Perfect Like God
To “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” means to be like God. Too many Christians have thought God to be an impersonal force field. Believing God is personal and living helps us imagine what we should do to fulfill Jesus’ command to be perfect.
In a previous blog entry, I made the claim that we can be perfect here and now whenever we express love. In this blog, I focus upon a relational theology that supports my claim.
How is God perfect?
In my opinion, the Wesleyan tradition is best for helping us make sense of what it means to be perfect. John Wesley understood perfection primarily in terms of love. The Wesleyan tradition affirms the general biblical view that God is loving, relational, and living.
Envisioning God as relational and living may seem so obvious and hardly worth mentioning. But it makes a whale of difference for understanding how we might be perfect like God is perfect!
Unfortunately, Aristotle’s view that God is the Unmoved Mover has influenced many in the Christian tradition. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, said God was in all ways unchanging and nonrelated to creation as pure act (actus purus) without potentiality. Augustine regarded God as in all ways “fixed and changeless.” Thinking of God as an Unmoved Mover does not mesh with the biblical idea that God is relational and living.
The reason these theologians envisioned God as in all ways unchanging relates directly to the issue of perfection. Their logic is that a perfect being would not and, in fact, cannot change. Any change in a perfect being could only be from perfection to imperfection. Perfection requires static immutability.
One of the most important 20th century Evangelical theologians, Carl F. H. Henry, agrees with Aquinas and Augustine on this issue. “God is perfect,” he says, “and, if imperfect, can only change for the worse.” A perfect God apparently cannot change in any sense, and therefore God cannot be relational or living.
Christian theologians have argued that God is in all ways unchanging despite numerous biblical passages suggesting otherwise. More than forty times in the Old Testament, for instance, biblical authors say God repent – changes his mind. Many, many biblical accounts portray God as being affected by what creatures do – God responds to creatures by expressing sadness, joy, frustration, pleasure, anger, forgiveness, redemption, comfort, helpfulness, etc.
Charles Hartshorne’s Doubly Perfect God
We have a problem. We know that creatures are inherently changing beings. So how can those who inevitably change imitate a God who never changes?
If being perfect means never changing (because God never changes), we cannot obey Jesus’ command to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.
The best answer to this conceptual problem comes from an unlikely source: philosopher Charles Hartshorne. Unfortunately, Hartshorne’s ideas are not well known. Those few Christians who have heard about him typically know only his notorious view of divine omnipotence.
Hartshorne is the most important thinker for helping us understand God’s perfection. And getting a good idea of God’s perfection is crucial if we are to be perfect as God is perfect.
The key to Hartshorne’s view of divine perfection is his distinction between God’s eternal nature as unchangingly perfect and God’s living experience as changingly perfect. Notice: God is doubly perfect. But one aspect of perfection is unchanging and the other changes.
Suppose God is “that individual being than which no other individual being could conceivably be greater,” says Hartshorne, “but which itself, in another ‘state,’ could become greater.”
If God is a living person with moment-by-moment experiences, God’s perfect experience in one moment could be surpassed by God’s perfect experience in the next. “The numerically distinct God-tomorrow will also be perfect,” says Hartshorne, “though He will exhibit perfection in an enriched state of actuality.”
We know that we cannot imitate God’s eternal unchanging nature. Perfection, in this sense, is unattainable. This is one way God transcends creatures.
But we can imitate God’s living and changing experience. As living creatures, we share with God the capacity for moment-by-moment experience. This may be part of what it means to be made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27)
In sum, God’s eternal nature is unchangingly perfect. We do not have an unchanging and eternal nature. But God’s living experience is changingly perfect. As changing beings ourselves, we might be able to imitate God in this respect.
We need one final conceptual element to make sense of what it means to follow Jesus command to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. That final piece comes in thinking about what it means to have a moment-by-moment, give-and-receive relationship of love.
Biblical writers repeatedly use relationship analogies to talk about God’s love for us. God is a loving Father, husband, hen, friend, parent, king, and among others. The Bible portrays God as personal, relational, and living. God loves us perfectly.
To love is to act intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being. God loves all of us, all the time. We can love too. But we love, because God first loves us.
The God who gives and receives love in relationship is one whose experiential life persists moment by moment. God loves us in one moment. We may or may not love in return. God receives our response and loves us in the next moment. We may or may not love in return. God receives our response again and loves us in the next moment. On it goes. This is part of what relational theology suggests constitutes an ongoing love relationship.
We can be perfect in any particular moment, if we love in that moment. If we respond appropriately to God’s empowering and inspiring call to love, we can act perfectly in that instant. We can be like God – in that moment.
We Are Perfect In Each Moment as We Love
John Wesley understood spiritual formation primarily as expressing love in each moment. “We are every moment pleasing or displeasing to God,” he wrote, “according to our works; according to the whole of our present inward tempers and outward behavior.”
If we love as God calls us to love, we are perfect. More precisely: if in any particular moment, we respond to God by loving as God asks us to love, we are perfect in that moment as God is perfect in every moment.
Of course, we cannot claim to do this on our own. In fact, God acts first to empower, inspire, and call us to love. Wesleyans call this “prevenient grace.” We are, to use the language of Friedrich Schleiermacher, “utterly dependent” upon God.
This means that perfection is not something we conjure up on our own. Instead, we are perfect when we respond appropriately to God in any particular instant. But it does mean that we can be perfect now. We don’t have to wait until heaven.
In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul turns to the idea that Christians are to act like God. Paul says, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love as Christ has loved us…” (Ephesians 5:1)
We can love in any moment when we respond appropriately in that moment to God’s call to love. And as we respond well repeatedly, we develop the virtuous characters. We act as saints. God uses our moment-by-moment responses of love to form us into a people – both as individuals and as a Church – who live lives of love.
 For an argument that love is the core notion of holiness, see Thomas Jay Oord and Michael Lodahl, Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love (Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill, 2005).
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, Q. 3, arts. 2 & 6.
Augustine, De Musica, vol. 6, xiv, 48.
Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority: The God who Stands and Stays, Part One, vol. 5 (Waco: Word, 1982), 304.
 For an analysis of the idea that God repents and suffers, see Terence E. Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984).
Charles Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), 20.
Charles Hartshorne, The Logic of Perfection, (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1962), 66.
 For an in-depth analysis of love and its meaning, see Thomas Jay Oord, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2010) and The Nature of Love: A Theology (St. Louis, Mo.: Chalice, 2010).
 Methodist Conference Minutes, 1744-98 (London: John Mason, 1862), I, 95-96.
 Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989 [2nd Ed., 1830]).