May 28, 2013

Do We Owe God a Perfect Life?

Consider what Michael Rea identifies as “common to the most well-known versions of the satisfaction theory” of the atonement:

The satisfaction theory start with something like the following characterization of the human predicament: Our sin has put us in the position of owing God something that we cannot possible repay on our own. From birth, we have owed God a perfect life. By sinning we have failed to give him his due, and we have also rendered it impossible for him to receive his due from us (since we can’t take back our sin and thus give him the perfect life we initially owed him). Moreover, we have affronted God by failing to give him what we owe; so we now owe something further to make up for the affront But we cannot compensate God for the affront for precisely the same reason that we cannot make restitution for our sins: anything we tried to offer up as restitution or compensation would only be what we already owed in the first place. [“Introduction,” in Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology (Oxford, 2009), pp. 14-15.]

The starting premise—shared by other theories of the atonement as well—is that “we owe God a perfect life.” In saying we owe God a perfect life, presumably what is meant is that we have an obligation or duty before God to live a morally perfect life, one free of sin. And we incur debt—i.e., blameworthiness—by failing to give God his due, failing to fulfill our duty or obligation before God.

But why think this starting premise is true? How is it that just by being born we are under obligation to live and offer God a perfect life and are blameworthy for failing to do so? There is the vague thought that the premise might be conceptually entailed by facts about our relation to God. But it’s hard to see what those facts might be. God is our morally perfect creator and sustainer, but how does it follow from this that we owe him a morally perfect life? It’s much easier to see difficulties with the premise. Here are two:

1. It is often taken as axiomatic in ethics that “ought” implies “can.” But if we mere humans cannot live a morally perfect life and cannot repay God what we owe him, then it’s not true that we ought to live a morally perfect life or repay God what we owe him. But rejecting the axiomatic ought-implies-can principle doesn’t seem like a promising route.

2. Suppose a mere human can live a morally perfect life, and someone in fact does. Is she not praiseworthy for living such a life? I think so. But one is not praiseworthy for doing one’s duty or fulfilling one’s obligations. Doing what is required is not praiseworthy. And living a perfect life cannot ex hypothesi be supererogatory.

So the premise clashes with two potent moral intuitions—that ought implies can and that one would be praiseworthy for living a morally perfect life. Is the premise essential to theories of the atonement? What reasons are there for thinking the premise is true? And, most interesting: is an alternative, perhaps more modest premise available?



  1. I wouldn’t think the claim is that “just by being born” we are under an obligation to live a perfect life. Rather, it’s what we’re born into and under what conditions. For example, children born in America have certain rights, duties, and expectations. There is a kind of contract or covenant in place, and parents can make decisions that have implications for their children. I hear both conservatives and liberals, for example, claiming that our kids our born owing a portion of the national debt.

    The facts about our relationship to God are multiply, but some salient ones are: the existence of a covenant of works headed up by Adam, our representative. This sort of federal headship concept is actually ubiquitous throughout the Bible. Fathers can make decisions that affect their entire household. For example, Mt 10

    12 As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

    Commentators point out that “anyone” refers to the head or representative of the home or town (clearly Jesus didn’t mean *anyone* in an unqualified sense, as if a four-year-old could not welcome the disciples and that would be it for the town!). Notice that the choice of the federal representative of the home or town can make a decision that affects the other members of the home or town.

    Now, as for (1): I think OIC is (probably) false. I think deontic logic has a lot of work to do. As McNamara says in his SEP entry on deontic logic: “Plainly, there are a number of outstanding problems for deontic logic. Some see this as a serious defect; others see it merely as a serious challenge, even an attractive one.” Second, as Sayre-Mccord has noted (cf. his “Deontic Logic and the Priority of Moral Theory”), OIC is probably not a theory-neutral principle of deontic logic but a substantive normative commitment. As Sayre-McCord notes, it seems suspect that a principle of deontic logic can rule out certain conceptions of morality (e.g., Calvinism) on the basis that they reject OIC. Third, Frankfurt examples constitute a intuitive counterexample to OIC. Fourth, if compatibilism is *possible*, then the *implication* cannot hold. But you might say OIC is true on determinism. In order to make this claim you have to analyse ‘can’ in one of the classical compatibilist ways, pick your favorite (Hume, Lewis, Campbell, Berofsky, Vihvelin). But if you take this route, that neutralizes your (1) anyway.

    As for (2), this is ambiguous. Jesus is a human and may be praiseworthy since he voluntarily took up the task of fulfilling the stipulations of the covenant of works out of love for his people (which, for our purposes, could be some or all of the human race). So, yes, some human would be praiseworthy for living a perfect life. Would *all* humans? Well, not if the “obligation” thesis is true. And there seems to be at least prima facie support for this in the Bible. Luke 17:10 “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” So (2) seems to beg the question against the obligation thesis you’re addressing.

    I say all of this, btw, as someone who doesn’t hold to “the satisfaction theory.”

    Comment by PLM — May 29, 2013 @ 4:48 am | Reply

  2. Very interesting comments, Paul. I was thinking that issues in the realm of in/compatibilism were lurking behind the scenes.

    My initial thoughts were similar to yours: reject the idea that this obligation attaches to us just in virtue of being born, but see it instead as coming with entering a covenant or contractual agreement. But I’m not sure this is entered into at birth, as you suggest.

    I’m not nearly as optimistic about rejecting OIC as you seem to be, but I am open to it. I have always thought it odd that it’s so hard to counterexample.

    I agree that Jesus is a human and is praiseworthy for living a perfect life. But notice I was asking whether a mere human can be praiseworthy for living a morally perfect life. Jesus is no mere human. So other considerations have to be brought to bear on the question of whether any other human can be praiseworthy for living a perfect life, as you note. The Luke 17:10 passage is very interesting!

    I also reject the satisfaction theory, by the way.

    Comment by camcintosh — May 29, 2013 @ 11:11 am | Reply

  3. Chad, thanks.

    On OIC, that’s cool. I’d just add that if you believe genuine moral dilemmas are possible, this would also be a reason to reject OIC. Also, per our other (ongoing) convo, if you think incompatibilism is only contingently true, then this seems to allow a possible world, w, that is both determined and contains an action for which someone can be held responsible. This would seem to undercut OIC, making OIC at best a contingent implication (whatever that means). But if you say OIC holds in w, then that seems to undercut the motivation for (1).

    On (2): Ah, yes, I skipped over “mere”! So here’s a better response: we need to divide “mere humans” into pre- and post-lapsarian mere humans. Your intuition that someone in fact lives a morally perfect life and may be praised or rewarded for it may be right for pre-lapsarian mere humans, but not post-lapsarian mere humans—the latter unfortunately suffering from total depravity.

    But yeah, the answer here is going to be constrained by theological considerations. The “federal” or “covenantal” view has a strong pedigree (but there’s also Augustine, Shedd, and Crisp’s realist view of all humans being united in Adam, and incurring debts, obligations, penalties, by Adam’s fall, because in his fall we all (really) fell. But this view incurs some serious metaphysical costs that one may not be willing to pay). But, the arguments for being bound by birth inhere in both theories (federal and realist), and also receives a lot of biblical support.

    Anyway, good stuff!

    Comment by PLM — May 29, 2013 @ 12:54 pm | Reply

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