I have been seriously pondering John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection for several years.  Have we his heirs advanced or retreated in our understanding of Methodism’s “grand depositum” as he put it?  I don’t know.  We certainly don’t like the word “perfection,” a problem Wesley himself had to face.  Still, if he considered it the reason “Methodists were chiefly called into existence,” then it seems like we ought to figure out if there is a 21st century version of it that can be called legitimately Wesleyan.

The idea of spiritual maturity suggests that some people are further along the path toward it than others.  Already we sense the danger of making a judgment, yet the Bible makes it.  One recalls, for example, that word about some still needing milk while they should be ready for meat.  In the Christian life, there is a trajectory toward a telos, a goal.  We can argue about whether or not we ever reach the goal, but it’s a goal we envision.

We do the same in education.  A college senior should be more mature than a freshman.  The very terms we use for undergraduate classification points this way.  Educational theory includes the telos.  I’ve been scouring through Fowler’s stages of faith lately.  He and his main authorities (Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg) all include a view of maturity.  They believe that they have empirically demonstrated that some people are more mature than others.

We tend to assume, do we not, that a college-educated person is better educated than someone who has no college?  We assume, don’t we, that going to college challenges people to become more self- and world-aware, which is better than not being aware?  One of the major goals of a college education is to help develop whole people, not just skillful people who are good at doing certain jobs.  This is supposedly the difference between a college degree and a technical school degree.

So, in addition to skills, we expect a college education to develop appropriate attitudes and behaviors.  A well-educated person is more than a skilled person.  A well-educated person has some of the right…virtues.  A well-educated person should also be a wise person, no?  Everything I’ve said so far about a college education can be applied to theological education.  Don’t we expect advance in a theological education?  A person with a Master of Divinity should have the skill and the character, by virtue of the education, to lead a congregation, right?

Most academic institutions assume that by merely having the experience, these virtues will emerge in our students.  Yet the academy prizes and rewards skill and achievement rather than good attitudes and behavior.  We tend to assume moral equivalency.  More educated people are supposed to be likewise more trustworthy, more wise, because more aware of “the issues.”

I’m not sure we Methodists have gotten Mr. Wesley right on Christian perfection.  Yet, in higher and theological education, we have taken up this very endeavor, only in academic terms and with academic values rather than Christian ones.  We assume that something like an academic version of that fruit of the Spirit will happen by virtue of the experience.

I think we have something still to learn from Mr. Wesley…

Academic Moral Equivalency and Christian Perfection

2 thoughts on “Academic Moral Equivalency and Christian Perfection

  • December 15, 2009 at 3:19 am

    You are correct: we do mistakenly tend to assume that once one is confirmed, then all one has to do is “be good”. Those who pursue further theological education, whether at seminary or as lay leaders, tend to be viewed as “wiser” or “better people” as a consequence of their education. In some cases, that is true.

    I see two common failings:
    1. Christianity is about _doing_ more than about _being_. We cannot say that one is more likely to be[come] a Christian by ‘doing’ Christianity, because that presupposes that we can be saved by works alone, which is false. Internal spiritual transformation by the Holy Spirit must occur, and that will help lead one to ‘doing’ because of what God has done and is doing for us. We must see progress toward perfection as a result of/evidence of the transformation and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This means that when I|you looks back (with caution, to avoid the “Mrs. Lot effect”), I|you hove to look “down” to see where I was. This leads the second point.

    2. We seem to be rather lax on insisting on commitment. An attitude of “checking off the box” does not make one more perfect. At the same time, I think we should not get derailed into assuming a busy schedule of church activities make one more perfect, either. You are right in saying that we need to go back to our roots and reform by aggressively pursuing perfection as a community of believers. We need to act as brothers and sisters in a large family instead of “just some people” joining in worship and other activities. Encourage each other, build up each other, and we can all take another step up on the stones carefully stacked on top of Jesus Christ, our Foundation Stone.

    If we need incentive, it is an analogy from academics: the Final Exam is approaching!

    Of course, writing words is one thing. Actually doing what those words say is quite another!


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