Today we are witnessing the re-emergence of a Protestant perfectionist vision of the Christian life. This vision has at least two forms, an Anabaptist understanding of the church as embodying a set of practices that realize the Kingdom of God and a Wesleyan optimism of grace in which the people of God must progress to deeper levels of union with God that in turn fuels love for neighbor in the world. The story of the emergence of this Protestant perfectionism has yet to be told in full, but I do not think one can fully understand Protestantism since 1970 without it.

When Reinhold Niebuhr described Billy Graham’s New York crusade as another variety of Christian perfectionism in 1956, he was playing into a particular typology that he had utilized at least since Moral Man and Immoral Society. In that 1932 work, Niebuhr attacked the optimistic view of humanity he found residing behind liberal Protestantism, lumping it with a host of moralists who like John Dewey assumed that the progressive development of humanity, either through scientific progress or a social gospel, could bring about a “peaceable kingdom.” In many ways, Niebuhr’s thought embodied the ongoing tension between various forms of Protestant perfectionism and Magisterial Protestant ideas that one still finds at work in evangelicalism.

A close read of more conservative Reformed thinkers writing at the same time makes it clear that despite Cornelius Van Til’s insistence on a distinction between Christianity and Barthianism in his battle with Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1930s, there was but a hair’s breadth between Niebuhr’s social apologetic and the approaches of Gordon Clark and Van Til. Both sides sought to carve out space between what they saw were two species of perfectionism, revivalism and social gospel. For Van Til and Clark, revivalism was fundamentalism and social gospel was liberalism. While Clark and Van Til did not think Niebuhr’s German Reformed tradition was the solution, for his part, Niebuhr dismissed the Old School Presbyterianism of Clark and Van Til as another form of fundamentalism. Nevertheless, they were united in their rejection of Protestant perfectionism.

Niebuhr’s critique of social-gospel advocates was an attack on what he considered to be a Renaissance faith in the inherent goodness of humanity and a rejection of original sin. There could be no perfectibility of the human person or progress toward a benevolent future through science or anything else because human sinfulness in the form of collective egoism remains. The pacifism of the social gospel was a heresy in modern guise.

While Niebuhr acknowledged that the sectarian perfectionism of Anabaptism and medieval asceticism was of a different type, he concluded that neither offered real solutions for political conflicts in society. What these forms of perfectionism did was remind Christians that any norms of justice for political conflicts were not final norms for the Christian. The ethic of Jesus must remain the final norm even if, in practice, it could not be applied given human sinfulness. In either case, Christian perfectionist visions of life were inadequate.

Clark and Van Til saw perfectionism as an encroaching Wesleyan synergism upon a pristine Reformed world. Following J. Gresham Machen, Van Til fought hard to maintain a purer form of Presbyterianism even if, in the end, this form led to further fracturing and Presbyterian separatism. This is part of the reason why any pan-Protestant organization for Van Til was to be avoided whether it be the Federal Council of Churches or the National Association of Evangelicals. One cannot fully understand the continued ambivalence to the so-called New-Calvinism of Old School Presbyterian types at the current Westminster Theological Seminary apart from this background and the concern that pan-Protestantism waters down Reformed Christianity. Billy Graham’s revivalism, in short, is another version of a Protestant perfectionist vision.

One can see common themes in the work of two seemingly different kinds of Methodists, Donald Dayton and (former Methodist) Stanley Hauerwas. Both of them have criticized the arguments against Protestant perfectionism within American Reformed Christianity albeit aiming at two different camps. Dayton’s battle was waged primarily within evangelicalism over how to define the movement and what role the Wesleyan tradition played in its development. Ever the gadfly of George Marsden and Reformed historians of evangelicalism, he labeled his approach the “pentecostal paradigm” to signal the link between revivalism, perfectionism, and social gospel. Apart from this wing of evangelicalism, Dayton argued, one could not understand Pentecostalism or the rise of John Wimber and the Vineyard at Fuller Theological Seminary in the 1980s.

Hauerwas, on the other hand, criticized mainline Protestant social ethics as simply a form of Constantinianism and thus a compromised Christianity. For Hauerwas, Yoder’s sectarian analysis of pacifism revealed that “the subject of Christian ethics in America was always America.” The problem of constructive Protestantism, even as H. Richard Niebuhr had described it, was the problem of the “kingdom of God in America.” This meant that theological ethics actually ceased to be theological and became more sociological and psychological. I might note as an aside that Tom Oden described his own movement out of liberal Protestant Methodism as a turn away from psychoanalysis as the ground of theology to Christian tradition as the ground.

In articles about a book he never plans to write, Hauerwas has announced that the tradition of Christian ethics in America from Walter Rauschenbusch to James Gustafson—Hauerwas’ own teacher—has come to an end. In its place Hauerwas has fairly consistently issued the call for an ecclesiology that realizes the peaceable kingdom by recovering Christian practices that embody the truth to which the church must point as witness. Yet, because Hauerwas has grounded his understanding of the church as a community of character in the Christian tradition broadly conceived, he has demonstrated how a seemingly sectarian vision has a deeply catholic impulse. The same could be said for the mysticism implicit to the Wesleyan vision of perfectionism and the desire to hold together personal and social holiness.

It is the Wesleyan and Anabaptist visions of Protestant perfectionism that have come to the fore in the past four decades although it seems to me that this has gone largely unnoticed. Do they have the theological capacity to forge a new kind of Protestant witness within the church catholic? 

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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