Archive for January, 2013

Gregory of Nyssa on Perfection

Posted in Uncategorized on January 28, 2013 by ancienthopes

As promised here is a quote from Gregory of Nyssa. This is taken from “From Glory to Glory,” a quote from “On Perfection.” Note how he looks upon the changeable state of our mortal condition as a positive. This was a radical concept in his day where the Greek ideal of changelessness dominated the idea of perfection. (See last post.)

“For man does not merely have an inclination to evil; were this so, it would be impossible for him to grow in good, if his nature possessed only an inclination towards the contrary. But in truth the finest aspect of our mutability is the possibility of growth in good; as it changes, more and more into the divine. And so … what appears so terrifying (I mean the mutability of our nature) can really be a pinion in our flight towards higher things, and indeed it would be a hardship if we were not susceptible of the sort of change which is towards the better. One ought not then to be distressed when one considers this tendency in our nature; rather let us change in such a way that we may constantly evolve towards what is better, being transformed from glory to glory, and thus always improving and ever becoming more perfect by daily growth, and never arriving at any limit of perfection. For that perfection consists in our never stopping in our growth, never circumscribing our perfection by any limitation.”

We see, therefore, that Gregory defines perfection as progress itself, and this progress can never have a limit. This is because God is limitless in His perfection. The divine nature “draws human nature to participate in His perfection, because of divine transcendence it must always be superior to our nature to the same degree” (Commentary on the Canticle). This means that the closer we get to God, the bigger He appears to our souls. And this is true even when we pass on to eternity. We will never become tired, never board, because our souls will always be reaching for God, embracing our discovery of Him with ecstasy and delight, only to realize that there is more and more.

We might think that this is an eternity of loving the unattainable; like holding a carrot on a stick just in front of a rabbit. Would this be an eternity of endless searching and therefore sorrow?
Gregory would say no! The soul is like the bride that realizes that she will always discover more; her desire is at each moment fulfilled, but longing continually expands the soul to receive more. It is hard for us, in our mortal, fallen, condition to understand such vital movement when we so easily weary. However, Gregory teaches that our spirit, especially free from our mortal bodies, never wearies, but is endowed with an eternal capacity for God.

This is, I believe, a biblical model for perfection. However, another biblical motif that is associated with perfection is the idea of “rest.” Gregory’s model is a relentless motion towards God. How does this jive with our deep longing for rest, the seventh day of creation, for which we were made? How do we understand rest and motion?


Perfection not a Static Idea

Posted in Uncategorized on January 21, 2013 by ancienthopes

I remember being so struck by Keats’s poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” describing the gods and scenery around a sacrifice, a man in pursuit of a woman, and pulsating life frozen forever on the beautifully wrought urn. Apart from the famous conclusion that “beauty is truth, and truth beauty,” this poem captures the Hellenistic view of perfection perfectly. Perfection is that which is beyond time and the ravages of aging and change. Though the man never catches the woman, yet he is forever fortunate because he will always exist in the moment of love captured by the artist of the urn, and she shall always be beautiful. Though it would be unfair to say that the Hellenistic idea of perfection is “static,” it would not be far from the mark to say that perfection cannot exist in this world of change, decay, and motion in time. Perfection exists only in Plato’s realm of ideals; Aristotle’s god is an “unmoved” mover. Perfection must be above that which changes from worse to better, or from better to worse, or any movement at all for that matter.

This Hellenistic view has become the prevalent western idea of perfection. Although it is in direct contradiction with Scripture, our culture, even our religious cultures, assume this view. Most simply do not believe that perfection is possible in this world and therefore are hesitant even to use this term in their day to day theological vocabulary, preferring, as we said before, the insipid word “mature” instead. The Wesleyans, a rare exception, were brave enough to espouse “perfection” as the radical biblical ideal, and taught a “sinless perfection.” However, they taught this not from a biblical understanding, but within the Hellenistic framework they inherited from their western culture. They understood sinless perfection as a state of being, the summit of a life lived in a radical obedience where one no longer sins. This is clearly a heterodox idea. They embrace the biblical word “perfection,” but could not see the paradox of perfection that St. Paul displays in Phil. 3; the perfect person is always reaching toward the ideal in Christ, and this reaching is perfection itself. Perfection is an orientation, the journey of walking with God, and neither the conclusion of a journey, nor the summit of the mountain where we enter into a realm of changelessness.

There was a great theologian of the fourth century that wrestled with the biblical idea of perfection in the context of Hellenistic thought. His name was Gregory, and he was Bishop of Nyssa in Cappadocia. In essence, he defied that Greek assumption that perfection was static, and taught that perfection was change itself. He brought together St. Paul’s “reaching forward” with his remarkable adaptation of Psa. 84:7 in II Cor. 3:18 where he says that we “are being transformed into that same image (the image of the glory of our Lord Jesus) from glory to glory.” I was introduced to this most wonderful theology of perfection in a book titled “From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings” edited by Jean Danielou (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1979). Danielou’s introduction is magnificent; it would be worth your while to order this book. In the next post we will discuss St. Gregory’s main ideas and provide some quotations so as to get a grasp on this great man’s thoughts on perfection.

St. Paul’s Perfection

Posted in Uncategorized on January 14, 2013 by ancienthopes

Although the ideal of perfection and aspiration to perfection are fundamental to the Bible, we have by and large in our culture no heart for it. We deal out grace to ourselves cheaply, protecting the status quo by theological constructions and slogans brewed in the caldron of old controversies that we should have worked our way through long ago. The last few posts were meant to expose the problems that do not allow us to see what is plain in Scripture. Now it is time to positively define what perfection is.

Here we turn to St. Paul and his testimony in Philippians 3. After explaining what advantages he had as a Jew with great opportunity culturally and educationally, he lightly tosses this aside and boasts about a righteousness not founded on race and the exclusive religious observances of Jewish law such as diet, circumcision, or Sabbath rules, but one founded in faith in Christ. He has an obsession of knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection which is somehow tied mysteriously to the participation with His sufferings, and even conformity to His death. Perfection for Paul is sharing in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ to the degree that we are completely “in Him.” Such high aspirations are daunting even to St. Paul. He admits in 3:12 that he has not reached perfection (Greek teleiow, cf. Matt. 5:48 teleioj). This does not discourage him, for he realizes that is a process where we do not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by past failures, but by “pressing on” and “reaching forward.”

Now St. Paul throws at us a real zinger. After confessing that he has not reached perfection, he claims himself to be one of the perfected in 3:15. The word here is essentially the same as in verse 12 above (teleioi), and is translated “mature” in some translations so as to paint over the glaring paradox. How could St. Paul confess that he is not perfect in v. 12 and assume he is one of the perfect in v. 15, almost in the same breath? It simply is not sound exegesis to conclude that he is using the same word in two different ways in such close proximity. What could St. Paul possibly mean by “mature” anyways? We must conclude that perfection is not a static idea to St. Paul. It consists of being whole-heartedly and radically engaged in “pressing on” and “reaching forward.” It is an orientation towards Christ that becomes the defining mark of a person. We may stumble and fall, tire and slacken as we hack our way through the thicket of our sins and failures, but in the end we never let up or turn away from our essential orientation ─ perfection in Christ. We never give up and seek solace from the world. This attitude embraces the paradox that perfection is always an ideal that we can never attain to completely in this life, yet at the same time is something we are by virtue of our orientation towards it. We are what we love and desire.

There is a particularly great theologian who develops a profound theology of perfection taking up on St. Paul’s word “pressing on.” He is the theologian Gregory of Nyssa. We will discuss this in the next post.

Perfection and Holy Ignorance

Posted in Uncategorized on January 8, 2013 by ancienthopes

Who is a righteous person in the Bible? It is one who manages, by the grace of God, to bring together faith, which is a right attitude toward God, and action, which is doing what is right and good before God and humanity. It is never enough to have one without the other. To bring both attitude and action together is to be righteous, and the process is called perfection.

Let’s take the Gospel of Matthew to place this in perspective. In chapters 1-4 we see Jesus working through the same paces as Israel did in Exodus-Numbers, but succeeds where Israel failed. He succeeds because He is God; we find him on the mount in chapter 5 where He opens His mouth and reveals His law to the disciples like God on Sinai spoke to Moses. The Beatitudes are Jesus’ teachings on the essence of the law and the blueprint for Christian perfection. (For thoughts on the Beatitudes scroll back to Jan. 23 through April 2, 2012.) Jesus’ teachings are not a rejection of the Old Testament Law, for He emphatically tells us that “not one jot or tittle will pass away from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18). In fact, more is required of His disciples than the ancient Israelites because they are empowered through him to become what He is and what Israel failed to be. Therefore, Jesus challenges all of us to “be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (5:48).

It is not an easy thing to bring attitude and action together. In fact, Jesus would have us understand that it takes a sort of “holy ignorance.” Jesus expects us to do good works on one hand, but on the other hand, because good works so easily lead to pride and self righteousness, we must not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing (6:4). We must do good works but be completely unaware of them, at least in a way that we might think that they deserved a standing before God. We see this holy ignorance in Matthew’s account of the last judgment in chapter 25:31-46. The blessed souls were surprised to inherit the kingdom, and had no recollection at all of the good works they did to attain it. Jesus had to remind them. This is perfection; the fusion of a humble attitude with action. The damned however, do not possess this holy ignorance. Being deeply aware of their own good works, they are truly surprised that they are driven from God’s presence (7:21-23). They have action, but the wrong attitude.

It is a great thing that the Reformation brought to our attention afresh the necessity of faith and right attitude. It is and always will be a temptation to our proud spirits to think that somehow we are better than the next guy. However, the battle cry sola fidei (faith only) has, I fear, degenerated into a mere slogan for many. This along with sola gracia (only by grace) has blinded many to the high ideals to which God would have us aspire. The great Puritan Richard Baxter saw this failure in his own day. He wrote these words when he thought he was dying:

“Though without Christ you can do nothing, yet under him you can do much, and must, or else it will be undone, and you yourselves undone through your neglect.” Saints Rest.

What is wrong with our culture is that we have lost all sight of high ideals; we are content to live in the gutters. For the Christian, this means losing sight of a great and wonderful goal, the goal of perfection. Once we lose sight of the goal, we fall to mediocrity. Our theology even re-enforces it. We save ourselves from “works righteousness,” vaunting faith and a right attitude, but protect ourselves from action that sets us on course to perfection. How shall we fare before God the judge (Matt. 25:31ff, Rom. 2:6-10)? May God grant us “Holy Ignorance” that binds together attitude and action!

Having worked our way through these preliminaries, we now set our sights on just what Christian perfection is and what it is not in the following posts.