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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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PERFECTION. The various Biblical terms connoting ‘perfection’ differ in shade of meaning between wholeness, the attaining of an end or ideal, complete adjustment, full equipment in fitness for an appointed task. They are sparingly applied to God; In OT His way, work, knowledge, law are ‘perfect’ ( Psalms 18:30 , Deuteronomy 32:4 , Job 37:16 , Psalms 19:7 ); in NT the same term is used of His will, His gifts, His law ( Romans 12:2 , James 1:17; James 1:25 ), while Christ describes the Father in heaven as ‘perfect,’ and therefore as the source and pattern of moral ideals ( Matthew 5:48 ). The sense in which perfection is attributed to or urged upon men must naturally vary according to the moral conceptions of the time.

1. In OT. In the sharp moral contrasts which are presented in the successive kings of Judah, right doing and loyalty to Jehovah are expressed in the phrase ‘a perfect heart’ ( e.g . 1 Kings 8:61; cf. 1 Kings 11:4; 1 Kings 15:3; 1 Kings 15:5 ). It is clear from what is contrasted with the ‘perfect heart’ idolatry, abominable sin that the phrase has regard only to general tendencies of religious attitude and moral conduct, and its ethical depth is not perhaps greatly increased by the addition ‘with the Lord his God,’ for in the case of Amaziah a contrast is drawn between the two phrases; ‘he did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord, but not with a perfect heart’ ( 2 Chronicles 25:2 ). In a similar sense the term ‘perfect’ is applied to Noah, Abraham, and Job: its meaning is to be gathered from the synonyms which are linked with it ‘righteous and perfect,’ ‘perfect and upright,’ ‘fearing God and eschewing evil’ ( Genesis 6:9; Genesis 17:1 , Job 1:1; Job 1:8; Job 2:8; cf. Proverbs 2:21; Proverbs 11:5 ). It is noteworthy that in a number of passages in RV [Note: Revised Version.] ‘perfect’ has displaced AV [Note: Authorized Version.] ‘upright,’ with greater fidelity of translation but little difference of meaning ( e.g . Psalms 18:23; Psalms 18:25; Psalms 19:13; Psalms 37:18 ).

2. In NT. The idea of moral perfection is carried up to an immeasurably higher level by the saying of Christ the climax of His contrast between evangelical and Pharisaic righteousness ‘Ye therefore shall be ( imperatival future ) perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ ( Matthew 5:48 ). This may be regarded as our Lord’s re-statement of the OT law, ‘Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy’ ( Leviticus 19:2; cf. Leviticus 11:44 ), but the immediate context of the two passages is sufficient to indicate the infinite difference between the old law and the new. Infinite, because in place of precepts of ritual purity there is now set up an absolute moral ideal in the perfect love of God.

Moral conduct may indeed involve observance of prohibitions and positive commands, but the morality does not consist in the observance: it must come first, as the spring of action, and will issue in an obedience very different from that of the current ethical code. It is the disposition that counts: all duty springs from a love to God, working from within outwards, seeking to realize itself in free and boundless aspiration after His perfection. Hence the characteristic ‘thou shalt not’ of the Jewish law, with its possibility of evasion under seeming compliance, gives place to a positive ‘thou shalt’ of limitless content, because inspired by a limitless ideal (Matthew 5:17-48; Matthew 7:12; Matthew 18:21-22 ). When the man came to Christ with his eager question about ‘eternal life,’ though he could claim to have kept all the commandments from his youth, he is bidden, if he would be ‘perfect,’ strip himself of all worldly possessions and follow Christ; doubtless because only through such sacrifice could he come to discern and attain the moral realities revealed by simple dependence on God ( Matthew 19:21; cf. Mark 10:17-31 , Luke 18:18-30 ). The similar question of the lawyer is met with the same teaching of love to God as the one source of that ‘doing’ in which is life Luke 10:28 ).

In the teaching of St. Paul the moral life of the Christian is often dwelt upon, and in some passages is summarized in glowing ideals ( e.g . Rom 12:1-21 , 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 , Galatians 5:22 , Ephesians 3:14-19 , Philippians 4:4-9 , Colossians 1:9-23 , 1 Thessalonians 5:14-23 ). Once the ideal is compressed into a phrase which reminds us of Matthew 5:48 , ‘Be ye imitators of God’ ( Ephesians 5:1 ). There is constant insistence on love as the supreme source and manifestation of the moral life ( Romans 12:9; Romans 13:8-14; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 ); it is the bond which binds all other virtues into ‘perfection’ ( Colossians 3:14 ); the motive power is to be found in faith in Christ, and in the energies of the indwelling Spirit of God ( Rom 8:9 , 2 Corinthians 5:17 , Galatians 5:24-25 , Ephesians 3:20 ).

But though St. Paul often uses the word ‘perfect,’ he hardly connects it with the attainment of the moral ideal in the sense of Matthew 5:48 . He avails himself of a meaning of the Greek term as applied to men, ‘full-grown,’ ‘mature,’ and uses it to mark advance from the earlier stage of Christian life and experience, at which, in contrast, he describes men as ‘babes.’ To his immature Corinthian converts he writes, ‘we speak wisdom among the perfect’; complains, ‘I could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, as unto babes in Christ’; and bids them ‘be not children in mind: howbeit in malice be ye babes, but in mind be perfect’ ( 1Co 2:6; 1 Corinthians 3:1; 1 Corinthians 14:20 ). The same metaphor is used by the author of Hebrews ( Hebrews 5:11 to Hebrews 6:1 ), where ‘perfect’ and ‘perfection’ connote a Christian manhood which can receive and assimilate advanced Christian teaching. In the later Pauline Epistles the word implies a similar stress on intellectual maturity, possibly with a side glance at the technical meaning of ‘fully initiated’ into the Greek ‘mysteries.’ In protest against the Colossian gnosis , arrogated by a few, St. Paul, by unrestricted teaching of the whole gospel to every man, would present every man ‘perfect in Christ’ ( Colossians 1:28; Colossians 4:12 ). So, too, the attainment of the ideal corporate unity of all Christians is expressed in the ‘phrase’ unto a perfect ( i.e . full-grown) man’ ( Ephesians 4:18 ). It is characteristic of St. Paul’s thought that this unity exists ( Ephesians 4:3-5 ), yet is to be attained; similarly, without sense of contradiction, he can write of himself as ‘perfect’ ( Philippians 3:15 ), and in the same context as not ‘perfected’ ( Philippians 3:12 ).

The great Christian verities themselves, and also their implication for the lives of all who believe, are conceived by him as equally real, yet his assertion of them is joined with an appeal for their realization ( e.g . Romans 5:12-21; Romans 6:1-11 ). The facts are there, whatever contradictions may seem to be given to them by the imperfect lives which, if indeed real, they might be supposed to fashion into more complete accord. It follows that he is able without misgiving to set before his converts so lofty an Ideal of moral perfection as that contained in the passages already cited, the gulf between ideal and visible attainment being bridged by his faith in the spiritual forces at work ( Romans 7:24-25 , 1 Corinthians 1:8-9 , Ephesians 3:20 , Philippians 1:6; Philippians 2:13; Philippians 4:13; cf. 1 Peter 1:8 ). Any doctrine, therefore, of Christian ‘perfection’ must reckon at once with St. Paul’s sense of its reality, and at the same time of the present difference between real and actual.

The idea of perfection appears also in James 1:4 , ‘that ye may be perfect and entire, lacking in nothing’ (cf. James 3:2 ). In Hebrews special stress is laid upon the ‘perfecting’ of Christ by His humiliation and suffering, not in moral excellence but in fitness for His work of redeeming man ( Hebrews 2:10 , Hebrews 5:9 , Hebrews 7:28 ); through his sacrifice the ‘perfection’ unattainable under the old covenant ( Hebrews 7:11-19 , Hebrews 9:9 ) is secured for the believer ( Hebrews 10:14; cf. Hebrews 11:40 , Hebrews 12:23 , Hebrews 13:21 ).

The idea of perfection in the sense of complete adjustment and equipment (from a different Gr. root) occurs in 1 Corinthians 1:10 , 2Co 13:11 , 2 Timothy 3:17 .

S. W. Green.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Perfection'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible.​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​p/perfection.html. 1909.