The final Article on Good Works deals trenchantly with the dogma of works of supererogation. It states very definitely that such doctrine “cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety.”
It becomes necessary to ask “What is meant by works of supererogation?” The word comes from the Latin and has amongst other meanings to pay by command out of the public treasury. The ecclesiastical usage possibly comes from the story of the good Samaritan who told the innkeeper “Whatsoever thou spendest more when I come again I will repay thee.” The Vulgate rendest “spendest more” by the Latin “Supererogaveris”, which adheres to the notion of laying out over and above what was given. From this gradually the idea grew that it was possible to render to God more than the strict letter of the law required.
Counsels of Perfection
We cannot trace the origin of the idea much beyond the thirteenth century in its developed form. But in the sixth century an undue value was placed on the celibate existence. Even in earlier times the martyrs were given a special pre-eminence. Confessors, that is tose who suffered hardship from the civil authorities because of their profession of faith, were allowed to intercede for the lapsed and secure their restoration to the Communion of the Church. Originally apparently “counsels of perfection” meant actions which were undertaken in the service of God concerning which no positive precept of obedience was laid down. Celibacy naturally came under this head. But the early advocates of an exalted virtue in the single state were far from supporting the theory that there was thereby secured an excess of merit. Jerome who was a very decided advocate of this theory could write: – “If we consider our own merits we must despair” (on Isaiah 64). But the later meaning of “counsels of perfection” as works over and above God’s requirement for man did not come into prominence before the issue of Indulgences in the thirteenth century.
Two Charges against the Doctrine of Supererogation
The Article declares that to teach works of supererogation is to be guilty of two offences. Arrogance and Impiety.
The word “arrogance” in its strict application means to claim what is not one’s own. It then got its derived sense of superiority, haughtiness, to assume that we can render unto God more than He demands of us by His holy law is to boast of a perfection exceeding the most complete being. It is a remarkable example of human depravity that men have ventured to declare that any human effort could attain to this height of perfection. Is is arrogant because it claims that we can fulfill the entire law of God. St Paul condemns this explicitly when eh writes “therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). Just before this declaration he writes that the law speaks “that every mouth may be stopped and all the world become guilty before God” (vs 19). I tis possibly because of these strong assertions that some Roman Catholic divines are to be found who declare that the theory of works of supererogation is not to be esteemed as belonging to the articles of faith. An outstanding example of this is Veron, a liberal Roman Catholic of the French school, who in his “Rule of the Catholic Faith” translated by Rev. J. Waterworth declares that it is not an article of faith that Indulgences can be granted in favour of the dead by the Church (pp 57-58). He explicitly asserts:- “The existence of a treasure in the Church composed of the satisfaction of the saints, is not to be admitted as an article of faith (p. 47 Waterworth’s translation Birmingham 1833). The fact that such assertions could be published and, after the lapse of years, translated by a Roman Catholic priest, justifies the claim of the Article that such declarations as are today frequently found in Roman Catholic books of devotion are indeed arrogant. They are not only claims to a superior morality that are wholly unjustified but they are made without any serious attempt to justify them either in Scripture or in the early history of the Church.
The Article proceeds to prefer another charge against the doctrine. It is impious to suggest that God can be satisfied with anything less than the best and therefore the distinction between counsels of perfection and precepts of obedience cannot possibly have weight. God demands a life of perfect accordance with His will. The Catechism of the Council of Trent (part II, Ch. V, Q. LXVII, LXVIII) modifies this doctrine of absolute holiness and insists that we can obtain merit for our works when they are performed so far as our condition in this world permits. It is most important that the requirement of absolute holiness should be emphasized if we are to maintain in its absolute completeness the Bible doctrine of the immutable demands of God’s law. God’s law is not an arbitrary imposition, it is a reflection of His divine character. It is an error which leads directly to impiety to even suggest that God modifies His requirements to suit our need or circumstances. The Article adduces one example. Our Lord declared that when we had done all that is commanded we have only fulfilled our duty. The rendering of that which is due is not meritorious. As we have seen at an early age the exaltation of the martyrs and the elevation of the state of celibacy led to a misconception. It is not required of men or women to remain celibate. But when a duty is thrust upon them calling for such sacrifices, they can have no option. Men, the Master said, have become eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. That is true. But it is equally the teaching of the Master that where acts of self-denial become necessary in view of some important objective set before the servant of God, then the call of duty demands sacrifice. Even when it is rendered we have still to say “we are unprofitable servants”. But in the fall condition in which man finds himself, complete surrender to the will of God is never achieved. “in many things we offend all”. To dare to claim merit for our imperfect fulfillment of our duty is to brazen our faults and to condone our ill-doing; acts of the gravest impiety. We must resolutely refuse any thing of works of supererogation as containing a suggestion dishonouring to the Lord of glory.
39 Articles: Article 14 – On Works of Supererogation
Voluntary works besides, ever and above, God’s Commandments, which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety; for by them men do declare, they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for this sake, than of bounden duty is required; whereas Christ said plainly, when ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants.
From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, September 13, 1956.
This article is part of our Articulate series, listening to T.C. Hammond unpack the 39 Articles one by one.