Supererogation is a very big word

Ever since I was child, I’ve loved words, and can still remember the first big word that fascinated me, thanks to the hymns at my parents’ church — consubstantial, as sung in a number of doxologies. Nicene Christianity, provider of big words to small boys. Another of those wonderful big words is provided by the fourteenth of the Church of England’s articles — supererogation. It’s not as exciting as it sounds.

XIV. Of Works of Supererogation
Voluntary Works besides, over and above, God’s Commandments, which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety: for by them men do declare, that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for his sake, than of bounden duty is required: whereas Christ saith plainly, When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants.

Those who’ve read the immediately preceding posts in this series will realise that I don’t think any kind of numerical reckoning up of works to gain salvation, or indeed, any fundamental opposition between grace and works as abstract concepts, have actually got much to do with what St Paul was on about.

So the theme continues. The context within which the article is conceived is a framework from its own era, not Paul’s; despite this, the main point of the article is important. Faith in God, conformity with Christ, the life of the Spirit are aspects of relationship. Doing what is right is meant to be a pattern of life, not a question of whether to put in overtime, or knock off at the end of the day, secure in having earned one’s salary.

I don’t think Aquinas would have dissented from that at all. His discussion is more subtle. If I have understood him rightly, there are certain good works which are explicitly commanded: one’s duty is clear, and doing them has comparatively little to do with character, though it may shape virtuous character. Then there are good works which are not commanded per se, but are either encouraged as attitudes, or spring out of a virtuous character – a character shaped by the working of grace. It is these latter that are “works of supererogation.”

The fundamental distinction – if this is correct – is between the good that is specifically commanded, and the good that is not required, but is nonetheless part of the true vocation of those whom God calls. I am not well versed enough in the history of the period to know how or to what extent Aquinas’ teaching had become corrupted (or misunderstood) by Luther’s time, or to what extent Luther is actually attacking this view in order to maintain the absolute incongruity and undeserved nature of grace.

Interestingly the article quotes Luke 17:10, the conclusion of a brief parable. “When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants”. This quotation seems to be something of a Reformation trope and occurs also in a different context in the Augsburg Confession (article 6) where it bolsters the idea that human works can’t earn justification.

In Lukan context, the quotation appears to mean something subtly different. The disciples have responded to Jesus’ teaching on the necessity for repeated forgiveness of others by asking for more faith. They see forgiveness of this magnitude as something almost impossible to ask of them. Jesus tells a parable, treating such forgiveness as a matter of routine duty. What we might see as a matter of supreme virtue, God treats as an everyday act of obedience. It is a rather different line from either Aquinas or the articles. It suggests human and divine judgement may differ significantly about whether something is a matter of great virtue. It undercuts any classifying of good deeds according to human calculus.

Intriguingly, and not entirely tangentially, the language of supererogation appears once in the Vulgate, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan’s final words to the innkeeper are translated “quodcumque supererogaveris ego cum rediero reddam tibi – and whatever you require in addition, I will repay you when I return” (Luke 10:35). In one sense it sums up the Samaritan’s attitude: he will do more than is required. The contrast is with the expert in the law, who wants to know exactly what must be done to fulfil the command “Love your neighbour as yourself”. How is one to know when one has fulfilled this obligation? For Jesus, this is the wrong question: the parable makes clear that the right question is “Who can I be neighbour to?” And the implicit answer is “Anyone in need.”

God’s requirements are essentially limitless while the work of creation and redemption remains to be fulfilled. In their very different ways, Aquinas and the articles are not far from this basic point of our Lord’s. In the end, God’s work is not to demand a basic minimum of good deeds, but rather to turn sinful people into holy ones, the bad into good, and worthless slaves (unprofitable servants in the language of the AV) into honoured children and heirs.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)

One Reply to “Supererogation is a very big word”

  1. Wondering why I read Wallander detective stories… or watch Morse and its derivatives. I think it is the trope that the work of the police is never done until the culprits are caught. The ‘good guys’ can’t play by bureaucratic rules here. Equally I wonder about the tension between taking in refugees and defending the right of locals to jobs (interestingly a problem dealt with by Henning Mankell in the Sweden of the novels of the 1990’s). All this is hidden behind racism or fear of terrorism of course. Again – when does an even generous country stop taking in refugees? When its intake staff are over worked and the country has achieved its target politically – so staff can leave off the overtime and go on holidays even though there is another stream of privately sponsored refugees waiting for action. Nothing to do with doing the right thing.

    Of course I grew up on faith vs works and grace vs law. Yet I live in a world that requires the ‘rule of law’. I object to translating Torah as nomos, yet one could just as well get negative about ‘instruction’ as if obedience was ‘just following instructions’.

    It’s God’s call I suppose. As you write “God’s requirements are essentially limitless while the work of creation and redemption remains to be fulfilled.” I suppose that’s why the detective’s holidays are always under threat or there’s always another Poirot case when he is on vacation.

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