Supererogatory Actions? Part 3

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Now that we have examined the Christian ethical scheme as taught verbally by Christ, we would do well to examine another major (perhaps the most important) method of teaching ethics in the Scriptures: through models who exemplify the virtues. To give a bit of focus to this broad area of study, I will focus mainly on the book of Philippians.

In his commentary Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, Gordon Fee describes the ethical nature of St. Paul’s epistle. He describes how moral instruction in the Greco-Roman context often took place in the form of letters which one friend, the moral superior, would send to the other, the moral inferior. According to Fee, these letters have two basic elements: “(1) the writer was the recipient’s friend or moral superior; and (2) they aimed at ‘persuasion’ or ‘dissuasion.’”[1] He goes on to add “Because the persuasion or dissuasion was toward or away from certain ‘models’ of behavior, the author frequently appealed to examples, including sometimes his own.” Fee feels this model’s presence in the epistle “becomes even more evident in Paul’s appeal throughout the letter to exemplary paradigms.”[2] The main “exemplary paradigms” which Fee identifies are those of Christ and St. Paul himself, although he also mentions the roles of Timothy and Epaphroditus as well.[3] Thus, I think it will be informative for understanding the Christian ethical system to examine each of these exemplars.

The first and most important ethical exemplar is obviously Jesus Christ Himself. The moral example of Christ is found in Philippians 2:5-9. St. Paul uses Christ’s ultimate example of humility to try to teach the Philippians about humility and self-sacrificial love for others. He says that they ought to “have this mind[4] in you which was also in Christ Jesus.”[5] The Apostle is urging the Philippian believers to embody this disposition of humility and self-sacrificial love which can be fully seen embodied in the life of the Incarnate God, “who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant…being found in human form.”[6] Thus, the first way in which this disposition can be seen in Christ is simply in His act of condescension in the Incarnation. Although He is due every honor and praise as God, His humility is such that He becomes a man. Not only this, but in doing so, He becomes the servant of men as well. As if this weren’t enough, Christ “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”[7] The depths of this humility and self-sacrificial love can only be understood in light of the last phrase “even death on a cross.” Fee describes such a death as “cruel and humiliating,” pointing out that, “the cross was reserved for slaves and insurrectionists.”[8] The creator and sustainer of all things had such humility and self-sacrificial love, that He became a lowly man, the servant of men, and submitted to the most shameful death possible at the hands of His creatures. This is the way of thinking that St. Paul calls the Philippians to. Thus, St. Paul’s ethical teachings seem to fit very well with the teachings we have already examined from Jesus Himself. The seemingly supererogatory is simply what is called for by the ethical teacher.

The Apostle also uses himself as an ethical teaching model in the epistle. In the verse four of the third chapter, St. Paul begins to describe his great reasons to have “confidence in the flesh.” He was a model Jew, “a Hebrew of Hebrews,”[9] as he himself puts it. However, the Apostle declares that he has “suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish (skybala) in order that I may gain Christ.”[10] St. Paul was a towering figure in Judaism in his day, and in order to “be found in Christ,” it was necessary for him to give it all up. Not only does he give it all up, but he counts it as “rubbish” (which is probably better translated as a certain expletive) when compared with knowing Christ. He is here not merely telling the Philippians about himself, but he exhorts them later in the chapter saying, “Brothers, join in imitating me.”[11] He is teaching them the Christian ethical system, which demands the kind of character that is willing to give up all earthly things for the sake of Christ. It is difficult to figure out what actions could be considered supererogatory go within such an ethical system.

Lastly, there are two other figures within the letter that St. Paul holds up as examples as well. These men are St. Timothy and St. Epaphroditus who were both faithful co-workers and companions of St. Paul. Timothy is held up because he is “genuinely concerned for (the Philippians’) welfare,” in contrast to those who “seek their own interests, and not those of Jesus Christ.”[12] As for St. Epaphroditus, the Apostle urges the Philippians to “receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to (St. Paul).”[13] If it is not clear why anyone should consider St. Timothy’s actions supererogatory, it should be at least clear why one might think this of the actions of St. Epaphroditus. He nearly gave his life for the sake of the gospel. Here genuine concern for the welfare of others and a willingness to give one’s very life for the gospel are held up as the ideals of proper Christian behavior.

A further point I would like to make before I sum up the Biblical argument and turn to objections is that this method of teaching ethics seems to be best fitted for a virtue based ethical system rather than a deontological system. Using ethical models for teaching is not necessary for teaching simply what duties one must fulfill. A simple list could suffice for such a project. Rather, the real value of using examples such as Christ and the saints for teaching ethics is that virtues must be embodied. They must be fleshed out. The best way to understand for a person to understand love is for her to see a truly loving person. The same seems to hold true for all the virtues. It is difficult to try to understand the virtues merely as abstract principles, so models are often necessary.

A real question that I find within myself is whether the category of supererogation fits well within any virtue-based ethical system. Can one ever be more honest than the virtue of honesty? Can one be so humble that they go beyond humility? Can one be so loving that they transcend love itself? The place of supererogation becomes especially dubious when one looks specifically at the Christian virtue-based ethical system laid out in Philippians. If Christ is our ultimate model for which we are supposed to strive, wouldn’t supererogation mean that we have surpassed Him? Could one ever be more humble and loving than Christ Himself? I think not.

To sum the argument up so far, it seems difficult on a brief survey of the ethical teachings of the New Testament to locate a proper place for the category of supererogation. St. James tells us that it is a sin not to do anything that we know is good, Jesus commands the type of humility and self-sacrificial love that would seem to most to be supererogatory, and St. Paul teaches ethics through models whose actions would seem to be paradigm cases for supererogation. Thus, it seems dubious at best whether one could locate a specific place to delineate between the required and the supererogatory.


[1] Gordon Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Erdmans Publishing Company, 1995) 11.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibd 11-12.

[4] Better translated “way of thinking” or “mindset” (phroneite).

[5] Philippians 2:5, ESV.

[6] Philippians 2:6-7, ESV.

[7] Philippians 2:8, ESV.

[8] Gordon Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Erdmans Publishing Company, 1995) 217.

[9] Philippians 3:5, ESV.

[10] Philippians 3:8, ESV.

[11] Philippians 3:17, ESV.

[12] Philippians 2:20-21, ESV.

[13] Philippians 2:29-30, ESV.

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One Response to “Supererogatory Actions? Part 3”

  1. Tiffin Says:

    I found Saint Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo to be most helpful in my study of the supererogatory; if you haven’t yet turned there, I heartily recommend it as a good read at the very least.

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