Supererogatory Actions? Part 2


So a while back I posted a short speculative little bit questioning whether there is a place in a place for supererogation in a proper Christian ethical system. This little thought project eventually begat a short semester paper in my ethics class. I’ll be posting it in a few different pieces. This is the first part. As always constructive feedback is greatly appreciated.

The ethical category of supererogation can be a very troublesome one. What is very difficult, especially in the current philosophical scene, is the task of classifying this category. J.O. Urmson argues that supererogation ought to be its own category of action because it does not fit the basic categories of therequired, the permitted, or the forbidden. [1] The intuition here is that supererogatory actions are more than just permitted (they are usually very praiseworthy), but they cannot be required. This seems to fit the basic idea expressed by the word supererogatory, which basically means above and beyond the call of duty or doing something beyond what can be required. Despite the seeming commonsense of Urmson’s categorization of supererogatory actions as their own category, I feel I must part ways with common opinion. In this essay, I will attempt to provide support for a very controversial thesis: that in a proper Christian ethical system, there will be no supererogatory actions.

Note well how I worded this thesis. I said in a proper Christian ethical system. In approaching the topic of supererogation I will be working from within a specifically Christian paradigm. Thus, much of my case consists of Biblical and theological arguments. Some might note here that my paper will not be very helpful or informative for those working outside of a Christian worldview, but to these I simply dismiss with the observation that their work in ethics from Darwinist, Kantian, or Nietzschian paradigms are no more helpful to me. Such is the fragmented nature of ethical inquiry.

Before I continue on, I believe that I owe the reader a brief word or two on what exactly I mean by a “Christian ethical system.” The Christian ethical system is the system that seems to be taught by Jesus and His apostles for how to achieve shalom/eudemonia, or the good life. I will attempt to show that this system contains various commands that seem to require actions that would normally be conceived of as supererogatory, that this ethical system is primarily is primarily one that must be learned by a human example, and that both of these points in their own way motivate the view that the Christian ethical system is a virtue-based ethical system.

Now, we shall look at the Bible. St. James writes in his epistle “Therefore, to the one who knows to do good and does not do it, it is sin to him.” [2] On the face of it, this seems to mean that one is committing a sin every time one knows to do a good thing and they do not do it. It is hard to see here where supererogation would fit in. Specifically, if one is to attach any moral worth to a supererogatory action, then it is sin not to carry out that action if a person knows it is good. Certainly this is a hard verse for the Christian who wishes to keep the category of supererogation. This verse stands alone as one of the simplest arguments against supererogation, but one isolated verse will certainly not do for an argument, so I will obviously need to provide more support for my contention.

Next, I will address commandments made by Christ Himself, the one who embodies and introduces the new Christian ethical system. In His famous “Sermon on the Mount” Christ says some extremely provocative things. In regards to resisting the evil Christ commands His followers “do not resist the one who is evil.” [3] Instead, he commands his listeners to go give to the one who demands of you, and give more than they ask saying, “if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well…if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” [4] He goes on also to command that they “give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” [5] After this, Christ gives the outrageous command that his disciples are to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” [6] The basic idea here is that a follower of Christ ought to love, even those who do evil to her and she is to give to more than is even unjustly demanded of her. They are to also give liberally to beggars and lend to those in need. Surely it would seem supererogatory to most for someone to freely give to all people that asked of her, much less to shower love and pray for those who unjustly did her harm. Yet, in spite of this intuition, this is just what Christ commands of His followers. He commands the seemingly supererogatory.

Christ shows again that He demands the supererogatory of His followers in the Gospel of Mark. The Evangelist relates how Christ tells his followers “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” [7] Christ is here telling his followers that complete self-denial is necessary in order to follow Christ. The imagery of one “taking up his cross,” is not simply of taking on a burden, but rather marching off to his own death. This is why Christ goes on to say that the only way to save your life is, in fact, to lose it for Christ’s sake. Thus, complete self-sacrifice is a necessary pre-condition for anyone following Christ. Surely this type of self-sacrifice should strike most as supererogation, but again, the seemingly supererogatory is not treated as such by the Savior.

The final portion of Christ’s verbal teaching that I will point out is His re-affirmation of the heart of the moral law. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, when Christ was asked what the greatest commandment was, he responded “You shall love the Lord your God with all y our heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” [8] He went on to add “a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” [9] Ultimately, the moral law hinges upon love. This is no small type of affection however. This love is such that it requires the commitment of your whole entire being. Furthermore, Christ also commands that one love her neighbor as her very self. The kinds of actions this would produce would seem to be clearly supererogatory. To love someone with the entirety of one’s being would mean that there is nothing that one wouldn’t do for the beloved. Furthermore, as Christ reveals in His famous “Parable of the Good Samaritan,” everyone is your neighbor. [10] Thus, the disciple of Christ must love each and every human being as her self. Clearly, an injunction to love all of humanity as one’s self would strike most as supererogatory, but Christ once again shows that what seems supererogatory is simply what His ethical system requires.

[1] J.O. Urmson, “Saints and Heroes,” Introduction to Ethical Theory, ed. Kenneth F. Rogerson (Ft. Worth, TX: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1991) 181.
[2] James 4:17, Translation mine from the Greek.
[3] Matt. 4:39, ESV.
[4] Matt. 5:40-41, ESV.
[5] Matt. 5:42, ESV.
[6] Matt. 5:44, ESV.
[7] Mark 8:34-35, ESV.
[8] Matt. 22:37, ESV.
[9] Matt. 22:39-40, ESV.
[10] Luke 10:30-37.


One Response to “Supererogatory Actions? Part 2”

  1. Renato Giuliani Says:

    Hello Krauss. This is Renato Giuliani, from Rome Italy.
    I completly agree.
    It is interesting to consider the issue against the background of ancient Judaism. For discarting the prophecies that anticipated the Messiah’s atoning death for our sins, Jews conjectured a religion which ascribed atoning power not to the selfless obedience of the Messiah, but to the selfish obedience of man. Thus, in Judaic intertestamental literature, written between the Old and New Testament, we read: “He who honors his father atones for sins…For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, it will serve as a sin offering…In time of tribulation it will be recalled to your advantage, like warmth upon frost it will melt away your sins” (Sirach 3:1, 3-4, 14-15). The whole idea was based on the concept that man’s works of obedience acquire merit before God and as such can be offered to Him in atonement for sin. Supposedly, the merits of the good deeds compensate for the demerits of the evil deeds, with the end result that the guilt of sin is cancelled and the sinner achieves a right status with God.
    In time, prayer, fasting and almsgiving were singled out as works of the highest merit, the latter having the greatest atoning power: “The righteous…makes atonement for sins of ignorance by fasting and afflicting his soul” (Psalms of Solomon 3:8); “Water quenches a flaming fire, and alms atone for sins” (Sirach 3:30); “Store up almsgiving in your treasure house, and it will save you from every evil” (Sirach 29:12); “Give alms from your possessions…Almsgiving frees one from death, and keeps one from going into the dark abode” (Tobit 4:7, 10); “Prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving accompanied by righteousness…for almsgiving saves one from death and expiates every sin. Those who regularly give alms shall enjoy a full life” (Tobit 12:8-9);
    By embracing such concepts and practices, the Jews completely violated four vital principles of the Old Testament revelation. First of all, man’s works of obedience cannot acquire merit before God.
    This is evident from the very beginning, as man was created to be the image of God, reflecting and representing His holy character in all he is and does (Genesis 2:26-27). This being his calling, and this calling being omnicomprehensive, there is absolutely nothing man can do above and beyond what is his moral duty to do. In the Old Testament, God commands His people: “Be holy, as I am holy” (Lev 19:2). In the New Testament, the command is repeated: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mat 5:48). To do something beyond his moral duty, man would literally have to be holier than God.
    Secondly, man simply cannot give to God any compensation for sin. Compensation can take place between two human parties, the former giving property to the latter in restitution for property stolen or in reparation for property damaged (Exodus 21-23; Leviticus 24:17-23). But what compensation can a man give to God, when God already owns everything in the universe! Did the Jews think that God needed their Temple? Thus said the Lord: “Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool. Where is the house that you will build me? And where is the place of my rest? For all those things My hand has made, and all those things exist” (Isaiah 66:1). Did they think that God needed their animal sacrifices? Thus said the Lord: “I will not take a bull from your house, nor goats out of your folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the mountains, and the wild beasts of the field are mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world is mine, and all its fullness” (Psalm 50:9-12). Clearly, compensation can only take place horizontally, between man and man, not vertically, between man and God.
    Thirdly, ancient Judaism completely disregarded the Old Testament teaching that God’s retribution for sin is death. Minimizing the problem, the Jews taught that sin only resulted in some demerits, which could be erased by doing supposedly meritorious works. But as God repeatedly declared in the Old Testament, in vain does man do all those things to wipe away the alarming stains: “Though you wash yourself with lye, and use much soap, yet your iniquity is marked before me,’ says the Lord GOD” (Jeremiah 2:22). The retribution for is death, for God, as the Holy One cannot but hate sin and destroy the sinner who assails His majesty. Of this man was warned from the very beginning, as God told Adam: in the moment you will sin, “you will surely die” (Genesis 1:17).
    Fourthly and ultimately, ancient Judaism missed the significance of the animal sacrfices prescribed by the Law, whose purpose was to prefigure the future atoning death of the Messiah (Lev 1-4; Isaiah 53; Hebrews 8-10). Works of supererogation are never contemplated in the Bible, not even hypothetically, because the only effective means appointed for the atonement of sin is the death of the Messiah. There is no room for them. They are not needed. Man is justified wholly by grace.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: