In his fine study of Sin: A History (Yale, 2010), Notre Dame professor of theology Gary Anderson rendered an understanding of his subject richly textured by references to the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, intertestamental literature, early rabbinical writings, and patristics. In this new book, he offers a parallel look at charity. And that’s the problem. Anderson argues in Charity that good works—and particularly the good work of giving alms—generate merit much as evil works generate damage, or debt, or some other problem in the universe. In this neatly symmetrical economy, therefore, good works serve to fill the holes or pay the debts or fix the problems generated by bad ones. And such an economy is widely approved: it’s called (although Anderson never refers to it thus) as the dharma-karma construct inherent in all Indian religions.
Anderson enjoys ranging fairly widely in his sources, but not that widely. And he earnestly wants to commend his views to Christians and Jews, and even Protestant Christians who are resistant to any talk of meritorious action. So his challenge is to square this idea of charity generating something very like a credit in a heavenly treasury with a generic Christian reliance on the atoning work of Jesus Christ and even with a Protestant appreciation of sola gratia and sola fide. So I shall respond to his effort as one such Protestant reader: initially resistant, but genuinely open also to new ideas that can be shown to have adequate scriptural backing. After all, I’m a sola scriptura person as well.
Bible-believers of all sorts can travel a long way with Anderson’s concerns, of course. The Epistle of James, yes, but also much of the gospels and epistles by the other apostles make clear that genuine faith—trust in God’s salvation to forgive, renew, rehabilitate, and mature—issues properly in appropriate actions. And high on the list of any such faithful actions would be practical care for the poor: “This is true religion” (James 1:27), as well as the passage to which Anderson himself often refers, Matthew 25: 31-46. So far, so good.
To what end, however, is all this good work aimed? Martin Luther, in his famous tract “The Freedom of a Christian,” argues that God in Christ has so abundantly blessed us that we need no longer seek our own benefit in good works. God has already bestowed upon us, is bestowing upon us, and in the world to come shall bestow upon us goods we could not possibly merit. We are free, therefore, truly to seek the good of the other—out of grateful obedience to God who commands us to love our neighbors.
To be sure, as is typical of Luther writing in the early stages of the Reformation, when his field of view was filled with the Roman Catholic Church of his day, the tract does not deal much with the rigors of sanctification that await any truly converted person. It would take prodding from Erasmus on one side and from the Radical Reformation on the other for Luther to balance out his celebration of God’s active righteousness in us with counsel about how to realize God’s healing and improving work in us toward an eternity spent in God’s holy presence—a time when it would simply no longer do to be simul justus et peccator.
Such concerns for “lived” or “actual” righteousness, however, are at the core of Old Testament religion. Within the “this-world” horizon of ancient Israel and Second Temple Judaism, good works were promised divine blessing per the Deuteronomic covenant. Anderson bores into the Hebrew Bible, yes, but especially into Apocryphal texts—Tobit above all—as well as subsequent rabbinical literature to show that charity stands as a way of investing in God’s economy. Since God stands with the poor, giving to them (with scant hope, in most cases, of ever receiving repayment) is, in truth, “lending to Yhwh.” And since Yhwh is no one’s debtor, but instead loves to bless those who bless others, almsgiving is certain to result in … well, what?
Anderson hedges here, as he sees the sources themselves to be divided. Some see a frankly commercial metaphor of cause and effect, of investment and return. (Let’s call this the “automatic version” of merit.) Others shrink back from this rather magical view of the cosmos and instead see one’s good works piling up beside God in heaven as a memorial, as a prompt for God to respond generously—albeit with no kind of compulsion upon the Almighty. (We’ll call this the “suggestive version” of merit.)
If God is, in fact, moved to respond (one way or the other), in what form does he bless? In the “this-world” setting, God heals sicknesses, provides long life, and fills that life with material goods, healthy children, and happy marriage—per Job at the beginning and end of his story. Tobit also is willing to see God’s blessing fully realized only in the welfare of Tobit’s offspring, the extension, as it were, of his life into subsequent generations.
But Christian readers also look at this question in a “world to come” horizon—as do later Jews as well. And here Anderson’s exposition becomes yet more provocative, particularly for Protestants. Rather than dealing with the common Christian folklore of good works resulting in condign acquisitions—say, you get a lovely mansion while I get a tidy hovel—Anderson turns to the question of deficits. Few of us there be who enter the life to come entirely fit for an eternity of perfect holiness. Thus there is purgatory to make us ready. Purgatory, like sanctification in this life, generally hurts. But good works, and charity in particular, are acts of faith and as such advance us toward holiness. Thus such works shorten our purgatorial stage.
Furthermore (and you kinda knew this was coming, didn’t you?), loved ones can engage in acts of charity on behalf of the dead, offering up to God their prayers and alms either in expectation that the departed will benefit thereby (the automatic version) or in hope that God will have mercy (the suggestive version). Anderson even mentions as part of this economy both medieval Jews and medieval Christians setting aside considerable amounts of their estates to endow prayers for them and almsgiving on their behalf after their deaths—particularly if they do not have kin upon whom they can rely to engage in such helpful works. So, yes, indulgences, penance, purgatory, masses for the dead—all come rushing back, even as Anderson does his utmost to keep John Tetzel out of view.
What, then, should a Protestant make of all this?
Frankly, not much. The biblical content is awfully narrow, and for the Protestant skeptic that is exactly what one would expect. Yes, Proverbs 10:2 is invoked a lot, and Anderson claims that it is among the most frequently exposited verses by the Fathers. Still, if there really is a purgatory and almsgiving really can be rendered on behalf of others, one might expect the New Testament to be more directive about such a crucial matter and the early church to have relayed to us a robust tradition. I think we Protestants have not satisfactorily answered the question of what happens to Christians who die without being fully holy. There may well be a kind of purgative/maturational experience ahead of some or even most of us after death. But to connect that straightforward extension of what we know about the process of sanctification in this life is one thing. To connect it with a quasi-material scheme of works, merits, transferable credits, and the like is quite another.
Back in the 16th century, and in every century since, Protestants have asked whether such a scheme is coherent. Is there in fact a parallel between sin and charity, between evil works that cause a problem to be solved and good works that solve that problem?
More particularly, Is the idea of “supererogation” coherent in a Christian view of things? If sin, as defined in the Bible, is a “missing the mark” or a “straying off the path” (to pick the two metaphors most frequent in the Old Testament), how can one “hit the mark” or “stay on the path” in a way that makes up for previous misses/missteps? What would “really hitting the mark” look like, or “really staying on the path”? From a Protestant point of view, vocational obedience is just required, and of everybody all the time. There is no way to be “extra-faithful.”
Atoning for sin is one thing. Either each of us atones for our own sin in hell, or we turn to the crucified Jesus as our substitute. That makes clear enough sense. But sanctification is not about building up as a parallel to sin tearing down except in the most basic of metaphors (as in “edification” or the imagery of worthwhile labor versus vanity in 1 Corinthians 3). Yes, Jesus does tell us to do what we are supposed to do and we will then have “treasure in heaven” (Matt. 6:20). But we are to do what we are supposed to do, and thus receive the blessing of the God who always wants to bless and always does bless unless we impede him (or unless, in the convoluted subtlety of his plan of salvation in this topsy-turvy world, he must temporarily and uncharacteristically forbear blessing). There is nothing “extra good” we can do to make up for what we didn’t do right or did wrong before. If I am to give a certain amount of money, say, to the poor, then I am to give that money to the poor. That’s my calling. There’s no such thing—at least, not that this Protestant can see in the New Testament—as giving, say, an extra percentage to the poor to make up for my bad temper or corrupt business dealings or slothful parenting … or even previous stinginess to the needy.
The “reward” of cooperating with God in the process of sanctification is, therefore, holiness. It is acquiring the knowledge of, and taste regarding, and appetite for the good. It is enjoying thereby both greater experience of and greater appreciation for what is truly good—just as a long-disciplined musician enjoys a symphony more than does the ignorant theologian beside her, and just as an accomplished athlete sees beauty in a game that others find to be yet another dull 1-0 snorefest. Sanctification results in—indeed, consists in—improved capacities and relationships. How, therefore, can they be transferred to someone else?
The parallel between sin and charity, therefore, just doesn’t hold. Anderson gives it a masterful try, but as a responsible scholar he knows he has to mine mostly extrabiblical sources. And that sort of exercise, however interesting to a Protestant, just cannot win the day on a matter so profound.
At least, that’s what I’m counting on. Otherwise, I hope our three sons all convert to Catholicism in due course and do for me what I have, alas, failed to do for my forbears. And Gary Anderson will, I’m sure kindly, shake his head at my folly.
[This review was published originally in the late, lamented Books & Culture in 2014. As a nod toward 1517, among other things, I repost it here.]