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…