Supererogation and Christian Ethics

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In a comment on this post, Kenny Pearce directed me to Robert Adams' paper "Christian Liberty", which appears in Philosophy and the Christian Faith, ed. Thomas V. Morris, a book I happen to have. I had been making the claim that a Christian ethical theory that fits with the biblical texts requires us to be perfect, as God is perfect. It thus allows for no actions that are what philosophers call supererogatory. A supererogatory act is supposed to be something that would be a wonderful thing to do but is far beyond what you can be expected to do. As I'd been saying in the post I linked to, I don't think Jesus believed in such acts. The Sermon on the Mount seems to me to preclude such a category. Since I think the Sermon on the Mount accurately captures moral truth, I reject the notion of supererogation.

Adams says that a Christian ethical view needs to allow for supererogation to capture the sense of options in Christian life. There's no other way to account for Paul's insistence that Christians are free in Christ and no longer slaves, that Christians are friends of God and no longer in servitude. I have two responses, one exegetical and the other philosophical.

The exegetical point is that I think he misconstrues Paul's point. Paul isn't saying that we are free from God's command. The freedom is first of all a freedom from sin. It's a freedom to serve God, which is put in slavery language. Christians are no longer enslaved to sin but are instead enslaved to God. This picks up on the language of Exodus. The people of Israel were freedom from slavery to Pharoah to become slaves of God. The Hebrew term in question is often translated as "worship", and so translations often say that Israel is freed from slavery to Pharoah to go worship God. But the verb is the same. It's a movement from slavery to Pharaoh to slavery to God. God is the master. It's just that God is a master who loves his people and wants what's best for them, while Pharaoh is just taking advantage of them.

The parallel language in Paul's epistles about Christians being freed slavery from sin to become enslaved to God should be no surprise given the old covenant antecedent. Freedom in Christ is slavery to God. So I don't see how the movement from slavery to freedom involves moral permissibility to do as we wish provided that we meet some minimal moral threshold. It in fact binds Christians to serve God fully and completely, to surrender any self-directed goal in favor of becoming like God, having a heart that values what God values, having motivations that line up with God's will, and acting in a way that a morally perfect being would act. This is in fact what the Sermon on the Mount enjoins. "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect", an echo of Leviticus 18, which says "Be holy, as I am holy."

Now this doesn't mean that there aren't options in Christian living. As Adams points out, there are two ways of generating options. One way is supererogation, which allows for the less-than-perfect to be morally permissible. That's what I don't see Jesus allowing for. The other way is what Adams calls indifferent actions. These are things that are equally good, and so we have the option of choosing whichever of the equally good things we will do. If there really are equally good things, all things considered, then I have no problem with those.

I'm not sure they will easily occur, though, and Adams seems to agree. He just says it's because of nuances in ethical importance that may play a role. I can imagine he has in mind things like the fact that two actions might be equally good but that one of them involves going against my natural tendency and thus allows me to develop a trait that I ought to work on. He might have in mind two actions that, other things being equal, are equally good, but one of them involves a better fit with my special obligations to my family. In such cases, it's pretty clear to me that the one that is better, all things considered, is morally obligatory. So these aren't options after all. But there is room for all considerations to work out equally. It just doesn't seem likely that they will be exactly equal. What seems more likely is that they will be so close to equal that I won't be able to discern the moral difference or the balancing out of moral considerations in the right direction. There is always the problem of figuring out what is the best option when various possible courses of action appear in front of me.

This difficulty suggests to me a philosophical distinction that I think lies behind my disagreement with Adams. He wants a moral theory that allows for options in order to explain the difference between legalism and Christian freedom. But he is locating that difference in moral obligation. There can't be moral obligations that I ought to do, or I am not free in some sense. I am not morally free to do what I want. I think this is the wrong place to locate Christian freedom, because I think we do have an obligation to do what is best. It is a moral obligation, not some other kind of constraint. What Christian freedom amounts to is not freedom from moral obligation. Paul even says so. He says there's the law of Christ.

What we don't have are very specific laws that are to be followed absolutely, without room for reflection on whether those laws apply in our case or whether those laws conflict with other laws and what we should then do. Christian freedom, on my view, consists of not being bound by laws to be followed without reflection. It consists of being bound by general moral principles that require careful thought about what we ought to do, what we ought to be motivated by, what attitudes we ought to have, what character traits we ought to be developing, and so on. Adams seems to want freedom from obligation, but I think Christian freedom is rather freedom from rigid rules. Morality isn't about rules. It's about conformity to a standard, a standard who is a person. Christian morality has to do with being conformed to the image of Christ, being transformed to becoming perfect. It is much more complete than simply an ethics of action. There is something morally wrong about us if we are not perfect, and our moral obligation is to pursue perfection. This is the thrust of the ethical teaching of Jesus and Paul both (along with the rest of the Bible, I might add).
This, I think, makes more sense than Adams' account of the woman who anoints Jesus with incredibly expensive perfumes. Adams says the incident shows Jesus' commitment to the existence of supererogatory acts. This woman does what Jesus says is a wonderful thing, but he doesn't say she does the best thing. Adams assumes, then, that the disciples' criticism of the woman is correct in one thing. Giving the money to the poor would have been better. This ignores, first of all, that John tells us that it is Judas Iscariot who says this and that his motivation is to pocket the money. The point in John's gospel is not that what she did is just fine even if not the best thing. It's that she's got the proper motivation as opposed to Judas'. Judas is interested in material wealth and material concerns, and he frames his objection in terms of material concern for the poor even though that's not his real reason. It's all he can contemplate as a moral reason. But surely the focus on Jesus is more important than even concern for the poor.

In Mark, there's no such clear contrast, and there are multiple people discussing this incident negatively, but I think the point is the same. The poor will continue to be there, but he won't. The time is short for him, and Valuing time with Jesus and recognizing his immeasurable worth is a much higher priority at this time. This isn't to say that feeding the poor is bad, and Jesus doesn't say that. She understands something those complaining do not, and she is therefore doing what's better. It's not that it's an ok second-best. It's that it's better than what they're suggesting, even in these circumstances.

I think it also makes better sense of the Sabbath. Adams sees the Sabbath as a chance for people not to have to follow moral obligations but to do what is simply enjoyable, which reflects God's enjoying and not just continuing to create. I think this ignores that the Sabbath is a command. It is a rigid command in the old covenant, and it is fulfilled in the new covenant with more general principles that underlie the original, rigid command. New covenant believers aren't committed to a rigid lawlike pursuit of rest on the seventh day. The principle of rest is important. We are to enjoy our completed work and delight in things that are hard to delight in when we're working hard at other things. But that itself is a command, and it has moral force. It thus occurs among the moral considerations always at play. It isn't a sign of supererogation. It is in fact a sign that moral obligation even appears with things that we often think of as options.

Now I do think there is something that looks an awful lot like supererogation, and I think its presence is what generates a lot of the examples Adams gives. Consider the very different lifestyles of Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther King, Jr. The way Adams describes it, Aquinas loved philosophy as much as he did and devoted his whole life to it for motives that are thoroughly Christian, and King loved justice so much and devoted his whole life to it for motives that are also thoroughly Christian, and he says he thinks King's motives were perhaps the better of the two. But both are fine, and you can't really be both ways without sacrificing something. I'm not sure I have any problem with different people devoting their lives to different projects out of motives that reflect something in the mind or heart of God. They are perfecting something that approaches God's perfection at the expense of other things.

I happen to think these two examples are a bit extreme. A close look at Aquinas' life suggests to me that he was lacking in some important things that a balanced Christian ought to have. He was too devoted to his work, even for a single man. He wasn't sufficiently concerned about people in his life, and he didn't spend a lot of time doing the kinds of good works that I think every Christian should have a least some part in doing, even if those less gifted in certain ones ought to focus their time on what they're gifted to do. Of course he may also have been autistic. I think there are signs of that. That might provide some excuse, and perhaps that was part of God's intent in creating someone who could achieve something as astounding as the amount and quality of work Aquinas produced. King, on the other hand, did under-emphasize many things that I think it is extremely important for a preacher of God's word to emphasize. The gospel is not, in my view, clear enough in King's public preaching, and I wonder if he emphasized material freedom for black people more than other concerns that are even more important, although some of them (e.g. unity among all races in God's kingdom) depend on things that he had a hand in moving in the right direction.

Nevertheless, I think someone in the direction of an Aquinas and someone in the direction of a King could both be, in their own way and according to their own gifting, be moving toward the "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" command in the right ways. It's just that God has designed them differently, with different giftings, different motivational structures, and so on. A King-like concern for justice can be taken too far if it ignores other things, and an Aquinas-like love of philosophy can be taken too far if it ignores other things. But given that some people might be especially well-placed to achieve political change and to adopt a particular issue as a life mission, a balanced person can still focus on something like social justice without settling for something inferior. In fact, that might be the best place for someone like that. Given that someone might be well-placed intellectually, in terms of ability, motivation, and resources, to do well in philosophical thinking and to have an impact in the world of ideas for the sake of God's kingdom, someone else might be doing what's best in seeking a career in philosophy. Some of the latter category might be in a research position at a major university, influencing thought at a higher level. Others might be teaching at a community college, encouraging college students to reflect more carefully about their lives but not having an impact on many of the movers and shakers in academia.

God places different people in different places and gifts them for different ministries. That doesn't conflict with there being moral obligations about what we should do given where God has placed us and what he's gifted us for. Nothing about my denial of supererogation conflicts with this observation. In fact, it makes sense of why we ought to be doing what God has placed us to do. On Adams' view, we can do what is less good and thus not God's intent, and that would be perfectly ok. That's not what I see in the biblical texts discussing such things. I see an obligation to seek out how best I might serve God and the kingdom, given what I'm like, what opportunities are placed before me, and which motivations and pursuits could help fulfill what being perfect as God is perfect might be like in my case. So this is a sense of options for different people that aren't really options for the individual.

So I conclude that supererogation isn't needed to capture the things Adams rightly takes from the biblical authors, and the things he takes that do require supererogation are not the best way to take the texts.


You seem to be more certain about what specifically one ought to do—morally and ethically—in a given situation than, say, Paul, who was inspired to write: “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intersession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intersession for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27). This was written, as I’m sure you know, in the context of his realization that: “For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” And, again, “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.” (Romans 7:15 and 7:19 respectively).

Now, the right thing to do in a given situation may seemingly be identifiable, but such an identification is not the determining factor. As Paul clearly points out, it’s the will of God, which is ascertained by the Spirit, who then motivates us to act accordingly. But here’s the rub: sometimes (e.g. Adam and Eve’s disobedience, Joseph’s brothers’ betrayal, Solomon’s illegitimate conception, Judas’s betrayal of Christ, etc., etc.) God’s will is counterintuitive; that is, His means may seem, at the time, to be at variance with what you or I might consider to be the right thing. But despite our relative ignorance vis-à-vis God’s ultimate will, Romans 8:28 promises that He—not us—will insure that “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Again, His purpose is the determining factor.

Paul speaks of not knowing what to pray, not of not knowing what to do. Quite a lot happens between ch.7 and that point in ch.8. It's true that the Holy Spirit is part of his discussion of the solution to that particular problem in ch.7, but I don't see how that makes what he's talking about in ch.8 be about not knowing what to do.

But that's an exegetical issue. I'm not sure I've taken any view at all on how sure we should be of what to do in any particular situation. None of my arguments seem to me to require such a view. My arguments are compatible with there being great difficulty in figuring out what the particular actions we should do are, as long as there is a right answer to what I should do in a particular situation. There must be some uncertainty, in fact, in order to account for its not being purely according to rigid laws. No, I think it takes a great deal of creative energy and careful thought to figure out what we ought to do, which concerns we ought to focus on, what skills we ought to develop, and so on. So I'm not sure where you're getting this from.

The problem you're identifying in your second paragraph is that there are (at least) two things that we might mean by "the will of God". There is what's traditionally been called the moral will of God, which is how we ought to act, and there is what's traditionally been called the providential will of God, which is what God decrees to happen. The second category often includes people doing things that are in fact against God's will in the first sense. Anything that happens is in God's will in the second sense, but some things are particularly singled out in the Bible as fulfilling God's will, and in the same breath the biblical author will condemn the act as immoral and against God's will in the first sense.

Consider Isaiah 10's description of the Assyrian king's attack on Israel. It is morally condemned, but he is also a tool in God's hand to judge Israel. We see the same thing with how the Bible describes the crucifixion. It's central to God's plan, and Jesus willingly goes to his death, but the Jewish leaders, the Romans, and Judas are all blamed for doing evil in playing their part to carry it out. It's God's will in the providential sense, but what all those people did to carry it out wasn't morally within God's will.

Quick question on this. If we have an obligation to do the maximum good (meaning to the point of perfection), and giving presents to people (as gifts) is "good", does that mean that we should always be giving gifts all the time?

Not necessarily. There's a limit to when gift-giving will no longer be overall beneficial. It will eventually rob you of resources needed to maintain an enjoyable life for yourself and others around you. If you give too much, it actually sacrifices more good than it helps provide. Even on a purely utilitarian view, there's such a thing as giving too much. But without utilitarianism, other moral issues will interfere too. You have to refuse other obligations if you give all the time, for instance. If you have special obligations to your family, then you can't treat people outside your family the way you treat your family.

So it wouldn't just be "do whats the best" but in addition "do whats best for yourself". In other words, while it may be good to give to friends, giving so much that you are poor would be bad?

By the way, sorry I didn't clear this up, but my premise is that the people don't have a "need" for whatever is given. I was thinking in context of gift, like a birthday gift. Its not really needed, but its a good thing right? If its good on their birthday, what about on everyday? That was kinda my train of thought.

It would include yourself, but part of it is that it's not just about maximizing the good, as in utilitarianism and other forms of consequentialism. Those views simply aim for the right result, no matter the method. It does deny the idea of supererogation. But what I'm suggesting is denying supererogation while retaining obligations of a deontological sort. So there are some things it's wrong to do, even if it happens to lead to better consequences. But when there are no such duties preventing you from maximizing the good, we should maximize the good. You just need to keep in mind that the good also includes ourselves and those we have special obligations to, and we also can't fail in those obligations in order to achieve it.

I think you're right that there would be a lot more gift-giving even when there's no need if people were truly to follow this. But I do think the Sermon on the Mount teaches exactly that sort of thing, at least by implication. Isn't that a perfectly reasonable application of the Golden Rule, for instance? We love to receive gifts of things we don't need. So do that for others. We obviously can't do everything that we would love to have people do for us, so there are limits, but I do think we have increased obligations to do things that people have no right to expect of us.

So while we do have an obligation to give gifts more, the non-supererogation rule doesn't imply that we need to give gifts everday, (which would be kinda a legalistic way of applying it) but rather that we do need to look for the opportunities to make others happy through gift giving.

That's probably a good way to put it, but you'd also need to factor in that there are lots of other ways to do for others what they'd want done for yourself. On this view, our moral obligation is to find the best ways to do that.

I have been a long time reader and not often a commenter, but I wanted to pose a question on this issue to you. If there is no supererogation then we ought to maximize the good always. If that is true, then isn't it wrong to buy an unneeded item for yourself? After all, that money could be feeding a starving person in a third world country. That certainly seems in line with Christ's teachings about giving up everything.

That's the presumption, but there has to be some mitigation of it given our psychological makeup and given the Sabbath principle. So taking that presumption as an absolute would actually violate a clear moral principle.

Also, understanding and being involved with our culture is useful in making personal connections and thus aids evangelism (and also helps us understand people's needs, allowing us to meet those needs better).

Then there's the moral value of contributing to the good of the world, which includes some people developing interests and hobbies that can only be initially motivated by their own interest in it and enjoyment of it (or else they won't have the high value they might otherwise have). The world is richer for musicians and chess players, for instance, and that requires taking the time and spending the resources sometimes to do things that might prevent you from giving a little more to starving people.

So I don't think denying supererogation leads to the conclusion that we should have no fun and spend all our resources helping others to survive. But the presumption is a lot stronger than we often take it to be, and I'm sure every Christians wastes too much time and money on things that ultimately have not enough kingdom value to be worth the expense.

I am sorry but I don't think I get precisely the reason it doesn't lead to that conclusion. The world is richer for having chess players, that makes since, but what conclusion do we draw from that, what principle does that establish, that refutes the easy presumption?

After all, its very hard to answer the question: "So you buying movie tickets is more important than a child dying in Africa?".

I am curious about the specific principle that refutes that argument. It seems that it would require a stronger answer.

It's not that buying movie tickets is more important than a child starving. There are lots of moral principles, and one is preventing suffering and dying. But if enough other principles are at stake, they might outweigh that one. Also, there may be some things more important than that even individually, especially the status of someone's eternal destination, and we can be more effective evangelists if we spend some time understanding the culture around us and if we rest enough that we aren't constantly doing absolutely as much as is possible in the short-term. It still might be that many instances of buying a movie ticket are too frivolous, but it doesn't follow that it's always immoral to buy the movie ticket when you could have spent the money helping feed a starving child.

So what kind or kinds of principles would we classify that as? Also while the evangelism explanation is interesting, I think a purely philosophical (not theological) answer would be preferable.

Supererogation assumes a sense of duty, which is deontological. How does supererogation work within other ethics systems? It doesn't within utilitarianism. What about within in a virtue ehtics system?

I'm not sure what you mean by what kind of principles these are. They strike me as moral principles that sometimes conflict with each other and thus can't all be absolute (although it's possible that there's one absolute principle that all others are subject to, or several that can never compete with each other). That would make them something like general moral truths that can admit of exceptions when more important moral principles govern them.

I don't think I'm giving a theological argument as opposed to a moral one. I've stated a second-order moral principle, namely that the moral obligation for Christians to be concerned about evangelism is a more important priority than the moral obligation to care for physical needs whenever there's a conflict and there must be a choice between the two. That is a philosophical claim. Do you mean something that can be supported with secular argument? I don't restrict philosophy to include only secular arguments.

But there are secular examples. The point about rest can easily be supported without appeal to anything theological. Those who deny supererogation have often pointed out that spending all your time trying to help the poor means you get worn out and become less effective than you otherwise would be, so you actually accomplish more if you include time for rest and relaxation. That's why we have a shorter work week than even six days, and some want to reduce it even to four (some European companies have moved in that direction, and take a look at some of the recent debate in Utah). This isn't just a matter of taking a break every few hours or taking a day off. According to some solid research, regular rest and enjoyment of things unrelated to any obligation is crucial to doing a good job at your obligations.

Also, if we had an assembly-line mentality of trying to put out the best product for the good of the world, what good of the world results if everyone is spending all their time on the assembly line? You don't reduce everyone to a subsistent level to pull those in risk of dying up to that subsistent level. That doesn't seem like a better world.

Supererogation isn't necessarily deontological. If you base it in terms of obligations that aren't wholly determined by consequences, then it's deontological, but there's a debate within consequentialism (and thus within utilitarianism) over basically the same issues. Utilitarianism as standardly presented in introductory texts is more properly called maximizing utilitarianism. The good that we ought to seek is happiness for the greatest number. Our obligation is to find the one best way to do that and then to do it. There's no supererogation in maximizing utilitarianism. (Then they say things like what I've been saying to explain why it doesn't mean what it sounds like it might mean.)

But another kind of consequentialism or utilitarianism is what philosophers have called satisficing. The idea is that you don't have to find the best outcome and then seek to achieve it. Out of all the possible outcomes, there are some that are good enough and others that aren't, and all we ought to do is make sure we seek to achieve the ones that are good enough. A satisficing utilitarian seeks an outcome with a sufficient level of happiness as a result, and it's merely supererogatory to seek a better level of happiness than that.

The same can be done for other kinds of consequentialism. A hedonist egoist like an Epicurean thinks they ought to seek their own pleasure. A maximizer thinks they ought to seek the best life possible for themselves in terms of pleasure. A satisficer thinks they only need to seek a sufficient enough level of pleasure for themselves. Those with other conceptions of what makes for a good consequence can do the same thing.

Virtue ethics is a very different way of doing ethics, because it doesn't focus on actions but on character. The goal of life, according to virtue ethics, is to seek to have good character traits. But virtue ethics is incomplete unless there's a view about how far we should go with this. Many who do virtue ethics are satisficers, saying that our goal doesn't have to be having the best character possible. They would have room for supererogation. But you could be a virtue ethicist and a maximizer. You then ought to seek to have the best character possible. I actually think such a view is correct, although I don't think virtue ethics is right in focusing wholly on character to the exclusion of other good aspects of moral like, and I would insist on obligations as equally fundamental. But you could be a maximizing virtue ethicist and think that you ought to follow one of the ways of developing character traits will lead to the best overall character (and it may well be one among several equally best ways of being). Such a view has nothing like supererogation.

You can see this in Marxism, to take a very different ethical framework. One way to look at Marxism is that Marxists are concerned with overall structures in society, particular economic ones, although contemporary Marxian-influenced views include racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and other structures as well. The primary object of moral evaluation would then be societal institutions, and our goal in living a good life is to work toward the best institutions rather than seeking the best consequences for individuals. A maximizing Marxist then seeks the best possible outcome in terms of institutional change toward more just institutions according to the Marxist conception of justice, and a satisficing Marxist seeks merely a good enough outcome in terms of institutional change. So the debate over supererogation occurs there too.

Yes, I meant secular.

Thank you for so fully answering my questions.

As always you continue to challenge me and provide insight.


I have another question along the lines that DonQuixotic did above. Basically, I'd just appreciate seeing the principles you would use in the answer, as I'm confused about the issue myself.

So: given that there are no supererogatory works, and that part of our obligation is to "consider others before yourselves", that "no greater love has a man than to lay down his life for his friends", etc., why are rich Western folk not obligated to stop eating so that poor African children can get more food? The obvious answer might be "that's suicidal, and so wrong", but the Bible seems to recognize the principle of double effect can justify otherwise suicidal actions (consider Samson pulling the temple down on his head, or Jesus laying his life down for our sake), and I think the general moral sense of many people would approve of, say, a soldier engaging in a probably suicidal course of action if it would save the lives of many innocents. So I'm not sure the answer to my first question can be along these lines.


You also have to take into account special obligations. I shouldn't make my kids starve to save the lives of a hundred kids, because I have special obligations to care particularly for my own kids, even if that involves quite a lot more effort than caring for those hundred kids might. Along the same lines, there might be particular tasks that God has given me to achieve because of my giftings, and those might require devoting my time, energy, and resources to things that might prevent me from self-sacrifice in the particular way you have in mind. There's also the fact that it simply isn't true that giving large sums of money to charities is really the best way to help starving people across the world. Charities can do some things, and some charities are better than others, but a lot of charitable donations go to evil dictators in the end, despite the best intentions of donors and charities. So even someone who chooses to give self-sacrificially toward that particular cause ought to spend a good deal of effort making sure the charities they are giving to are going through means that don't require the funds being distributed via the people whose economic policies cause the problem to begin with or, even worse, enabling those people to continue such destructive policies.


Thanks for this. I think you are right. If nothing else, there seems to be something wrong with the conclusion of my hypothetical. But also, the idea of supererogatory works does not seem right. So, at least my intuitions indicate there must be a solution, even if I don't see one. But your thoughts are probably the lines along which the comprehensive right answer would have to go.

Thanks again!

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