DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L101-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 23, 2020, from

1. Historical antecedents

Early Christian writers like Ambrose and Tertullian often distinguished those things that God willed through commandments or precepts, and those things that he willed only through counsels. They held that we are obliged only to obey God’s precepts, and that we are permitted to disregard God’s counsels if we so choose, although following them is always better than disregarding them. Actions in conformity with the counsels are called ‘supererogatory’. The ‘Evangelical Counsels’, as they were first called, are poverty, chastity, and obedience (Tertullian, Exhortation to Chastity, section 3). It was held that in giving permission, for example, to live a life of less than complete chastity, God exercises his will ‘in a spirit of indulgence’, as a concession to the weakness of human character.

Scholastic thinkers typically offered a rather different account, sometimes side by side with this more traditional one. Aquinas, for example, held that only the conduct required by the precepts is necessary for salvation (see Aquinas, T. §13). Conduct recommended by the counsels is either advice about the most efficient way to gain salvation (Summa theologiae), or advice about the way to go beyond what is required for salvation, in order to attain perfection (Summa contra gentiles). On Aquinas’ teleological view of moral necessity, conformity to the precepts is thus obligatory, or morally necessary, because it is necessary for salvation. Conformity to the counsels is morally optional because it is optional (though perhaps useful) with respect to that same end.

According to Catholic doctrine, God chooses to reward acts of supererogation with the gift of greater merit than the agent requires for salvation. This surplus merit is stored in the ‘Treasury of the Saints’, owned by the Church, and available to be drawn on by others. This notion of ‘congruent merit’ or freely-given and transferable reward provided the theological underpinnings for, among other things, the practice of granting indulgences, or the cancelling of another’s punishment for some or all of their sins (Heyd 1982: 26).

The Reformers, particularly Luther and Calvin, vehemently criticized the doctrine of supererogation; but much of the criticism that was focused specifically on this doctrine was directed less to the Thomistic position than to the older view formulated by Tertullian (Calvin 1536; see Mellema 1991; Heyd 1982: 26–9).

Citing this article:
Trianosky, Gregory Velazco Y. Historical antecedents. Supererogation, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L101-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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