Tuesday 24 March 2015

On the faulty perfection of the saints

“Bad saints everywhere”–Kevin Hart

Everyone in the church knows that the saints are a bunch of rascals. We could never venerate a faultless person, though we could fault a blameless person. We churchy folk tolerate the ignorance of the heathen about the morality of the saints. We are quite content to let them believe the saints to have been impeccable moral exemplars. But when someone in the church misunderstands the sanctity of the saints and demands faultless perfection, then we sharpen our quills. It is for this reason that John Wesley—lover of perfection that he was—found himself appalled upon reading the work of Rev. Conyers Middleton.

Middleton presumed that it was meaningful to point out that the saintly fathers of the church occasionally demonstrated questionable behaviour and opinion (and he deplored the accounts of their miracles). It takes a perfectionist like Wesley to identify someone who does not have a proper appreciation of Christian perfection.

There are those who will argue against the adjectival use of “Christian”—especially when it is applied to nouns such as “music”, “t-shirt”, or “weight loss programme”. However, when applied to “perfection”, it is an essential modifier. The saints, after all, are not a row of flag poles, but a field of trees. A tree is perfect not because it is rigid and straight and looks like every other tree, but because it is wild. The perfection of the saints comes not because they are blandly flawless, but because they are wildly Christian.

Perhaps it is true to say that Wesley is more credulous of the miracles of the ancient church than is advisable, but he still saw through Middleton’s scepticism to the heart of the matter—Middleton had no love for the fathers. Love, the apostle tells us—rascal that he was—covers a multitude of sins. Christian perfection, Wesley knows all too well, is not faultless performance. Christian perfection is not “sinless perfection”, as he had to remind his critics constantly. The good Lord, after all, had nothing to do with sinless people.

It is not hard, Wesley observes, to find in the Fathers “many mistakes, many weak suppositions, and many ill-drawn conclusions” if one wants to. A saint is not untouched by human infirmity, but one who bears their infirmities with Christian fortitude. “A saint”, G. K. Chesterton once mused, “only means a man who really knows he is a sinner.”

“And yet I exceedingly reverence them”, Wesley concludes, “and esteem them very highly in love.” If the saints were flawless, they could be no example to us. The saints inspire only if they bear the blemishes of human life. Otherwise they would be horribly glorious gods.

Christian perfection, Wesley teaches, is not sinlessness, but love. Wesley’s prayer is nothing more than to be a Christian like the fathers, living a life of love in the service of the God of love. That, he says, would be a perfect life.

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