Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Terminology Tuesday: Supererogation

Supererogation: Supererogation is the technical term for the class of actions that go “beyond the call of duty.” Roughly speaking, supererogatory acts are morally good although not (strictly) required. [...] The Latin etymology of “supererogation” is paying out more than is due (super-erogare), and the term first appears in the Latin version of the New Testament in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Although we often believe that Good Samaritanism is praiseworthy and non-obligatory at the same time, philosophical reflection raises the question whether there can be any morally good actions that are not morally required, and even if there are such actions, how come they are optional or supererogatory. (more here) 1

9 comments :

jeremy said...

Holy Over-My-Head stuff, Batman! Anybody able to relate this in a coffee talk way? I will send you digital Starbucks. http://bit.ly/eOWRU1

Randy Everist said...

I agree with WLC that not all morally good actions are also obligatory. After all, being a doctor is a morally good action (saving lives) but it is not encumbent upon us all to become doctors. Now if one means to say there is an action which is morally right which is not required, this I think is false. Excellent brief summary though, and thought provoking!

jeremy said...

...now that I posted, I feel rather daft.

Ex N1hilo said...

This is a term every bible-believing and reformation Christian should know. In Roman Catholic theology, the idea of supererogation provides one of the bases for the doctrine and practice of indulgences.

The supererogatory merits of the Saints are said to be added to the merits of Christ and stored in a Treasury of Merit, out of which the Pope (and to a limited extent other bishops) may draw indulgences.

These indulgences may be sold for cash or bartered in exchange for good deeds on the part of the faithful.

So why would anyone want to purchase an indulgence for himself or for someone else? Because it provides remission or lessening of the "temporal punishment" due to sin that ordinary Christians (in contrast to the Saints who have lived supererogatory lives) will experience in purgatory.

The desire to live a life of supererogation—to avoid purgatory and to contribute to the salvation of others by adding one's works and sufferings to Christ's—has been the motivation for many to enter the priesthood, or the monastery, or the convent.

Compare Jesus' teaching on what our attitude about our own works ought to be:

Luke 17:7-10 (ESV) Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come at once and recline at table'? Will he not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink'? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 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.'"

For more information on this topic, the testimony former priest Richard Bennett at bereanbeacon.org is a good resource.

Anonymous said...

I found this to be helpful. http://bit.ly/fZ6C3z

Randy Everist said...

Also, biblically, "to him that knows to do good and does it not, to him it is sin." (James 4:17) However, the Bible is not a philosophical textbook, so I think a consistent biblical view could entail this means if you know to do right and do not do it, the "non-act" is itself sinful. But in any case this is at least tangentially related.

Ryan said...

@Ex Nihilo: As a Catholic who understands the doctrine of indulgences, you have some study to do. Your explanation contains doctrinal errors and shows you dramatically misunderstand indulgences.

@Randy: I'm with you. Set up a myriad of competing morally good options in a limited chronological span and you see how they cannot all be morally incumbent. It may be good for me within the next 24 hours to visit the sick, cloth the naked, bury the dead and visit those in prison; nevertheless, I'm not required to do all (or any) of them in the next 24 hours.

Ryan said...

@Randy: Sorry - didn't complete the thought. To continue: if, however, one is presented with a moral option and inaction, depending on motive and circumstances, it may or may not be a sin not to act.

For example, it may be a sin not to feed a hungry person if you have food, know he needs it and just don't feel like sharing. It may not be a sin not to feed a hungry person if they show up at your door and you're terrified that his true motive is to hurt you.

Sin requires knowledge, sinful conduct, and consent of the will. In the first example above, all are present. In the second example, knowledge is lacking. It seems difficult to find moral culpability in a total mistake of fact.

Ex N1hilo said...

Randy wrote:

@Ex Nihilo: As a Catholic who understands the doctrine of indulgences, you have some study to do. Your explanation contains doctrinal errors and shows you dramatically misunderstand indulgences.

If I hold a mistaken view of indulgences, please do correct me. Something more specific than "you're wrong on indulgences" would be helpful.

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