St. Paul’s Perfection

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.

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