Is ‘perfection in this life’ possible?

Doug Shoemaker, the Superintendent of Indiana Yearly Meeting, has been writing a series of ‘letters to George Fox’ that appear in the IYM Communicator. I find interest in these letters in considering whether I agree with them and also whether I think he construes George Fox in a way Fox would want to be understood.  In his recent, eighteenth letter, Shoemaker addresses the possibility of human’s achieving perfection, or ‘entire sanctification.’

Dear George,

     As a young man I remember quoting the words of Jesus from Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” A Quaker leader I respected a lot quickly cautioned me that none of us will attain perfection in this life. I’ve been trying to decide who I should believe, my beloved Quaker friend, or Jesus. I think I know a bit about how you felt when you often taught we are called to a level of Christian experience you called “perfection” while the rest of the church seemed to be lowering the bar to accommodate our human limitations. 

     In your Journal you wrote: For    of all the sects in Christendom (so called) that I discoursed with, I found none who could bear to be told that any should come to Adam’s perfection, - - into that image of God, that righteousness and holiness, that Adam was in before he fell; to be clean and pure, without sin, as he was. You consistently raised the bar, calling us to a relationship with God that not only results in forgiveness from sin, but also power over sin. Holiness revivals of the 19th century didn’t shape Midwestern Quakerism as much as they resurfaced the heart of what you called us to. “Thank you” for calling us to a transforming knowledge of God that holiness preachers later described as “entire sanctification.” Your goal wasn’t to just stumble into heaven by the grace of God. Thanks for pointing us to a better way.     

                                                  -Doug Shoemaker

So what should we think? Is perfection in this life possible? Did George Fox believe it was?

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Comment by William F Rushby on 12th mo. 3, 2015 at 10:36am

Hello, Douglas Bennett!  Thanks for raising another provocative question.  Nowadays, I don't think George Fox's doctrine of Christian perfection in this life is as laden with emotion as some of the other issues you have addressed!

We have some in the QQ community who are much more deeply engrossed in George Fox's life and witness than I am.  I would love to hear what they have to say about this matter!  I find these claims by Fox quite troublesome.

The few Friends I have known who seemed to aspire to Christian perfection were IMHO far from it.  Indeed, their behavior smacks more of narcissism than of perfection.  But this raises the question of exactly what we mean by "Christian perfection."  Are we talking about setting a very high standard for Christian conduct, or is it all about faultlessness??

The first step here should, I think, be defining what "Christian perfection" is.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 12th mo. 3, 2015 at 10:39am

Perfection is not what people think it is.

Certainly GF believed that it was possible, and that he had been granted it. But in some respects I fear that what he'd reached was perfect self-righteousness, which is the human idea of perfection, not God's.

God normally grants people ample evidence of where they fall short of meeting their own standards, and usually enough sense to recognize the force of that evidence. An exceptionally saintly individual, like GF, might either receive freedom from that recognition, or -- probably much easier -- instead accept the self God is [ongoingly] creating them with.

The reply Sufi Sam Lewis received, once when he was praying, very much appalled at his own personal failings: "Your flaws are My perfections."

Comment by William F Rushby on 12th mo. 3, 2015 at 10:48am

By the way, Douglas Shoemaker's essay is  so well done that I wonder what the first seventeen letters to Fox were about!

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 12th mo. 3, 2015 at 11:33am

Fox's understanding of perfection began with his discovery that there was one, even Christ Jesus, that could speak to his condition. Until that time, he was near despair, acutely feeling his need for wholeness yet not finding it nor knowing where to look. It was entirely the power of the Lord, certainly not his own righteousness, that allowed him to see and know perfection, and this was the great discovery that propelled him into the world to work to turn others from darkness to light, as he had himself been transformed. That this understanding has been lost from Quaker consciousness is problematic, as it is the core of the original faith. 

Doug Gwyn's Apocalypse of the Word has several pages on "Perfection," and the beginning of the section provides a framework for seeing how early Friends understood it. I'll quote the first paragraph below. I'd also recommend reading Gwyn's entire chapter ("Christ's Work in Human Experience") from which this segment is taken. Here's the paragraph:

In the image of the ascent back to paradise, we see how original wholeness plays an important part in Fox's understanding of final fulfillment. This is typical of apocalyptic thought. Fox can distill salvation history into a history of three teachers. The first teacher was God in his open conversation with man and woman in paradise, commanding them what to do and what not to do. The second teacher was the serpent, or Satan, who drew the man and woman into confusion and disobedience, whereby sin entered in and death reigns; his teaching continues in the world. The third teacher, the "gospel teacher," is Jesus Christ, who in his earthly ministry and risen lordship leads his people out of confusion and into obedience and order, restoring the perfection known is paradise. 

Comment by William F Rushby on 12th mo. 3, 2015 at 1:34pm

Hello, Patricia!

I don't know if I have this book of Douglas Gwyn's, but I probably do--now to find it!

In the meantime, you quoted the following: "The third teacher, the "gospel teacher," is Jesus Christ, who in his earthly ministry and risen lordship leads his people out of confusion and into obedience and order, restoring the perfection known is paradise."  Could you exposit this text?  What does this tell us about Fox's understanding of "perfection", and how does this perfection become a personal attribute?

Comment by James C Schultz on 12th mo. 3, 2015 at 1:40pm
Comment by Howard Brod on 12th mo. 3, 2015 at 8:26pm

When we read and shared about this verse within its context at my liberal Quaker meeting's weekly adult spiritual discussion, we all experienced a beautiful realization that has stuck with me for years.  It was a 'gathered' Spirit-led moment. Here's some context for that verse that is needed to fully grasp it:

Matthew 5:43-48  (The Voice version of the Bible)

43 You have been taught to love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I tell you this: love your enemies. Pray for those who torment you and persecute you— 45 in so doing, you become children of your Father in heaven. He, after all, loves each of us—good and evil, kind and cruel. He causes the sun to rise and shine on evil and good alike. He causes the rain to water the fields of the righteous and the fields of the sinner. 46 It is easy to love those who love you—even a tax collector can love those who love him. 47 And it is easy to greet your friends—even outsiders do that! 48 But you are called to something higher: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

The sharing of the group led to the following gathered understanding:  Jesus was simply saying that our perfection should be centered on a "perfect love" as God himself demonstrates towards everyone, rather than trying to arrive at 'ego' perfection; or trying to be "sinless" (free of mistakes). 

The above explanation certainly seems to be doable as we experience a Oneness with the divine.  I have certainly met a few people in this life who have reached this  type of "Godly perfection" in that they love all without hesitation - both good and evil people. However, I can't recall meeting anyone ever who never made mistakes.  And are mistakes really mistakes, anyway?  Doesn't every experience become a tool of God's to touch our hearts in order to bring us into the "perfect love" Jesus is speaking of?

As you all know, I tend to be simple-minded.  And, this being the simplest explanation that any reader can glean from these verses - I tend to favor it. 

Comment by Forrest Curo on 12th mo. 3, 2015 at 8:43pm

Howard -- Yeah, I think that's it -- as long as we understand that 'love' as a 1st Century villager would: in a very concrete, operative sense. It's probably not some unemotional, grudging sort of 'loving' behavior, true -- but doing someone your best out of a genuine concern, from recognizing your neighbor 'as yourself' you might say.

I hope this doesn't preclude being sometimes annoyed with them, as I'm also annoyed with myself sometimes. But it does mean not wishing them ill, or 'hating' them (which would mean shunning or being indifferent to them.)

Comment by Doug Bennett on 12th mo. 4, 2015 at 9:26am

Thanks for these helpful comments. I will want to read Doug Gwyn’s Apocalypse of the Word for a better understanding of Fox. Some irony, there, that Gwyn was pastor of First Friends (Richmond) when that meeting/church was dismissed from Indiana Yearly Meeting (with Shoemaker as Superintendent).  I also appreciate Howard Brod’s urging that we read Matthew 5:48 in a larger context. 

I find myself looking especially at the word ‘perfect.’  That’s the word used in virtually every English language translation of Matthew 5:48, but what does ‘perfect’ mean, and what did it mean in the 17th century?  Etymology.com gives us this:

"perfect (adj.) early 15c. alteration of Middle English parfit (c. 1300), from Old French parfit "finished, completed, ready" (11c.), from Latin perfectus "completed, excellent, accomplished, exquisite," past participle of perficere "accomplish, finish, complete," from per- "completely" (see per) + facere "to make, do, perform" (see factitious). Often used in English as an intensive (perfect stranger, etc.)."

The idea of ‘perfect’ as ‘completed’ gives another sense of the verse than ‘without sin.’  The original text is Greek, of course, and word used there is ‘teleois,’ which I understand I understand (I’m no Greek scholar) means consummated or completed, having gone through the necessary stages. 

 The Message, an unusual translation of the Bible offers this rendering of the verse: 

 48 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

 That resonates. 

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 12th mo. 4, 2015 at 10:26am

"The third teacher, the "gospel teacher," is Jesus Christ, who in his earthly ministry and risen lordship leads his people out of confusion and into obedience and order, restoring the perfection known in paradise."(Gwyn, p.76)

Hello William. You asked  for my thoughts on what this statement tells us about "Fox's understanding of 'perfection,' and how does this perfection become a personal attribute?"

Let me do the easier part first: perfection never becomes "a personal attribute"; it is always dependent upon receiving (hearing and obeying) Christ. When Fox was taken before the magistrates at Derby in 1650, they asked him whether he was sanctified. He answered:

yes; for I was in the paradise of God.  Then they asked me, if I had no sin?  I answered, Christ, my saviour, has taken away my sin; and in him there is no sin.  They asked, how we knew that Christ did abide in us? I said, by his spirit that he hath given us.  They temptingly asked, if any of us were Christ? I answered, nay, we were nothing, Christ was all. [Italics mine.]

So you can see, William, for Fox the power rests with Christ to give his spirit, which is perfect. We, of ourselves can never possess the attribute of perfection but may only receive it as it is given by Christ. When John the Baptist says, "He [Christ] must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn. 3:30), he speaks the longing determination to diminish self that is in every true Christian's heart, so that Christ in his perfection may prevail within.

I am finding it difficult to approach this topic because it is so vast; everything in early Friends' writings, everything in Scriptures revolves around this transformation from our first, unknowing and confused way of existence to the second, subsequent way of being: knowledge of God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent, as it says in Jn. 17:3 and in Barclay's First Proposition. 

As Fox realized following his great opening, it is not our own doing but Christ's prerogative to enlighten us, "and give[s] grace, and faith, and power" (Nickalls, 11). It is this culminating act that completes our humanity, and moves us into the way of existence for which we are created. It is our telos, our completion, the Omega. Though not our prerogative to provide our own selves with this new way of being, it is nevertheless our responsibility to prepare to receive it.

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