necessity of and the legitimization of a double moral standard within or alongside the Church (Harnack, H.D, II 94, 123; and his Monasticism--Its Ideals and Its History (NY,, ET, 1895, pp. 44ff). Note the development between clergy and laity and the development of Sacerdotalism, i.e., the Roman Catholic Church is the sole source of grace from the womb to the tomb. The immorality in the Church was the cause of Luther’s revolution. The Church sold indulgences, i.e. they paid for future sins not yet committed.
Aquinas’ use of (1) mertum de congino and (2) meritum de condigno was based in his assumption that God’s justice demands the separation (see esp. H. Oberman, Forerunners of The Reformation, 1966, p. 132). Aquinas’ Aristotelianism molded the soul apart from any act of the will. This led Aquinas to conclude “By every meritorious act a man merits the increase of grace, equally with the consummation of grace which is eternal life (Summa Contra Gentiles, I, II g 114 a.8, 3). History now justifies the conclusion that both Monasticism and Monastic apocalypticism must be defined as forms of ascetic perfectionism. Both movements failed in this mission.
The first Scientific Revolution, the Industrial and French Revolutions, the coming of Capitalistic Democracy and Compulsory Education incited Wesleyan men to believe once more that “man” was capable of self-perfection. The new view of autonomy, i.e., freedom from the Church’s domination, came to full fruition in Classical Liberalism. The four assumptions of classical liberalism were (1) the inherent goodness or ultimate reality of nature; (2) the perfectibility of man; (3) the animality of man and (4) the inevitability of progress. Even on the surface, these presuppositions are diametrically opposed to any form of classical Christianity concerning human sinfulness, rejection of the “imago dei," man was reduced to the trousered ape and cultural and economic utopia was slow in human hands. Long before our postmodern trivialization and privatization of God, scientific development removed God from every parameter of reality. The work of scientific development from Galileo, Newton, Marx, Darwin, Freud and Nietzsche announced that “God was Dead”, i.e., no longer necessary in our cafeteria of alternative explanations--the modern mind was intact! But we enter the world of Einstein, Creek, Monad, and DNA in our postmodern culture, which rejects True Truth and Objectivity; now all reality is Socially Constructed and we live at the cafeteria of Tolerance and Diversity!
Each time an outbreak of preoccupation with perfectionism happens, both culture and the Church is as fragmented and dysfunctional as if God was absent from the human scene. Where is God when I need Him? Job’s mournful lament is still man’s only answer. In Christ man’s search for God and personal and social holiness is over! Does Postmodern man need God? For what reasons? Here we are at the cultural turning point of the 21st Century where millions are turning to sex, drugs and non-Christian religions and all forms of New Age Pantheism. What must be our response? We must worship God by the constant renewing of our minds (Romans 12.1-2). Your mind matters! Without our awareness of how we got here we can provide no positive response to the greatest challenge in the history of The Church! We are called to “Understand the Times”!
If we are to constructively address our Postmodern Challenge, we must study Romans 7 and the exhortation passages in Hebrews.
The biblical data pertaining to the Imago Dei are found in both Old and New Testaments. The classical liberal theology asserted Paul’s view was based on Hellenistic mystery religions asserted by comparative religion schools. The claim that Paul’s teaching on the Image is indebted to the private mystery cults in Egypt, Phrygia and Persia, particularly those of Isis, Attis, Cybele and Mittra with their goal of salvation secured through personal union with the god or goddess. The mystery religions made frequent references to the divinization of the believer and human absorption into God (always in the shadow of all forms of “imitation” and “perfectionism.” (W. deBoer, The Imitation of Paul) The biblical doctrine of the doctrine of the Imago Dei is always in the setting of creation and redemption. On this claim rests the biblical assertions of the “inherent dignity” and worth of all persons, i.e., infinite worth of the human person. The biblical discussion turns on the Hebrew words selem and demut and the corresponding Greek terms eikon and homoiosis (Gen. 1.26,27; 5.1,3; 9.6; I Cor 11.7; Col 3.10; Jas 3.9) (E.I. Tinsley, The Imitation of God in Christ)
To project God in man’s image is therefore a heinous form of idolatry confounding creation with the creature (Rom 23). This distortion reaches its nadir in the worship of the beast and his image or statue (Rev. 14.9ff). There is no real clash between the Old and New Testament concerning the survival of the “imago dei” after the fall. The New Testament also speaks of the divine nature in the “natural man” (I Cor 11.7; Jas 3.9). But the central message is redeemed man’s renewal in the image of Christ. Only man was given dominion over the animals and charged to subdue the earth, that is to consecrate it to the spiritual service of God and man. Note how the biblical data completely rejects postmodern pantheism and its identification of animals and the environment.
This study will not address the implication of creation and the Imago Dei in light of Freud, et. al or the neurobiological revolution which reduces the mind (self) to the brain and the brain to a low grade computer, i.e., resurgent theme of “man the Machine”
(see my papers--“The Neurophysical Revolution: Shaping Forces of the Counter Culture”; “The Counter Culture Meets the Neurophysical Revolution: The Demise of the Person in Postmodernism”; note also the implications of both Eastern/Western Iconograph and the biblical hostility to all forms of Idolatry).
We must also note the certain interpretations of Imago Dei; “human nature,” “body,” “soul,” “spirit,” are modified in any discussion of The Incarnation and the post biblical developments of Mariology/Immaculate Conception. J. Meyendorf, Byzantine Theology: J. Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon; J. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, III “Spirit of Eastern Christendom”; E.O. Connor, ed., the Immaculate Conception.
To the Old Testament picture of man, the New Testament adds the graphic exposition of his sonship through the adoption of grace (John 1.12) and his new role subsequent to his rescue from unregenerate race in the family of redemption (Ephesians 1.3). At the time of our crowned Christ’s return, He will mediate to the members of the body powers and virtues that belong to the members as an earnest of their future inheritance (II Cor 1.22; Gal 5.22; Eph 1.14). Man’s destiny is therefore not simply an endless existence but is moral--either life redeemed and fit to enter His presence, or a life under perpetual divine judgment.
But we must also retrace the historic steps from the 15th to the 21st centuries the quiet mysticism of Thomas a’ Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, which has influenced all branches of Christianity. In our own times, James Stalken, Imago Christ (1889) is perhaps still the best source to trace the steps of “Imitation”; although the book by Charles Sheldon, In His Steps has sold more than 20 million copies. Perhaps now John Bunyan’s devotional classical work, Pilgrim’s Progress (compare with C.S. Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress). Man’s entire genre of literature has sought to seek and imitate Jesus Christ as the “model” of our spiritual life. There is not one single passage of scripture that states or implies that to imitate Christ is to imitate his sinlessness. The perfect ones (teleios) will always remain receptive and teachable, growing in Christian theology and knowledge.
The tenor of Romans 7.14ff. has been interpreted mainly as applying either to the unborn but morally conscious man, who wants and strives to be good until he despairs of himself or to the Christian who through the effective spiritual power of the law, still observes an inner discord in himself between his reborn heart or mind and his flesh, i.e., its defiling passions. It should be obvious that in the latter situation, when Romans 7.14-25 is applied to the Christian believer (eg. Paul) every kind of perfectionism which proclaims a transformation into inherent holiness or the possibility of realized ethical sinlessness before the glorious advent of Christ is judged and exposed as a myth. Suppose we assume at this point that Paul has sketched for us in Romans 7 is the profile of the “battling believer.” We have then as excellent basis for reflection on the Perfectionists’ view of man. WE must keep in mind the very fact that the man of Romans 7.14ff. has the holy law of God, in contrast with “the natural man” who does not have the Law of Moses (Romans 2.14).
It is commonly stated (in Romans 7.7,13) that the proper objective or theme of Romans 7.7-25 if the function of the law with respect to sin or justification. However, to consider the theme of vs. 7-25 as the function of the function of the law for men as such seems to objectify the law and to abstract its function from its living relation with the crucified Christ and the Christian believer, within the baptismal theology of Paul. The function of the Law of God cannot be conceived as a theme by itself (see Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, p. 326 on the three uses of The Law), since the “holy law” is only given in correlation with the promise/covenant of atoning grace. To consider the function of law in Romans 7 without the promise/covenant setting with the Christological-soteriological framework is a presupposition not only out of order in Paul’s “Theolegia curcis” as developed in the previous chapters of Romans, but also in the promise/covenant theology as a whole (the issue is the correlation between the Law of God and Grace).
How or when did this moral man ever come to the point of crying out (to whom?) or confessing his own “wretchedness” and moreover at the same time explaining his thankfulness for redemption by Jesus Christ? The real problem of Romans 7 does not seem to be how the law is driving “the natural man” to be convicted of his moral wretchedness which then would make him already “an anonymous Christian,” so that “at a certain moment” (?) the spark of Christ’s all sufficiency fittingly can be discharged from the other side. This issue has been a crucial problem at least since the Reformation: How could there be “complete Justification” without “complete Sanctification.” This discussion runs from Luther and Calvin, et. al to the Wesleyan perfectionism emphasis and every facet of the Pentecostal/Holiness Movement from the 18th to the 20th century.
The crucial issue in this discussion is how, in what way, the man of Romans 7 ever came to his conviction of ultimate self-condemnation and simultaneously of existential redemption in Christ. (We need to keep before us the “conversion” accounts in Acts and Paul’s entire theology of baptism.) Note the most crucial passage in the New Testament concerning baptism is in Romans 6.
Is not the simultaneousness of both religious experiences in vs. 24-25 already an indication that the holy law and Christ are correlated and thus indissolubly connected in the existential experience of faith? How futile in Paul’s estimation is the efficacy of the law itself, i.e., divorced from Christ’s atonement, even with unbelieving Jews who have the law and read it fervently, becomes strikingly apparent from his explanation in II Corinthians 3 and 4. The reading of Moses of the Old Testament without the life giving spirit through faith in Christ is only a killing letter, not because the law as such kills, but because a kalymma lies over the hardened mind or hearts (kardia) of those who want to be justified by law. The law can only condemn to death those who are not in Christ, because of sin, i.e., their unbelieving sinful heart, mind and soul (see Christ in the Old Testament in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7, esp. Luke 24, the resurrected Christ in the Old Testament).
It is Paul’s outspoken conviction that only the glorious light of the cross of Christ reveals law in its proper work of condemning of all law - righteousness as sin before God. “I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of The Law, that everyone who has faith may be justified (Romans 10.2-4). (A believer’s baptism becomes also his death before the law)
It is of crucial significance, however, that Paul describes this crucified “old man” in 6.6 as “sinful body;” in Galatians 5.24 as “the flesh with its passions and desires, in Colossians 2.11 as “the body of flesh (to soma tes sarkos) and in Romans 7.24 “this body of death” (to soma tou thanatou). All of these passages signify not the human body as such, but its “sinful way of existence.” The new man in Christ is not the corrected or cleansed old man!
In Paul’s concept of baptism, he seems to have built in the anti-perfectionist reservation that the Christian cannot as yet claim the quality of the resurrected body of Christ. While expressing the union of the Christian with Christ’s death in the perfect tense, he avoids this tense for their union with Christ’s resurrection, using here only the future tense (compare with Col. 2.2, the resurrection is immediately related to faith). If we want to define whether the subject of Romans 7.14ff. in its inner struggle is the natural or the Christian man, whether his struggle fits the existence kata sarka or kata pneuma before the holy law in Romans 8, the struggle with the flesh as such cannot be the decisive criterion since they “have died to the law through the body of Christ” (Roms 7.24), but rather the commitment of the heart or mind to the flesh or holy law, coram deo. In order to establish the theological meaning of confession “wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (vs. 24), we first have to ascertain the meaning of the body of death in its relation to the law of God and man’s social ethic (see esp. Schweitzer, TDNT, VII p. 123, 1-12 and 135)
The theme of Romans 7 seems not to be the unassailable dignity of the law as such, but the law in its dominating and condemning efficacy on a person as long as he lives in the “old man or sinful death-body, i.e., as long as the law of sin operates in man, vs. 1-4. This general principle receives its significant application; however with reference to the two seemingly rhetorical questions of Paul, whether the being discharged from the law through faith in the crucified body of Christ (vs. 4,6) finds its cause in the nature of the law itself. Is the Law sinful (vs. 7) and does the law bring death to me (vs. 3-14-25) reveals how the law fails on the man outside of Christ; otherwise, if the theme concerning the law is no longer the condemnation of the law, as in vs. 1-6, but the goodness of the law; this would disturb the entire tenor of Romans 5-8 and stand in contrast with 7.1-6. Paul therefore stresses the inalienable goodness and holiness of The Law of God (vs. 10-12); at the same time disclosing the real cause of the condemnatory efficacy of The Law. The Law of God only condemns the “law of sin and death” which reigns in the flesh, vs. 13,18. Consequently, an should not cry for deliverance from the Law of God but for deliverance from his own body of death with its inherent law of sin (vs. 24).
The crucial issues that remain to be concentrated on are the question of whether vs. 14-25 intend to indicate the death of the sinful body, in spite of man’s moral militancy, or the militant resistance of the crucified death-body to the spiritual law or reign of Christ in the baptized man.
From earliest time, debate regarding the nature of Paul’s religious experience in Judaism has centered in Romans 7.7-25. Origen and most of the Greek Fathers viewed this message as a reminiscence of life under the Law and they have been followed by such scholars as John Wesley, A. Deissmann, H.J. Thackery, A.S. Peake, J.S. Stewart and C.H. Dodd. In opposition, Augustine and the Latin Fathers interpreted this passage as reflecting Paul’s post conversion experience, which finds analogy in the inner conflicts of every true Christian. Agreement with this view has been voiced by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and A. Nygren, esp. W.G. Kummel, Romer 7 und die Dekehrung des Paulus (Leipzig: Hinrich 1929, pp. 74-109) for position of Fathers and Reformers and German scholarship.
A third type of interpretation has arisen in denial of the biographical implications of both pre and post conversion views. Such men as H. Lietzmann, H. Windisch, W.G. Kummel, G. Bornkamm, M. Dibelius and C.I. Mitton on representative figures. Most of those who oppose the biographical interpretation view of the passage as depicting mankind in the general sense. Some insist that it is mankind in general because it is mankind in Adam; while the Bartians prefer to speak of mankind in the non-historical and primal existent present. This position stems not from exegesis, but the implications of the influence of naturalistic, positivistic views of scientific development. The problem cannot be resolved as long as postmodern hermeneutics, anti science and revisionist history dominate the theological arena. From the perspective of Darwinian naturalistic evolution in Genesis 1-11 in the mytho-poetic milieu of the ancient Middle East preclude that Adam be a “real historical person.” Therefore the entire discussion is dismissed as academic nonsense. When the biblical narrative of creation is rejected in the name of scientific development, then no appeal can be made in Romans and Galatians to establish the biblical view of Adam and The Fall (II Cor 11.3; I Tim 2.11; Rom 5.2-21; 12.2a) resulting in human sin. All discussion remains in the mytho-poetic-existential categories. Sin after the Freudian revolution, is interpreted as neurosis which can be modified by psychoanalytic counselling. Human alienation after Marx is “caused” by socio-economic environmental factors. Postmodernism totally rejects the discussion as trivial nonsense.
The issue concerns the subject and temporal reference of the early section of chapter 7.7-13, 14-25 as crucial for Pauline teaching. The question is: Does Romans 7.7-13 portray a preconversion experience of Paul? This question regarding the subject in this passage has traditionally appeared to be the more easily answered by the problems involved. The prima facie evidence of the constant repetition of “ego,” and the analogy of experience as revealed in both biography and the soul of the interpreter, have led most commentators to view the subject as quite obviously Paul himself. In the aforementioned classical article by Kummel three passages in the Talmud cite where “I” is used as a stylistic form, a stilform (Mishnah Ber 1.3, Mishnah Abath 6.9 and Ber 3a). These are Talmudic examples where the first person is biographical. Yet the late date of the reference cannot be used as proof that Paul’s use of “I” is not autobiographical.
There is new evidence from the Qumran on the question (compare Romans 7 and columns 10-11 in IQS); in the context of the discussion of the gifts of salvation, knowledge, righteousness, strength and glory, there is a sudden cry, “But I belong to wicked humanity and to the assembly of perverse flesh. . .” (IQ.S 11.9-10 trans by W.H. Brownlee, The Dead Sea Manual of Discipline (BA SOR SS. Nov 10, 1951). Further quotations reveal the believer fully conscious of his election of God and his acceptance in the community.
K.G. Kuhn’s brilliant article sheds light on Romans 7. We have in this text the same I as in Romans 7; it is the same I not only in regard to style, but especially in regard to theological connotations. “I is here, just as in Romans 7, not meant individually or biographically; it is gnomic, descriptive of human existence. The I in this Qumran passage as in Romans 7 signifies the existence of mankind, which is flesh.” (K.G. Kuhn, “New Light on Temptation, Sin and Flesh in the New Testament” Scrolls and the New Testament, ed. K. Stendahl, 102).
In the context of this discussion, we cannot forget the significance of Galatians 1.14, Phil 3.46, Acts 22.3; 26.5 in which Paul’s religious life in Judaism is described as having been blameless amemptos and strict akribeia, akribes. Do these passages reveal Paul’s legalistic pride? We now know of a nomistic, even anti legalistic piety, which existed amidst the strictest of Qumran society (The Qumran Scrolls speak often of being blameless or free from “fault” in keeping the commandments of the Lord (IQS. 1.9; 3.9; CDC, 2.15; 32). It was the person and work of Jesus Christ as the fulfilment of Israel’s promised hope and not an early dissatisfaction with the Law that made all the difference, thereby transforming the zealous Rabbi Saul into the zealous Apostle Paul.
In order to come to grips with this problem it is of vital importance to understand the theological meaning of vs. 9-11, i.e., the phrase, “I was once alive apart from the law (choris nomou), but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died) vs. 9). Could this be Paul’s description of his own Rabbinical experience before and when he was apprehended by Christ? Or is he describing “happy childhood-hippies and freer in retrospect, no doubt than it ever really was--before the troublesome conscience awoke?” (see C.H. Dodd, Ridderbos, Murray and Althaus on Romans 7 in their commentaries). Writing Romans 7 from the standpoint of an apostle of Jesus Christ, his evaluation may well be compared with the retrospective descriptions of his religious experience in Philippians 3.6-10 and Galatians 2.19-20. Just as the rich young ruler himself asserted that he had kept all the divine commandments (Matt. 19.20), while from the Christian standpoint he had not attained to the law at all (eg. Israel, Romans 9.31; see my paper, “Paul’s Missionary Manifesto: Romans 9-11).
So Paul now counts his legalistic life as a Pharisee he previously regarded as the perfect life--“as to the righteousness under law blameless” (Phil. 3.6 “loss” and “refuse” 3.8) because he had felt no condemnation by the Law! Although the revelation of Jesus Christ brought to Paul the realization that Christ is the “end” of all righteousness, Christ did not abolish the just requirements of the law to him (see Rom 3.31; 7.10-12; 8.4 and 9.31); on the contrary, only through being apprehended by Christ was the holiness of the law brought home to his conscience with its condemning power, revealing his transgressions. “For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God” (Gal 2.19). In the following verse he explains his death of self to be his crucifixion with Christ so that he was no longer living in the old self, but Christ in him (vs. 20). In other words, in Gal. 2.19f Paul is identifying the coming of the law in its condemning power with the coming of Christ to him. As a good Pharisee, Paul would sooner or later deal with self-satisfaction natural to the Pharisees (Jesus said, “except your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees”).
Does not Romans 7.4, just as Galatians 2.19, define the spiritual death of the “brethren” Christologically? They have “died” to the law through the body of Christ (see also Rom 6.6; Gal 5.24). We therefore take the position that the power of Christ or the Spirit underlies the dynamic and fruitful activity of pneumatikos law coram Deo in Romans 7.9-25; I Cor 15.10; Gal 2.20, II Cor 10.3-5. The sin reviving efficacy of the law is Christologically determined from beginning to end! (see R.H. Longenecker, Paul, Apostle of Liberty (Baker, 1976, esp. pp. 86ff.) (eg. the significance of the translation “the body of this death” or “this body of death” note “nous” as the natural capability of man)
The mind, (nous) or inner man, (eso anthropos) is clearly determined by the new covenant experience of delighting and willing obedience. This ho nomos may not be robbed of its religious pneumatikos character by changing it basically into the concept of lex naturae like a constraining principle (Sanday and Headhans, Romans 7.2) The man has “delight” in the law of God is a description given only to the children of the covenant (eg. Ps 1.2; 119.35; 47).
We must now come to the crucial question--with which of the two contrasted objective ways of existence in Romans 8.1-13 is the battle of Romans 7 to be identified? The subject of Romans 7.9-24 can never be identified with the existence in which the mind or heart is set on the things of the flesh (Schweiger TDNT Vol II, p. 132 s.v. sarx; Ridderbos, Paul, p. 108), and therefore has to be identified legally with the existence in which the mind or heart is set on the things of the Spriti, while the body is dead because of sin (8.10-13). We could summarize this identification with three considerations: (1) The “subject” of Romans 7 must be identified with the perfect Christian of Romans 8 because there is a corresponding recognition of the delight in the holy law of God coram Deo of Romans 7 (7.16,21,22,24; 8.5b,7); (2) The inner man or mind of Romans 7 hates and opposes self, the old man (vs. 14,15) (note the sharp contrast with mind of the flesh, “nous tes serkos” in Col. 2.18) and repents of his own wretchedness (vs.24), which corresponds to the battle of the Christian with his (legally) “dead body” in Romans 8.10-13 (Paul repeatedly has to summon the Christians to fix their phronein on Christ (Phil 2.5; Col 2.2, egs Bertram TDNT, IX, pp. 228, 10-23); (3) The battle with the indwelling power of sin in Romans 7 (which seems to know no victory and only defeat is still basically different from the sinful walk or ethos sarka in Romans. The non-Christian in Romans 8 still has the heart and mind phronema of the old man or body, which is ego centric, his mind being set on himself and hostile to God and His law (vs 5a,7) in contrast to the man in Romans 7 (vs. 22-25).
It can be observed that the spiritual man in Romans 8 is not described in his actual, empirical battle with self! In other words, the passage Rom 7.9-25 and 8.1-13 should not be contrasted with each other on the presupposition that Rom 7 knows no spirit or victory and the Christian in Romans 8 knows no flesh (vs. 13) or defeat. While Romans 7 describes in terms of personal exemplary experience, the actual Christian battle and self consciousness before God (Rom 8.1-10) seems to present more the two antagonistic objective ways of being in God’s sight either being hatu pneuma en pneumati or being kata sarka, en sarki (see esp. Forerster. TDNT II p. 412, 20ff, a comparative exposition between Romans 7.14-25 on the existence of religious self understanding of the Christian in the state of justification).
The only other reference to wretched talaiporos occurs in Revelation 3.17. Here it is a reproof by the glorified Christ, which He addresses to the Church of Laodicea in order to break through their false self esteem, which this church has in her own self consciousness (vs. 17). Christ calls them to repentance (vs. 19).
In Romans 7 we do not get the impression that Paul is dealing with the non-Christian “brethren” who knew the law (vs 1, 14). “We know that the law is pneumatiko but I am sarkinos, prepramentos hypo ten hamartian. This is surely Paul’s confession of his new covenant experience, vs. 9-12, which he presents as a continuing reality; instead of radical despair derived from his own analysis, he is aware of divine forgiveness!
Peter’s letter shows remarkable correspondence to Pauline Theology. Peter shows transference of divine election of Israel in the chosen believers in Jesus Christ, who then are addressed as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” in order to testify of the “wonderful deeds of God in salvation history (I Peter 1.2; 2.9-10). The character of the perfection imperative, however, will be colored by one’s interpretation of the kingdom of heaven (basileia ton ouranon), the nature of which determines its entrance requirements and its relation to Jesus as the Messianic King. The Sermon on the Mount is set in an eschatological framework (cf. R.N. Flew, Idea of Perfection in Christian Thought, p. 4) are directed to the ultimate establishment of the Kingdom of Glory, yet it is true that the eschatological Kingdom is not the exclusive point of view. Jesus’ radical religious intensifying and concretizing of the ethos of love of grace remains basic. Matthew presupposes the redeeming and healing reality of “the gospel of the kingdom” for this perfection imperative (see Matt. 4.23f) the Kingdom of God is both present and eschatologically future).
The eschaton is already effective in the person of Jesus without denying its final eschatological fulfilment (chp 7.13f; vs. 21-23) (W.G. Kummel, Promise and Fulfilment: Eschatological Message of Jesus E.T. 1961, p. 108ff) The ethos of the Sermon on The Mount is not addressed to the Gentiles or the self righteous but to the praying children of the heavenly father (Kittel, TDNT I p. 5f, esp. Schrenck, ‘abba’ pp. 984-987 “pates” esp. 985) The audience is addressed as “the Salt of the Earth”, “the Light of the World” and is characterized by their praise and exaltation of their “Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5.13-16). They do not boast in their righteousness but hunger and thirst for righteousness,” seeing first their Father’s kingdom and His righteousness (Matt 5.6; 6.33 they love and serve God with an undivided, i.e. whole heart (Matt. 6.24).
Jesus describes them in Matt. 3.5 as the meek (praeir) who will inherit the earth; with the description Jesus identifies them with the meek or righteous or blameless and perfect. In the Old Testament those who walk perfectly (tamim, Ps 15.2) according to the covenant cultus. This intimate relationship of the Sermon on the Mount with the living Old Testament sanctuary worship precludes fundamentally the notion of theological perfectionism in Christ’s perfection--imperative also presupposes the redemptive indicative, i.e., the perfect forgiveness of sins. Just as in the Psalms the religious requirement of perfection as the covenantal imitatio Dei is conditioned and motivated by the historic salvation of the divine Exodus deliverance, we find Christ’s call to perfection conditioned and motivated by His own redeeming acts of healing, exorcism and forgiving of sins (cf. J.S. Banks in A Dictionary of The Bible, ed J. Hastings III, p. 909, 745; perfection labors under an unnecessary polarization of Old and New Testaments which only The Theology of Promise can fuse without contradiction; W. Guthrod, TDNT IV, pp. 1029-1037, nonos, for analysis of the destruction of cultic, ceremonial or nationalistic requirements but only moral ones are not mentioned.
Especially Matthew and John intend to reveal why the Old Testament Imitatio Dei is mow made manifest as the Imitatio Christ, or following the good shepherd, the Son of God. We do not use Imitatio Christ in the medieval moralistic sense of copying or reproducing the life of Christ as for example Francis of Assisi or Thomas a’ Kempis (see Berkower’s critique in Faith and Sanctification, pp. 136f.). It can only mean to us the obedient religious, moral following of Christ, His words and deeds, rooted in the redeeming cultic communion with Him.
The New Testament concept of Imitatio is worked out by W.P. de Boer in his work, The Imitation of Paul: An Exegetical Study (Doctoral Thesis, Kampen Press, 1962). He indicates that the problem of imitation is primarily one of semantics (pp 67,68), he concludes (p 69), “For the sake of clarity, . . . it is preferable to use the term . . . where the believer is conforming his life to the example of Christ.” We most use the term with the relationship of redemptive indicative and redemptive imperative over against each moralistic distortion, as is expressed by Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification, chp 7, the Imitation of Christ. We must never seek to “overcome” the unbridgeable grief between sinful men (even redeemed) and the sinless Christ (who alone is perfect--we don’t need an example, we need a savior); Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics I, 1966, abridged from volumes I and II, 1958-59) rejects the concept of piety of imitatio p. 185. Biblical discipleship always involves Imitatio)
To follow Christ means to be born by His atoning cross (E. Schweizer, Lordship and Discipleship, E.T. 1960), p. 20; see esp. II Cor 5.14). Luther correctly says, “It is not the imitation that makes us sons; it is sonship that makes imitators.” Both Luther and Calvin worked a theological ethic of Imitation) This dynamic evangelical concept of the transforming imitatio Christi is worked out in E.C. Tinsley, The Imitation of God in Christ (Philadelphia, 1960, chps 8-10).
Matthew identifies Jesus as the perfect son of David with the faithful remnant of Israel, who conquered where Israel of old failed in history. Even in the crucifixion, Jesus suffers as the fruitful Ebed Yaweh (cf. Isaiah 53, to save Israel). On the other hand, Matthew with the perfect Lord of David identifies Jesus the covenant God of promise. Yahweh, who remains faithful to His Promise/Covenant (see my essay on Paul’s use of Habbakuk in Romans and Galatians, “The just shall live by faith.” The Hebrew text can mean, “the just shall live by God’s faithfulness” or the individual believers. Without God’s faithfulness to His promise all of our faith would be futile.
Jesus calls His disciples to imitate Him both as the saved remnant and as the saving remnant (Matt. 5.13,14). “The acts of the Apostles might well be called the imitatio Christi of the Church under the “Servant of the Lord Christology” (LaRondelle, op cit p. 169). Jesus calls His disciples to absolute obedience, not His interpretation of the Torah as the Rabbis or some captivating ideas as the Greek philosophers. His call was for “ultimate decision” and “absolute surrender” to His person as Messiah, as the One who speaks and acts in God’s stead (see esp. Rengstorf, TDNT IV, pp. 447, Mathetis, disciples, esp. p. 447 for comparison between Jesus, The Rabbis and Greek philosophers.
Exceeding the righteousness and love of the Scribes and the Pharisees, Christ requires perfection, i.e., undivided holy love from the sons of the heavenly Father, not in order to become sons of God, but to be or manifest themselves as sons of God (see esp. Mt. 5.43ff; 22.39; Lk 6.35; Lev 19.18-34; Dt. 14.1, Israel as sons of God (see extra discussion in Strack-Billerbeck I, pp. 371-373). In Matthew 19.21 Christ replies to a question from the rich young ruler, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “If you would enter keep the commandments.” (Mt 19.17; Mk 10.19; Lk 10.26-28, esp. 18-20) The question exposes no experimental knowledge of grace as the way to salvation. The reply of the young ruler was, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” The questions reveals the inner dissatisfaction about the first claim but also the prevailing Pharisaic misconception of Israel’s Torah, i.e., basic lack of the redemptive cultic perfection or transforming experience. He was lacking the very essence of the Imitatio Dei, the motivation of perfect love (see esp. Mk 10.21; Lk 18.22).
The Messianic call to be teleios, therefore, is not a high or a different way to the kingdom but the intensification or radicalizing of them in following Christ.
When we consider the use of terms teleios and hagios in Paul’s writings, we observe one overall and supreme characteristic: the Christo-centric soteriology and cultic motif (see esp. du Plessis, op cit, pp. 176-205). The Pauline ethic of perfection and holiness never is reserved only for a selected elite class (Rom 12.2; I Cor 2.6, 12.10; 14.20; Eph 4.13; Phil 3.12-15; Col 1.28; 3.14). “If we reflect for a moment on Paul’s use of the word teleios it is clear that the particular that is the most distinct aspect of perfection as he envisaged it, was the fullness of the redemptive state or the supreme soteriological bounty of belief in Jesus Christ. . . they are perfect because they received the full donation of the redemptive work of Jesus.” (du Plesssis, op cit, p. 205)
The Old Testament cultic present of Yahweh is rooted in the historical redemption of the covenant God. Paul applies this cultic salvation reality of the O.T. to the indwelling of the Sprit of Christ in His body, the Church (hemeis gar naos theou esmen zontos - II Cor 3.18; 6.16b; 13.5; I Cor 3.16,17; Gal 2.20, Eph 2.19-22; 3.16-18, 5.18) The celtic structure of Romans 12.1-2 is clearly prepared by the structure of Romans 6, where the ethical imperative of vs. 12ff, 16-19 is founded on the Christological salvation history and the transforming cultic redemption of baptism. The cultic death of the old self in baptism is not pictured as being only man’s activity but with God in Christ (Col. 3.3). The new will therefore cannot be described as a purely ethical but rather the empirical aspect of the transformation so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6.4ff.).
“So you also (houtor kai hymeis) must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Roms 6.11) From chapters 6 to 12, Paul turns once more to the ethical implications of baptism with the renewed appeal. “by the mercies of God” to consecrate the whole bodily existence as a sacrifice accepted by God. By the “body” Paul indicates the total man, including his mind (nous), Rom 12.2). “For Thou alone art holy” (Rev 4.8-11; 5.9; 15.4; Isa 6 --“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty”
Now for a brief study of perfection in the Hebrew Epistle. In this word of exhortation the author presents his appeal to go on to perfection (6.1) within the framework of a Christologically determined salvation of history and eschatology. Perfection in Hebrews is described in this analogy as propitiation for sin, of which the atonement services of the Old Testament, i.e., high priest, are mere shadows. (telesios, 2 times in 5.14; 9.11; teleioun, 9 times in 2.10; 5.9; 7.19; 7.28; 9.9; 10.11; 10.14; 11.40; 12.23; teleiotes, 6.1; teleiosis 7.11; teleiotes, 12.2; telos, 5 times, 3.6; 3.14; 6.8; 6.11; 7.8 (see du Pleissis, op cit pp. 118, 206-233).
Of all the writings of the New Testament, Hebrews most explicitly and thematically relates the apostolic ethos of perfection to the Christological culture, Christ being the exclusive High Priest and His death on the cross was a once-for-all atonement for sin. His work as the Cross and Resurrection was finished! (See my study outline of Hebrews: “The Gospel According to Hebrews”) “Thus perfection of the saints in Hebrews is, by virtue of its Old Testament roots and the consummation in Christ, a soteriological and redemptive historical concept. . . . Perfection on this analogy is described by the propitiation for sin, of which the cultic propitiation services of the Old Testament high priests are mere shadows.” (du Plessis, op.cit, p. 239)
The reality of perfection therefore, can only be received in the cultic way of “drawing near” “using the framework of cultic Old Testament tradition to provide basic motifs he arrives at a provocative image of the perfection of the saints. It is drawing near to God, (Schneider, see art. TDNT II, p 682) and they who do so become beneficiaries of salvation and are called the people of God.” (du Plessis, op.cit. p. 231)
There is a unique fact or in the qualification of the term teleios in Hebrews. Rooted in the Christological soteriology the author emphasizes a double characteristic in the life of the teleios; one the one hand, the teleios are not “dull of hearing” (5.1) which indicates that. The God of promise covenant, who called Israel to be holy, now calls the Church to the same holiness. But as He who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct (anastrophe) (see 1.18; 2.12; 3.1,2,16; Eph 4.22). God called both Israel and His Church to holiness (Ps 15.19).
I Peter immediately connects the moral obedience with the continuous mediatorial efficacy of the blood of Christ (I Peter 1.2). In I Peter baptism is characterized specifically as the redemptive cultus (soizei baptisma, 3.21), which points beyond an external symbolic ritual of baptizing, the cleansing of the conscience (syneideseos agathes, see also Acts 2.38; 3.19; 26). The whole ethos of the baptized Christian becomes the Imitatio Christi as total communion with Christ and therefore as the following in His footsteps, as sheep following their shepherd (I Peter 2.19-225). This means concretely that in all social expression following their Lord to manifest “good behavior” (anastrophe) in Christ” (I Peter 3.16) and with a “clear conscience” are to render service by the strength which Christ supplies in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” (I Peter 2.18ff; 3.1ff; 3.7; 4.11)
Appendix--Some Problem Texts:
I John 3.9 - must be placed in total context of John’s writings especially the context of this versus I and II Peter reveals the practical nature of the knowledge of God and Christ in the way of Sanctification. Both letters are concerned with progressive sanctification “grow up to salvation” (I Pet 2.2; II Pet 3.18; compare Gal 5.6ff as from to the spirit, I Cor 9.25-27)
Christ’s abiding all sufficient offering of Christ’s body is stressed repeatedly by the perfect tenses in Hebrews 10.10,14); three perfect tenses (1) cleansed, vs. 2; (2) sanctified, vs. 10; (3) perfected, vs. 14, do not primarily indicate the way of progressive sanctification.
Christian Perfection and Sinlessness: If we were to try the entire Old and New Testaments in order to face the question directly whether Christian perfection is identifiable with ethical/sinlessness in the New Testament our final answer must in the negative.
Christ’s life and ministry (cf. see my paper, “The Only Expected Man in History: Luke 24, The Messiah in the Old Testament”) indicates God’s promise more powerfully to bring about the covenant, fellowship between God and Israel (Hebrews 10.2) many texts require more critical analysis than our study could perform, the real problem concentrates itself on the meaning of Galatians 5 and Romans 7 and 8 within the framework of the total apostolic message.
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