Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Philosophy Reformed Irenicism

The Four Degrees of Action

In the section on free choice (liberum arbitrium) of his “Theological Handbook” (Enchiridion theologicum), Niels Hemmingsen divides actions into four types, or “degrees” (gradus). It is a helpful analysis of the different types of action that are possible for human beings.

The first “degree” are actions we share with beasts:1

Let the first degree of actions be those that we have in great part in common with beasts, such as those that pertain to the preservation of nature or of individuals. [Actions] of this type are to rear [and] protect children, to eat, to drink, to clothe oneself, to build, to be watchful, to sleep, to go, to stand, to sit, and other things of this type.

The second “degree” are actions that pertain to reason [ratio], and thus are actions not shared with beasts.

The second degree embraces the actions of reason, of which some are common, some private, some political, some domestic. [Actions] of this type are to conduct the business of the magistrate, to serve, to make use of contracts, to cultivate fields, to practice the professions, to sail.

The third “degree” are ecclesiastical actions. Notice what is present here, and what is not.

The third degree belongs to ecclesiastical works, which pertain to preserving the ministry, such as: to teach the Word, to meet at this or that hour, to hear the Word, to administer the sacraments, to receive the sacraments, to use these or those ceremonies.

Those, then, are things that have to do specifically with the stated worship of the church, with the ministry of Word and sacrament in the gathered assembly (teach, hear, give, receive, meet, etc.): what we might refer to broadly as “the external.”

What he calls “divine works,” on the other hand, have to do with the inner man:

The fourth degree embraces divine works, such as: to fulfill the Law of God, to exhibit faith, to believe, to pray correctly, to love one’s enemies. Briefly, this is the degree that belongs to those works that God requires of us by his own Law, [a thing] that pertains to inner and true obedience.

  1. All translations, from pp. 71-2, are my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.