The Imperfections of Perfectionism
B.B. Warfield’s world, once he arrived at Princeton in 1887, was not very large at all. His house, the Old Hodge House, conveniently situated him next to Alexander Hall, which contained Princeton Seminary’s dorm rooms and classrooms. Across the lawn stood Miller Chapel. His own well-stocked study — as editor of The Princeton Review he had a constant flow of books sent to him — could be supplemented by a short trip to the seminary’s library. Yet, Warfield’s impact belies this small world, stretching far beyond the tree-lined campus of Princeton. From the lectern he trained two generations of ministers, and with his pen he impacted virtually the whole world.
His writings, most of them gathered in a ten-volume set published posthumously by Oxford University Press, defend orthodox views of Scripture and Christology, just as liberalism was ramping up its challenge to these crucial doctrines. Three volumes reveal Warfield’s work as a historical theologian and church historian. Another volume brings together many of his book reviews first appearing in The Princeton Review. And then there are two volumes fully devoted to the issue of perfectionism. At first glance, this appears to be an inordinate amount of space and attention. Why was Warfield so concerned about perfectionism?
It only appears to be excessive. Looking a little deeper, one finds that Warfield’s attention to perfectionism is quite fitting. Further, his work here, as with his treatment of other topics, quickly moves beyond polemics and yields a great deal of positive material. Warfield’s treatment of perfectionism becomes an entry point into his understanding and teaching of the Christian life, and such teaching, Warfield would argue, was absolutely central to his own work of training ministers.
The Imperfections of Perfectionism
Perfectionism, at least in its manifestation in modern Protestantism, traces its roots to John Wesley, who taught that sanctification can be entire and complete in this life; “perfect love,” Wesley’s preferred term, could be exercised this side of glory. By Warfield’s day and the turning of the twentieth century, perfectionism had come to be espoused by a rather diverse group, constituting an extreme case of strange bedfellows. Warfield found perfectionism in the teachings of the leading German liberal Albrecht Ritschl, in the revivalistic sermons of Charles Finney, in the Keswick movement, and in Pentecostalism. Warfield also saw it among fundamentalists in the 1910s who were proponents of the so-called “victorious life.”
In his critique of perfectionism, Warfield names names and offers detailed criticisms of its teachings, dismantling it literally line by line. These varied and multiple criticisms may be boiled down to three major contentions. Warfield argues that the adherents to the victorious life movement build a high wall of separation between justification and sanctification. This bifurcation between entering the Christian life and living the Christian life put asunder what Warfield argues must be kept unified. “We cannot divide Jesus,” Warfield intones, “and have Him as our righteousness while not at the same time having Him as our sanctification” (The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 8, p. 475). This division, Warfield tells us, stems from a deficient view of Christ and the cross.
First, in reference to Christ when we receive Him at salvation, we receive both His person and His benefits, and, Warfield adds, “when we have Him we have all” (Works, vol. 8, p. 569). The victorious life movement teaches that at salvation we do not receive all, but that we need to wait until the second blessing or wait for some later time of empowerment in order to live fully the Christian life. Further, perfectionism promotes a deficient view of what Christ accomplished on the cross. In the victorious life teaching, Christ’s death is looked upon as merely saving us from the guilt of sin; the salvation from the corruption of sin comes later. Warfield responds this way: “It is a fatally inadequate conception of salvation which so focuses attention on deliverance from the penalty of sin and from continued acts of sin, as to permit to fall out of sight deliverance from sin itself — that corruption of heart which makes us sinners” (Works, vol. 8, p. 579).
Warfield was not naïve. He understood that the Christian, saved from the guilt and corruption of sin, did not then proceed to sin no more. Yet, he advocated a view of sanctification that looked quite different from his victorious-life protagonists. In their view, there are two classes of Christians, some on the higher plane experiencing victory in Jesus and another class wallowing below. This teaching frustrated Warfield as he saw it undermining Christ’s cross-work, not to mention the role of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. In Warfield’s view, such classes do not exist. All those in Christ have all that they need to live the Christian life, to strive after holiness.
Second, Warfield viewed perfectionism as putting far too much emphasis on the human will, calling such teaching the Pelagianizing tendency (a reference to Augustine’s theological adversary Pelagius). Warfield puts it this way: “Everywhere and always,” he observes of this teaching, “the initiative belongs to man; everywhere and always God’s action is suspended upon man’s will” (Works, vol. 8, p. 610).
A Christianity for the Ordinary
Warfield’s final contention concerns perfectionism’s tendency to divorce the Christian life from everyday living. His most stinging critique of perfectionism comes in these words: “They love the storm and the earthquake and the fire. They cannot see the divine in ‘a sound of gentle stillness,’ and adjust themselves with difficulty to the lengthening perspective of God’s gracious working” (Works, vol. 8, p. 561). The teaching of perfectionism lends itself well to the mountaintop experiences, to the excitement of the camp meeting, or to the heat of the revival fires. It does not fare so well in the ordinary experience, it does not readily tell one how to live in the valley. Warfield’s view of sanctification points in a different direction. It reminds us that we not only live holy lives on Sundays, or at the week-long conference, but also on Mondays through Fridays, that is all of the Mondays through Fridays of our lives. He reminds us to strive after holiness in the ordinary experiences of our lives.
Warfield not only wrote on these beliefs, he also sought to instill them in his students. Holiness, humility, and service were to be the hallmarks of the minister’s life. Warfield believed that all ministers are theologians, and, speaking of theologians, he once said, “The Systematic theologian is preeminently a preacher of the gospel, and the end of his work is obviously not merely the logical arrangement of the truths which come under his hand, but the moving of men, through their power, to love God with all their hearts and their neighbors as themselves; to choose their portion with the Saviour of their souls; to find and hold Him precious; and to recognize and to yield to the sweet influences of the Holy Spirit whom He has sent” (Works, vol. 9, p. 86).
Yet, Warfield did not just teach this to his students; he modeled it for them. The primary reason that Warfield’s world was so small during his tenure at Princeton was owing to the failing health if not nearly invalid status of his wife. When Warfield left his home it was to teach and to worship. Otherwise, he cared for his wife in his home (and, of course, he wrote). This was the calling that God had for Warfield, to teach, to write, and to be a caring and loving husband. And in these roles Warfield sought to reflect the holiness of God, to exercise humility, and to serve selflessly.
Dr. Stephen J. Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College, chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and hosts the podcasts 5 Minutes in Church History and Open Book. Originally published in Tabletalk magazine.