Growing up in the Church, Scripture passages that tell me to be perfect, mature, or grow up in Christ gave me both a pit in my stomach and a desire for maturity. I wanted to be mature, but it always felt like an impossible feat. Have you felt that? It kind of feels like the Christian equivalent of always “adulting” but never being an adult.
Recently, in a class I’m taking for a Certificate in Christian Catechesis at Trinity School for Ministry, Fr. Lee Nelson suggested an intriguing idea (see his articles on catechesis, here, here, and here). He said that through the process of catechesis, Christians should start their faith off in maturity. That pit and desire returned; is it possible?
In this blog post I want to explore two passages of Scripture that show that when we see that Christian maturity is not one thing, but three things, we can confidently teach and expect a kind of Christian maturity at the beginning of the Christian faith. Grounded in Christ’s own divine and human perfection, Christian maturity can be segmented into three categories:
- Conversion or foundational maturity (I’m not a runner, but think about it like learning to run and gaining the basic habits and competences for a race)
- Pilgrim or progressive maturity (running the race)
- Beatific maturity (completing the race)
Now, if you are wondering, I didn’t think up these categories myself. If you want to see the theological background for these distinctions look at these resources from Steven Duby, Francis Turretin, and Franciscus Junius.
This idea of starting the Cristian faith off in maturity grinds against some deeply felt ideas. We wonder, “Is it possible?” and, “What does it look like?” In this essay I’m going to concentrate on the first question, and hint toward an answer for the second. According to Scripture, it is possible in terms of conversion or foundational maturity.
Once you start digging into this topic, you realize there are a lot of passages on Christian maturity. I’m looking at two passages in particular. Both passages suggest that maturity is attainable, but also distinguish between different kinds of maturity. The first passage, Hebrews 5:7–6:2, shows us the eternal source of Christian maturity, and points us to a clear foundation and expectation for maturity. The second passage, Philippians 3:7–16, shows us that maturity is also a process with an eschatological end goal.
(I draw my exegetical observations here from Luke Timothy Johnson’s and Philip Edgecombe Hughes’s commentaries on Hebrews.)
God, the Gospel, and Jesus’ Perfection
This passage has two distinct parts: the first is concluding an argument begun in chapter two, and the second begins an appeal to be mature and not fall away from the faith. In verses 7–10, we see Jesus, the eternal Son of God, the exact imprint of the Eternal Father (Hebrews 1:1-4), take on a human nature and learn obedience as a human being and is “made perfect” (teliotheis).
To understand this, we need to step back and see how Jesus’ perfection is grounded in his eternal existence as God and the story of the gospel. The God of Christianity is the eternally existing perfect Triune God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Out of this divine perfect life God creates everything as source and end goal. When humanity rebelled and sinned, this communion with God was disrupted. But God in his grace sent the Son of God to become human, and in his human nature the Son was made mature through his suffering and obedience to overturn our rebellion and brokenness and bring us into communion with the triune God. Jesus’ humanity, from birth to ascension, is “for us and our salvation” (The Nicene Creed).
The Chalcedonian understanding of Jesus Christ is helpful at this juncture. Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God who took on a fully human nature, having two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation in one person (McGuckin and Owen, Ancient Christian Doctrine, 2:162). Jesus Christ’s preeminent divine perfection is what grounds his progressive human maturing, wrought through his temporal life, setting right all of what Adam and his race had undone, bringing it to judgment and recapitulation on the cross. Because of Christ’s person and work, the perfect(ed) human nature of the Son of God is the rule or “canon” of Christian maturity (Philip Edgecombe Hughes, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 187-88,191). Thus, whatever we understand of Chritian maturity it is grounded in the person and work of Jesus Christ: his perfect human life for us.
Exhortation to Maturity
In verses 11–15, the author breaks into a lengthy exhortation urging his hearers to realize that they cannot handle what he is teaching because they have regressed in their Christian life. They should be mature, eating solid food, but they are not; they are like children needing milk. He marks out in these verses several attributes of the mature Christian: 1) they ought to pass on the faith, 2) they should be skilled in the gospel of Christ, and 3) they are well trained in discerning good and evil. Maturity comes through active training in the Christian way of life.
In 6:1–2, the author of Hebrews encourages his hearers to build on the foundation and go on to “maturity.” He reminds them of what they have learned by outlining six teachings that make up the foundation of their going on to maturity. The author of Hebrews expected his hearers to be trained in foundational beliefs, practices, and virtues that were the grounds for further growth into maturity. In other words, Christianity has a basic alphabet and grammar that is the foundation for further maturity in Christ. Calvin summarizes well the different shades of maturity in this passage: “So then he would have our faith to be at first so founded as afterward to rise upward, until, by daily progress, it be at length completed” (Calvin, Commentary on Hebrews, 211).
What implications can we draw from this first passage?
- Jesus Christ is the perfect God eternally, and the perfect God-Man in the incarnation. He is the source and goal of Christian growth and maturity.
- Christians can be immature and mature. Maturity is good and something that the author of Hebrews expects. While natural at the beginning of faith, immaturity is to be made mature through training, formation, and education.
- There is a foundational maturity on which further maturity is built, as we progress toward the end goal.
Paul, Maturity, and Christ
In this passage, we pick up in the middle of Paul’s encouragement to the Church of Philippi to avoid any confidence in the righteousness that comes through the law. In verses 7–10, Paul, recounting his previous life as a Pharisee, considered everything he did as loss for the sake of Christ, for knowing Christ, and for attaining the resurrection of the dead. In verses 12–15, he reminds his readers that he had not achieved perfection yet, but is striving toward Christ and completing the race. In verse 15, he refers to a subset of those he is writing to as “mature,” exhorting the mature to have the same mind that he has about these things. There are a few significant points in this passage.
- Paul acknowledges that there are mature Christians in the congregation of Philippi.
- Maturity does not mean perfection; we see this in that he is urging them to imitate him. Thus, maturity is both attainable and something that involves progression. Paul in his mature foundation on the righteousness of God, knows that he has not yet arrived at his final goal: Jesus Christ, or as later theologians call it, the beatific vision (see Hans Boersma and Michael Allen’s book on this topic).
- Paul directs his readers toward their ultimate goal: making Christ their own, or total communion with Jesus Christ in the Eschaton.
- The way of maturity is being united to Christ and living in the pattern of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Hebrews and Philippians on Maturity
In summary, these passages demonstrate that Christian maturity is grounded in the economy of salvation in Christ. Maturity is used to describe those who have a good foundation, are progressing in the faith progress, and who have reached the end goal of the Christian life. The foundation is attainable and necessary for growth. Progress is recognizable by particular virtues, habits, and lived beliefs. The end goal is received in the resurrection from the dead in the Eschaton.
I’m not Making this Up: Pointing toward the Great Tradition
Theologians have made these kinds of distinctions to help articulate Scripture’s language throughout Church history. We already saw Calvin’s summary of Hebrews 6:1–2. Bernard of Clairvaux makes a similar distinction between beginners, those who are progressing, and those who are perfect (On Humility and Pride, II.4). Richard Hooker, in a slightly different context, distinguishes different levels of maturity, or participation, in the Christian Church (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, V.56.8-13). And John Owen argues that we must grow in communion with the Triune God out of our union with Christ (Communion with the Triune God, 91–93). Reformed Scholastic Theologians distinguished between Christ’s own perfection, pilgrim maturity, and beatific vision. From what we saw in Scripture, I suggest that what Calvin calls the foundation, and what I called conversion maturity, is the necessary foundation for pilgrim maturity: the well-imbibed milk, and the basic grammar of the Christian faith put into practice.
Conversion maturity is not an arrival, but it is proper attaining of core knowledge, trust, and habits as God incorporates us into the Triune fellowship through the economy of salvation. It lays the foundation and framework for pilgrim theology/maturity.
I hope this theological exploration has clarified that we can biblically and coherently talk about being mature and growing in maturity. Theological distinctions are helpful only insofar as they help us understand God and live more faithfully in him. The threefold distinction of maturity does a lot of work for us because it clearly shows what Scripture teaches: the Triune God is the source of Christian maturity, we can be mature, and we can grow in maturity as we await the completion of our maturity in the beatific vision (see Augustine, The Trinity, 1.17).
While I cannot go into all of what the content of conversion maturity is, I think we see a hint of it in Hebrews and Philippians: a core set of beliefs and practices grounded in Christ’s person and work as the basic grammar and habits of the Christian faith learned in the Church. If you are wondering how to encapsulate that, I think To Be A Christian: An Anglican Catechism taught in a catechumenate, would be an excellent place to start.