Perfection not a Static Idea

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.

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