The Rise of Protestant Perfectionism

The re-emergence of a Protestant perfectionist vision of the Christian life

Both sides sought to carve out space between what they saw were two species of perfectionism, revivalism and social gospel. For Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark, revivalism was fundamentalism and social gospel was liberalism. While Clark and Van Til did not think Reinhold 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.

 

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.

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