The Imperfections of Perfectionism

Stephen Nichols

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...

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