Supererogatory Actions? Part 5

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This would be the final part of my paper on the category of Supererogation in a proper Christian ethical system. Hopefully this final part helps people to see a little bit more what I’ve got in mind by my denial of the supererogatory for a Christian ethical system. Also, for those few who have commented, I will do my best to get to those now that I’ve finished posting this. Thanks for your patience.

A final objection one may offer is what David Lewis used to refer to as the “incredulous stare.” A typical verbal response in this vane would be, “Are you saying that I have to go sell all my belongings and give them to the poor?” My answer is: maybe, but probably not. There is some room for gray in my conception of Christian ethics. Ultimately, it comes down to the concept of stewardship. A person must do their best to determine what God wants her to do most with her limited resources. How are we to know what God wants? That’s an excellent question, but sadly one that would be far beyond the scope of this short essay. There are certainly many things that help: prayer, fasting and other spiritual disciplines, listening to a spiritual father or mother, etc, but I cannot give a way to perfectly answer that question in a way that would satisfy everyone. However, I would leave open the option that God may demand this of a person. One may recall the words of Christ in response to the rich ruler’s question of how to inherit eternal life: “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.” Christ told this man that in order to inherit eternal life, he would have to part with all of his earthly possessions. While not everyone may be actually required to fulfill the act, it seems that all must possess the disposition or virtue necessary to fulfill the act. This is partly why I believe Christian ethics is virtue based, because God may have us use what He’s given us in different ways, but we must be ready to use what He’s given us in any way that He wishes.

So what am I really trying to say about supererogatory actions? Do I really think that every possible good action is required of us? Well, not exactly. I think that one must be prepared to fulfill every good action, which means one must acquire all the virtues. Ultimately, whether or not a specific action is required of an individual has more to do with individual situations than with general rules, hence the difficulty in locating any kind of specific way to delineate between the required and the supererogatory in the ethical teachings of the New Testament.

It seems to me that the category of supererogation is simply not helpful for this type of ethical system. A Christian should not seek to do the bare minimum to satisfy her duty. Rather, she ought to seek to do all the good that she can, and when she has done this, she should still think of herself as only having done her duty. Christ Himself makes this point in the Gospel of Luke. Christ here asks a series of rhetorical questions about how a master interacts with a slave. The series culminates with the question, “Does he thank the servant because he did what he commanded?” Then he gives the application, saying, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” It seems to me that Christ is here commanding his disciples to have a frame of mind that does not have a category for supererogation. This is the frame of mind we ought to have too as disciples of Christ.

In closing, I would like to mention one of the specific theological implications of this denial of supererogation, namely, as it applies to the notion of merit. If there is no supererogation, then there can be no merit before God. Here my Catholic friends may object as this would mean that they would have to do away with their idea of the “treasury of the merits of the saints,” but this will certainly not move me. The notion of merit in regards to salvation seems to me to be completely misguided. Merit plays no causal role in salvation. So much the worse for Catholicism. The way to salvation is to do one’s best to imitate Christ, recognizing that it is only one’s duty, and to pray for mercy the innumerable times one falls short.

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One Response to “Supererogatory Actions? Part 5”

  1. Andrea Elizabeth Says:

    I think you address my comment in this clarification and agreeable summation well enough! Unless there’s some other point you would like to make.

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