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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.

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29

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.[1] 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.[2]  Augustine regarded God as in all ways “fixed and changeless.”[3] 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.”[4] 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.[5] 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.”[6]

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.”[7]

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.

Moment-by-Moment Perfection

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.[8]

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.”[9]

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.[10]

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.



[1] 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).

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, Q. 3, arts. 2 & 6.

[3]Augustine, De Musica, vol. 6, xiv, 48.

[4]Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority: The God who Stands and Stays, Part One, vol. 5 (Waco: Word, 1982), 304.

[5] 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).

[6]Charles Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), 20.

[7]Charles Hartshorne, The Logic of Perfection, (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1962), 66.

[8] 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).

[9] Methodist Conference Minutes, 1744-98 (London: John Mason, 1862), I, 95-96.

[10] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989 [2nd Ed., 1830]).

Posted in 2010 under John Wesley, Holiness, and the Church of the Nazarene

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Comments

Hans Deventer

01.29.2010
11:44am

It was Henry Nouwen who said that even the people that love us, don’t always love us well. So one could say that though their is perfection in their desire to respond lovingly to God’s invitation, the responding might still be quite imperfect. Wesley once compared us to an out of tune piano. Even if the Holy Spirit plays it perfectly, the sound isn’t perfect.

 

Jo Ann W. Goodson

01.29.2010
5:22pm

“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.” Until I read this article I thought there was not a way for us to be perfect. Only Jesus was perfect. However, now I understand how in thinking this wasy and with God’s help we can be perfect in a moment.
“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.” This makes good sense to me. Practice makes perect. I would never say that I am perfect to anyone but I can strive towards the perfection by learning what it is to respond in each moment with love. That takes a lost of learning and practice as to what real love in action is.

 

James R. Cissell

01.30.2010
6:11am

I have tried at different to explain the Wesleyan understanding of perfection to congregations - with limited success.  This is very helpful.
The idea that perfection is not something we “conjure up on our own” is especially important as is “we are perfect when we respond appropriately to God in any particular instant”.
Perfection can be a difficult concept for those of us who have encountered “perfect people.”  It was a difficulty the Wesleys fought throughout their years of preaching and teaching.  But they persisted - as must we.

 

Michael Coldham-Fussell

01.31.2010
5:46pm

I like the idea that if we love as God calls us to love we are perfect, but I am not convinced that we can always be this loving?

In answer to the question “Are Christians always perfect?”, experience tells us “No they are not”, not in this life, but with the righteousness of Christ imputed to us I believe we can look forward to and press on towards the perfection that most certainly will always be part of our inheritance in the next life after our resurrection.

Rivers Of Meaning

 

William Hanson

02.04.2010
11:52pm

I really like the thought that “perfection is not something we conjure up on our own”. I would say that it is not us trying really hard to love perfectly on our own. This leads to a legalistic society similar to that of the Pharisees. We cannot be perfect on our own it is the Holy Spirit that allows us to be ‘perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.

Your definition of God being double perfect is somewhat confusing. It seems a little like God is schizophrenic, which is hard to accept for me. A little more clarification here would be helpful.

 

Dave Telling

02.11.2010
3:38pm

I have been taught that the word most commonly translated “perfect” in the NT could better be translated as “complete” or “mature”. If we accept that definition, then we see that God is NOT changeless (as in a statue) but that He is complete - lacking nothing, in all ways the ultimate end. So, we CAN be called to perfection as a process of becoming more complete/mature. In regards to God’s nature and actions, I believe that this means that whatever His “changes”, they will be in accordance with His essential completeness - i.e. they will always demonstrate His perfection.

 

Preston Hills

03.04.2010
2:22pm

God calls us to love as he does. Our ability to love is ever changing as we as humans are ever changing. Our human nature is to not be perfect as God calls us to be, yet we can only try to follow God as closely as possible in accordance to His will. In my opinion love is not the key to perfection. The ability to love others comes first with loving yourself and many of those who love others forget about themselves. Perfection is something we all wish we could obtain, although it is not possible we can only try to walk a path God would approve of.

 

Molly Breland

05.16.2013
5:01pm

To me, the idea of perfection always meant being flawless.
I’d much rather think of perfection existing in each moment, rather than continually going, and hoping you somehow attain being flawless. It seems a less titanic task to be perfect if you choose to believe the idea of being perfect as God is perfect if you take it moment-by-moment. Given a choice, and taking the one (or one of the ones) God wants us to allows us to strive beyond being average, and reaching into sainthood. This way, I take it as, after each choice is made, I’m beginning anew. It didn’t matter if in the previous moment I made the perfect choice, or less than. It does matter in a sense, as long as this string continues in an upward trend.

 

Grady Turner

05.16.2013
5:11pm

I was intrigued by the argument about God’s perfection.  I, however, disagree. In your article you said, “We know that creatures are inherently changing beings. So how can those who inevitably change imitate a God who never changed?” I would respond by asking, how can we strive to be anything like God if God is constantly changing His mind? It would be like saying God is an indecisive parent. How do you expect your child to learn what is right and wrong if you yourself don’t tell them and show them by being consistent in how you live?

 

Jennifer Yearsley

05.16.2013
6:08pm

•  The idea that we can be perfect like God in the way that we love, when we love that is pleasing to God, then, it is tangible to do what Jesus calls us to do. It seems silly to think that Jesus would call us to something that is humanly impossible, although, I don’t think he would call us to something that isn’t tangible. Jesus did his ministry on the earth and it was documented so that we could evaluate how he lives/loves and emulate it, and that is pleasing to God. No, we will not always be perfect, but in moment-by-moment we can listen to the Holy Spirit and/or our fellow brothers and sister of Christ who guide us to doing the right thing in love. Knowing I could possibly fulfill this commandment makes me want to try to do love like Jesus does to gain perfection.

 

Taylor Bickel

05.16.2013
8:06pm

This idea of moment-by-moment perfection is an idea I’ve always gravitated to since I first heard it. It just makes sense. However, your post brought up something I hadn’t considered thoroughly, and that is the idea of God experiencing the same moment-by-moment decisions and perfection any human might. It causes me to wonder if God is susceptible to the same determinist factors a philosopher might argue people are under as well. Do God’s past experiences and other factors influence how He goes about his decision making? Or does His nature trump all of that?

 

Patrick Patterson

05.16.2013
8:37pm

The idea that if we love as God calls us to love we are perfect is a great idea, but can we always be that loving?  I’m not convinced that we can, but I do think it is possibly to love perfectly at a given moment in time.  To be perfect like God is an extremely large task and one that can’t possibly be done.  Sure, it’s a great idea to lead a perfect life, but we all make mistakes along the way.  Learning from these mistakes and bettering ourselves to help others is a way in which we can strive to love (by helping others).  This blog really caught my eye because as a human it is hard for me to think of myself as being perfect, at any given time.  In my eyes, God is the ultimate portrayal of perfection and this brings forth a great controversy.

 

Sydnee Oord

05.16.2013
8:40pm

I have always seen this perfection passage as more of a metaphor, since literally perfection is impossible for humans. I do like the newer interpretation of this passage, being that we can be perfect when we love. If we are made in God’s image (which is love), then we can be more like God and perfections can be attainable when we love others. This is much more plausible and possible than never sinning, which is what I understood the passage to mean before learning more about the subject.

 

Hillary Ashmead

05.16.2013
9:20pm

I think perfection is a term we try to describe under “human” parameters, when in fact I don’t think we can grasp God’s perfection or love for that matter and I believe we were made not to. God is forgiving therefor I believe changing, however not changing in a way where God can be bribed, bias, selfish, unloving. Any changes are for the better and for his ever changing creation. The wonder that such imperfect creation by nature could be so perfect in the eyes of God makes us feel valued and I think that’s where our attempt to be “perfect” comes from. Because God made us we are generally good. Moment-by-moment perfection is very real, we can’t all love and have good intentions every second of every day, and God knows that, so our own “perfection” is revealed to others through our deeds.

 

Hillary Ashmead

05.16.2013
9:22pm

I think perfection is a term we try to describe under “human” parameters, when in fact I don’t think we can grasp God’s perfection or love for that matter and I believe we were made not to. God is forgiving therefor I believe changing, however not changing in a way where God can be bribed, bias, selfish, unloving. The wonder that such imperfect creation by nature could be so perfect in the eyes of God makes us feel valued and I think that’s where our attempt to be “perfect” comes from. Moment-by-moment perfection is very real, we can’t all love and have good intentions every second of every day, and God knows that, so our own “perfection” is revealed to others through our deeds.

 

Joseph Norris

05.16.2013
9:28pm

First off, I don’t have a problem with the perfect language. Most make the word synonymous with flawlessness. To be flawless is to have no flaws, either in character or in the many other ways. There is a saying that I believe Pascal said once and it is, “Though he is not flawless, she is perfect.” I think Pascal meant that his wife or love is flawed in that she didn’t fulfill some unattainable ideal of what a she ought to be, but rather she was perfect to him insofar as he loved here and she loved him (she fulfills him). I think this ideal of God as flawless is wrong. He is perfect. Perfection used in the Aristotelian sense, which I agree with, pertains to an things function. If a thing functions well, then that thing is perfect. A pencil is perfect insofar as it is able to write well. So too, according to Christianity, human beings are perfect insofar as they love well, because that is what it means for people to be perfect. To be consistent, then, we Christians are fulfilling our purpose as God’s children when we love well(under Aristotelian ethics) . This means our purpose is to love well. God created us to love (freely) in order that we may flourish perfectly, not flawlessly. God is flawed in that His purpose is a matter of function as opposed an ideal being that is not fathomable, in my view. When Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” I interpret that as becoming virtues ans instilling habits of loving acts and thoughts in order to fulfill the purpose which God as created me and everyone of my brothers and sisters. But, is at every moment we love an act of perfection or a perfect thought? If Virtue Theory is right, then loving is a virtue that ought to be fully instantiated in by character. It seems in Christianity, loving is perfect, in which case it follows that perfection is virtuous (assuming), then to be loving is to be virtuous. Aristotle didn’t think that little acts of virtue here and there where sufficient for being human well. This required radical habits and being instructed on the virtues, which love is included in Christian Virtue Ethics. I feel that if we are perfect in every moment or instance of love, then we would have the habituation or knowledge required in order to exemplify love fully. I feel to fully exemplify love ‘perfectly’ is to have the disposition to love at all times ‘perfect’. These are just some thoughts.

 

Greg Hata

05.16.2013
9:55pm

Asking one to be perfect is an already impossible task. Only when we die and go to heaven do we become perfect with a new body and new spirit. Asking to be perfect like God is perfect is a task that is a work in progress. I think that since the fall of Adam we have learned what God is like and seeing how God is love we can piece together what love is. Also to change is to be human and if we are going to try and be like God we need to move toward him and away from the world. Another main difference is that God is out of time therefore he does not exist in time like we do, so there is not possible way for us to be like God because he is out of time (he is past present and future). So I am saying that God does not change, but humors us, and human beings change to as best they can to be like God.

 

leslie Warwick

05.16.2013
10:25pm

I am a little nervous about this idea that God is never changing because he is perfect.
This puts God in a Box, puts his love in a Box, and the love we sow to others through him in a box. Other than that issues I like the idea that we are called to be perfect because it gives us a drive, a bar to reach for. We are driven people naturally but we can have our drive be divine because of wanting to be perfect. It’s an ease of mind that we can be perfect in each moment and that it isn’t a perfection of a whole life. That would have been overwhelming.

 

Amanda Peutz

05.16.2013
10:42pm

This blog post reminds me of an illustration you provided in lecture about the moment-by-moment perfection. At first in class I wasn’t particularly following; however, as you continued to explain—and through this post—I now understand what you mean about moment perfection. I think this is an interesting and intriguing outlook. I always felt that as humans we could never be perfect like God, yet we are called to be perfect. Thinking of this in relation to love makes sense to me. I do believe that we can love perfectly in individual moments of our lives as you discussed. It is by God’s love for us first that we are able to have this moments. Without him there would be no love and therefore no perfection.

 

calvin fox

05.16.2013
10:46pm

I don’t know what it means to be perfect. How can I know what perfection is if I have never experienced it? Thinking of God as a perfect being is difficult because perfection is not easy to understand. Experiencing what is imperfect helps figure out what perfection is not. Can human reason ever truly figure out God or is God beyond our reason?

 

Alexandra Jarratt

05.17.2013
6:55am

I hadn’t ever really thought about God being a changeable being, because I’ve always been told that he is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). I know that that verse specifies Jesus Christ, but God’s nature is consistent throughout the Trinity. I tend to disagree with the idea that God is in any way inconsistent, or that he couldn’t possibly be wholly perfect and unchanging while still being a relational being. I believe that God is living and active in our daily lives, guiding and directing, and that his commands and direction will always line up with his character. I disagree with the idea that to be an unchanging God would mean that He is cut off from us and disinterested. I think he is directing us to change to meet with him, molding us to be able to receive him better, not changing himself to fit us. (Sorry this is late, it wouldn’t show up for me. I hope it’s still acceptable)

 

Holly Sheffield

05.17.2013
3:33pm

This idea of perfection is intriguing to me. I had always thought of the idea of being “perfect like God” as something to strive for, but not be necessarily able to obtain. I really like the idea that when we show love and are loving, that we are “perfect” in that moment. I know that I am far from actually being perfect, but the idea that by making good and loving choices I can be perfect in God’s eyes, even for a moment, is inspiring.

 

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Thomas Jay Oord is a professor, author, and theologian from the Northwest. Read more