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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. V:
A Treatise on the Merits and Forgiveness...: Chapter 22

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 22 [XV.]—An Objection of the Pelagians; Perfection is Relative; He is Rightly Said to Be Perfect in Righteousness Who Has Made Much Progress Therein.

“Well, but,” they say, “the Lord says, ‘Be ye perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,’ 547 —an injunction which He would not have given, if He had known that what He enjoined was impracticable.” Now the present question is not whether it be possible for any men, during this present life, to be without sin if they receive that perfection for the purpose; for the question of possibility we have already discussed: 548 —but what we have now to consider is, whether any man in fact achieves perfection. We have, however, already recognised the fact that no man wills as much as the duty demands, as also the testimony of the Scriptures, which we have quoted so largely above, declares. When, indeed, perfection is ascribed to any particular person, we must look carefully at the thing in which it is ascribed. For I have just above quoted a passage of the apostle, wherein he confesses that he was not yet perfect in the attainment of righteousness which he desired; but still he immediately adds, “Let as many of us as are perfect be thus minded.” Now he would certainly not have uttered these two sentences if he had not been perfect in one thing, and not in another. For instance, a man may be perfect as a scholar in the pursuit of wisdom: and this could not yet be said of those to whom [the apostle] said, “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye have not been able to bear it, neither are ye yet able;” 549 whereas to those of whom it could be said he says, “Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect,”—meaning, of course, “perfect pupils” to be understood. It may happen, therefore, as I have said, that a man may be already perfect as a scholar, though not as yet perfect as a teacher of wisdom; may be perfect as a learner, though not as yet perfect as a doer of righteousness; may be perfect as a lover of his enemies, though not as yet perfect in bearing their wrong.  550 Even in the case of him who is so far perfect as to love all men, inasmuch as he has attained even to the love of his enemies, it still remains a question whether he be perfect in that love,—in other words, whether he so loves those whom he loves as is prescribed to be exercised towards those to be loved, by the unchangeable love of truth. Whenever, then, we read in the Scriptures of any man’s perfection, it must be carefully considered in what it is asserted, since a man is not therefore to be understood as being entirely without sin because he is described as perfect in some particular thing; although the term may also be employed to show, not, indeed, that there is no longer any point left for a man to reach his way to perfection, but that he has in fact advanced a very great way, and on that account may be deemed worthy of the designation. Thus, a man may be said to be perfect in the science of the law, even if there be still something unknown to him; and in the same manner the apostle called men perfect, to whom he said at the same time, “Yet if in anything ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule.” 551



Matt. v. 48.


See above, chap. 7.


1 Cor. iii. 2.


Ut sufferatis his antithesis here to ut diligat.


Phil. iii. 15.

Next: Chapter 23

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