Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Article 14

Today's article deals with a word that most people probably have no idea as to its meaning:

  XIV. Of Works of Supererogation 
 Voluntary Works besides, over and above, God's Commandments, which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogant' 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 arc commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants.

Here we have more Puritanical influences within Anglicanism showing up. Supererogation is a fancy pants religious term for the class of actions that go "over and above the call of duty" of what God expects of us. Following the basic moral commandments like not cheating or not committing adultery is expected of us as Christians. For instance, many Christian denominations have taught that it is expected that Christians give a 10% tithe of their earnings to the Church. Although while tithing is expected, where in Scripture the 10% expectation comes from is a complete mystery. For sake of argument, let's say that's what God expects of normal Christians. An act of supererogation would be tithing, say, 50% of your income to the Church. That is above and beyond what God (I hope) would expect as a minimum acceptable behavior from a normal Christian.

Why this is an issue with Protestants and comes up here in the Articles of Religion goes back to the practice in the late Middle Ages of the Church selling indulgences. According to the classic teaching on indulgences, the works of supererogation performed by all the saints form a type of treasure storehouse with God that the Church can apply to exempt repentant sinners from the works of penitence that would otherwise be required of them to achieve full reconciliation with the Church. 

This, of course, was one of the major issues that touched off Martin Luther's call for reform and ultimate rebellion against Rome. Luther taught that this was nonsense, a mere buying off of sins. This is a classic example of the Protestant Reformers and the Catholic Church talking past one another in the heated days of the early Reformation, with neither side really understanding, or bothering to understand, the other side's point of view.

In Catholic theology, an indulgence is the full or partial remission of temporal punishment due for sins which have already been forgiven. The indulgence is granted by the Catholic Church after the sinner has confessed and received absolution. An indulgence is thus not forgiveness of sin nor release from the eternal punishment associated with Christian views on hell. The belief is that indulgences draw on the Treasury of Merit accumulated by Christ's superabundantly meritorious sacrifice on the cross and the virtues and penances of the saints. They are granted for specific good works and prayers. Protestants completely lost sight of the fact that indulgences replaced the severe penances of the early Church and were originally pastoral in nature. If someone was living in dread mortal terror that dear old granny was burning in Purgatory or whatever because of sins, the Pope granted an indulgence to relieve the tormented conscience of some poor soul.More exactly, they replaced the shortening of those penances that was allowed at the intercession of those imprisoned and those awaiting martyrdom for the faith. 

Of course, the Catholic church went overboard with this otherwise solid theology and began selling them to raise money to build St. Peter's Basilica. Preying on people's consciences for sheer monetary profit was wrong. Rome had trouble understanding why the Protestants were so up in arms about this because they were looking at it from their own theological standpoint and not from the pastoral/ethical side of it. Protestants could not get past the pastoral/ethic side of it and so jumped right into chucking the whole theology and calling the Roman Catholic Church the "whore of Babylon." I call this Christians Behaving Badly pretty much all around.

Back to the article at hand. This article is a Protestant reaction against the whole selling of indulgences and "storehouse of merit" theology. I do not really have a strong opinion on the matter because I understand the point of indulgences. I agree the selling of them for profit was wrong, but they were created out of pastoral concerns. What I find amusing about all this is that some Protestants rooted in the revolt against the selling of indulgences ultimately come up with the idea of "prevenient grace," which is really a theology of the same kind at the end of the day, i.e. grace granted to people regardless of anything they have done. 

Is that not what indulgences were originally all about, a giving of prevenient grace so that people who have sinned can still come to know the peace of God through the grace God has stored up even for sinful people? 

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