Themelios Journal April 2010

Editorial by D. A. Carson

Most readers of Themelios will be aware that the word “perfectionism” is commonly attached in theological circles to one subset of the Wesleyan tradition. As far as I can tell, the numbers who defend such perfectionism today are rather depleted. They hold that progressive sanctification is not only desirable and attainable but, borne along by grace, can result in a life of sinlessness here and now: we do not have to wait for the glorification that all God’s redeemed people will enjoy at the parousia. A century ago the movement was often an extrapolation of Keswick theology, then in its heyday—a movement distinguishable from Keswick theology by its claim to attain a rather higher “higher life” than most within the Keswick fold thought they could achieve.

It is easy to imagine that everyone in the perfectionist camp is a self-righteous and pompous hypocrite, easily dismissed as a fool whose folly is all the more ludicrous for being laced with self-deception. Doubtless some self-designated perfectionists are like that, but most of the rather small number of perfectionists I have known are earnest, disciplined, focused Christians, rather more given to work and serenity than to joy. Certainly it is less discouraging to talk about Christian matters with perfectionists than with those who claim to be Christians but who rarely display any interest in holiness. In any case, the most comprehensive treatment of perfectionism, essentially unanswerable, is the large volume by B. B. Warfield, Perfectionism, published in several formats (my copy was published by Presbyterian and Reformed in 1974).

There were species of perfectionism before Wesley, of course. Some connect the doctrine of entire sanctification with theosis; some tie it to various strands of the complicated and largely Roman Catholic history of “spirituality.” Moreover, there are uses of “perfectionism” in two other disciplines, viz. philosophy (going back to the classical period of Greek thought) and, in the more recent post-Wesley—indeed post-theology—world, the discipline of psychology. During the last three centuries of Christian discourse, however, the connection of perfectionism with one strand of the Wesleyan tradition is inescapable.

Read more.

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