Possibility and role of supererogation in Protestant ethics
In 1958, J.O. Urmson’s landmark article “Saints and Heroes” resulted in a renewed interest in supererogation in moral philosophy. However, religious engagement with supererogation has remained relatively low. Further complicating matters is the fact that dating back to the writings of Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and John Calvin, supererogatory deeds in the form of “counsels” were rejected due to the soteriological role they played in Aquinas’ thought (and other Scholastics) which was used to justify the selling of indulgences by the Roman Catholic church. It is no wonder that the Reformers rejected supererogation in their aim to refute a view of justification that was not sola gratia, sola fide (at least from their perspective). However, philosopher Gregory Mellema suggests that there is no contradiction in affirming a sola gratia, sola fide doctrine of justification while also affirming that a person can perform acts of supererogation. Employing the Protestant doctrine of vocation, he suggests that it might be possible in Protestant Christian ethics to perform an act of supererogation though the act in no way contributes to a person being justified before God (i.e., forgiven of sin and declared righteous in God’s sight). This key insight opened the door to the possibility of supererogation in Protestant Christian ethics. Though Mellema’s proposal is valuable, no specific act is named. In chapter three, I argue that there is one clear act of supererogation in the New Testament. Working with the two divorce passages in Matthew (5:31-32 and 19:1-9), I argue that the following act is supererogatory from a Protestant Christian perspective: choosing to remain married to a spouse that has committed adultery in an effort to reconcile and prevent divorce. This is not to say that this is the only one, but it serves as a great example and can be use to justify further inquiry into additional supererogatory deeds and the overall value of the concept in Protestant thought and practice. In chapter four, I argue that proper motive should be considered an official criterion of supererogatory acts in Protestant Christian ethics. This view is contrary to David Heyd’s and Alfred Archer’s intent-based theories which, in line with John Stuart Mill, dismiss the deontic relevance of motives to acts. I argue against their view in an attempt to demonstrate that proper motive is necessary, along with the other three basic criteria (1. Not obligatory, 2. Not forbidden, 3. Possesses moral value), for an act to be classified as supererogatory in Protestant Christian ethics. My overall aim is to build upon Mellema’s insight and offer a systematic account of supererogation in Protestant Christian ethics that is grounded in the New Testament.