Review of Studies in Perfectionism by Benjamin Warfield

Review of Studies in Perfectionism by Benjamin Warfield

Warfield, Benjamin B., Studies in Perfectionism. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958. 464 pages.

B. B. Warfield is known as one of the major exponents of the Reformed view of theology. He studied at what is now Princeton University and Seminary, graduating from the later in 1876. He taught first at Leipzig, Germany but was later the successor to Archibald Alexander Hodge as professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary. He died in 1921. During his life he earned several distinguished degrees. He wrote theology profusely. This book was taken from the original ten volume series of Warfield works first published by Oxford University Press which has been popular for years as a corpus of his writings.

The original work, Studies in Perfectionism, included material on “German rationalists as Ritschl, Wernle, Clemen, Pfleiderer, and Windisch.” For the use of the present audience this one thousand page work was truncated by excluding this material. The study’s foci is on such men and movements as Asa Mahan, Charles Grandison Finney, Hannah Whitehall Smith, the Oberlin teaching, the Higher Life teaching, the Fellowship movement, Keswick, and the Victorious Life movement, mostly as they appear in English-speaking countries.

Perfectionism is a phenomenon which, if dealing exclusively in the Christian context, has appeared in Catholic, Arminian/Weslyan, Quaker and Quietists circles. It has been most prominently displayed in the Keswick and Victorious Life movement. The predominate theme of Warfield is that sin is under-evaluated and under-appreciated by these perfectionists, and that sin consists of any failure to conform to the law of God. In Warfield’s view, the perfectionists discussed have a theoretical rather than actual perfectionism. Salient arguments and a great deal of vital history make this a most useful book.

“Perfectionism was first given standing in the Protestant churches through the teaching of John Wesley, although he himself never claimed perfection.”2 Warfield’s initial concern, however, is with the Oberlin College situation and the two men, Asa Mahan and Charles G. Finney, and the development of what is called “Oberlin Theology.” His evalution?—”The cold, Pelagian system of the new divinity has been attached to the engine of fanaticism.”3 This “New Divinity” emphasis on the ability of man stood in direct opposition to the teachings of Jonathan Edwards which had predominated prior to this time. In its earliest days the Weslyan perfectionistic view took hold at Oberlin. A second stage of the Christian life was called by the different names of “entire sanctification,” “holiness,” Christian perfection,” and sometimes “the baptism of the Holy Ghost.”

Finney’s theological perspective was largely shaped by the Congregationalist N. W. Taylor. A distinctive aspect of this perfectionism is that “what is taught is a perfection that consists in complete righteousness, but in a righteousness which is adjusted to fluctuating ability.”4 A person is not responsible for righteousness beyond what he knows that perfection to be.

As their perfectionism developed a more serious “sea change” occurred, centered around the doctrine of “the simplicity of moral action.” The end result was that Finney and the Oberlin Theology taught that man was either entirely holy or entirely sinful in each and every action. There could be no mixed actions. The doctrine turned further into the message that a man “to be a Christian at all must be perfect: and the concern of the Christian is not to grow more perfect, but to maintain the perfection which belongs to him as a Christian and in which, not into which, he grows. What, then, he seeks after is not holiness—he has that. Nor more holiness than he has—if he has any he has all. What he seeks after is ‘establishment.'” 5 This shift leaves no room for two classes of Christians, a view which was first held by these Oberlin theologians.

Finney’s Pelagianism is seen in his belief that the Christian “is justified no further than he obeys, and must be condemned when he disobeys.”6 This means that the person continues to move between justification and damnation depending on their obedience. Finney taught as well that atonement had nothing to do with the Augustinian system of imputation by which the sinner is justified even though a sinner. “The penitent soul remains justified no longer than this full-hearted consecration continues.”7 Additional doctrines of the Oberlin system and Finney are drawn upon by Warfield to establish the Pelagian underpinning of their theology.

Coming back to the Weslyan influence on sanctification, Warfield lays out the life of W.E. Boardman and the Pearsall Smiths. Mr. Boardman wrote the definitive beginning book on sanctification, however poorly written, entitled, The Higher Christian Life. Mrs. Smith wrote the most popular holiness book of all time, The Christian Secret of the Happy Life. Though she had discovered her views through Methodism, she recalled that she had first heard them in her Quaker circles. In this she rejoiced. She remained a Quaker all of her life.

The “higher life” is built upon the double conversion theory, dividing justification from sanctification. The later is obtained as the former through an act of faith. The product of the later is rest in Christ and the complete victory over sinning, hence the inclusion in this book on perfectionism. There are two kinds of Christians in this movement, the sanctified and the merely justified. One is supposedly freed from the guilt of sin in the first conversion and the power of sin in the other.

Boardman, the Smiths, and the Oberlin faction of perfectionism, among many others, come together in the great Oxford Union Meeting in England in the later quarter of the 19th century for an historic gathering. They are alike in this: they all want perfection and they all believe that it comes, not by work, but by faith. There is this also which distinguishes them: they give a very large place to the will. It is the strong place of the will in choosing to allow the perfection work of Christ to take place.

The Smiths taught that man could sin constantly even though a Christian. But, when they choose to abide in Christ, then there was perfect rest and holiness. This is perfectionism, though not in constancy—only as the will is operative to abide in Christ.

They also stressed the place of faith in opposition to works in sanctification. In other words, contrary to the Reformed position which give the law a continued use and obedient works a rightful place, the “higher life” teaching puts all its emphasis on faith. It is “resting, not working” that is the principle.

It is interesting to note, as a sideline, that Mrs. Smith was a universalist in her view of salvation, but this does not show up in her holiness teaching.8 And it is of even greater interest for our discussion that Mahan and the Smiths were together in the formation of the Keswick movement which continued this same two-tiered life of the believer.

Warfield discusses the German Fellowship movement and the Victorious Life movement with Charles Trumbull in largely the same vein. The purveyor of the later was the Sunday School Times which was edited by Trumbull and by Robert McQuilken. Here again we have the motif of “let go and let God”. Trumbull goes in some ways even further by saying, “It is not your faith. You have no faith in you, any more than you have life or anything else in you…You have to take His faith as well as His life and healing, and have simply to say, ‘I live by the faith of the Son of God.’…It is simply Christ, Christ alone.”9

This book hits the nerve of modern evangelicalism. I have often seen the encroachment of the higher life movement in America’s view of revival, for instance. It is most disconcerting to find that, for the most part, those who host conferences on revival do so with the intention of promoting the “deeper life” view of things. In other words, most of such meetings more or less become extended “deeper life” conferences. My suspicion is that many of the religious leaders in evangelicalism today were affected heavily by the resurgence of this sort of teaching in the seventies and believe that coming back to it in force will bring some of the joys they experienced when younger. I consider this a grave mistake.

Some might contend that what Warfield was addressing in the later part of the book on the “higher life” is not related to the subject of perfectionism. Yet it is germane. Today we might call such movements “semi-perfectionism.” We would see that the idea of the purveyors of this sort of thing believe that man is somehow suspended above two types of living—the one carnal, the other spiritual. As long as the spiritual is operative, that is, Christ through the believer, then there is perfect rest and victory over sin. In this way Christ works through you, and He works perfectly because of His nature. This is a transient state, however, for when the carnal, or merely natural human aspect of our being is in charge, the result is entirely selfish and sinful. Here we can see the results of the Oberlin teaching and the “higher life” teaching. This entire holiness or entire sinfulness is directly descending from Finney’s view of the “the simplicity of moral action” stated above. The suspended will theory is more akin that of the Smiths and the Keswick people. I have personally espoused this view in former days and can vouch for its inaccuracies and frustrations.

For Warfield there is the knowledge that it is God’s intention to sanctify with whatever means He chooses. He will do that with every person who is his without need for a second “conversion” (cf. Heb. 12:14; 1 Thess. 5: 18, etc.). Sanctification is not ultimately dependent upon our will, but God who promises “He will do it” (1 Thess. 5: 19). The believer progresses in his sanctification, aggressively disciplining his life because God is in him working to perform His will (Phil. 2: 12-13).

In the overall look at this kind of perfectionism seen today, we can observe the following; 1. There is a lack of appreciation for the place of the demands of God through the law. For Warfield, an understanding and appreciation of the moral law is needed. Instead, everything is adjusted in terms of the law so that rectitude is not adherence to the law precisely, but to whatever we interpret to be the highest state. There is a vast difference. In other words, these perfect people are not really perfect, except in relation to their own perception of perfection.

2. The “higher life” teaching produces a certain passivity. In “letting go and letting God” all of the Bible’s commands are not brought to bear on the believer’s life. All he is concerned about is relaxing in Jesus.

3. The “higher life” teaches a two-tiered view of the Christian life which is unbiblical. The carnal life mentioned in relationship to the believer in 1 Corinthians 3 is largely misunderstood and has damaged many. Because we teach that one can be saved without sanctification, masses of unconverted church members are lulled to sleep and end up in hell. The Bible teaches that “without holiness, no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12: 14). This teaching abuses the doctrine of perseverance.

4. This type of teaching creates a lack of self-examination about one’s state with God. One is admonished to look away from themselves to Christ for sanctifying life . As in most theories, there is some measure of truth in that thought, but the Bible also enforces the need to look at ourselves seriously and to take responsibility for sin.

This is a seminal book on the subject of perfectionism and is apropos to our day. In fact, it is almost uncanny, just how appropriate it is, though written almost a century ago.

  1. Warfield, Benjamin B., Studies in Perfectionism. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958, p. v.
  2. ibid., p. x.
  3. ibid. p. 34
  4. ibid., p. 58.
  5. ibid., p. 140
  6. ibid., p. 159, from Finney, Lectures in Systematic Theology, 1851, p. 985.
  7. ibid., p. 155, from Finney, Lectures, p. 157ff
  8. ibid., p. 287
  9. ibid., p. 386, cf. Trumbull, Charles, “Himself”, pp. 10-12.