The role of works in salvation

An important piece of Protestant theology is the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In my experience, this doctrine is often taken to imply that works play no role in salvation, which is not what scripture actually teaches. Part of the problem is that we blur the lines between justification and salvation, to the point that the claim that “justification is by faith alone” seems to contradict the claim that “salvation is by works as well.” Another part of the problem is that we conflate the question of rewards after salvation with the question of salvation itself, which leads to us passing over passages talking about the latter as if they were talking about the former.

All of this prevents us from fully appreciating the way scripture talks justification and salvation, as well as the interconnected roles played by faith and works. In this post I hope to briefly address these issues, by considering how justification by faith alone can be squared with works playing an important role in salvation. Before we get there, however, we need to take a few steps back to define our terms and summarize some relevant scriptural data on this question.

Defining justification, salvation, and works

While it will be subject to more nuance later, throughout this discussion justification is the forensic and external declaration of right-standing before God within the community of his people. Justification, therefore, reconciles us to God and his people. In keeping with Protestant tradition, I agree that this is the primary sense of the idea in Paul’s theology.

These days, we tend to speak of salvation primarily as a past (“I was saved”) or present (“I am saved”) reality, in which case it is scarcely distinguishable from justification. However, in the New Testament salvation is often spoken of as a future reality, referring to the outcome of the judgement of God’s people on the day of the Lord. On this day, Christ will judge all people for what they’ve done and will find God’s people to be innocent and obedient, resulting in their being saved from the wrath that is due to those who are guilty and disobedient. In this post we will speak of salvation in exclusively this future sense. Some Christians think that there is no future judgement for God’s people in this sense, but as we will see shortly it is something clearly taught in scripture.

In Romans, Paul connects these two ideas when he explains that our present justification is the basis of our confidence in our future salvation from wrath:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Rom 5:6–10)

We should also clarify what we mean by works, since this can mean different things. We do not mean the restricted sense of “works of the law,” which refers to the specific ceremonial actions unique to the Levitical system, such as sacrifices, cleansing processes, and dedications. Rather, we mean the more general sense of “good works,” which refers good and virtuous actions that constitute our flourishing as the kind of creatures God made us to be. We hasten to add, though, that we are using the idea of works as a proxy for what we’re actually interested in, namely a heart obedient to our Lord. Since our Lord is also our creator this obedience will result in the good works we just mentioned, but since someone might have works without an obedient heart we must clarify that we are interested in works insofar as they are the fruit and evidence of obedience.

The practice of talking about an inward reality in terms of its outward expression (“fruit”) can be seen in John the Baptist’s criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees:

But when [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matt 3:7–10)

Though at the end he talks about the fruit, his earlier statement makes clear that his focus is really on the repentance that produces the fruit.

This raises a final point we must make before moving on, namely that obedience does not always go by the same name. Sometimes an obedient heart is referred to as a repentant heart. And Paul is fond of speaking about love, since this is the fulfillment of God’s law (Gal 5:14, cf. Mark 12:28–34) and is the virtue that binds all others together in perfect harmony (Col 3:14).

Passages on the importance of works

Because there is a tendency to drive a wedge between the role of works in the Old and New Testaments, we will restrict ourselves to the teaching of the latter. Now, the importance of works is repeatedly and various affirmed in the New Testament. Sometimes it comes in an explicit statement that God’s people will also be judged on the basis of our works in the course of determining whether we will get to be with him or have to face his wrath. Other times it comes in the form of a statement to the effect that eternal life (or the benefits leading to salvation) are the result of works.

Matthew 6:14–15

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

This statement comes as an explanation of the final line of the Lord’s prayer, and draws a connection between our being forgiven and our action of forgiving others.

Matthew 7:21–23

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”

Here we have people who declare Jesus as Lord and even work in his name, but who are rejected from the kingdom of heaven on account of the fact that they did not do the will of God.

Matthew 16:27

For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.

Here Jesus does not make a distinction, but says that everyone will be repaid by their actions.

Matthew 25:31–46

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Both groups of people refer to Jesus as Lord, and in both cases the basis of their acceptance or rejection is there actions.

John 5:27–29

And [the Father] has given [the Son] authority to execute judgement, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgement.

There is symmetry here between whether your resurrection is to life (salvation) or to judgment (wrath) in that both are on the basis of what you have done in your life.

2 Corinthians 5:9–10

So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

The future judgment is a motivation for Paul’s aiming to please Christ. In the context of 5:1–7:1, as well as the fact that evil is included in the above quote, it is clear that Paul is not talking about judgement for rewards, but judgment for whether we will enter eternal life or not. This is meant to be a motivator to the Corinthian church to get their act together.

2 Corinthians 7:1

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.

The promises he is referring were just stated in the preceding context (2 Cor 6:16–18), and refer to God’s promise that he will welcome his people if they separate themselves from uncleanness. From this it is clear that complete (or perfect) holiness refers to being with God most fully, which is the result salvation on the day of the Lord. In this case, then, it is noteworthy that this is brought about — at least in part — by our cleansing ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit. See studies 2 and 3 of my Leviticus notes for a detailed discussion on the interplay between holiness and uncleanness that underlies this line of reasoning from Paul.

Galatians 6:7–9

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.

At first we might try to interpret “sowing to the Spirit” as something else, but together with the following sentence it is clear that it involves doing good and that what it reaps is eternal life.

Philippians 2:12–13

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

We must not let the fact that God works in us to distract us from the fact that we are to understand salvation as something we can work out.

Hebrews 12:12–15

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.

Here seeing the Lord is a result, at least in part, of our straightening the paths of our feet, an action which involves works. Thus, he can happily speak of obtaining the grace of God.

1 John 2:1–6

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.

John here seems to be echoing the teaching of Jesus we saw before, that not everyone who calls him Lord will be saved, but only those who do the will of the Father, which John summarizes here as love.

1 John 3:14

We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.

Revelation 20:12–15

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Both those in the book of life and those in Death and Hades are judged on the basis of what they had done. Again, we see an explicit statement of symmetry.

Revelation 22:10–13

And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy. Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

Given the the prior sentence spoke of both the evil and the righteous, the statement that he will repay each for what he has done clearly refers to both groups.

We could add to this list other related New Testament passages (eg. Rom 2:6–11, 13:11, 1 Cor 9:24–27, 13:1–3, Phil 1:8–11, 2 Tim 2:1–7), examples from the Old Testament (eg. Gen 26:4–5), and parallels drawn between the two in the New Testament (eg. Heb 10:26–31), but the above is sufficient for our purposes.

How (not) to harmonize the scriptural data

Now, when faced with texts that are in tension with something we believe, we have two options: either we double-down on what we believe and do our best to reinterpret those texts in light of it, or we seek a broader theory that incorporates what we believe together with these texts. I have no doubt that if we were to engage in “interpretative gymnastics” for long enough we could come up with interpretations of each of these texts that would allow us to hold on to the belief that works play no role in salvation. But, besides a collection of contrived or otherwise unmotivated interpretations, what would we gain by this? It would certainly not be a better understanding of the framework underlying the biblical authors’ statements that allows them to talk so easily about works playing a role in salvation.

Someone might try to defend such gymnastics by reminding us that a good interpretative practice is to interpret obscure texts in light of clearer ones. But this response is flawed for at least two reasons. First, the texts we cited above are not obscure. They very clearly state that works play a role in salvation, and do so in various ways from the mouths of various people. Second, the problem isn’t that these texts are in tension with other texts that teach justification by faith alone, but that they are in tension with conclusions we prematurely draw from those texts. We must recognize the possibility that the tension lies not between the texts, but between some texts and our systemization of other texts. It is a recipe for disaster to start with texts on “justification by faith alone” only to later consider texts on “salvation by works as well.” Such an approach will only obscure the theological framework of scripture which enables its authors to speak so comfortably about both.

Instead of the favoring some teachings of scripture to the exclusion of others, we should seek a harmonization that allows us to affirm “justification by faith alone” together with “salvation by works as well.”

Three models of harmonization

Before we get there, however, we must note that the importance of works is something the Reformed tradition has emphasized since its beginning. As Richard Gaffin notes, Calvin himself cautioned that faith justifies alone only if “alone” is understood adverbially, and is not the case if it is understood adjectivally. That is, faith alone justifies, but faith does not justify when alone. Faith is the thing that justifies, but it only does so when works is beside it “holding its hand,” so that if works were not around then faith would be powerless to do anything. Mark Jones makes a similar point when he notes a distinction arising from Reformed theologians between the right to salvation — which is attained by faith alone — and the possession of salvation — which is attained through works as well. And John Piper cautions that “we should not speak of getting to heaven by faith alone in the same way we are justified by faith alone.”

All of this amounts to the necessary realization that there is an important role for works, but it doesn’t yet tell us why this is the case. Why does faith not justify when alone? Why are works needed to take possession of salvation? We will consider three models that attempt to gives answers to such questions.

Model 1: Works as the fruit of justifying faith

This first model comes from Piper in the article just mentioned. On this model, the faith that justifies you is a living faith that of its very nature produces works as its fruit. At the last judgment, then, you are judged on your works as proof of your justifying faith. If you do not bear the fruit, then you do not have justifying faith, but something else. This is very similar to what we were saying earlier about how works are the fruit of an inner reality, and on this model that inner reality is justifying faith. As Piper explains the view elsewhere as follows:

…works play no role whatsoever in justification, but are the necessary fruit of justifying faith, which confirm our faith and our union with Christ at the last judgment. God can make a public pronouncement with a view to these works confirming the faith, which alone unites us to Christ, who is alone the foundation of our acceptance as perfect in God’s sight.

Model 2: Justification as the removal of sin

The second model is inconsistent with certain claims of Reformed theology, but is consistent with broader Protestant theology. At its heart is the commitment that justification consists solely in the removal of sin, which is at odds with the Reformed position that says it also includes the transmission of a foreign righteousness from Christ (or God) to the believer. With the former, righteousness is still something imputed in the sense of being counted to us, and is still something foreign in the sense of not arising from ourselves; but this imputation of foreign righteousness just is the gratuitous removal of sin by God through Christ, without the need of a further transmission of foreign righteousness.

Now, at the last judgement, only those who have lived perfectly obedient lives will be saved from God’s wrath. However, because everyone sins, we can at best live an imperfectly obedient life. Even though we desire God and seek him with an obedient heart, we cannot escape punishment ourselves because we cannot undo our previous failures. This is akin to a murderer who has since repented of his crimes, but still awaits punishment: it doesn’t matter how many people he saves, he is still guilty of murder and deserving of punishment.

Combining these two ideas together, we see that justification can turn an imperfectly obedient life into a perfectly obedient one, since it can remove the sinful aspects of that life which make it imperfect. But if justification is simply the removal of sin, it cannot turn a disobedient life into an obedient one, since after the removal of sin there will still only be a disobedient heart left to find underneath it all. In the end, everyone will be judged on their obedience, but some of those who would otherwise have had merely imperfect obedience will instead have perfect obedience on account of the removal of their sin through justification by faith.

Model 3: Obedience as a precondition for faith

If we shuffle things around slightly in model 2, then we can produce a third model that differs from the first two, and which still allows for the Reformed account of justification. Where model 1 made obedience the fruit of faith and model 2 made the two stand side-by-side, this third model makes obedience prior to faith in some sense.

The idea is as follows. Like the murderer we discussed in model 2, a sinner might come to see that life with God is something good and worthy of pursuit, but realize that their sin has alienated them from him with no hope of reconciliation. This person might seek to live with God with all their might — which is obedience — but never close the relational chasm that exists between them and God because of their sin. It is in this situation that faith and justification come in. God’s gracious offer of reconciliation is that if you seek him out and have faith in the King that he has sent, then the chasm between you and him will be closed by means of justification.

But notice that if this is how faith and justification are supposed to work, then their application presupposes an obedient heart, without which you would not be seeking God out in the first place. On this model, what enables faith to justify is that it is the faith of a seeker. It therefore presupposes a heart from which good works would already naturally flow, to which the faith brings the justification that closes the relational chasm between the seeker and God. If someone had the same faith but without the obedient heart, then that faith would be meaningless. They would be like someone who acknowledges the existence and power of a king without the desire to live under him. Such a person cannot expect the favor of that king.

Notice that we have said nothing about the nature of justification, but only its role in the broader series. This allows us to say that when faith justifies, it does so both by the removal of sin and transmission of righteousness. Thus, unlike model 2, this model is consistent with the Reformed account of justification.

Evaluating the models

Each of these models gives a coherent account of the importance of works to salvation without sacrificing the doctrine of justification by faith alone. To that extent, I’m happy for people to believe any of them. Nevertheless, my own preference is for model 2, and in what follows I’d like to briefly explain why. The long and short of it is that I think models 2 and 3 make more sense of how scripture speaks about faith, works, and judgement, and I think the primary reason for preferring model 3 over the simpler model 2 is unmotivated.

Evaluating model 1

When evaluating model 1, we must recognize that there are different ways of thinking about justifying vs non-justifying faith. On models 2 and 3, the same faith could at some time be justifying and at another time be non-justifying. The difference here would not be in the kind of faith held or the object of the faith, but in the presence of absence of an obedient heart. By contrast, on model 1 we need to accept that there are different kinds of faith, one of which is justifying and the others not. Now, of course we can have different kinds of faith in the sense that we can have faith in different things, but in this case the different kinds of faith are all in Jesus, for otherwise there would be little reason for the authors of scripture to compare them like they do. Model 1 therefore requires that there be different kinds of faith in King Jesus without this difference being found in the presence of absence of an obedient heart, since this heart is meant to be the fruit of the right kind of faith. Someone might point us to James 2:14–26 as an example of different kinds of faith, but even this passage doesn’t require that the difference between saving and non-saving faith be found in the kind of faith so understood. It could easily be found in whether works are there alongside the faith. Indeed, it is noteworthy that he explains the effectiveness of Abraham’s faith by saying that, “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (v22).

There are other cases in the New Testament when the faith in view seems to be the right kind of faith, but is still called worthless in the absence of obedience. In 1 Corinthians 13, for instance, Paul speaks of a faith that can remove mountains — an idiom used for proper faith — but says that it is still nothing without love (v2). That true faith is in view here is confirmed by the fact that he concludes the discussion by noting that for now faith, hope, and love remain (v13), which is clearly referring to Christian faith, hope, and love. In addition to this it is noteworthy that, in Matthew 7:21–23 and 25:31–46 quoted in our list above, people call Jesus Lord — and even do things in his name — and he responds not by questioning whether they really think of him as Lord, but whether they did the will of the Father.

It also seems possible that you can have an obedient heart without the necessary faith that reconciles you to God. One of the clearest examples of this comes in Romans 9:30–10:4, where Paul recognizes that his fellow Israelites have a zeal for God, but notes that they are lacking the key element of faith, thinking instead that they can close the chasm between them and God through the works of the law. This situation is at least in tension with (if not contradictory to) model 1, which would require faith before obedience (or zeal) could follow, but it fits easily with models 2 and 3 since it is analogous to the murderer scenario we used as a motivating example for both of those.

In addition to this, model 1 doesn’t do as much justice to the symmetry that is sometimes emphasized for the basis of judgement of those saved and those punished (Matt 16:27, 25:31–46, 2 Cor 5:9–10, Gal 6:7–9, Rev 20:12–15, 22:10–13). After all, on model 1 works are a proxy for faith, which is the basis for salvation, but for those punished the basis for this is not their lack of faith but their disobedience. The Galatians 6 passage is particularly instructive here, since Paul explicitly states that the same principle applies to both, but on model 1 the application of this principle is somewhat strained by the fact that sowing to the Spirit would have to be indicative of faith (rather than perfected obedience) while sowing to the flesh is surely indicative of active disobedience (rather than lack of faith).

Evaluating model 3

So much for model 1. Comparing models 2 and 3 is a little more tricky, since we used the same motivating example to get to them, and in many ways model 3 is just a generalization of model 2. The main thing that model 3 has in its favor is that it enables us to affirm a doctrine of justification in terms of the transmission of righteousness from God (or Christ) to us, and its in terms of this reason for preferring it that we will evaluate it.

For one thing, the emphasis of symmetry in judgement that we raised against model 1 can also be raised against model 3. It’s difficult to see why, if we were ultimately judged based on the works of God or Christ (since it is their righteousness that is transferred to us), the authors of scripture would emphasize the symmetry of everyone being judged on the basis of their own works. And it is noteworthy that when we are given examples of the basis for judgment (eg. Matt 6:14–15, 25:31–46, and 1 John 2:1–6) it is the actions of the people themselves that is in focus, not the actions of God or Christ.

Of course, people don’t typically believe in justification in terms of transmission of righteousness because they’re trying to make sense of these passages, but because they think it is explicitly taught in scripture. For instance, in Romans, Paul says that in the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” (1:17), that through Jesus the righteousness of God has been manifested for all who believe (3:21–22), and that his fellow Israelites who did not believe sought to establish a righteousness of their own rather than submit to the righteousness of God (10:3). In Philippians he speaks of a righteousness from God (3:9). And in 2 Corinthians he says that we have become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21).

Reading these passages in terms of transmission, however, amounts to something of a category error, resulting from a failure to appreciate the two important senses God’s righteousness takes on in the Old Testament, namely in terms of covenantal faithfulness and just judgment.1 Once we appreciate these two senses, we can see that God showing his righteousness is not about giving it to us, but about revealing his solution to a problem through us.

On the first sense, God’s righteousness is connected with his faithfulness to promises, most notably his covenant promises to Abraham and Israel. We see this way of thinking expressed, for example, in Nehemiah’s prayer to him:

You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous. (Neh 7:7–8)

We can also express our righteousness through faithfulness (eg. 1 Sam 26:23), but it doesn’t make sense for God to transmit his righteousness in this sense to us.

On the second sense, God’s righteousness is the righteousness of the judge of the world, which is expressed in his judging perfectly and impartially (cf. Rom 2:5–11). For example, this understanding forms the basis of Abraham’s plea for those in Sodom:

Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? (Gen 18:25)

Now, whereas God’s righteousness is that of a judge, our righteousness is that of a defendant, and is expressed in our being declared innocent by the perfect judge (eg. Ps 7:8, 35:24). Notice that these are not interchangeable things. It makes little sense to speak of God acquitting us by giving us his righteousness, since his righteousness is about right judgment and not about making the guilty innocent.

In the New Testament — and particularly the early Romans passages mentioned above — these two ways of thinking about God’s righteousness become wound together, forming a problem to be solved: if God is to be faithful to his promises to Abraham (righteousness in the first sense) he will need to overlook the sin of his people, but how could he do this without failing to be the perfect and impartial judge of the world (righteousness in the second sense)? One way or another, God’s righteousness can’t stand.

This is the tension that Paul is dealing with in Romans 3:21–26, where he explains that God has revealed his solution to this problem through his King, Jesus, by justifying his people by Jesus’ blood. The result is that we can now see how God could overlook the sins of his people in the past without giving up his title as the righteous judge of the world (3:25).2 As Paul concludes, “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (3:26) That is, God’s showing his righteousness is not about him transmitting it us, but about him showing how he can be a just (righteous) judge while still being true to his covenant promises. Furthermore, we now stand as living proof of this righteousness, which is what Paul means in 2 Corinthians when he says that we have “become God’s righteousness” — not that we have somehow had it transmitted to us. And his claim that we have a righteousness from God (Rom 10:3, Phil 3:9) is true but is just meant to emphasize that our status is a result of God’s work and not ours — not that it is somehow the result of him transmitting his righteousness to us.

Not only is there little reason for thinking about justification in terms of transmission, but there is positive reason for thinking about it just in terms the removal of sin. Consider what Paul’s usage of Psalm 32 in the following passage:

David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Rom 4:6–8)

This is as close as we come to Paul giving an explicit definition of justification. He tells us that he’s about to quote David talking about justification, and then he quotes David talking only about the removal of sins. Another passage from 2 Corinthians suggests the same thing. Given that justification is the means by which God reconciles us to himself (cf. Rom 5:1–11), Paul tells us how God achieves this:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5:18–19)

Once we recognize that scripture does not commit us to the understanding of justification as transmission, we are then free to take these statements from Paul as the explanations they were intended to be.

The superiority of model 2

None of my complaints against model 1 were meant as decisive, and many intelligent people disagree with the points I made in my evaluation of model 3. As I’ve already said, I’m happy for people to go with any of the models, or indeed any other model that highlights the importance of works for salvation without sacrificing the doctrine of justification by faith alone. However, my comments above incline me to prefer model 2, and that’s the one I recommend. It is simple and, in the course of discussing each of the views, we have seen that it has sufficient explanatory power.

Questions

When discussing the role of works in salvation with others, I have noticed that once people get over the initial (and understandable) shock, they will almost without fail ask the same questions. These questions are important and the result of carefully grappling with the relevant issues. Not only this, but in answering them I find that we come to a deeper understanding of what is and isn’t being claimed. Thus, to such questions we now turn.

Does this make doing good works a mercenary affair?

If part of the reason we do good works is for our salvation (cf. 2 Cor 5:9–10), then does this mean that they are done out of selfish motives, where we treat salvation as if it were a cold transaction between us and God? Or, as CS Lewis phrases it, does it turn doing good works into a mercenary affair? In answering the question CS Lewis draws an important distinction that will serve our own answer:

We must not be troubled by unbelievers when they say that this promise of reward makes the Christian life a mercenary affair. There are different kinds of reward. There is the reward which has no natural connexion with the things you do to earn it, and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things. Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it. A general who fights well in order to get a peerage is mercenary; a general who fights for victory is not, victory being the proper reward of battle as marriage is the proper reward of love. The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation. (CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

He goes on to note that the picture is in reality slightly more complicated, but this initially distinction is sufficient for our purposes.3

The point is this: we were created for life with God in obedience to him, since he is our Lord and our creator and this corresponds with our flourishing as his creatures. Our sin has corrupted this relationship, but God has established a way for imperfect obedience to be sufficient for us to be with him like this. When working imperfectly toward our salvation, alongside faith, we are not looking forward to it in a self-serving way. Rather, we are doing our best to be obedient amidst our imperfections, so that we will be able to take hold of obedience cleansed from these imperfections, so as to live with our Lord and creator without any hindrance. We love God now as best we can, looking forward to the day when we will be able to love him even better.

What if every act is mixed with sin?

This is a question specifically aimed at model 2, since we’ve said that justification is the removal of sin. If you’re sufficiently reflective on your actions, you’ll realize that often (if not always) even if you have good motives they are mixed with sinful motives. But if justification will remove the sins in my life, and if all actions are mixed with sin, then will this not mean that no good works will be counted to me?

A more helpful way to think of justification is that it removes the sinful aspects of every act, rather than removing every act that has sinful aspects. It’s tricky to find passages that say this explicitly, since the biblical authors typically focus on the outward actions rather than the motivations that are mixed up within them. But we’ve already said that the actions are used as proxies to the obedience of which they are the fruit, and so it seems right to say that an action is good to the extent it flows from obedience, and whatever else is mixed up with that will be cleansed by justification leaving only the good behind. This is presumably why the authors do sometimes talk about the source of the works (obedience or love) rather than its effects.

Though uncommon, an example of disentangling the aspects mixed together in particular actions might be seen in Paul’s discussion of Abraham in Romans. His aim is to emphasize the importance of Abraham’s faith as the basis of his righteousness, and in the course of this he says the following:

In hope [Abraham] believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness”. (Rom 4:18–22)

What’s interesting about this line of reasoning is that two chapters after Abraham’s faith is counted to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6) he laughs at the prospect of Sarah bearing him a child at their age (17:17). Nevertheless, he is fully convinced that God will follow through on his plan, which is why he proposes that God does so through Ishmael (17:18), to which God responds with a resounding no and reiterates his plan to give Abraham and Sarah their own child (17:19–21). With Abraham, then, we have actions that are a mixture of good and bad, but Paul is happy to focus on just the good aspects when making his point, since it is the presence of these good aspects that is relevant.

What about the person who dies moments after being justified?

I think this is an important question because of the implied question behind it: how many good works are necessary for salvation, and what if someone hasn’t done that many? Now, we must emphatically and without qualification say that this is not how works contribute to salvation. As we were at pains to explain right at the beginning, works are not there to be tallied up until you’re above some threshold, but are the fruit and evidence (proxies) of an obedient heart. It is ultimately the presence of this obedient heart — together with justification through faith — that is the basis for your salvation. The biblical authors tend to speak in terms of the “typical” case, which involves someone continuing to live a while after their conversion. But the fate of the thief on the cross (Lk 29:39–43) makes it clear that an obedient heart is sufficient, even if it hasn’t been given the opportunity to express itself in good works due to time constraints.

Indeed, there may even be constraints other than time, such as an incomplete knowledge of what God desires, or an inability to understand what he requires. The former is discussed by Paul in Romans 1:18–32, and it is noteworthy that nowhere does he hold the non-Israelite up to the standard of the law given to Israel. And a bit later he will say the following:

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law [given to Israel], by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom 2:14–16)

When we speak of the role of works in salvation, then, we must recognize that we are following the language of the New Testament authors and speaking primarily in terms of the “typical” case. Accordingly, we must be cognizant of the additional nuance needed to speak correctly to edge cases.

Will someone be saved if they live a mostly obedient life?

Since we’ve concluded that works have an important role in salvation, a natural question someone may ask is whether this makes salvation some sort of a balancing game, where good works could outweigh sinful works. Our discussion thus far should make clear that this is not the right way to think about salvation. What you need is perfect obedience, and if you’ve sinned once you are in the same situation as the murderer who has repented but not yet been sentenced. “Mostly obedient” just won’t cut it. God offers the only way through justification by faith alone.

Why does faith produce good works?

In a number of places in the New Testament, faith is said to produce or work through love or obedience (Gal 5:6, Jas 2:18), or be a precondition to it (1 Cor 15:17–19, 32, 58). Paul also speaks of “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5, 16:26). For model 1 this language is easily explained by the fact that works are the fruit of faith. For models 2 and 3 the question is how we account for such language.

We must realize that good works can be the effect of faith without being the fruit of faith, since the source-fruit relation is a special case of the more general cause-effect relation. The person who wishes to be with God, but is cognizant of the relational chasm their sin has caused, might despair of any hope of being with him, and therefore give up on trying to be obedient to him. Without the hope of reconciliation there is no reason to continue trying to be obedient, especially when doing so can be difficult. This is effectively Paul’s reasoning in 1 Corinthians 15, and explains why when the possibility of reconciliation through faith is introduced, it would produce in us the desire to seek God in obedience once again. Thus, Paul urges the Corinthians to “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.” (1 Cor 15:58)

Paul uses similar reasoning towards the end of the letter to the Romans, when he urges them to live obedient lives because “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” (Rom 13:11b) The connection here is obvious: keep up your obedience until the end in order take hold of the salvation on offer. And again, this kind of reasoning comes up in the 2 Corinthians 7:1 quote from our earlier list: after reiterating the promises that God would live with his people so long as they cleansed themselves from uncleanness, Paul urges them to continue to do so in order to bring holiness (God’s presence) to completion.

Regarding “the obedience of faith,” it might just be another way of talking about this causal relation between faith and obedience. However, on models 2 and 3 it could also be a way of speaking of an obedience made perfect through faith. Either way, we have a ready explanation for it.

How does this affect doctrines of perseverance?

If someone holds to the doctrine of perseverance of the saints, or some other doctrine similar to this, does the role works plays in salvation affect this in any way? I see no reason why it should, since such doctrines are usually more focused on you making it to the end, rather than on what “making it” consists in. God, in his sovereignty, will ensure that you persevere in an obedient heart perfected by justification through faith.

Is this not a dangerous teaching?

Some might wonder if the claim that works play a part in salvation could lead to forms of legalism or some other related false teaching. Should we therefore silently acknowledge it and never speak of it in polite company? Is it less dangerous just to ignore it and focus on justification by faith alone?

No. What is dangerous is treating a part of the picture as if it were the whole of the picture. We must do our best to uphold all of the teaching of scripture without unnecessarily sacrificing parts of it because they make us uncomfortable, lest we fall subject to the same kind of criticism lodged by God against his people through Isaiah: they had presumed upon their security because they had the God-given Levitical system, but God explained that their offerings and ceremonies were worthless if they ignored injustice and oppression (Is 1:11–20). So too we, if we ignore the importance of obedience, will be tempted to presume upon our faith and forget the poor and the oppressed. This is precisely the kind of thinking that James was trying to correct in his epistle.

So what should we do? If a passage teaches justification by faith alone, then preach that. If it teaches the importance of work to salvation, then preach that. If someone is so conscious of their sin that they despair the hope of salvation, then remind them that God reconciled himself to sinners. If they are confident in their salvation simply because they have faith, then remind them that they will be judged on their works. When people ask how both are possible, explain it to them. Ultimately, we should be no less comfortable talking about these things than the biblical authors were. And to the extent that our thinking makes us less comfortable, our thinking needs to change.

Conclusion

These days many people find it controversial or uncomfortable to talk about works playing a role in salvation. But neither scripture nor the earliest reformers has any problem with doing so, which suggests we need to make space in the way we think about salvation. In the course of this post we have summarized some relevant biblical data, proposed three models for how “justification by faith alone” can co-exist with “salvation by works as well,” evaluated them, and addressed common questions. In the end, a proper appreciation of this teaching will motivate us to live godly lives while we walk to the salvation God has made possible through justification by faith in his King.


  1. For a nice discussion of this, see NT Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (ch 6)
  2. It’s important for us to remember that the Levitical system did not actually deal with sin. The sacrifices worked at a symbolic level, not a real one (cf. Heb 10:4). See chapter 4 of my study in Leviticus for an more detailed discussion.
  3. He outlines a third case in which we transition from motivations of the first kind to those of the second kind, which more accurately describes the growth of Christian motivations as they learn to desire God more fully for who he is. We are talking, however, about the ideal case, and so do not need the descriptive nuance that this third case provides. Nevertheless, I highly recommend that every Christian read this essay once a year, for there are just so many nuggets of wisdom in it to be fully internalized in one reading.

The measures of activities

When discussing self-perfective immanent activities we gave the following analysis of activities, with which we were able to delineate three kinds:

… an activity is the measured exercise of powers for the sake of some end, where the end for which the activity is done determines the appropriate measure. A thing’s powers are what determine what it can and can’t do, and whenever that thing engages in an activity it does so by exercising its powers. The end for which the activity is done determines how and when those powers are to be used, which is what we refer to as their measured exercise. Thus, we can distinguish between three things: the activity, its end, and its powers.

Transient activities are when the activity and its end are distinct from one another, while immanent activities are where these are unified. But this unity can happen in two ways, giving us two different kinds of immanent activities: if only the exercise of the powers is unified with the end then we have a non-self-perfective immanent activity, whereas if the exercise and the powers are unified with the end then we have a self-perfective immanent activity.

The question we aim to answer here is how we determine the measure for each kind of activity.

For transient activities the answer seems clear enough: the measure of the activity is the measure of the end for which it is done. The measure of the end will be independently-specifiable from the activity because the end and the activity are distinct from one another. For example, when a carpenter is making a chair this chair will have various specifications to meet, including structural and aesthetic features the customer desires. These specifications of the final product will “propagate backwards” to how the chair is to be made, restricting what options are open to the carpenter during this activity. To the extent that the powers of the carpenter are exercised so as to build a chair that meets the given specifications, they will be in accordance with the measure of the activity.

For immanent activities things are less clear, since in this case we do not have a distinct end from which to derive a measure for the activity. In an orchestra performance — which is an example of a non-self-perfective immanent activity — the end is something given by a conscious choice: when they choose to play a piece of music, the measure corresponding to this end is determined by this choice, since the sheet music of the piece specifies how the piece is to be played. Of course, the orchestra is free to modify the piece for their particular performance, but even in this case the end (and measure) is given by what is consciously chosen. While I don’t have an argument for this, I’m inclined to think that all non-self-perfective immanent activities are the result of conscious choice, and if this is the case then what we’ve said here should apply generally.

Notice that in both these cases, there is a degree of strictness that might apply to the resulting measures. A measure is strict, let’s say, to the extent that it restricts the variety of ways the relevant powers can be exercised. A customer who gave a complete specification for a chair would result in a stricter measure of the activity of building it than a customer who simply wanted something to hold them up. And choosing to play a classical piece of music would result in a stricter measure for your performance than choosing to play a piece of jazz music.

Finally, we have self-perfective immanent activities. Now, at least some of these activities are not consciously taken on by those engaged in them. For instance, the activity of my life is not something I consciously chose to engage in prior to doing so, since it is by the activity of my life that I make any decisions in the first place. In these cases, then, what is it that determines the end and measure of the activity? It seems to me that the end is already given by the fact that it is unified with the underlying powers of the activity. That is, because the end is unified with the powers and their exercise, we know that the activity must just be the exercise, the sustenance, and the development of the powers. And since all of this is unified together with one end, the activity must also involve the proportioning of the powers such that each is expressed without unduly frustrating the others. This will surely be the minimally strict unified exercise of all the powers that sustains and develops them together.

The way to approach the measures of self-perfective immanent activities, then, is to do so bit by bit, conceptually isolating the individual powers in order to understand the requirements each has, as well as the unique contributions it makes to the whole. An important point here is that we should avoid the word “balance” when comparing the contributions of different powers, since some powers will be more suited to particular tasks than others. For instance, it would be absurd to try and “balance” the task of walking between our legs and our hearts. Or again, since our intellects enable us to understand the world as it really is while our passions can overreact to mere appearances, it is right that we temper our passions in accordance with what is appropriate, and this without extinguishing them, lest we turn ourselves into mere robots. Or again, since our intellects and wills are not disconnected from our bodies, it is right to make decisions that contribute to our health. And so on.

Aristotle’s function argument

In the course of discussing the egoist worry, we saw that Aristotle’s own proposal for what happiness is is presented as the conclusion of his so-called “function argument.” This name is a bit misleading, however, since Aristotle didn’t think about function in the way we tend to these days, and he doesn’t so much give an argument as gesture in the direction of one. This is not to disregard his discussion, mind you, but rather to adjust our expectations going in. Here we will unpack the argument briefly, in the hopes of addressing some common misunderstandings as well as elucidating how the function argument fits into Aristotle’s broader project in the Nicomachean Ethics.

Introducing function

Aristotle starts talking about function when trying to work out what happiness could be (NE I.7). At this point in the discussion, happiness is what we call that thing which we choose for its own sake and never for the sake of something else, but as of yet we do not know what this thing consists in. In other words, we know that happiness is the chief good of human life, but we do not know what it is yet. Recognizing this, Aristotle starts as follows:

Presumably, however, to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is is stilled desired. This might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man. For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or any artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function. (NE I.7, 1097b24ff, emphasis added)

He proposes that if we could determine the human function, then we could work out from that what human happiness is. This follows from the fact that happiness is our chief good, and the goodness of a thing resides in its function. We’ll return to this in a bit, but first we must clarify what a function is.

One way to think about function is in terms of why a thing does what it does, its purpose or use. This is probably what we think of first when reading Aristotle these days, particularly when he goes on to name occupations as examples of things with functions, to which we might be tempted to add examples of tools or instruments.

A second way of thinking about function is in terms of how a thing does what it does, its mechanisms. Korsgaard calls this a thing’s way of functioning, and describes it as follows:

Consider, for example, a complicated machine. Such a thing might have many purposes, but in [this second sense] it has only one function — one way of functioning. For instance, a computer serves a great variety of purposes, things as different as word processing, solving mathematical problems, writing music and playing chess. But to describe its function, in [this] sense, is to describe what we might call its functional construction, the mechanisms that enable it to do all these things. Superficially, we might say that its function is the electronic storage and retrieval of information according to a program, or some such thing. But in the strict sense, only someone who actually understands how computers work can tell you what their function is. (Christine Korsgaard, Aristotle’s Function Argument)

A third way to think about function is in terms of what a thing does. In this case we are not interested in merely the mechanisms by which a thing acts (as in the second way), but the usage of those mechanisms in an activity. This is a bit more tricky to talk about than the first two ways since things can often do many different things, but function, in Aristotle’s sense, is something unique. Accordingly, for this third way we pick out a particular activity performed by something, which we call its characteristic activity or proper act, and which we can think about as follows: the characteristic activity of an X is the activity it necessarily engages in insofar as it is an X.1

The characteristic activity of a professional sculptor, let’s say, is about sculpting statues for customers. This is an activity that spans across years of the sculptor’s life, and in the course of engaging in this activity the sculptor will engage in all manner of more specific activities, like communicating and haggling with particular customers, resting and reflecting, learning and practicing techniques, buying supplies, designing statues, and sculpting this or that particular statue. The sculptor needn’t be doing any of these sub-activities at any given time, but so long as they are a professional sculptor they will be engaged in that activity that subsumes all of them, and this is the characteristic activity of a sculptor.

We add the qualification “insofar as it is an X” to specify the sense in which we’re considering the individual. Someone may be a sculptor, a violinist, and a father, and so without any qualification we could say that he has three characteristic activities. But if we qualify our consideration of him to one of these things, then there will only be one corresponding function. So, if we consider him insofar as he is a sculptor, then he will have the characteristic activity we described above.

This third way of thinking about function seems to fit best with how Aristotle speaks about it. For one, he is happy to speak of “function or activity,” which suggests that he sees a close connection between the concepts, and he eventually concludes that the human function is a kind of activity. For another, the fact that he doesn’t mention tools or instruments as examples of things with functions would be strange if he has purpose or mechanism in mind (since they have both of these kinds of function), but not so if he has characteristic activity in mind (since they don’t act of themselves).

Now, we have previously offered the following analysis of activities:

… an activity is the measured exercise of powers for the sake of some end, where the end for which the activity is done determines the appropriate measure. A thing’s powers are what determine what it can and can’t do, and whenever that thing engages in an activity it does so by exercising its powers. The end for which the activity is done determines how and when those powers are to be used, which is what we refer to as their measured exercise. Thus, we can distinguish between three things: the activity, its end, and its powers.

This applies to activities in general, so it is worth thinking about what qualifications need to be added to make it into an analysis of characteristic activities. Since the ends of characteristic activities can be as varied as the ends of activities in general, and since measures will vary accordingly, it seems the best approach is to start with the powers. The powers we’re interested in are those that are relevant to the particular function we’re considering, and will correspond to the mechanisms we mentioned when discussing the second way of thinking about function. They will be the powers used in the course of the relevant function considered at the generality at which they are used. For example, both a sculptor and a pianist use the movement of their hands when engaging in their respective functions, but the powers relevant to sculpting are things like the power to mold clay, chisel stone, hammer with the appropriate delicacy, and so on, while the powers relevant to piano-playing are things like quick finger movement, timing, applying different amounts of pressure for different volumes, and so on. When we consider powers at the generality of their being used by an X, we will call them the powers “of an X,” so that we can say that what makes an activity characteristic of an X is that it involves the measured exercise of the powers of an X.

On reflection, although function is first and foremost concerned with activity, both purpose and mechanism have something resembling them in the complete picture, in the form of the activity’s end and powers respectively.

That there is a human function

Given that function is to be understood in terms of characteristic activity, Aristotle’s inquiry is whether there is an activity characteristic of humans. In some sense it is clear that there is, since no matter what a human does, they must of necessity engage in the activity of human life. But Aristotle gestures toward a pair of arguments for this conclusion in addition to whatever intuitions we may have about it. We say, “gesture” because he really phrases it more as a pair of rhetorical questions:

Have the carpenter, then, and the tanner certain functions or activities, and has man none? Is he born without a function? Or as eye, hand, foot, and in general each of the parts evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function apart from all these?

Now, it’s possible that he is using occupations and organs as a way of highlighting the intuitions we just mentioned, rather than as a pair of arguments. But, if he is gesturing towards arguments, then one way to reconstruct them is in terms of unity.

While the occupations humans engage in might differ from one another in various ways, there is nevertheless unity between them insofar as they all involve the same fundamental actions, like deliberation, communication, bodily movement, sensation, learning, and so on. While these actions may be expressed in different ways and to different degrees, their pervasiveness points to a deeper activity that underlies all human occupations. And this is evident also in the fact that someone who is a carpenter could equally have been a tanner had they desired, or could switch from being a carpenter to being a tanner, or could even have both occupations simultaneously. The possibility of someone switching between (or having) multiple occupations while remaining the same human suggests that there is some activity that underlies them. And since this could in principle happen between any pair of occupations, this underlying activity must be broad enough to encompass anything a human might do, which must surely be the human function.

The argument from organs proceeds slightly differently. The activities of my eyes and heart are unified with one another in a way that the activities my eyes and your heart are not. And the same goes for any pair of organs. Today we might more naturally think of the various bodily systems rather than organs, but the point remains. And it isn’t restricted to activities within the body, but applies as well to the activities of the mind, like deliberation, self-reflection, learning, and choice. Now, the unity exhibited between the activities within a human suggest that they are parts of some overarching activity, and since this would include all the activities within a human this overarching activity must be the human function.

These arguments could be seen as approaching function from the two components of activity, namely the exercise of powers and the measure of this exercise. The argument from occupations notes that all powers exercised throughout our occupations are specialized versions of the general powers we share with one another as humans, so that the human function must involve the exercise of these powers considered in their most general form. And the argument from organs notes that the unity of the various activities within the human is to be accounted for by an overarching measure by which all of these are included in a single activity that is characteristic of all human life.

What the human function is

Having concluded that there is a human function, Aristotle proceeds to state more clearly what it is:

What then can this be? Life seems to belong even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude, therefore, the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be shared even by the horse, the ox, and every animal. There remains, then, an active life of the element that has reason; of this, one part has it in the sense of being obedient to reason, the other in the sense of possessing reason and exercising thought. And, as ‘life of the rational element’ also has two meanings, we must state that life in the sense of activity is what we mean; for this seems to be the more proper sense of the term.

When determining what the human function is, we cannot ignore this or that human power as irrelevant, since the preceding arguments indicate that the human function includes all such powers. It is clear to Aristotle that the human function is a kind of life, but it is not enough to leave it at that, since there are different kinds of life and not all kinds share the same sets of powers. As we saw in the second part of our discussion on the egoist worry, the most distinctive feature of human activity is our capacity for reason, by which we perform better the activities of life we share with other living things, as well as perform activities beyond these. Reason is unique in its ability to guide us in our lives, since by it we can understand reality and self-consciously make our way through it.

Eager to include all aspects of a human life, Aristotle distinguishes two components of the life involving reason, namely the process of reasoning and the obedience to reason. The first component involves things like deliberation, reflection, and inquiry, while the second involves acting and feeling in accordance with the results of the first. These two components working together cover the whole of the human function, albeit in a very broad way. His goal at this point is less about giving all the details and more about drawing an outline around everything.2

At the end of the passage he refers to the life of the rational element, saying that there are two senses of this. One way to think of life is as a state that is possessed, as when we say someone has a life or that they are alive. Another way to think of life is as an activity that we engage in, as when we say someone is living well or that they have made a success of their life. Aristotle refers to this distinction in order to clarify which sense of life he has in mind when discussing the human function: it does not consist simply in the possession of a state or set of properties, but in the activity of the element that has reason.

But what is this “rational element” that he speaks of, this “element that has reason”? Well, it is not a way of speaking about the process of reasoning to the exclusion of obedience to reason, since according to Aristotle these are both components of the activity of the rational element. A better way to think of it is as that aspect of all living things that makes them alive, and which in humans also includes the capacity for reason. Aristotle refers to this as the soul of a living thing, which isn’t some immaterial thing that drives the body, but the organizing process of the body which results in the activity of life in the living thing.3 The point of focusing on the soul here is to emphasize that the human function resides in the activity of the element that animates the body, rather than in the body which by itself is passive and unanimated.

Function and good

So far we have determined that there is a human function and stated in broad terms what it is, but if this is to be of any value to us in the study of ethics then we need to explain how function is connected with goodness. Accordingly, Aristotle proceeds to summarize his account of human function and introduce the connection between function and goodness:

Now if the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies reason, and if we say ‘a so-and-so’ and ‘a good so-and-so’ have a function which is the same in kind, eg. a lyre-player and a good lyre-player, and so without qualification in all cases, eminence in respect of goodness being added to the name of the function (for the function of a lyre-player is to play the lyre, and that of a good lyre-player is to do so well)…

His point is that if some X has a function, then it is a good X to the extent that it performs its function well. This is what Aristotle meant earlier when he said that, “for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function.” On the face of it, though, this might seem a bit problematic: since “well” is the adverb of “good,” does this not really amount to a tautology, namely that an X is good if it is a good X? Now, while his point is not particularly deep — it’s stated as something obvious on the way to something further — it does not amount to a tautology. There are all sort of things an X might do well or badly that are not related to its function, and Aristotle’s point is that these are irrelevant when judging its goodness as an X. A violin-player, for instance, might be tall and therefore good at reaching up to high shelves, but this has nothing to do with whether or not they’re a good violin-player. A sculptor might be good at wall-climbing or at sprinting, but it is their function as a sculptor which is relevant to whether they’re a good sculptor or not. And so too with everything that has a function.

With this connection between function and good in hand, we can use our earlier conclusions about the human function to give an outline of the human good. And this is exactly what Aristotle does next:

… if this is the case and we state the function of man to be a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle, and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate virtue: if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul exhibiting virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.

Applying the connection between function and good, Aristotle notes that the function of the good human must be the good and noble performance of the activities of the soul involving reason.4 He then reframes this in terms of “virtue,” with what amounts to a definition of the idea: a virtue is something that enables an activity to be well-performed. Following Plato and those before him, Aristotle recognizes that happiness (the chief human good) must involve virtue in some way, and this is how he incorporates it into his own account of happiness — as a clarification of what he had previously said.

The place of the function argument

The function argument is given at the beginning of Aristotle’s investigation into happiness and goodness, as a starting point and frame for what will follow. We should not be too surprised, then, that by the end of giving the argument we have only a vague outline of what we seek. In the remainder of the first book, he will deal with some outstanding issues regarding the concept of happiness. In books II–V he will give an analysis of virtue, discuss the role of freedom in happiness, and discuss the various moral virtues, with justice getting a book for itself. Then in book VI he will discuss the intellectual virtues. These two classes of virtue have to do with following and exercising reason respectively, a division that arose during the function argument. And after dealing with the virtues, he will move to more general topics. In book VII he will discuss the different ways one’s knowledge might be odds with one’s passions, and in books VIII and IX he will discuss the nature and importance of friendship. Finally, in book X, he will bring it all together into an account of happiness that incorporates the insights gained along the way.


  1. Put more tersely, the function of an X is the per se activity qua X.
  2. As he says, “Let this serve as an outline, for we must presumably first sketch it roughly, and then later fill in the details.”
  3. It’s actually slightly more complicated than this, but the details of this do not concern us here. We discussed this with more nuance in our earlier post on the threefold whole.
  4. Attentive readers might notice that whereas earlier Aristotle referred to the human function as the activity of soul that implies or follows reason, here he refers to it as the activity of soul that implies a rational principle. Really, these amount to the same thing, since even when an activity follows reason it implies a source (principle) of that reason (rational).

Aristotle and the egoist worry (part 2)

In the first part we introduced the egoist worry about Aristotle’s ethics: does his claim that happiness is the ultimate goal of human life imply that everything we do is done for selfish reasons? We also traced Aristotle’s discussion from the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics up to just before he puts forward his own proposal for what happiness is. This included a delineation of certain key notions used throughout the Ethics, a clarification of what we mean by happiness in this investigation, a rejection of common proposals for what happiness is, and a statement of the features that any satisfactory proposal of happiness must have. If you have not read it, please do so before continuing here.

The complete and virtuous activity of life

Aristotle’s own proposal is presented as the conclusion of his famous “function argument.” What interests us here is less the details of the argument and more the proposal that Aristotle draws from it: happiness is (1) the activity of living a life involving reason (2) in accordance with the most complete virtues (3) so that they pervade that life completely. Let’s unpack this one bit at a time.

First, happiness is not a passive state but an activity. And it is not just some activity that we might happen to perform — like playing a musical instrument or participating in a team sport — but is the activity that we must necessarily perform as humans, namely the activity of life itself. Furthermore, since we’re interested specifically in human life we can be a bit more specific about the nature of this activity:

What then can this be? Life seems to belong even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude, therefore, the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be shared even by the horse, the ox, and every animal. There remains, then, an active life of the element that has reason; of this, one part of it in the sense of being obedient to reason, the other in the sense of possessing reason and exercising thought. (NE I.7, 1097b32–1098a4)

He is not saying that human life is exclusively about reasoning, as if the other aspects of our lives were irrelevant, but rather that it distinctively involves reasoning. All living things have in common that they take in nutrients and grow in the course of their life, but within this commonality they are distinguished from one another — at a very high level — by the capacities which affect the fundamental way in which they carry out their lives, capacities which build upon earlier ones rather than replace them. Plants have just the capacities we mentioned, nutrition and growth, so that their lives are very simple and in almost no way up to them. Animals add to these the capacities for consciousness and self-movement, which enable them to better perform the activities of life shared with plants (food can now be sought out and death avoided, for example), as well as to perform activities that plants cannot, like childrearing and housebuilding. Humans add to these the capacity for reason, which again enable us to better perform those activities of life we share with plants and non-human animals (incorporating creativity and automation, for example), as well as to perform activities beyond these, “like tell jokes and paint pictures and engage in scientific research and philosophy.”1 With each layer of capacities comes a richer and more fulfilled way of living, making how one lives more “up to” the individual. Aristotle’s point in the above quote, then, is that we should pay attention to the distinctive layer of human life when considering its chief good. Notice that he also distinguishes two parts the life of reason, namely exercising reason and following reason. Both of these involve reason in different ways, and this distinction will eventually lead to the distinction between intellectual virtues (which have to do with exercising of reason) and moral virtues (which have to do with following reason). The details of this distinction do not interest us here, though, and we raise simply to reinforce the point that when Aristotle speaks of happiness as an activity of life involving reason he does not have in mind a purely intellectual life.

So much for the first part of his proposal; the second part adds that in order for the activity of life involving reason to be considered happiness it must be done in accordance with the most complete virtues. We saw Aristotle reject the earlier virtue proposal as incomplete, since virtue is had just as much in action and in inaction, as well as during times of significant suffering. Here we see how he incorporates virtue into his own proposal without falling prey to the same objection: happiness consists in the use of virtue in an activity rather than merely the possession of virtue. That is, happiness is not in the first place about virtue but about the activity of living a life involving reason, and virtue is added to this as a qualification. So, the original virtue proposal was correct in that it saw virtue playing a role in happiness, but it was incorrect in that it placed virtue at the center by itself. As Aristotle says later:

With those who identify happiness with virtue or some one virtue our account is in harmony; for to virtue belongs virtuous activity. But it makes, perhaps, no small difference whether we place the chief good in possession or in use, in state of mind or in activity. For the state of mind may exist without producing any good result, as in a man who is asleep or in some other way quite inactive, but the activity cannot; for one who has the activity will of necessity be acting, and acting well. And as in the Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful and the strongest that are crowned but those who compete (for it is some of these that are victorious), so those who act win, and rightly win, the noble and good things in life. (NE I.8 1098b30–1099a6)

Taking this further, notice that in our second part we did not only say that the activity of life must be done in accordance with virtue, but in accordance with complete virtue. There is some debate among commentators about what is meant by the “completeness” of a virtue, but given how Aristotle proceeds to talk about the complete life immediately afterwards (which we will discuss shortly), it seems that a virtue is complete to the extent that it is not limited by circumstance. To see what we mean by this consider the person who is always honest to their friends but not others. Such a person does not act in accordance with the virtue of honesty, but only in accordance with an incomplete version of it, namely honesty-to-friends. This incomplete virtue approximates the better and more complete virtue but ultimately falls short of it, for the person who has the incomplete virtue only acts in accordance with the more complete virtue when the appropriate circumstance is added to it. If they properly appreciated honesty itself, then there would be no need to add extra things in order to justify acting in accordance with it. Aristotle’s point, then, is that since happiness is the activity of life in accordance with virtue it can only be truly had when we live in accordance with the virtues themselves, rather than qualified and incomplete versions of them.2

But even living in accordance with complete virtue might not be sufficient to make a person happy, which brings us to the third and final part of Aristotle’s proposal. As he says,

… we must add “in a complete life.” For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy. (NE I.7, 1099a17–19)

If we are not continuously virtuous, then it is not our life that is virtuous but just this or that action every now and then. Life, after all, is a continuous activity, and so if we wish to live life in accordance with virtue then we need to live continuously in accordance with virtue. And this point is not just limited to time, but can be applied to any dimension of life where we might inconsistently live in accordance with virtue. For instance, if we always lived in accordance with honesty but failed to live in accordance with courage, then we would not be living in accordance with complete virtue in a complete life, since life involves both situations when honesty is needed and situations in which courage is needed. Thus, the third part of the proposal specifies that the complete virtues must pervade life completely, which is to say across all dimensions of life.

This, then, is Aristotle’s proposal, which we repeat again now that we’ve gone through each of its parts in detail: happiness is the activity of living a life involving reason in accordance with the most complete virtues so that they pervade that life completely. “Let this serve as an outline,” Aristotle says, “for we must presumably first sketch it roughly, and then later fill in the details.” Which is what he proceeds to do over the rest of the Ethics. This outline, however, is sufficient for to see how his proposal does better than the alternatives at avoiding the egoist worry.

Immanence and nobility

Now, we have said that the chiefest end of human life is happiness and that happiness consists in the activity of life itself, done in accordance with virtue. Since the end and the activity are the same thing, then, the activity must be immanent, and therefore something done for its own sake. In other words, the person aiming at Aristotelian happiness as their chief good does virtuous things for their own sake, since it is the virtuous activity itself that is their happiness and ultimate end. In contrast to this, the person who does virtuous things in order to produce happiness must think of this happiness as something separate from the virtuous actions that produce it, and is therefore not thinking about Aristotelian happiness at all.

To use an example, when you ask a person aiming at Aristotelian happiness why they choose to be honest to their friend, they will not say, “because it will achieve happiness for me,” as the egoist worry maintains. This answer does not see honesty as worthy of pursuit for its own sake, but only worthy as a means to achieving something else. And more broadly, it does not see the activity of life in accordance with virtue as the chiefest end, but rather as a means to some other end. Rather than being representative of Aristotle’s view of happiness, this answer presupposes that he is wrong about happiness, because it does not identify the chief end of life with the activity of virtuous life itself. So how would the person aiming at Aristotelian happiness answer? These days they would most likely say along the lines of, “because it was the right thing to do.” And if they were trying to sound more like Aristotle, they’d say, “because it was the noble thing to do.”

As with the word “virtue,” Aristotle uses the word “noble” differently to how we use it these days. For Aristotle, if something is noble then it is worth pursuing for its own sake, and throughout the Ethics he uses these two descriptions interchangeably when talking about the good and happy person.3 In fact, he starts using this language right from the outset: amidst drawing out the conclusions of the function argument he says that the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of activities or actions involving reason (NE I.7, 1098a14), and I don’t know what else the “noble performance of an action” could be other than the performance of that action on account of its nobility. A little after this, he explains that the happy person will have a pleasant life because noble things are by nature pleasant, and the happy person pursues and loves virtuous actions which are themselves noble (NE I.8, 1099a7–17). Then in book two he says that actions are only truly virtuous when they are chosen for the own sakes (NE II.4, 1105a27–32). And he continues to speak in this way, happily describing things as either noble or worth pursuing for their own sakes,4 so that by the end we are not surprised when he summarizes his earlier conclusions as follows:

… happiness must be placed among those [activities] desirable in themselves, not among those desirable for the sake of something else; for happiness does not lack anything, but is self-sufficient. Now those activities are desirable in themselves from which nothing is sought beyond the activity. And of this nature virtuous actions are thought to be; for to do noble and good deeds is a thing desirable for its own sake. (NE X.6, 1176b3–9)

So then, reflecting on the implications of Aristotle’s proposal, as well as the way in which he speaks about it, it is clear that the egoist worry is misplaced. For Aristotle, the fact that happiness is the ultimate goal of human life does not mean that we should do everything for the sake of ourselves, but rather that we should live in accordance with virtue for its own sake.

The paradox of happiness

Still, we might wonder whether there is a qualified form of the egoist worry still lurking in the vicinity. What about the person who is not yet happy, but has happiness as their goal? Surely they will work in order to acquire this happiness for themselves, and so even if for a short while they will have to act for the sake of gaining happiness for themselves?

In order to see why even this qualified form of the worry is misplaced, we must reflect briefly on how virtues are actually acquired. In the second book of the Ethics, Aristotle says the following:

… the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, eg. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. (NE II.1, 1103a31–1103b2)

Note that justice, temperance, and bravery are here being used as representative virtues to make a point about virtues in general, namely that we acquire them by repeatedly acting in accordance with them. That is, we acquire virtues by habituating ourselves into them through repeated practice. And like any skill, it is not merely practice that is important but proper practice, since if I practice incorrectly then I will form bad habits rather than good ones:

… it is from the same causes and by the same means that every virtue is both produced and destroyed, and similarly every art; for it is from playing the lyre that both good and bad lyre-players are produced. And the corresponding statement is true of builders and of all the rest; men will be good or bad builders as a result of building well or badly. For if this were not so, there would have been no need of a teacher, but all men would have been born good or bad at their craft. This, then, is the case with the virtues also; by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and by being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly. The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances. (NE II.1, 1103b7–21)

Applying this to what we’ve previously concluded, then, happiness can only be acquired by practicing it properly, which requires doing virtuous actions for their own sake. Paradoxically, then, if we do virtuous actions in order to achieve happiness for ourselves then we will never achieve that happiness, since by repeatedly doing virtuous things for the sake of ourselves we would not get any better at doing them for their own sake, as is required for happiness. In fact, it is worse than this, for not only would we not be training ourselves in happiness, but we would actively be training ourselves in things that are contrary to it!

So, then, even the person who is not yet happy but who has happiness as their chief end would not be served by doing virtuous actions as a means to acquiring happiness for themselves, for this will only frustrate their ability to acquire it. Rather, they should aim as far as possible to do virtuous actions for their own sake, and over time they will train themselves to this consistently across all dimensions of their lives, and as a result become happy.

In what sense happiness is a goal

But this “paradox of happiness” might seem to go too far. Surely, we might protest, there is some sense in which our happiness is something we strive for, an end toward which we can make progress? Indeed there is, and in working this out we will make sense of a thread of Aristotle’s thought that we have been ignoring up until now.

The relevant sense is made possible because we have the ability for self-reflection, whereby we can think about the kind of person we are as well as the kind of person we want to be. Given this, we can introduce a distinction between first-order desires, which are the everyday desires we have that don’t require self-reflection, and higher-order desires, which are the self-reflective desires we have about the kind of person we want to be and the kinds of desires we want to have.5 For example, we might choose to hang out with friends because of a first-order desire for companionship, or to eat particular foods because of a first-order desire for certain tastes, or to go to a doctor because of a first-order desire for health. On the other hand, a recovering alcoholic might have a (higher-order) desire to be rid of their very strong (first-order) desire for alcohol. Or, when asked why they are honest to their friends someone might say, “because that’s the kind of friend I want to be.”

In fact, this last example is a special case of the more general way in which we can aim at our own happiness. The person who is honest because that’s the kind of friend they want to be is not desiring honesty for selfish reasons, quite the opposite — it’s because they value honesty and their friends so highly that they want the former to be characteristic of how they interact with the latter. More generally, someone’s higher-order desire of a virtue for themselves is perfectly consistent with their first-order desire of that virtue for its own sake. More than this, the higher-order desire is often a natural outworking of the first-order desire. For instance, upon learning to appreciate a virtue for its own sake, we might develop a higher-order desire to never lose sight of this, to never fall back into the state when we fail to see the virtue for all its worth. In this case the higher-order desire maintains and perhaps even strengthens the first-order desire of the virtue for its own sake.

This situation clearly avoids the paradox of happiness we outlined above. Once we come to see that the person who is happy in Aristotle’s sense is indeed living and fairing the best, then we will come to desire to be the kind of person who acts in accordance with virtue for its own sake. And this higher-order desire will drive us to continually practice such action, to the point that we become proficient in it, and thereby achieve happiness. And having achieved it, we will also have the higher-order desires that help us to maintain it, desires to have first-order desires for acting virtuously for its own sake.

Now, Aristotle doesn’t speak in exactly these terms, but he does speak in a way that amounts to roughly the same thing. In order to see this, notice that when we have a higher-order desire for our own well-being and happiness, we put ourselves in effectively the same position as someone distinct from us who has a first-order desire for our well-being and happiness. And for Aristotle, the desire for the well-being and happiness of other people is the focus of politics.6 So, while he may not discuss the distinction between first- and higher-order desires, he gets at the same thing when he discusses politics. In order for us to appreciate the relevance of this to his discussion on ethics, it is crucially important that we understand the relationship between the two topics. In modern thought, politics is often disconnected from ethics, but for Aristotle the two are intimately connected. Indeed, right at the beginning of the Ethics, when discussing the importance of studying the chief good of human life, Aristotle says this:

Will not the knowledge of [the chief human good], then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and what each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, eg. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences; and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the human good.

His point is that since politics governs all human activities to some degree or another, it must be aimed at something that includes all of these activities, namely the activity of human life itself. So while in modern times we tend to separate the study of ethics and politics, Aristotle’s Ethics explores what politics aims at, while his Politics explores how to best achieve this. Indeed, as he continues, it is clear that he is interested in the study of ethics precisely because of its close connection to politics:

For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states. These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is political science, in one sense of that term. (NE I.2, 1094a23–1094b11)

This lends credence to our interpretation of Aristotle. Our switching between first- and higher-order desires parallels his switching between the desires of the general human and the desires of the student of politics. In fact, once we recognize this parallel we see him say the precise equivalent of what we’ve said above:

… political science spends most of its pains on making the citizens to be of a certain character, namely, good and capable of noble acts. (NE I.9, 1099b30–31)

Given what we’ve seen up until now, this statement amounts to saying that the proper way to think of our happiness (or chief good) is to strive, by means of higher-order desires, to be the kind of person who does, as a result of first-order desires, virtuous (or good) actions for their own sake (noble). Which is just what we’ve been saying.

Conclusion

With this we are finished with our investigation into Aristotle’s claim that happiness is the ultimate goal of human life. According to his account of happiness, life is about doing virtuous things for their own sake, and even when happiness is something we strive for, it is as a result of a higher-order desire to be the kind of person that does virtuous things for their own sake. Thus, when properly understood, Aristotle’s ethics does not make life a self-centered endeavor, but a pursuit of things intrinsically worthy of pursuit.


  1. For a detailed discussion, see Christine Korsgaard, Aristotle’s Function Argument, section 4.
  2. Our account of what it means for a virtue to be complete raises the question of how complete virtues relate to cardinal virtues. Aristotle doesn’t use the cardinal virtues as an organizing principle, and it seems that we should rather take to be complete those virtues that explicitly names and discusses, which include the cardinal virtues but are not co-extensive with them. This notwithstanding, he is clearly cognizant of the cardinal virtues and recognizes their importance: he dedicates an entire book to justice (NE V), his go-to moral virtues are justice, temperance, and fortitude, and his discussion of intellectual virtues (NE VI) has practical wisdom (or prudence) as the primary virtue of the intellect regarding action.
  3. There is some debate over how best to translate the underlying Greek word, with the two most common options being “noble” or “beautiful.” And there is also some discussion over what exactly nobility (or beauty) is. Whether it consists in something being worthy of pursuit for its own sake (as I think it does) or whether being worthy of pursuit is a consequence of nobility, it does not affect our discussion here. My own view is that nobility, honor, and love are all related to one another. Love is the orientation of the will toward something desired for its own sake, honor is the recognition of the intellect that something is worth pursuing for its own sake, and nobility is that feature of the object that makes it the proper object of love and honor.
  4. For example, with noble, “brave men act for the sake of the noble” (NE III.8 1116b30), “the appetitive element in a temperate man should harmonize with reason; for the noble is the mark at which both aim” (NE III.12, 1119b15), “virtuous actions are noble and done for the sake of the noble” (NE IV.1 1120a23). And with pursuit for its own sake, “while making has an end other than itself, action cannot; for good action itself is its end” (NE VI.5, 1140b6–7), “some people who do just acts are not necessarily just, ie. those who do the acts ordained by the laws either unwillingly or owing to ignorance or for some other reason and not for the sake of the acts themselves” (NE VI.12, 1144a16). And the close connection between the two is evident in book seven, when upon saying that some “appetites and pleasures… belong to the class of things generically noble and good” he starts his explanation saying, “for some pleasant things are by nature worthy of choice” (NE VII.4, 114a22).
  5. For an interesting discussion and account of first- and higher-order desires, see Eleonore Stump, Sanctification, Hardening of the Heart, and Frankfurt’s Concept of Free Will.
  6. As he explicitly states: “The true student of politics, too, is thought to have studied virtue above all things; for he wishes to make his fellow students good and obedient to the laws.” (NE I.13, 1102a8–9)

Aristotle and the egoist worry (part 1)

Aristotle famously held that happiness is the ultimate goal of human life, or — to use language more in keeping with Aristotle — that happiness is the chief good and last end of human life:

Let us resume our inquiry and state… what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness. (NE I.4, 1095a14–19)

Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action. (NE I.7, 1097b20)

Happiness… is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing in the world… for all these properties belong to the best activities; and these, or one — the best — of these, we identify with happiness. (NE I.9, 1099a24–30)

But if our happiness is the aim of everything that we do, does that not make Aristotle an ethical egoist? That is, does Aristotle think that everything we do ultimately is done for the sake of ourselves? We will call this the “egoist worry,” and in this post and the next we will see how Aristotle’s account of happiness manages to avoid it. This first post will lay the necessary ground work and context for his account, so that the next post can unpack the account and explore some consequences of it.

Activities, goods, and ends

As we discussed in detail a few years ago, on the first page of his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle delineates the core notions that he will be exploring in what follows, and notes the varieties of ways these notions relate to one another.

He starts by saying that every activity, action, pursuit, choice, or inquiry is done for the sake of some good, and that therefore the good is that for the sake of which things are done. Now, when Aristotle uses the term “good” here he is not simply talking about moral goodness, but about goodness in general, as when we say that ice-cream is good, or that a chair is well-made (“well” being the adverb for “good”), or that a particular orchestra performance or movie is good. Nor is his conclusion that there is some one thing that is the goal of every activity, but rather that the good is the concept that picks out at the broadest level why we aim at the things that we do. In other words, the goodness of something is what makes it worthy of pursuit, what causes you to desire it. There are many different kinds of goods, depending on what activity we’re interested in, and Aristotle lists some examples in what follows: medicine is aimed at health, strategy at victory, and shipbuilding at a vessel. The point is that the good in each case is the reason for which the pursuit is done, it is the end of each activity.

Aristotle proceeds to talk about something we’ve recently discussed at length, namely the two fundamental ways that an activity can be related to the end for which it is done. He says that “a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them.” That is, sometimes an activity is identical to its end and is therefore desired for its own sake, or it is distinct from its end and therefore desired for the sake of something else. We call the former immanent activities and the latter transient activities.

Now, when an activity is done for some good, we can ask whether that good itself is desired for its own sake or for the sake of some further good. For instance, I study (activity) in order to pass the test (good), so that I can pass the year (further good), so that I can get a job (further good), so that I can make money (further good), and so on. A good might also be desired for its own sake, as when I am honest with a friend simply because it’s the right thing to do, or when an orchestra performs a musical piece with no aim to making any money. Aristotle calls a good which is desired for its own sake a chief good, and notes that every chain of desires will eventually lead to a chief good.1 Furthermore, since the good of an activity is the end for which it is done, the chief good of an activity is the last or final end for which it is done. And just as the good is not meant to be understood as a single good for all activities, neither is the chief good understood as a single chief good for all activities. The honesty and orchestra performance we just mentioned are two different chief goods, and, of the goods Aristotle mentioned earlier, victory could easily be the chief good of strategy and health the chief good of medicine.

The chief good of human life

Having introduced the notions of good and chief good, and having discussed how they relate to one another and the activities that are done for their sake, Aristotle notes how important it would be for us to investigate the chief good of human life:

Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? (NE I.2, 1094a23–24)

And in fact, this is the focus of the Ethics from here on out. After a brief digression on the nature and limits of the study of ethics, he notes that there is general agreement about what the chief end of human life is called but not necessarily what it consists in:

Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and faring well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure, wealth, or honor; they differ, however, from one another — and often even the same man identifies it with different things, with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor; but, conscious of their ignorance, they admire those who proclaim some great thing that is above their comprehension… (NE I.4, 1095a16–26, emphasis added)

Notice that this is the polar opposite of how we approach happiness in our everyday lives, since we usually start with an idea of what happiness is and then do our best to achieve that. But when we want to investigate happiness, such an approach won’t do. Accordingly, at this point in the Ethics happiness is not the name of something we already know, but a placeholder for our chief good that we have yet to figure out.

What happiness is not

After another brief digression on methodology, Aristotle considers various common proposals for what happiness is, and rejects each one. Happiness can’t only be about pleasure, he says, since this would reduce us to slaves of our tastes and make us no different from the beasts. It can’t be about money-making either, since wealth is merely useful and properly desired only for the sake of something else, which would go contrary to happiness being the chief good of human life. And it can’t just be about honor, “since it is thought to depend on those who bestow honor rather than on him who receives it, but the good we divine to be something of one’s own and not easily taken from one.”

But we could modify this honor proposal slightly to avoid this criticism: instead of saying that happiness is about being honored by others, what if it were about the underlying reason that people honor others, namely the virtue that they possess? The word “virtue” has different connotations today than it did in ancient Greek thought. For philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, a virtue is a quality of something that enables it to perform an action well.2 Sturdiness is a virtue of a chair, for instance, because it enables it to hold us up without collapsing under our weight. This modified proposal, then, says that happiness is about having the appropriate virtues with which we can do various things well. But, Aristotle says,

… even this appears somewhat incomplete; for possession of virtue seems actually compatible with being asleep, or with lifelong inactivity, and, further, with the greatest sufferings and misfortunes; but a man who was living so no one would call happy, unless he were maintaining a thesis at all costs. (NE I.5, 1095b31–1096a3)

Evidently he thinks this virtue proposal has some merit, but that there is still some important nuance missing.

The only view he does not reject is the contemplative life, which he promises to consider in more detail later. Ultimately, he will accept this account, but we will only see the details of this at the end of the Ethics. Why, we may ask, does it take him ten books to come back to it if he already mentions it right at the beginning? Because there are different ways the contemplative life can look, and he doesn’t want his proposal to be confused with forms of this answer that he finds unacceptable. His immediate goal is to give a rough outline of happiness which we will gradually fill in with details throughout the Ethics, so as to arrive at a comprehensive account of the happy life and the role contemplative activity plays within it.

Notice that by now Aristotle has already rejected the understandings of happiness that are most prevalent these days, and which to some extent motivate the egoist worry. If happiness were about pleasure, honor, or wealth, then it would be very easy to see why we should take Aristotle to be an egoist for saying that it is the ultimate goal of human life. But if it is not about these things, then the intuitions behind the egoist worry are somewhat undermined. Not so as to be totally removed, mind you, for Aristotle might yet propose something that is just as self-centered as these; but his rejection of these proposals should give us enough pause to listen more carefully to what he has to say.

The “chiefest” and self-sufficient good

After another digression — this time a more lengthy one on the Platonic Form of the Good — Aristotle returns again to his investigation into happiness. After giving a brief recap of the key notions he outlined at the beginning of the book he notes that happiness must have two features if it is to be the chief good of human life. (In a way, you could see this as a more systematic discussion of the reasons he rejected the earlier proposals.)

First, happiness must be the most chief — or the “chiefest” — good. Every chief good is desirable for its own sake, but some chief goods can also be desired for the sake of something else beyond themselves. For instance, being honest is desirable for its own sake, but it can often also be desirable for other reasons, such as avoiding embarrassment or as a way to prove your trustworthiness. The chiefest good, on the other hand, is something always desirable for its own sake and never for the sake of something else:

Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that through them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself. (NE I.7, 1097b1–7)

We’ve said that the good of an activity is the end for which it is done, and the chief good of an activity is the final (or last) end for which it is done. The chiefest good, then, would be the most final end, or as Aristotle says, the end which is final without qualification.

The second feature that happiness must have is self-sufficiency. By this we do not mean that the happy person lives a solitary life, as if happiness would have no place for friends or family. After all, humans are social animals and thrive most fully within community; or as Aristotle says, “man is born for citizenship.” Rather, when we say that happiness is self-sufficient, we mean that it by itself “makes life desirable and lacking in nothing,” and as such could not be made better by adding other goods. As Aristotle notes, the self-sufficiency of happiness is a consequence of its being the chiefest good, since if some good X could be made better by adding some other good Y, then either X or Y could be desired for the sake of having both X and Y together. But the chiefest good is never desired for the sake of something else, and therefore cannot be made better by the addition of some other good.

Thus, as we saw in the second quote of this post, happiness “is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.” But, says Aristotle, “to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is is still desired.” (NE I.7, 1097b20–22). Aristotle recognizes that merely giving these two features of happiness does not amount to a proposal of his own. At best he’s given the two requirements that any satisfactory proposal of happiness must fulfill. Accordingly, he proceeds to his own proposal, which we will discuss in detail in the next post.


  1. The argument that Aristotle gives parenthetically in the Nicomachean Ethics is based on the premise that essentially ordered (or per se) series always have an ultimate member, in this case an ultimate reason for action. At the end of the post mentioned earlier I listed a number of resources which further unpack and defend this premise, but since then I have also written up my own defense of it.
  2. As Aristotle explicitly states later as a premise in an argument, “… any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate virtue…” (NE I.7, 1098a14–15)

Notes on the Genesis Prologue and Leviticus

I don’t have a track record for writing blog posts particularly frequently, but even if we take this into account my output over the past few months has been less than usual. The reason for this is that I’ve been working on bigger projects, two of which I’d like to share here. I lead a weekly Bible study, wherein we do our best to unpack what the Bible has to say and develop a biblically-informed worldview. Since the beginning of last year, we have gone through a number of different studies, but for two of them I ended up writing extensive notes. Both sets of notes are in their predraft phase, and have been made available as pages on this site (you can access them from the bar at the top).

The notes on the Genesis prologue cover the first eleven chapters of Genesis, and are structured similarly to John Walton’s The Lost World of X series, where each section focuses on the defense of a particular conclusion. The notes on Leviticus cover the entire book of Leviticus in about five studies, together with an introduction and an appendix. I learnt a lot from both, and I hope that by sharing them others might also learn something about these two very important parts of the bible.

Natural law vs the moral argument

Up until recently, I had thought that natural law theory was compatible with moral arguments formulated as follows:

  1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Moral arguments of this kind have been made popular by defenders such as CS Lewis and William Lane Craig, and this specific formulation comes from the latter. In a post from a few years ago I explained my position on the compatibility of this with natural law theory as follows:

I think technically we can still use [the argument] as [formulated above], but we must recognise that it is partly dependent upon something like the fifth way for its soundness. At the end of the day I think much moral debate can be had without reference to God, since it is based on what is knowable about our nature. But ultimately I think any viable ethics depends on God, including natural law. (section 4.1)

This is admittedly not giving much credit to the argument, but I have since realized that even this weak support for the moral argument is misplaced. It seems to me that once we clarify the above formulation, the first premise will be seen to be incompatible with natural law theory, or at least some increasingly popular versions of it.

To start on the more technical side of things, the first premise should be understood as a non-trivially true counterfactual with an impossible antecedent (see here for details):

1′. If God did not exist, then objective moral values and duties would not exist.

So far there is still no obvious incompatibility with natural law theory, but we can go further. Presumably, if we are running this argument, then we think that there is something special about moral values and duties that calls out for a theistic explanation. That is, we are not interested in the general fact that anything whatsoever exists, but particularly the fact that moral values and duties exist. If this were not the case, then wouldn’t really be running a moral argument at all, but would instead be running a cosmological argument.

The point of the first premise, then, is that we finite agents are not sufficient to account for objective moral standards, and so the presence of such standards would imply the existence of God. This suggests that another way of stating the first premise is as follows:

1*. If we were to exist without God, then objective moral values and duties would not exist.

(Those of us who are convinced that God is required to account for any existence should also read this as a non-trivially true counterfactual with an impossible antecedent.)

Apart from the reasoning that got us here, further confirmation that (1*) captures the intent of (1) comes from how the premise is often defended. Consider, for instance, the following quote from Craig:

If there is no God, then any ground for regarding the herd morality evolved by homo sapiens as objectively true seems to have been removed. After all, what is so special about human beings? They are just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. Some action, say, incest, may not be biologically or socially advantageous and so in the course of human evolution has become taboo; but there is on the atheistic view nothing really wrong about committing incest. If, as Kurtz states, “The moral principles that govern our behavior are rooted in habit and custom, feeling and fashion,” then the non-conformist who chooses to flout the herd morality is doing nothing more serious than acting unfashionably. (William Lane Craig, The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality)

Notice that this line of argument envisions a world where we exist without God, and puzzles over where moral values and duties are supposed to come from in such a world.

Now, while natural law theory may not pose any obvious problem for (1) or (1′), once we recognize that these amount to (1*) the problem becomes clear. The whole burden of a natural law theory is to ground moral truths in the natures of things, and having the nature that we do is part of what it means for us to exist. In the world described by (1*), then, the fact that we still exist with natures means that we still have objective moral duties and values even though God is not in the picture — at least from the perspective of natural law.

Of course, the exact details of this will differ depending on the version of natural law theory we consider. On Platonism these natures will be unchanging Forms in some third realm, on Aristotelianism they are intrinsic teleologies in things, and the new natural lawyers focus more on the nature of practical reason than on the natures of things. And each of these has variants within it. Some versions of Platonism equate the Forms with divine ideas, so that taking God out of the picture will take out natures with him. But other versions have God completely separate, meaning that natures stay even after God is removed.

Thomistic natural law theory is of the Aristotelian variety and is the version I find most compelling. On the one hand, it agrees with Aristotle that morality is fundamentally grounded in the intrinsic teleology built into us by virtue of the natures we have. On the other hand, contrary to Aristotle, it says that this intrinsic teleology still depends on God. Mind you, not in a way that makes it distinct from our nature, as if our teleology could in any way be separated from what we are. Rather, it is by creating and sustaining us as the kinds of creatures we are that God upholds the intrinsic teleology that fundamentally grounds morality. Of course, the details of this are quite complicated, but the point is that on the Thomistic view our intrinsic teleology is not mutually exclusive with God being the cause of our nature.

This brings us back to (1*). This premise asks us to consider the world where per impossible God does not exist and yet we still do. Because in such a world we still exist, we also still have natures and the intrinsic teleology which fundamentally grounds morality. This remains true even our natures arose through blind evolutionary processes since what’s important is the nature we have, not how we got it. So, in this world where we exist without God there is still the foundational morality that arises from the natural law: it is still wrong for us to lie, to murder, to steal, etc.; we still have categorical obligations, are held accountable, and have a basis for moral authorities (see section 2.4 here); we still have objective virtues and vices; actions are still objectively good and bad. Of course, there will be no duties arising from divine commands, but on natural law theories, these are in addition to the natural law, not instead of it.

So, then, for those of us who accept the Thomistic account of natural law, the moral argument we’re considering should be rejected as unsound. And I suspect the same would be true for some other versions of natural law theory, whether they be Platonic, Aristotelian, or from the new natural lawyers. It is certainly true for Aristotle’s own version, which doesn’t even construe God as the cause of our intrinsic teleology. On the other hand, there is also a lesson for those defenders of the argument who don’t accept any of these natural law accounts: a full defense of the first premise requires a thorough critique of these different natural law theories, which is no simple task. Certainly not as simple as the quote above appears. After all, natural law theories have a long pedigree in the history of Western thought.

While this objection doesn’t affect all moral arguments, it is noteworthy because the version it does affect is quite common. The argument might still have apologetic value insofar as it could convince someone who already rejects natural law, but such a rhetorical strategy makes me somewhat uneasy.

Self-perfective immanent activity

At the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes two ways an activity can be related to the end for which that activity is done: either the activity is distinct from its end, or they are the same. We call those activities that are distinct from their ends transient and those that are the same immanent.

Now, because an activity can be done for a variety of reasons, it’s possible that sometimes it is transient and other times that it is immanent. For example, a paradigmatic example of transient activity is the building of an object, like a chair or house. In the paradigmatic case, you perform the activity for the sake of having the object, and since the object itself is distinct from the activity that brings it into being it follows that the activity is transient. But in another instance, you may not necessarily build a chair for the sake of the chair, but simply because you enjoy the process itself — perhaps you’ll break the chair down again after you’re done, so that you can rebuild it again tomorrow. In this case, the same underlying activity is now immanent. The upshot of this is that while we speak of the activity being transient or immanent, it’s really the activity considered with respect to a particular end that is transient or immanent. If we keep the activity but change the end, then we might also change between transience and immanence.

Moreover, there is a sense in which the distinction between transience and immanence is really between two ends of a spectrum rather than a dichotomy. To see this, imagine building a chair for the sake of developing skill in carpentry. There’s a sense in which this is transient, since the skill exercised in an activity — and future activities of the same sort — is not the same as the activity itself. But even so, the skill of an activity surely has more in common with that activity than the completely separate object it produces. So, we might say that building something for the sake of developing skill is more transient than building something for the enjoyment of building while being more immanent than building something in order simply to have that thing.

Speaking paradigmatically, then, the building of an object is a good example of a transient activity. A good example of an immanent activity, on the other hand, is the musical performance by an orchestra. In this latter case, the orchestra doesn’t perform in order to produce something at the end of it all, but simply for its own sake.

Interestingly, there are other immanent activities which seem qualitatively different from the orchestra performance, and our aim here is to give an account of this difference. The first example that jumps to mind is the activity of life in a living thing — life is, after all, a continual activity that a living thing is engaged in until it dies, and is immanent insofar as it is concerned with developing and sustaining the living thing. Another simpler example is the activity of learning, insofar as learning some things now enables me to learn other things later.

The main difference between the immanent activities that we’ve mentioned so far is that living and learning both involve a feedback loop of sorts, where earlier actions in the activity can enable or hinder later ones. If I start with learning correct things then this sets me up to learn more correct things later, but if I am taught mistaken information then this will hinder with my ability to learn correct things later — or, as Aristotle and Aquinas said, a small error in the beginning will lead to a large error in the end.[1] Something similar could be said for life, although in this case there are many feedback loops that we could consider. To take a simple one, if I eat improperly then this can interfere with my ability to eat food that is good for me, which in severe cases can even lead to things like refeeding syndrome. Or, again, if I damage my legs to the point where I can’t use them anymore, then moving myself to food and drink becomes more difficult.

Now, orchestra performances do not involve feedback loops of the kind we see in living and learning. Certainly what happens earlier in the performance will influence what should happen later in the performance, as the orchestra reacts to tempo changes or unplanned off-keys. In fact, such influence will occur even if everything is going exactly as planned, since the performance itself depends on the proper ordering of the actions within it. The difference here, though, is that earlier actions in the performance will not enable or hinder any musician’s ability to act later in the performance: the cellist playing a certain set of notes will not affect the violinist’s ability to play the violin.

In order to give an account of this difference between immanent activities, we must start with an account of activities in general which is expressive enough for us to point out where the difference lies. And indeed, we can give such an account: an activity is the measured exercise of powers for the sake of some end, where the end for which the activity is done determines the appropriate measure. A thing’s powers are what determine what it can and can’t do, and whenever that thing engages in an activity it does so by exercising its powers. The end for which the activity is done determines how and when those powers are to be used, which is what we refer to as their measured exercise. Thus, we can distinguish between three things: the activity, its end, and its powers.

We’ve already said that the difference between immanent and transient activities lies in the unity of the activity with its end: they are the same in immanent activities but distinct in transient activities. Going a step further, we can see that the difference between the two kinds of immanent activities that we’ve been discussing lies in the unity of the activity with its powers: either the activity influences its own powers, for better or worse, or it doesn’t. The orchestra performance does not affect the powers by which it exists, but the activities of living and learning include within themselves the development and sustenance of their powers.

Now, if the activity consists in the exercise of its powers, then what is happening when it influences its powers like this? To answer this we borrow a series of distinctions from Kenny: a power can be distinguished from its possessor, its vehicle, and its exercise.[2] The possessor is the thing (or things) that has the power, and the exercise is the manifestation of the power in a particular context.[3] The vehicle of the power is that feature (or features) of the possessor which grounds the power by providing the components used in its exercise. To give an example, I am the possessor of the power to walk, which I exercise whenever I use my legs to move, and the vehicle of which includes the bone and muscle structures in my leg together with the relevant parts of my nervous system. And the vehicle of a musician’s power to play an instrument includes their skill in playing that instrument, the relevant body parts, and the instrument itself. Influencing the vehicle of a power will influence the possessor’s ability to exercise that power, for better or worse, which is precisely what happens when an activity influences its own powers. When I stub my toe while walking, for instance, I hinder my power to walk by damaging a part of the vehicle of that power. And when I do physical exercise, I enable my power to walk by developing the strength of that vehicle.

All of this helps us see more clearly the difference between the immanent activities we’ve been considering. The orchestra performance does not affect the vehicles of the powers of the musicians to play their instruments, but what we choose to do in our life can and does affect the vehicles of the powers we exercise when living, causing our muscles to strengthen or weaken, our blood pressure to raise or lower, and so on.

Oderberg has called the latter class of immanent activity self-perfective, where the sense of perfection is that of completedness or wholeness or actualization rather than of moral perfection.[4] Self-perfective immanent activities are immanent activities which are unified with the powers that underlie them so that part of the activity is the further enablement of those powers. We might wonder, could there be an immanent activity which is done for the sake of hindering its powers rather than enabling them? Reflecting on what we’ve already said we can see that there could not: an immanent activity is done for its own sake and consists in the exercise of its powers. Thus, the hindrance of those powers would go contrary to that activity, and so if it were done for the sake of this hindrance the activity would both be done for its own sake and against its own sake, which is absurd.

Of course, this is not to say that a self-perfective immanent activity always succeeds in enabling its powers, for any number of things could cause it to fail to one degree or another. But in order to fail, you are nevertheless still aiming at the goal you failed to achieve, which is the point. Moreover, what it means for an activity to enable its own powers cannot be divorced from the appropriate measure of those powers. For example, part of human development is an increase in height, but it’s not as if increasing your height is always better for your life as a human. At some point, increasing your height will hinder your ability to live well.

Notes

  1. Paraphrased from the opening of Aquinas’s On Being and Essence, himself citing Aristotle’s On the Heavens and the Earth.
  2. I got this from Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics (p. 45), who was citing Kenny’s The Metaphysics of Mind (pp. 73-74).
  3. For a detailed discussion of this, see Oderberg’s Finality Revived: Powers and Intentionality.
  4. See Oderberg’s Teleology: Inorganic and Organic.

 

Review of The Dictionary of Christianity and Science

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book so that I could do this review.

The question about the proper relationship between science and religion has a long history in Western thought, going back to at least as far as the fifth century with St. Augustine. Over the centuries Christians have approached this question in a number of different ways and from various different angles, with new approaches being developed all the time. This overabundance of ideas can make it difficult for the layperson, the apologist, or the theologian to know where to start when it comes to answering their own questions about how science relates to Christianity, and what options others have proposed.

To those who are in this situation, or who are simply interested in the intersection of science and the Christian religion, The Dictionary of Christianity and Science will prove to be a very useful resource. It aims to be the definitive reference on these questions, and having spent some time with it I can say that it seems up to the task. The editors have clearly given careful thought about who they asked to contribute to the book. Some notable contributors are James Hannam, author of The Genesis of Science and God’s Philosophers; Craig Keener, new testament scholar and author of the voluminous Miracles; and Michael Murray, philosopher and author of the Nature Red in Tooth and Claw. Reading over the list of all the contributors and their credentials at the beginning of the book, one can’t help but anticipate a well-researched and helpful discussion of a wide variety of topics. And what follows does not disappoint.

The word “dictionary” in the book’s title might give the false impression that its only aim is to outline the meanings of words. Really, each entry is one of three kinds. There are introductions, which most resemble normal encyclopedia entries in giving a brief explanation of a particular topic. Then there are essays, which are much more long-form entries, giving the contributor space to unpack some specifics of the topic. And finally, there are multi-view discussions, which have different contributors defending contrasting views on a particular topic. We will have more to say about this third kind below.

Breadth and depth

By far the most impressive feature of the book is the variety of topics and views it is able to include. At the broadest level, we see topics including the early chapters of Genesis, the ancient Mesopotamian flood accounts, the hominid fossil record, the nature of explanation, the mind-body problem, life after death, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, epigenetics, the multiverse, the image of God, and infinity. Peppered between these are entries on important figures in scientific or philosophical thought, such as Kant, Leibniz, Polkinghorne, Aristotle, Einstein, and Hawking.

As we zoom into more specific groups of topics, there continues to be significant variety, with entries covering theme from many angles. The group of topics surrounding the early chapters of Genesis, for example, are covered by separate entries on Adam and Eve, the age of the universe, the role of genealogies, interpretations of the days of creation, interpretations of the Genesis flood, the serpent in the garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, and more.

The individual entries themselves are very well written and in-depth; and while this may be easier for the essays and multi-view discussions to achieve, the shorter introductions also succeed in this. Each of the contributors has put a lot of effort into conveying the important points of each topic, giving the reader a good idea of how it fits together. And after every entry, there is a list of references and recommended reading, so that the interested reader can delve more deeply into the relevant literature on that topic.

Multi-view discussions

Of the three types of entry, the multi-view discussions differ the most from typical dictionary entries. I was very pleased that the editors thought to include these, because some topics can only be fully understood when they are discussed in a debate where alternative perspectives are defended. And indeed, the way the multi-view discussions are handled in the present book does, for the most part, enable this to happen.

An interesting decision made by the editors is that the contributors for these multi-view discussions would not see each other’s contributions before writing their own. Now, for many of the discussions, this poses no problem at all. This is because the major points of disagreement between the represented views are well-known, and since each contributor is cognizant of this they endeavor to say something about them. The result in these cases is a very helpful contrast of the different views on the particular topic, without the drawback of one the views being given the “final say” on the matter.

Sometimes, however, things do not go so smoothly, as with the entry on divine action, which has two views represented. The concursus view, defended by Robert Bishop, holds that God continually works in and through natural causes, rather than winding up creation like a clockwork machine that is left to run by itself. While the engaged-governance view, defended by Jeffrey Koperski, holds that God can work miraculously in creation without undermining or violating the laws of nature. These views are not alternatives to one another, since they focus on different aspects of God’s action: the first affirms that God generally acts in creation by sustaining and concurring with it, and the second affirms that God can and does act specially in creation without violating its integrity. Indeed, each of these entries the contributor affirms the truth of the other view in a passing comment!

Now, I hasten to add that this problem of talking past one another is not a common one. Far more often than not the multi-view discussions provide a healthy contrast of opposing views on the topic. I mention it only in the interest of a thorough review. I can, however, propose that in future editions the topic of a multi-view discussion be specified more clearly. This could be achieved by giving each of the contributors a brief description of what is meant by the title of the entry. Or it could be achieved by giving them suggested key points to touch on during their discussion. Or it might be sufficient to simply disambiguate the topic in the entry name itself, so that rather than there being an entry on divine action there could be separate entries on general divine action and special divine action.

Topics included

I’ve already mentioned that the book covers an impressive number of topics, but I was quite pleased to see the value of casting such a wide net when deciding which topics to include. For instance, Michael Murray’s entry on animal pain discusses the problem of reconciling the reality of suffering in the animal kingdom with a good and powerful God. In the course of this, he references work in neuroscience and the role evolutionary biology might play in developing an explanation of this suffering. Thus, the entry is an example of how scientific work might be deployed to answer a theological and moral question. This and other entries like it show us that there is more to the relationship between religion and science than the resolution of conflict.

Some topics covered are less directly related to modern scientific notions, but paint a picture of science as an ongoing and developing human enterprise. So, there is an entry on human dissection which discusses the role the medieval church played in it and how it developed over the centuries. There is an entry on alchemy which discusses its principles and aims as well as its relation to the development of chemistry. And there is an entry on just-so stories which discusses the origins of the term and how it gets used by scientists to refer to overly-speculative hypotheses.

I wonder, however, if the net was cast just a bit too wide, with some entries seeming out of place. For instance, there is an entry on natural law theory, a family of meta-ethical views on how ethics is grounded. While the entry is well-written, I struggle to see its relevance to the question of Christianity and science, apart from having the words “natural” and “law” in its name. I found no entry on divine command theory (another popular meta-ethical view), so it doesn’t seem as though the editors thought meta-ethics as such warranted inclusion. Other examples of entries that seemed out of place were the one on the incarnation and the one on the trinity, both of which seemed more relevant to the broader question of the coherence of Christianity than its relationship to science. Fortunately, these out-of-place entries are few and far between, and for the most part, the wide casting of the net did not come at the expense of relevance.

Cross-referencing

Any good reference book should enable readers to cross-reference effectively, so that they can properly explore the topics covered within. This is all the more important for a book that covers as many topics as the present one, and the editors were evidently cognizant of this. As you read through any entry, the words or phrases that make up the title of another entry are set in bold, to signal to the reader which of the ideas covered in the entry have further information elsewhere in the book.

One thing that might be worth adding in a future edition would be entries which have the sole purpose of linking to other entries on the same topic under a different title. This would make it easier to find an entry on a topic which a reader might know by a different name to the one the book uses. I experienced this when trying to find the entry on animal pain, which I only managed to find after looking for entries on animal suffering, then suffering, animal, then pain, animal, and then suffering, problem of. Not all topics would admit of multiple names like this, but for those which do these “pointer” entries would make them easier to find.

Conclusion

The Dictionary of Christianity and Science is a valuable resource for the layperson, the scientist, the apologist, and the theologian. It collects the effort of many experts walking the reader through a vast array of topics related to the questions surrounding Christianity and science. With the multi-view discussions, it introduces readers to ongoing debates on various topics, while at the same time using these debates to define key terms and ideas within those topics. I can recommend it without hesitation to anyone interested in exploring this question that has been with us for centuries, and will probably continue to be with us in the centuries to come.

A simple matter made complex

Alice: I just bought a shelf from Ikea.

Bob: Strictly speaking, you bought the matter of a shelf from Ikea.

Alice: Well, that’s the thing that matters, isn’t it? 😛

Bob: Not really, since it’s the form that makes the matter a shelf.

Alice: That’s a different matter entirely, I was just —

Bob: Not so, it would be the same matter, just with a different form.

Alice: I was trying to say that there’s no disagreement of any substance here.

Bob: Agreed. For there to be a disagreement regarding substance, one of us would need to think the shelf had a substantial form.

Alice: No, I had something much simpler in mind.

Bob: Come now, you can’t seriously be considering whether the shelf is simple? It is evident that it must be a form-matter composite.

Alice: My point is that we’re talking in different categories.

Bob: Well, I wasn’t really thinking about the categories at all.

Alice: Yes, that was evident.