Front Page Titles (by Subject) SEVEN: PERFECTIBILITY WITHIN CHRISTIANITY: PROTESTANT AND HERETICAL - The Perfectibility of Man
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SEVEN: PERFECTIBILITY WITHIN CHRISTIANITY: PROTESTANT AND HERETICAL - John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man 
The Perfectibility of Man (3rd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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PERFECTIBILITY WITHIN CHRISTIANITY: PROTESTANT AND HERETICAL
For orthodox Protestantism, God has revealed himself, once and for all, in Christ. The mystic, in trying to rise above the world in order to achieve the vision of God, wilfully hurries past God, as Karl Barth puts it, God “who descends in His revelation into this world of ours.”1 The Scriptures belong to this world. To that degree, Barth suggests, the Quakers were correct in calling them, in contrast with the direct workings of the Holy Spirit, “carnal.” But in them alone, according to Barth, can men meet God as he is, objectively; the mystic substitutes subjective impressions of God for that objective knowledge which Christ, through the Scriptures, has revealed to men. Nor does orthodox Protestantism allow that by means of a direct vision of God, or by any other means, men can achieve in this life even “immaculate perfection,” let alone the kind and degree of perfection envisaged by John of the Cross. Human corruption is too profound to be entirely healed, as distinct from being graciously forgiven. The true Christian can be “perfected” only in the sense, that through his faith in Christ, Christ’s merits are “imputed” to him. But this imputation does not free him from sin.
Yet in certain important respects the seeds of Protestantism, or at least of German Reformation Protestantism, were first planted within the fertile soil of medieval mysticism, in Tauler, in the anonymous Theologia Germanica—of which Luther said that it meant more to him than any other book except the Bible and the writings of Augustine—and in The Imitation of Christ. For all such mystical works of devotion teach the same three lessons. First, that the knowledge of God is not to be achieved by theology, but by listening to God’s Word. “What have we to do with quiddities and qualities?” asks the author of The Imitation of Christ. “If a man listens to the eternal Word, he is delivered from a multitude of opinions.”2 Secondly, that men must be prepared to “yield to God,” that they must not count anything good as their own work, but rather as God’s working in them. Thirdly, that if in the end men are to arrive at an inner peace, they must first be prepared to “descend into hell,” enduring a deep conviction that they are unworthy even that God should deign to punish them. And these lessons, quite certainly, were also the lessons of the Reformation.
Mysticism of this kind is essentially anti-Pelagian. Such mystically-inspired Protestant perfectibilists as the Quakers and the Methodists do not question that men are entirely dependent for their perfection on the exercise of divine grace. There is no suggestion in either George Fox or John Wesley that men can so much as prepare themselves for grace by mortification or “detachment”—although they agree, of course, that the devout Christian will live a simple “unworldly” life. What the Quakers and Wesley do question, however, is Augustine’s conviction that as a matter of empirical fact God never gives men sufficient grace to make them perfect, or, at the very least, sinless. That had already been denied by certain of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists, and by a number of earnest minor sects after them. But we shall concentrate our attention on the two perfectibilist varieties of Protestantism which have had a special historical importance: the Quakers and the Methodists.
In the year 1659 George Fox, the first of the Quakers, was taken before a magistrate and examined.3 Asked whether he was sanctified, he tells us in his Journal, he replied, “Yes, for I was in the Paradise of God.” Was he then free from sin? “‘Sin,’ said I, ‘he has taken away my sin (viz: Christ my saviour) and in him there is no sin.’” Orthodox Protestantism allowed, of course, that men’s sin could be, by the grace of God, forgiven; Calvinists, at least, maintained that men might come to a full assurance that they would be saved. But Fox is saying much more than this: that Jesus came to earth to destroy sin, and that when he dwells in a man, there is no room in that man for sin. Not unnaturally, his conclusions were disputed. Some clergymen came to see Fox, so he tells us, “to plead for sin and imperfection.” For “they could not endure to hear of purity, or being made pure here [in this life].” But Fox was unconvinced. They were merely “babbling about the Scriptures,” he told them, unless they saw that the Scriptures were directed towards making us holy.
Still worse, from the orthodox point of view, was the case of James Nayler. In 1652, appearing before Judge Fell on a charge of blasphemy, Fox had been asked to meet the accusation that he had claimed to be equal with God. He replied without hesitation: “My Father and I are one.” James Nayler, a disciple of Fox, intervened with a question to the judges which was intended as an explanation: “Dost thou ask him as a creature or as Christ dwelling in him?”4 Fox was no theologian, but that he recognized a distinction of the sort Nayler is here suggesting emerges from a somewhat remarkable letter he wrote to Oliver Cromwell in 1654. There he speaks of himself as being “called of the world by the name George Fox” but as also having “a new name . . . which the world knowes not.” Since he has experienced a rebirth, he is no longer that sinful man born George Fox; now he has Christ dwelling in him, he is a new and sinless man. And that “new man” deserves a new name, but a name by which the world ought not to call him.
The distinction between “I am Christ” and “Christ dwelleth in me,” between George Fox the creature and Fox the new-born, Fox the renamed, is a subtle one, easily missed by enthusiasts and scarcely convincing to critics. When James Nayler was released from Exeter prison in 1656, he was greeted by a small band of enthusiastic devotees; surrounded by their hosannas, he rode to Bristol in a manner too reminiscent of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. Charged with blasphemy, he said of his worshippers that they were to blame if they were worshipping the visible James Nayler, but not if they were worshipping the invisible Christ within. The court was unimpressed, and Nayler was severely punished.
The Quaker cause suffered too. It was obviously dangerous to talk too freely of “the Christ within,” just as it had been dangerous for the Sufi mystics to proclaim that Allah lay within them. No doubt, all men were sons of God. They all had the seeds of Christ within them, they all “participated in” Christ—to use the metaphor which Plato had applied, to meet a not entirely dissimilar problem, in order to explain how a number of beautiful objects could all be said to have Beauty within them.* But to say that they were Christ, however this expression was intended, was to encourage the James Naylers of this world.
Surely there was another alternative. Could it not be said, simply, that Christ by his grace transformed men’s nature rather than that he lent them his own nature? The difficulty was that the Quakers were still, in part, Calvinists. Man’s nature was corrupt; he had to be reborn; he had to acquire a new nature, and that, on the face of it, could only be Christ’s nature.
The doctrine that men could become sinless persisted within the Quaker movement, even if the mechanism was better left obscure. The theologian of the movement, Robert Barclay, is obdurate on that point in his Apology for the True Christian Divinity. If men experience the “new birth,” he says, “the body of death in sin comes to be crucified and removed, and their hearts united and subjected to the truth; so as not to obey any suggestions or temptations of the Evil One, but to be free from actual sinning and transgressing of the law of God, and in that respect perfect.” He grants, no doubt, that “this perfection still admit[s] of a growth” and that the possibility of sinning remains. But this last admission can scarcely be reconciled with what he also says, namely, that the grace of Christ is able “to counterbalance, overcome and root out the evil seed, wherewith we are naturally, as in the Fall, leavened.”5 It is very easy to understand why Barclay wanted to maintain that new-born men could still sin; if men are told that they are now incapable of sinning they are only too likely to draw the conclusion that they have a perfect liberty to do as they please. But it is less easy to see how they can sin, if the evil seed within them is wholly rooted out. No doubt, as William Penn especially emphasized, full perfection—the achievement of complete wisdom, complete glory, complete happiness—has been reserved, on the Quaker view, for the after life. On the face of it, however, immaculate perfection, of a kind which makes it impossible for men to sin, was available here and now.
Quakerism was destined not to become the popular religion it set out to be; its immediate history, indeed, was to be a history of sects within sects. But the Methodism which Wesley founded did become a popular religion. And Wesley firmly asserted that Christians can and ought to attain to perfection. Methodism did not always remain faithful to Wesley’s teachings. His perfectibilism was not attractive to all Methodists; George Whitefield, the most powerful preacher of the Methodist movement, was a Calvinist and there soon grew up, within Methodism, a minority Calvinist wing, with resulting schisms.6 But it is his perfectibilism which makes Wesley so significant a figure in the history of Christian ideas—as distinct from the history of ecclesiastical organization or of evangelical preaching.7
In his Plain Account of Christian Perfection8 Wesley describes the progress and development of his teaching on perfection from 1725 until 1777. He tries to show, as against those who accused him of unorthodoxy and inconsistency, that he was both orthodox and—with some few reservations—consistent. Wesley’s religious history, as he relates it, is like Paul’s, or like Luther’s, in contrast with Augustine’s. He had always been, in the eyes of the world, a devout, righteous man, but his reading of Jeremy Taylor’s Rules and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying convinced him that, for all his devoutness, he was only “half a Christian.” There was no half-way house, he now came to think, between dedicating every part of his life to God, and devoting it “to myself; that is, in effect, to the devil.” Four years later he read The Imitation of Christ. This showed him, Wesley tells us, that not only his life, but his whole heart must be dedicated to God; a year or so later, in 1729, William Law’s Christian Perfection convinced him “more than ever, of the absolute impossibility of being half a Christian.”9 For it is the central point of Law’s argument that every Christian must take literally Christ’s command to be perfect—a perfection defined by Law as “the right performance of our necessary duties” and “the exercise of such holy tempers as are equally necessary and equally practicable in all states of life.” This, Law argues, is at once the highest degree of perfection Christianity demands and the lowest it allows. No Christian can be satisfied with less.10 Wesley’s belief in perfectibility, then, is grounded in a long tradition of devotional writing, Anglican and Roman Catholic.
In 1733, Wesley preached his first perfectibilist sermon at St. Mary’s Church, Oxford. He explicitly lays it down, in that sermon, that the Christian must seek “holiness” (immaculate perfection), a holiness which frees the soul from all sin and endows it with Christ’s virtues, so that it can truly be said to be “perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.” This perfection Wesley further defines, in an Augustinian manner, as a love of God so absolute that it wholly excludes any love of the creature, except in so far as by loving the creature we may express our love for its Creator. That is the sense, he argues, in which God is a “jealous God”; God will permit nothing else to be loved for its own sake.
From the general attitude expressed in this early sermon, so Wesley maintains, he never departed. But he carried his perfectibilism to a higher pitch—a pitch he came eventually to think of as altogether too high—in the preface to the collection of hymns he published in 1741.11 Only the Stoics have ever claimed so much for man as Wesley there claimed, and then only for their ideal Sage. The perfected Christian, Wesley says, will want for nothing; he will not even ask for ease from pain; he will never doubt what to do; he will never be troubled by temptation. It would be wrong to hold Wesley to these judgements, in the light of the reservations he later expressed about them. They represent, all the same, the ideal he would have liked not merely to lay before, but to regard as realizable by, the Christian. If he came to think of such an ideal as set too high, this was in the light of experience, not because he came to be critical of the ideal itself. (He is, incidentally, usually careful not to claim that he has himself been perfected.)
In the following year, by way of preface to a new volume of hymns, Wesley returned to the subject of perfection, in a manner designed to remove misapprehensions. He does not claim for men in this life, he now says, “freedom from ignorance, mistake, temptation, and a thousand infirmities necessarily connected with flesh and blood.”12 Secondly—and this against the antinomian sects—there is no perfection of a kind which would raise men “above the law,” which would have the effect that the “perfected ones” need no longer take the sacraments, or live simple lives, or pray. Thirdly, to say that the Christian can perfect himself does not imply that he will be infallible—he may still, Wesley grants, whether through ignorance or mistake, go against God’s will “in things not essential to salvation.” Elsewhere, in his 1740 sermon on “Christian Perfection,” Wesley had mentioned another thing he does not mean; he does not mean that men can make themselves, even with the aid of God’s grace, perfect in the aesthetic sense of the word—in all respects graceful, imaginative, quick in understanding.
What then does Wesley mean? “We mean [by perfect],” Wesley tells us, “one in whom is the mind which was in Christ, and who so walketh as Christ also walked: a man that hath clean hands and a pure heart, or that is cleansed from all filthiness of flesh and spirit; one in whom is no occasion of stumbling, and who accordingly does not commit sin.” Such a man is “sanctified throughout,” his “soul is all love,” he “loveth the Lord his God with all his heart,” he “loveth his neighbour, every man, as himself; yea, as Christ loveth us.”13
Wesley’s view, it might be thought, makes the Atonement unnecessary. Not so, Wesley argues. For although they are not properly to be called sins, men’s involuntary transgressions, arising out of their ignorance, are still faults, and need to be atoned for. In this sense, even the perfected Christian still needs to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses.” Indeed, Wesley was reluctant to use the phrase “sinless perfection” in case the conclusion was wrongly drawn that a Christian could be free even from such involuntary transgressions.
At first Wesley denied that perfection once achieved can ever be lost—he accepted the Calvinist doctrine of “inamissable” (unlosable) grace, with the consequence, on his view of grace, that the perfected man is sinless for ever. As one of his hymns described the perfect Christian:
But his experience of the Methodist movement persuaded him otherwise. “Formerly we thought,” he writes, “one saved from sin could not fall. Now, we know the contrary. We are surrounded with instances of those, who lately experienced all that I mean by perfection. They had both the fruit of the Spirit and the witness. But they have now lost both.”14
The three great dangers for the Christian, according to Wesley, are pride, enthusiasm, in the eighteenth-century sense of the word, and antinomianism. Insensibly, a man convinced that he has entirely surrendered himself to God can come to be proud of himself just for that reason; his egoism reasserts itself as spiritual pride. As for “enthusiasm”—the belief that, as a perfected man, the believer has had special revelations from God over and above what Scripture reveals to all men—that, said Wesley, was a “daughter of pride.” And closely linked with “enthusiasm” is antinomianism; the perfected man comes to think of himself as “above the Law,” no longer subject to normal judgements on his conduct.
That these were real dangers is only too abundantly illustrated in the history of Methodism and the Quaker movement. Fletcher of Madeley, close friend of Wesley, felt constrained to admit that “Antinomian principles have spread like wildfire among our societies . . . I have seen them, who pass for believers, follow the strain of corrupt nature; and when they should have exclaimed against Antinomianism, I have heard them cry out against the legality of their wicked hearts; which, they said, still suggested that they were to do something for their salvation.”15 The Quaker-educated, Methodist-attracted, Hannah Whitall Smith has made it clear in her “Personal Experiences of Fanaticism” just how, in their search for “spiritual baptism” and guided by the “Inner Light” beloved of the Quakers, men and women could be led to interpret sexual experiences as the highest forms of sanctity.16 She describes, for example, the agonies of mind of a young woman who had allowed herself to be persuaded by a Methodist clergyman that she had been chosen to be the mother of children who were to be born—with some degree of carnal assistance from the clergyman—to the Holy Ghost. Becoming pregnant, “she dared not admit the idea that it was a delusion, for her whole spiritual life seemed to depend upon believing that she had been rightly guided; for if she could think that in the most solemn moments of consecration, the Lord could allow her to be so deceived, she would feel that she could never trust Him again.”17 Similarly, men, once persuaded they were “perfect,” could not bring themselves to believe that they had fallen away from perfection; it was necessary to suppose, rather, that what they found themselves doing, however at odds with conventional moral standards, was, in some mysterious way, the work of the Lord.
To see antinomian perfectibilism in its most developed form, we must turn our attention to the history of Christian heresy, to those sects which lie on the periphery of Christendom. For long periods in the history of official Christianity, indeed, there has run parallel with it a competing religious movement—we have met it already as Gnosticism—sometimes manifested only in the form of isolated sects, sometimes living a powerful, but underground, existence as a secret community of believers, sometimes emerging publicly as a potent rival to the established Church. From the twelfth to the fourteenth century, it took the form of Catharism—better known, perhaps, as “the Albigensian heresy.” We can sum up the Cathar objection to orthodox Christianity thus: Christianity allows too much value to the flesh, too little power to the spirit. Every material thing, so the Cathars maintained, is the creation not of God but of Satan.
Christianity, or so we have suggested, is ambiguous in its attitude to the world; the Cathars sought to put an end to that ambiguity. If the Cathars maintained—like the early Gnostics—that Jesus had only “passed through” Mary, not being made flesh by her, this was a more extreme expression of those very same feelings that lay behind the Christian emphasis on Mary’s virginity. But the official Christian Church, so the Cathars argued, had compromised with the Devil; it had succumbed to the temptations of wealth and worldly power; it had failed to insist with sufficient force on celibacy, as a pre-requisite of salvation. For the Cathars, there could be no compromise; any concession to the flesh was a concession to the Devil. The perfected man must wholly reject the flesh and all its ways.
Christianity, the heretics also argued, had at the same time allowed too little to the spirit; the human spirit, they claimed, is capable of so perfecting itself, so freeing itself from the flesh, that it can become one with God. At this point, too, there were precedents for their teachings in the earlier history of the Church. The second-century Montanists were completely convinced that men can become Gods. Their leader Montanus had no hesitation in proclaiming, “I am the Lord God, the Almighty present to you in man’s form,” just as, a little later, Paul of Samosata was to announce, “I too, if I wish, shall be Christ, since I and Christ are of one and the same nature.”18 If Christians whose heterodoxy was by no means obvious could write thus—Montanus was condemned by Pope Zephyrinus only after much hesitation and Paul was bishop of Antioch—it is not surprising that bolder heretics so often laid claims to divinity.*
Was it merely a libel when their opponents accused the Cathars of using their hostility to the flesh as a mere cloak for libertinism? Charges of this same kind, it is well to remember, were levelled against the early Christians; Christian “love-feasts,” many of their pagan critics alleged, were sexual orgies in disguise, their communion service a form of cannibalism, their fraternal relationships a cover for incest. All these charges early Christian apologists like Athenagoras felt it necessary to rebut at length. But it is easy to see how the Cathar teachings could produce the consequences Wesley so greatly, and so justifiably, feared—pride, enthusiasm, antinomianism. Can a man say of himself, without pride, that he is “perfected”? Convinced that he is perfect, is he not liable to think of himself as no longer subject to merely human laws?
The “perfected” Cathar, no doubt, claimed to have passed beyond the point at which men are capable of sinning. But in this claim there is a crucial ambiguity. It may mean that “perfected” men will, once perfect, no longer perform acts of the kind men commonly call sinful. Or it may mean that after they have been perfected, nothing they do subsequently, however immoral in the eyes of men, counts for the fully sanctified as a sin. The enemies of perfectibilist heresies have always alleged the second interpretation and sometimes, it would seem, with justification.
In the case of medieval sects, it is, of course, difficult to be at all certain what they taught, even when, as so often happened, they placed great emphasis on “sacred books.” It was the medieval habit to burn their manuscripts along with the offending heretics, and it was not a medieval habit, any more than it is a modern habit, to refrain from slander, when it serves the interests of orthodox piety. So our only source of information is, in many cases, the highly suspect expositions of their opponents. But thanks to the assiduity of Norman Cohn,19 we are able to examine in some detail the teachings of those Brethren of the Free Spirit who, under a variety of names, flourished in Europe from the twelfth until the sixteenth century, when—as the “Spiritual Libertines”—they aroused the wrath of Calvin.
Metaphysically, the brethren were deeply influenced, like Augustine before them, by neo-Platonism, which they interpreted in a pantheistic fashion. More important than their general metaphysics, however, was their view of the human soul and its relation to God. “From eternity,” wrote one of them, “the soul of man was in God and is God,”20 they were, that is, pantheists of a somewhat irregular sort. Not things as such, but only their essences, were in God; but even transitory beings sought to be God. In the manner to which we have become only too accustomed, they drew a distinction between the ordinary believer, the “crude in spirit,” and the élite, the “subtle in spirit.” In the end, admittedly, both the crude and the subtle would become God, but only the subtle could become God here and now, possessing all the divine perfections. The bull of Clement V, issued in 1311 and directed against the Brethren, specifically condemns the proposition that “a man in this life can attain to such perfection that he is incapable of sinning or surpassing his present degree of grace, since to do so would make him more perfect than Christ.”21 But the more spiritually ambitious of the Brethren were not content to rest even at this point; they had, they claimed, advanced in perfection beyond God, of whom they no longer had any need.
In this paranoiac mood, they were scarcely likely to pay much attention to merely human claims upon them or to restrictions imposed upon their conduct. “One can be so united with God,” an “adept” wrote, “that whatever one may do one cannot sin.”22 Their favourite Biblical text was Paul’s “To the pure all things are pure.”23 The English Ranter, Laurence Clarkson—the Ranters were the English branch, as one might express the matter, of the Brethren of the Free Spirit—quotes this text in defence of his view that honesty (in its seventeenth-century sense of “chastity”) and adultery are indistinguishable. “For,” he says, “with God they are but one, and that one Act holy, just, and good as God . . . what Act soever I do, is acted by that Majesty in me . . . there is no act whatsoever, that is impure in God, or sinful with or before God.”24
This was in a book which bore a somewhat odd-sounding title—A Single Eye All Light, with a reference to Matthew: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.”25 The title brings out, in a metaphorical way, the essence of the Ranters’ teachings. It refers obliquely to a metaphor much favoured by patristic and medieval theology in order to indicate the condition of man: man, according to this metaphor, has “two eyes,” one spiritual, fixed on heaven and one, secular, on the earth. What the Ranters stood for, in contrast, was “a single eye all light”; the human being was to be entirely spiritual, entirely filled by the divine light, with no eye fixed on the merely worldly.* And in such a being, they argued, there could be no sin. What Wesley was prepared to admit—that some of his followers had been perfect and had then fallen—was in the eyes of the Brotherhood a monstrous absurdity. Once a man was wholly possessed by God, once his will was wholly subordinated to the divine will, how could he fall? Teresa had been puzzled by the same difficulty, but had been prepared to set it aside as “a mystery.” The Ranters were bolder. It was logically impossible for a perfected man to sin; his actions were God’s actions; if what he did seemed to be sinful, this could only be because it was so regarded by the sinful eyes of men. It is easy to understand why George Fox was so anxious to distinguish himself from the Ranters.
The Ranters’ views were sufficiently widespread to provoke, in 1650, the English House of Commons to pass an act for “the Punishment of Atheistical, Blasphemous and Execrable Opinions” which laid down penalties for those who professed that “acts of adultery, drunkenness, swearing . . . are in their own nature as holy and righteous as the duties of prayer, preaching, or giving of thanks to God” or that “whatsoever is acted by them, (whether whoredom, adultery, drunkenness or the like open wickedness) may be committed without sin.”26 The Brethren’s attitude to property was no less uncompromising: the noble spirit had a right to keep whatever he could lay his hands on. For did not the idea of “mine and yours” belong to the realm of the Devil as distinct from the realm of God?27 A fact of great historical importance, this doctrine was generalized—all property, so it was argued, was held by man in common. Utopian communism and the doctrine of sinless perfection were thus conjoined in a single stream.
To treat such doctrines as mere aberrations, as Cohn tends to do, is to miss their true significance, as a set of doctrines by which, as their recurrence suggests, Christians can be not implausibly tempted. Paul’s own Church at Corinth, it would seem, had understood him, and not altogether unnaturally, as freeing them by his teachings from the governance of any kind of law. (Paul writes of himself, rather, as substituting a new law, the law of faith or the law of love, for the old law.)28 And certainly there are passages in Luther which could be read with approval by any of the Brethren of the Free Spirit. “Our freedom,” he writes, “. . . is freedom from the demands and obligations of the law,” or again: “inasmuch as he is a Christian, he is above the law and sin. For he hath Christ the Lord of the law present and inclosed in his heart.”29 Anxious to oppose every form of “moralism,” for which righteousness matters more than faith—“There is no one,” Luther wrote, “who would not prefer to be without perfect righteousness than without the grace of God”30 —Luther not uncommonly expressed himself in ways which could encourage antinomianism. It was Luther himself, no doubt, who first used that word as a form of condemnation. But he did so in reply to a friend and fellow worker, Johannes Agricola, who, in explicitly maintaining that the Ten Commandments are no longer of any importance to Christians, thought of himself as an orthodox Lutheran. (To Luther himself they were a kind of moral lifebuoy, to which Christians might properly cling in times of great moral distress.)
It is always a temptation for Christian thinking, we have already suggested, so to emphasize the inability of man to act of his own accord that all his acts must be thought of as God’s. And then it is no longer possible to regard any of his acts as sins. The Augustinian view that evil is essentially privative and so far negative, a view designed to reconcile its existence with God’s omnipotence, also has its dangers for the Christian: it can easily be pushed into the stronger view that evil exists only for those who have failed to see the world as it really is, who lack that divine illumination in the light of which the unreality of sin is made clear.
Again, the doctrine that the flesh must be subdued can readily be so reinterpreted as to lead to the conclusion that no fleshly act is of any importance.* The Christian, it might even be concluded, ought deliberately to engage in, for example, sexual acts in order to prove to himself how little they matter to him. The story told of Clement of Rome, that, finding himself jealous of his wife, he offered her to his fellow clergy as a way of overcoming that jealousy, reflects this feeling that a sexual act, immoral in itself, can be a test of strength; enthusiasts of a rather different sort have lain with other men’s wives to prove that it left them spiritually unmoved. “To kiss women and embrace them,” so the French Béghards are said to have maintained, “provided they did not consummate the carnal sin, was greatly meritorious, and an argument of fortitude and abstinence, and of a strong and acceptable love of God, and the truest proof that each party was resolutely virtuous.”31 Would not consummation, more ardent enthusiasts naturally asked, be an even stronger proof of virtue, provided only that in that consummation the saints retained their absolute detachment?
We have so far left aside the question how, for Christian perfectibilists, individual perfection is related to social perfection. There can be little doubt that the early Christians expected that Christ would return to earth and rule over a perfect kingdom wholly comprised of his saints. These millennarian ideas derive from Hebrew sources, the Book of Daniel and such apocryphal books as Enoch. They retained their fascination for many centuries; Ralph Cudworth, Isaac Newton, Joseph Priestley all devoted themselves to the interpretation of the Book of Daniel. Millennial sects persist in our own time, ranging from the (relatively) orthodox Seventh Day Adventists to the highly heterodox Jehovah’s Witnesses. Not infrequently, the presumption is that men can live now as saints in preparation for that second coming; in Seventh Day Adventism, millennial aspirations are linked with a considerable degree of asceticism.
Augustine substituted for millennial hopes a City of God, conceived of, in terms which echo Plato’s Republic, as “a shadow of the eternal city”32 —the eternal city which, for Augustine, is the Kingdom of God in heaven. The city of God is “a communion of saints.” For Augustine, that does not mean that it is a city of the perfected, since no one on earth can be perfected. But it is a city of those who love God and who are predestined to join God’s kingdom in heaven, as distinct from the city made up of those who love not God but the world. Men are divided, not in terms of what perfection they have achieved, but in terms of what they love—God or the world. It is easy to see, however, how this doctrine of two cities could be converted into another one, for which the city of worldly men is identified with the secular city and the city of those who love God with a community of perfected saints, owing no allegiance to the temporal order.
We can then put the matter thus: the idea of a perfect society composed of perfect men, a society existing here on this earth as distinct from a kingdom of heaven, entered into Christian thought in two ways. First as millennialism, the belief in a Second Coming—presaged by calamities and the emergence of anti-Christ on earth—after which Christ will reign on earth over a kingdom of saints. Secondly, as the idea of a City of God composed of men who are already perfected and living on earth in a perfect community in the midst of a secular state to which they owe little or no obedience. The two ideas were often conjoined; the saints, it is then suggested, were to live now in a city of God in preparation for Christ’s second coming.
To particularize the variety of forms which these ideas have assumed in the history of Western Europe would be a task of immense complexity. One example will have to serve—the nineteenth-century Oneida community in the United States. Its solution of the problem of reconciling perfected sinlessness with the impulses of the flesh was unusually ingenious and, as it would appear, more than ordinarily successful.33 John Humphrey Noyes, the Founder of the Oneida community, was a student of theology at Yale. In the course of his Biblical studies, he lit upon a momentous discovery: the Second Advent had already taken place, in the year ad 70 when Jerusalem fell. The Ten Commandments were at that same time abrogated; but not the New Testament commandments of love. The New Testament showed men how to perfect themselves through faith. Noyes made it clear that he was himself perfected in this way, and therefore incapable of sinning, as other men could also be, if they had sufficient faith. The Gospel, he claimed, “provides for complete salvation from sin.”
Noyes interested himself in the quasi-communist societies which were springing up throughout America, under the influence of such Utopian reformers as Fourier. They failed, with dismal regularity; and Noyes thought he knew why. They failed because they were unable to solve “the problem of marriage”—a “problem” he had already encountered in the lives of his perfected friends. Noyes’s own solution was “complex marriage.” There was no doubt that men and women must love one another, and the more they loved one another the better; with the freedom to love, marriage must never be allowed to interfere. Yet Noyes wished to retain what was essential in ascetic Christianity—the need for detachment. Paul had told the Corinthians that a married man inevitably “careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.”34 Some Christians had sought to avoid this deplorable consequence by avoiding all sexual relationships; others, of the more antinomian sort, by allowing themselves none but irregular relationships. But Noyes had a different solution: marriage with a wife one did not too much care for.
Men and women must not be allowed to “form attachments”—whether to persons or to possessions; this was the unforgivable crime. If a man felt himself becoming attached to a particular woman, so that he could love only her, this was a derogation from the love due to all women; he must at once separate himself from her and allow another man to take his place. The same was true of a mother’s love of a child or, of course, of any attachment to private possessions. So the perfect could be preserved from temptation: the temptation of “egoism.” Thus it was that Noyes carried to their logical conclusions the teachings of such sixteenth-century Moravians as Ulrich Stadler. On property Stadler had written: “Mine, thine, his, own divides the Lord’s house and is impure. . . . For everything has been created free in common. . . . Whoever appropriates them (creaturely things) for himself and encloses them is a thief and steals what is not his.”35 As Proudhon was later to put the same point: “Property is theft.” Ordinary marriage, to Noyes, was simply one form assumed by the property-relationship.
Noyes did not claim, it should be observed, that all the members of his community were sinless. Once more we encounter the distinction between the sinless perfected ones, the leaders of the community, who set the standards for the community as a whole, and the ordinary practising believers. And when Noyes spoke of “sinless perfection,” he did not mean that the perfected ones lived in accordance with “the law”; the Ten Commandments were gone, and with them the law. (“Notice is hereby given that all claims made by the old firm of Moses and Law were cancelled 1800 years ago.”) The perfection he had in mind was a mystical perfection, involving a “daily and familiar intercourse with God,” an intercourse which destroyed all selfishness. Selfishness, understood as the desire to own or possess, is, for Noyes, the only form of evil; the whole community was designed to ensure that such selfishness would not arise, or, once arisen, would not endure.36
Under the dictatorship of Noyes, the Community flourished to an unparalleled degree. But the Presbyterian Synod of New York took alarm and Noyes thought it expedient to abolish its central feature—its system of “complex marriage”—after which the community decayed. The great interest of the Oneida Community lies in the fact that it preserved the ascetic ideal of detachment without any trace of the Puritanism with which, in Christianity, it has almost invariably been allied.
Let us now try to sum up the lessons of the last three chapters. Christianity has been, in its major official sects, opposed to the view that men can, in this life, live flawless lives. Of course, it did promise perfection in a future life, sometimes to all men—Origen expressed the belief that in the long run even Satan will be saved—sometimes to all men who diligently seek after it, sometimes only to an elect. But in this life, according to the central stream of Christian thinking, nothing more can be achieved than progress towards perfection.
To the degree to which progress towards perfection is possible, it is dependent, according to the main Christian tradition, upon the assistance of God’s grace. This was the sense in which, as Origen argued in his Contra Celsum, Christianity was for all, Platonism only for the few. According to Plato, perfection lies open only to men of a certain nature and a certain education; Christianity offered the hope of ultimate perfection to all sorts and conditions of men, by making it dependent on God’s grace. But at the same time it made it impossible for a man to achieve perfection by his own efforts. There were disagreements about the degree of terrestrial perfection to which even God’s grace could carry men, but it was generally admitted that not even God’s grace made men perfect, although this, of course, lay within God’s power; God has simply, as Augustine thought, chosen not to bestow so much grace on men in this life.
Many Christians, however, have been dissatisfied with this conclusion. They have sought complete perfection, whether by renunciation of the world, or by direct union with God, or by an overwhelming conversion, or by placing themselves entirely in God’s hands, or by an exercise of will. And often enough they have tried to live within a small community of believers, as Epicurus set up the ideal of a community of friends in a garden, where perfection would be achieved in a fellowship of the perfect. That perfection, in this life, lies open to all men, not many Christians have believed since Pelagius was condemned, but that it is impossible even for an élite, many Christians have refused to admit. Conquer the flesh, overthrow egoism, and God will take possession. Such Christians, however, have differed greatly about what is meant by “conquering the flesh,” or by “overthrowing egoism,” to say nothing of their disagreements about how, and to what degree, God can take possession of the individual, and what the evidence is that he has done so.
[1. ]Karl Barth: Church Dogmatics, Vol. II: The Doctrine of God, Pt. 1 (Edinburgh, 1957), ch. V, §25. 1: Man before God, p. 11.
[2. ]Imitatio Christi, I. 3. ii, as trans. Justin McCann (London, 1952). The Imitation of Christ is traditionally ascribed to Thomas à Kempis, but this ascription has been questioned. “Quiddities and qualities” could be paraphrased as “scholastic jargon.”
[3. ]For this story, see The Journal of George Fox, ed. N. Penney, 2 vols (Cambridge, 1911), Vol. 1, pp. 2–3. I have modernized the text.
[4. ]Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 66. The letter to Oliver Cromwell may be found on pp. 161–62.
[* ]This links with what was said above about the imitation of Christ. Plato found it extremely difficult to give any satisfactory account of the relationship between “forms” and particulars. To say that particulars imitate forms, as he sometimes does, is not enough: it does not suggest the ontological dependence of particulars on forms. So, similarly, to say that men should imitate Christ does not make clear their dependence on Christ. Plato sometimes talks, therefore, about particulars as “participating” in the forms; Christians suggest, in the same spirit, that men are to participate in Christ, that this is the “real meaning” of imitation. Precisely in what this participation consists is in both cases very obscure; Plato himself in the Parmenides draws attention to the extreme difficulty of making any sense of the metaphor.
[5. ]Robert Barclay: Apology for the True Christian Divinity, Proposition VIII: Concerning Perfection: Thesis; 8th English ed. (Birmingham, 1765), p. 204, and Proposition VII, p. 171.
[6. ]See, for example, John Leland Peters: Christian Perfection and American Methodism (South Nashville, Tenn., 1956).
[7. ]Compare James B. Mozley: Lectures and Other Theological Papers (London, 1883), Lecture XI, “The Modern Doctrine of Perfectibility,” and R. N. Flew: The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology.
[8. ]John Wesley: A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, in Works, 16 vols (London, 1809–13), Vol. 11, pp. 158–250. The page references hereafter are to this ed.
[9. ]Ibid., pp. 158–59.
[10. ]William Law: A Practical Treatise upon Christian Perfection (London, 1728), Introduction, p. 3.
[11. ]A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, ed. cit., pp. 172–76.
[12. ]Ibid., pp. 178–79.
[13. ]Ibid., p. 179.
[14. ]Ibid., p. 228. The hymn is quoted on p. 182.
[15. ]J. W. Fletcher: Second Check Against Antinomianism, 3rd letter (Works, Shebbear, Devon, i, p. 63), as quoted in K. E. Kirk: The Vision of God, p. 419.
[16. ]Publ. in Hannah W. Smith, Religious Fanaticism, ed. with introd. by Ray Strachey (London, 1928).
[17. ]Ibid., p. 191.
[18. ]Both quotations are from Steven Runciman: The Medieval Manichee (Cambridge, 1947; repr. 1955), pp. 18–20.
[* ]It must be remembered that as late as the end of the second century Christians were still claiming the power, in Christ’s name, of raising men from the dead. So, writing in the second century, Irenaeus tells us that “dead men have actually been raised and have remained with us for many years” (quoted in Eusebius: History of the Church, 5, 7, 4; trans. cit., p. 210). It is not surprising that men felt themselves to be Christ, when they believed themselves to possess such powers.
[19. ]See his The Pursuit of the Millennium (London, 1957), together with Gordon Leff: Heresy in the Later Middle Ages, Vol. 1, pp. 308–407, which develops and corrects Cohn’s account of the Brotherhood.
[20. ]Cohn, op. cit., p. 181.
[21. ]Leff, op. cit., p. 314.
[22. ]Cohn, op. cit., p. 187.
[23. ]Titus 1:15.
[24. ]Cohn, op. cit., pp. 348–49.
[25. ]Matthew 6:22.
[* ]Compare the mock-advertisement in the newspaper of the Oneida community (for which see p. 221 below). “It is known that many persons with two eyes habitually ‘see double.’ To prevent stumbling and worse liabilities in such circumstances, an ingenious contrivance has been invented by which the whole body is filled with light. It is called the ‘single eye,’ and may be obtained by applying to Jesus Christ.” (Charles Nordhoff: The Communistic Societies of the United States, New York, 1875; repr. 1960, p. 267.) The doctrine of the single eye can also be found in mediaeval mystical writings, e.g. Theologia Germanica, ch. VII.
[26. ]Cohn, op. cit., pp. 325–26.
[27. ]Compare Theologia Germanica, ch. XXII and passim.
[28. ]See especially I Corinthians, 5, and Henry Chadwick: The Early Church (Harmondsworth, 1967; London, 1968), pp. 33–34.
[29. ]Preface to Romans and Commentary on Galatians, as trans. in Martin Luther: Selections, ed. Dillenberger, pp. 30, 112.
[30. ]Adversus Latonum (Werke, Weimarer Ausgabe, VIII, 106) as trans. in Kirk: The Vision of God, p. 418.
[* ]Compare “Expecting nothing, his heart and mind disciplined, having relinquished all possessions, performing action by the body alone, he incurs no sin.” (The Sage, as described in Bhagavad-Gītā, ch. IV, verse 21, in the trans. by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Harmondsworth, 1967—my italics.) It is significant, however, that in other translations this passage appears in a much less antinomian form. Christians are not the only ones who know how to turn scriptures to their own purposes.
[31. ]Quoted in R. A. Knox: Enthusiasm, p. 103.
[32. ]Augustine: The City of God, Bk. XV, ch. 2, in the abridged trans. ed. V. J. Bourke, p. 325.
[33. ]The details that follow are in part derived from chapter VII of Ray Strachey’s introduction to Hannah W. Smith: Religious Fanaticism, pp. 100–117.
[34. ]I Corinthians 7:33.
[35. ]Ulrich Stadler: Cherished Instructions on Sin, Excommunication, and the Community of Goods, in Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, ed. G. H. Williams, Library of Christian Classics, 25 (London, 1957), p. 278. The order of the sentences has been modified.
[36. ]This quotation is taken from The Circular, the paper of the Community. See Charles Nordhoff: The Communistic Societies of the United States, p. 267.