Thursday, September 22, 2011

Laymen's Guide to the Thirty-Nine Articles

We had to re-post this because Blogger lost it in cyberspace.

Article 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 be unprofitable servants.

De Operibus Supererogationis

Opera quae Supererogationis appellant non possunt sine arrogantia et impietate praedicari. Nam illis declarant homines non tantum se Deo reddere quae tenentur, sed plus in eius gratiam facere quam deberent: eum aperte Christus dicat: Cum feceritis omnia quaecunque praecepta sunt vobis, dicte, Servi inutiles sumus.

Fr. Robert Hart

We should begin by reading the entire parable from which the closing of the Article is drawn.

But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do. (Luke 17:7-10)

          Two things that we need to say quite a lot, to be humble and polite, are “please” and “thank you.” We are recipients of kindness for which we owe thanks, both to God and to our neighbor. We have needs, and we can be given things that aid and comfort us. It is significant that we have no record of God ever saying  “please” or “thank you.” It would be unthinkable. When the Bible speaks of the “goodness” of God to man, it speaks of something beyond His provision for our needs, such as “wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man's heart (Psalm 104:15).” We cannot return that goodness, since God “Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things (Acts 17:25).”
          Even the worship we give to God is really His gift to us. Jesus said to the woman in Samaria, “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23,24).” Why does the Father seek such to worship Him? Does He need this worship? Does it add anything to God? Are we able to supply anything to enrich Him? Very bad theologians have taught that we might be able to meet some need in God, or that we were created to that end. And, that is error of a very serious kind.   
          Such a god is less than the true God. Does God need our love? The answer is no; God is never alone; God is Trinity of Persons Named by the Risen Christ as “the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” into which one Name we are baptized and commanded to baptize (Matt. 28: 18-20). Does God need our worship? Does God need our service? Is it even true, though piously asserted, that “God has no body, no hands nor feet but ours?”    
The answer to all of these questions is No. God needs no boost to His ego, since God knows that he is worthy of more worship than every created being could offer forever and ever. Why then does the Father seek those who shall worship Him in spirit and in truth? Is this not another way of saying those things Jesus also told us? “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved (John 3:16, 17).” Is it not the same as these words? “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost (Matt. 18:11)” “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10).”
          God seeks worshipers in spirit and in truth because that meets the needs of human beings, it is the end for which we were made, and therefore we have been sought by the Savior, the good Shepherd, for our own good. God needs no worship; but, we need to worship Him. For that we need to be restored and forgiven, and made His children by faith in His only begotten Son. From the human perspective worship is about God. From the Divine perspective it is man who is sought out. That is because of God’s essential character: “God is love (I John 4:8,16).”
          That love or charity, namely γάπη (agapē) is entirely giving. The character of God, that He wills to impart in us as His children, is described by St. Paul:

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth (I Cor. 13:4-8).”

Ultimately, in the history of fallen man, we see the expression of that love in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:8).
          It is, therefore, not possible to give God anything, and certainly not possible to profit Him. God has nothing to gain, nothing to learn, and no potential to develop, inasmuch as He is perfect and complete in eternity. The entire creation of all things out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo) was the first miracle and the first grace. What we may offer to God is never sufficient to His Being, but is rather necessary for our well-being.
          Knowing this, we must consider that God’s commandments to love Him and our neighbor cannot be obeyed perfectly by fallen creatures; for, as we have seen in chapters about previous Articles, in this life we cannot escape our fallen condition. And, we can neither profit God, nor can we ever become so holy that He could ever owe us anything. The whole idea of supererogation, which is described for us in the Article itself, begins by assuming that fallen creatures are capable of a perfect will in which works “over and above” God’s commandments are possible, a will in which this goodness is “voluntary.”
          By the time this Article was composed this had become a widely believed part of the “Treasury” of saintly merits, from which indulgences were allegedly credited by the pope to the negative accounts of sinners. As if the cross of Christ were not sufficient to pay for all human sins in the whole of history (I John 2:2, John 19:30 τελέω ), the doctrine of a punitive Purgatory was believed in its crudest form. The Treasury of saintly merits was believed to be the balance owed by God to mankind for works over and above His holy requirements, which could be distributed to aid souls in need of some payment on their behalf. Therefore, to restore appreciation for the whole meaning of Christ’s cross, it was necessary to repudiate the notion of works of supererogation.
          This repudiation is necessary in every way, even for the appreciation of God’s grace as our Creator, and then certainly to place true value on the cross of Christ for our redemption, also by God’s grace. Grace itself, even before the Fall of man, even among angels who have not fallen, rules out the possibility of supererogation. It brings God down to the level of One who might say “please” and “thank you.” Whereas, in truth, He gives life to all. How much more it is we creatures who give all the thanks, unprofitable servants at best, especially we who have been given life, and then also bought back from sin and death by the blood of Christ.         

Fr. Laurence Wells


When we consider the indignant tone of Article XIV ("arrogancy and impiety"), it is somewhat surprising to discover that this concept has apparently been consigned, like Limbo itself, to the limbo of Roman Catholic theology.  I cannot find the term in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), nor in Denzinger's Enchiridion Symbolorum, nor in Neuner & Dupuis's massive collection entitled "The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church." Delving into the Catholic Encyclopedia, the word "supererogation" itself is not included in the alphabetical listing, but the index reveals exactly ten occurrences in St Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica.  He does not do much with the concept, but only mentions it in passing.  As an example which seems to be typical, in Question 185, Article 6, "May a Bishop Have Anything of His Own," the Angelic Doctor opines, "No one is bound to works of supererogation, unless he binds himself specially thereto by vow…  Bishops, however, do not bind themselves at their ordination to live without possessions of their own; nor indeed does the pastoral office, to which they bind themselves, make it necessary for them to live without anything of their own. Therefore bishops are not bound to live without possessions of their own."      
The whole notion seems to be a footnote to the doctrine of merit.  Therefore, it seems almost excluded by what the CCC has to say on that head, in Paragraph 2007: "With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man.  Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, or we have received everything from him, our Creator."  If this seems to be a surrender to the Reformation (those words could have been penned by Luther himself), what Rome gives with one hand it takes with the other.  At Paragraphs 1478 and 1479, the Treasury of Merit and the Indulgence system turns up again like a bad penny.  The cancer in remission at 2007 has flared up again in 1478-79.
Occasionally we encounter an attempt to find some Biblical under-girding for the notion if supererogation.  At Luke 10:35, the Good Samaritan said to the Innkeeper, "Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back."  The Vulgate here uses the verb supererogo for "more you spend."  It is truly saddening to find a faulty interpretation which is so wide of the mark.  The point made in the parable is the unbounded generosity of the Samaritan, which mirrors the infinite grace of God.  An opportunity to earn merit by going "beyond the call of duty" is surely very far from the meaning of the text.      
Even if marginal in Roman Catholic theology, the notion is important as evidence of exactly how pernicious the concept of merit truly is.  If there is any way whatever for finite human beings (even virtuous and saintly human beings) to earn a claim on God's goodness, we are in serious trouble.  The Gospels, indeed, have a strong concept of "reward."  But they never invite us to reason backwards and infer that where a reward is bestowed, it must have been deserved. When that fallacy is admitted, then naturally we expect a program of extra credit. "Arrogancy and impiety" are in fact mild words for such a subversion of the Gospel of grace.         
As a matter of some slight interest, it is perhaps ironic that where "works of supererogaion" have been consigned to theological limbo, secular ethicists have discovered the term and since the 1960's have produced a voluminous literature with mind-deadening titles such as "Forced Supererogation and Deontological Restrictions."  This discussion entertains itself with learned inquiry concerning the boundaries between virtue and heroism.  This is not a fruitless endeavor; when we see firemen running into burning buildings with little hope of survival, we recognize something truly extraordinary, which surely God will reward.  But the heroism of soldiers who fall on hand grenades is a far cry from counting Hail Marys to earn an Indulgence.
The secular reflections on this concept, however, are necessarily confined to the obligation of one human being to another, a child to his parents, an employee to his boss, a soldier to his comrades or to his country.  But we may not generalize from "going beyond the call of duty" in strictly human affairs to the duties of the creature to his Creator or the sinner to his Saviour.

1 comment:

Jack Miller said...

If there is any way whatever for finite human beings (even virtuous and saintly human beings) to earn a claim on God's goodness, we are in serious trouble. - Fr. Wells.

Amen to that. No mere poetic turn of phrase - the oft repeated words of the BCP, "through the merits of Christ Jesus our Savior."

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity:
The Collect.
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire, or deserve; Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy; forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord. Amen.

Thanks again, gentlemen...