Divine Supererogation

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Supererogatory actions are things that would be good to do but aren't morally required. In some sense, there are lots of good things that I could do that aren't morally required. I can't do every possible good deed I could do, for instance, because I only have a limited amount of time. But the difference with supererogatory acts is that they're supposed to be above and beyond the call of duty. They're actions that would be wonderful to do but are not required in the sense that I would be a better person if I did it, and the action is better than what I end up doing instead, but I still have no obligation to do it.

I've argued that Christians should not accept the category of supererogatory acts. I'm not changing my position on that, at least when it comes to human actions. I don't think there are any cases where I'd be doing a better thing if I did something different but am nonetheless perfectly ok not to do it. If I'm doing something less good, I'm failing in my responsibility to be perfect as God is perfect. I don't see how Christians can accept biblical teaching on ethics and accept this category for human action.

What hadn't occurred to me when I wrote the aforementioned post was to ask about whether certain actions are supererogatory for God. I think the standard Christian view has been that some things God actually does are supererogatory. It's hard to see grace as anything but supererogatory. It's undeserved favor, and how can God be morally required to bestow undeserved favor? I'm not going to question that line of reasoning, so I think it's fair to say that I need to revise my view. I'm not denying that any actions are supererogatory in general. It's just that human beings ought to do the best action in any circumstance.

One way to get such a result pretty easily is to take a page from Immanuel Kant, who speaks of a divine lawgiver as the sort of being who would have no obligations to begin with. His argument is that it doesn't make any sense to think of God as having obligations, because obligations make sense only if the being with the obligations could possibly fail to do the things the obligations require them to do. (William Alston interestingly applies the same line of thought to beliefs. God directly knows every truth, and therefore he must not have beliefs, because beliefs imply that the beliefs could be false, just as obligations imply that you could fail to fulfill them.) If Kant is right, then God is never obligated to do anything, and so every action God performs is supererogatory, but it still might make sense to say that no human act is supererogatory.

But I don't think that explanation is sufficient. I want to say that some things God does necessarily result from his moral perfection, and other things are a gift that his nature doesn't make him do. I want to say that he didn't need to create and would have been perfectly good had he not created. I don't want to say God is morally better for creating, and I don't want to say God is morally better for choosing to save people from the eternal destruction we all deserve. But even if all that is true, it seems that there are some things that are inconsistent with God's nature, such as making a promise and not keeping it or allowing the universe to be intrinsically bad overall. That means that something the concept of supererogation was supposed to capture is true of God in a way that it's not true of humans, and it doesn't just result from God's having no obligations.

I think the difference has to lie in some explanation why it isn't better for God to do this thing that seems like it would result in a better world, whereas it is better for me to do things that would lead to better consequences. That difference has to lie in God's nature. God would be perfectly good without even creating, so it doesn't make God's character or nature better to create. Also, God is infinitely good, so it doesn't make the totality of things better if God creates things and doesn't just exist on his own. On the other hand, I am imperfect, and there are always ways to be better. I have an obligation to seek to be better unless I am perfect. That seems to me to be the real reason why it isn't even better for God to do better things, while it's any merely human being's obligation to do the best thing possible.


God is never obligated to do anything, and so every action God performs is supererogatory

I do think that God is never obligated to do anything, because to be obligated, we must have someone or something above us that can require things of us. God doesn't have that. But I don't think it follows from this that every action of God is supererogatory. I think that an act can only be supererogatory if the being doing the act has duties or requirements that the supererogatory act is more than. If this is the case, then "supererogatory" is a nonsense category when it comes to God's acts.

But that doesn't help answer the question you're asking, which I think remains whether we use the word supererogatory or not.

I have an obligation to seek to be better unless I am perfect.

Which is why no human act is supererogatory. We are to be perfect and if that is our requirement, every act falls below——and none rise above——the call of duty.

I want to say that some things God does necessarily result from his moral perfection, and other things are a gift that his nature doesn't make him do.

God is independent, which means he is free to be completely himself. But I think creation and God's acts within it are the perfect expression of who God is. In that sense, I'm not sure, we can say that there are things that are gifts "that his nature doesn't make him do." I think that things really could be no other way because God is who he is. That doesn't mean God isn't independent or that he needed creation, just that his independent self-expression resulted in creation as it is and would have resulted in nothing else.

There are some differences in his perfections, though, and I think this may be what some of those last paragraphs are getting at. Given the presence of sin, God must (because he is just) condemn it. But God's perfection of grace is a little different. Given the presence of sinners, God may or may not act out of grace towards them. That, really, is the nature of grace itself. Nothing we do can bring it upon us, whereas, it is not true that nothing we do can bring God's justice upon us.

But God's expression of justice is called out by sin which exists because he himself planned it. So underneath it all, it (and all the other expressions of his perfections) are completely voluntary, dependent, ultimately, only on his own plan, which comes from his independent self-expression.

Rebecca, I wasn't saying that God's not having obligations makes it trivially true that every action of God's is supererogatory. I was saying that it makes it trivially true that no action of God's is supererogatory. So we don't disagree on that at all.

Do you think this is the only possible history of the universe that God could have actualized? This is a matter of debate among philosophers who share the view that God's providential plan includes every event that happens. Thomas Aquinas thought God could always have tweaked it to make it better, and there would never be any limit to how much better it could be, because God is that good at making things better. So he had to decide how much is good enough. Leibniz held that this is the best possible world, because he couldn't imagine God acting without a sufficient reason, and God couldn't have a sufficient reason for selecting an arbitrary cutoff point like Aquinas envisions.

I think your third-to-last paragraph requires that you side with Leibniz on that question. But Leibniz's view does raise serious questions, such as how it is that God's nature ensures everything that happens without necessitarianism being true. Maybe you'll just bite that bullet, or maybe you can redefine contingency in terms of what's possible for all we know (since only one timeline is really possible). I'm actually sympathetic to this sometimes, since if you're going to be a compatibilist about determinism and freedom then it doesn't seem much worse to say there's only one possible world and think of God as having only compatibilist freedom. But there's a strain in me that thinks Aquinas is right. And I'm not sure if your last two paragraphs indicate that you agree, because they make it sound as if God has options.

I'm likely off topic with this Aquinas bit: so this wouldn't be the best possible world, but just one of all the perfection-limited worlds God could've actualized? The reason this world Is is because of no obligatory component in God that saw This World as the way to necessarily go? (Personally I think God could've gone other routes based on what Christ says about Sodom and even His own approach to the cross--but this just struck me as an interesting route for personal research).

It's more than that. There is no best possible world, because for any world there's always a better one. So if God's nature were to lead him to seek to choose the best possible world, then he'd have an unfulfillable aim.

While it is true that the recipients of grace are undeserving thereof, it does not follow that God was under no obligation to give it. According to the theological tradition that I follow, God is in the habit of obligating himself to certain courses of action by means of covenants. Among these is the pre-temporal pactum salutis, or Covenant of Redemption, in which the members of the Trinity agreed on their individual roles in bringing about the salvation of the elect. This covenant sets up an intratrinitarian obligation that, in order to be fulfilled, must include giving grace. Even though the obligation is not to the elect themselves, it exists nonetheless. Consequently, I don't see God's grace as supererogatory.

hi jeremy,
firstly i'd like to say that i enjoy your blog and came across it while searching for commentary reviews - keep them coming.

i just wanted to ask why God's glory doesn't compel Him to act in grace towards those who are saved?


Bruce, I'm not sure what you mean. You could mean any of the following:

1. God's glory compels him to act further in grace toward those who are already saved when it's not something required by an already-existing covenant.
2. God's glory compels him to act initially in grace toward those who end up being saved.
3. God's glory compels him to act in keeping with the grace already bestowed to saved people.

In the third case, it's hard to say no. In bestowing salvific grace, God has initiated a covenant with someone, and God keeps his covenants.

In the first case, however, we're talking about something God does even with saved people that he still doesn't do based on anything they deserve. God does it out of his own nature, surely, because God is a merciful God, and he bestows mercy because of who he is. But does his merciful nature require him to bestow grace on the particular people he chooses to bestow it on in the particular situations he chooses to do it? Or is it just more general, that it leads him to bestow grace and then he has options about where to do so? A plausible case can be made for the latter.

I think the same considerations apply to case 2, so I won't trace it out a second time.

I think perhaps this can be dealt with by distinguishing between justice and benevolence. For instance, we hold that all human beings deserve hell, but God chooses to save the elect. God's deciding to simply leave the human race in its fallen state and allow us to suffer the consequences would be consistent with perfect justice - and because of this any action to alleviate us of this is 'gratuitous' - but it would be inconsistent with perfect benevolence. Isn't this the sort of distinction you are getting at?

Maybe, but I think there's something that distinction won't cover. I think one thing I'm getting at depends on a strong view of God's sovereignty (not that it rules out all versions of Arminianism as long as God has middle knowledge, though). Whatever the metaphysics of human choices to follow God, a strong view of providence sees God as being able to influence the course of events, perhaps just based on foreseeing what people will do in different circumstances (rather than a more typical Calvinist view of choosing them directly and activating their ability to believe in a way that guarantees their belief). That means God selects which people will be saved and which won't. You could think God's benevolence moves him in a way that guarantees that he'll save some, all the while insisting that his benevolence itself doesn't determine who gets saved. Yet on a strong view of sovereignty God certainly does select who gets saved, even if it's only by arranging circumstances according to how his middle knowledge leads him to expect people to respond with libertarian freedom. That means he isn't led by his very nature to select which people get saved, at least not just out of general benevolence. (I'm also assuming universalism is false here. A universalist would avoid this particular argument as easily as an open theist would.)

thanks for your reply jeremy,
i think i have understood you. you have used the word mercy to describe both his grace and his nature. while grace is certainly mercy, insofar as his grace is extended to those worthy of judgment, i wonder whether mercy describes what grace is in the first instance, and whether grace might not be an entirely self-referential expression of God. when we receive grace it is certainly mercy, but i wonder whether the word 'grace' only serves to describe grace with respect to its recipients, and not its source. if this is accurate, then i still wonder whether God is compelled by His glory in all acts of grace.


OK, I can see some wiggle room there if you want to do the Piper thing and reduce all of God's motivations to his glory. I'm not going to agree with you on that, for reasons I've explained several times in earlier posts, but I think that will allow you to get out of the argument as long as you see God's acting for his glory as a moral reason. Piper does see it that way, because he thinks it's morally fitting to do all things for the glory of the most glorious being in existence, and he then says that moral reason applies to the being whose glory we're talking about as well as other beings created by him. I'm not sure it's fundamentally a moral reason, but if you do grant it moral status then I think you avoid my conclusion.

i'd like to read your older posts - are they on this blog?

back to commentaries, are you reviewing any at the moment?


Here are a bunch of posts that have critiqued Piper. One is by Wink, my co-blogger.

Christian Hedonism
The Desires of Your Heart
Why I am no longer a Piperite (Wink)
Moses and Paul: Christian Un-Hedonism
Self-Centered and Other-Centered Jealousy

I don't have a commentary review post in process right now. Those are a lot of work and usually take me at least a week to get done once I start them, sometimes even more, depending on how busy I am with other things. I'm in the thick of it with grading, applications, and some urgency on dissertation progress right now, so I don't see myself doing that unless it's just for short periods at a time when I really can't put in lengthy stretches of time for matters that take longer concentration. I probably do more of those at the beginning of a semester or during breaks from classes.

Divine modalities are a pretty weird idea, I find. What does it mean to say that God could have done otherwise? That nothing in his nature compelled him to do what he did? But his free will did; and on a DC metaethics, whatever he wills is good by definition. So if he does not do it, if he does not will it, then it cannot be that good. (I don't get non-DC metaethics, I'm afraid.) It's very weird actually, because the nature (the essence) of God is his being (his actuality), he is a necessary being (in various ways, our conceptions of which inevitably derive from our finite ways, and so cease to be terribly compelling when we apply them to God), or something... Nicely philosophical post though!

I don't think God could do anything that's not good, but the question is whether God's nature allows options. I see moral goodness as based in God's metaphysical perfection. A mere divine command metaethics basically makes goodness an arbitrary whim of God. It needs to be based in more than that. But if it's based in God's nature, then the question is meaningful whether God's nature allows options. If God had done non-X (when God actually did X), would it have been better than God's doing X? I don't think the question is meaningful on a divine command metaethics, but I'm not sure moral statements are meaningful to begin with on such a metaethics.

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