Monday, March 9, 2009

Imputation, does it really exist?

Background - Wright and Piper and the 'New Perspective on Paul'

There are two sides to the concept of "imputation," to put it crassly: the nasty and the nice. My MDiv project is focused in part on the nasty side, how everyone is sinful because Adam's sin is imputed to them. The nice side is that Jesus' righteousness is imputed to everyone who has faith. However the imputation of Jesus' righteousness to us has been all tied up in the debate about the 'New Perspective on Paul,' invented by Sanders and championed by NT Wright and Dunn among others. A generous summary of the debate is that Wright focuses on the macro picture of justification as part of God's larger plan through time and history. ( Just as circumcision, Sabbath keeping and food laws were the boundary markers of the old covenant so faith is the new covenant boundary marker.) On the other hand John Piper focuses on the micro picture of justification. (How the righteousness of Jesus is imputed to us individually.)

My sympathies are with Piper because while I acknowledge that Wright is correct in saying God justifies a bride, His whole church, justification has an individual focus demonstrated by Saul's autobiographical journey from seeking to merit as a way to God, to Paul's realisation that it is Jesus' death for his sins that makes him justified before God. Furthermore I'm concerned Wright relies too heavily on extra-biblical sources to prove that "law" in the New Testament means purely boundary markers. Furthermore the "law" is obviously used by the Apostle Paul in a much wider and more complex fashion then Wright alleges.

Books to read:

Piper in The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright carefully and graciously addresses the way in which Wright neglects the doctrine of justification. It is a little disjointed as Piper moves from critique to critique however I think this more of a reflection of how hard it is to pin Wright down despite his generally florid prose. For a short and sharp account of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to us, look no further then Piper's Counted Righteous in Christ.

Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision is one Wright's most recent books and as is being carefully blogged through by Douglas Wilson (The Presbyterian minster who recently defeated Christoper Hitchens in a debate.) over at Blog and Mablog. It has only recently arrived at Ridley Bookshop so I'm looking forward to reading it with Wilson's blog posts along side as a commentary.

The blog debate about Imputation:

A little while ago Michael Jensen on his blog was wondering if imputation is a concept explicitly attested to in the New Testament. He quoted this fellow as saying:

Well, the fact of the matter is that we cannot proof-text imputation. If we think we can cite 2 Cor 5:21, Rom 4:1-5, 1 Cor 1:30, Phil 3:6-9 and find the entire package of the imputation of Christ's active obedience and the imputation of our sin to Christ embedded in all of these texts, we are sadly mistaken...

Something in this picture makes me uncomfortable and it wasn't until I read Douglas Wilson that I could identify the full extent of the problem in down playing imputation. Wilson writes this about imputation:

Without imputation, Adam, and Jesus, and Abraham, and Douglas Wilson, and [put your name here] are all isolated and separate individuals, with distinct lives (all but one being wretched and miserable), and that have nothing to do with one another. Adam disobeyed, and what is that to me exactly? Abraham believed, and so what? Jesus died and rose, and how is that mine again? Wright wants us to tell the grand story, leaving imputation behind. But the reason Wright doesn't see imputation is that he thinks in order to exist, it needs to be a character in the novel he is reading. But it is not so much a distinct character, as it is the paper the whole thing is printed on.

[Update 9/3/09: Just to clarify, Michael comments that he was challenging the idea that imputation is explicitly taught in Scripture, not the idea of imputation.]


Al Bain said...

Luke. Steady on there. I think that Michael Jensen is absolutely right. You can't proof text imputation. (BTW although I haven't checked, I think MJ was quoting from Michael Bird's book on Pauline Theology). To my knowledge neither Jensen nor Bird deny imputation. Your quoted piece is not a denial.

But just because you can't proof text imputation does not mean that it is an invalid theological truth. You can't proof text the trinity either. I think that Bird goes on in his argument on imputation to affirm it as a theological truth.

I think that the error that some imputationeers fall into is having everything hang off it. i.e. Imputation of Christ's righteousness, in the ordo salutis, comes first and everything else follows.

I would want to argue that imputation as well as many other benefits flow from our being "in Christ."

And as for Doug Wilson's quote - I have no idea what he means. He's always been a slippery one. But, mind you, I find that most federal vision proponents are!!!

michael jensen said...

Hey, I like that Al Bain guy!

Yes, actually Wilson agrees with me (or the other way around perhaps!). He too says that the imputation is a piece of theologising inferred from the texts but none the less VITAL for that. You could say the same about PSA... the direct textual attestation, if we are honest, is not overwhelming. But once we carefully draw the texts together we find that we can't avoid it.

Andrew Bowles said...

Luke, how do you think imputation works in creating both sin and righteousness? What is the mechanism for translating the legal judgment into the reality of life? I'm thinking about this because it is the key issue in how to interpret Luther on justification properly, which is my essay topic. From what I understand, he actually argues for a real ontological union in which the righteousness of Christ is directly transferred to the believer who is united to him. Would you put it that way?

Luke said...

Thanks Al, Michael and Andrew for your comments.

Al, so we're on the same page can you define what you mean by being "in Christ."

Michael, I was confused by your original blog post and subsequent discussion, I got the impression you were downplaying imputation. Thanks for the clarification, I'll add a note to my post to more accurately reflect what you were arguing.

Andrew, Great question, I'll have to read your essay to find out! Blocher suggests some sort of tighter connection even then the representative model and uses the imagery of genetic in-grafting plus federal representation. Doug Wilson is straight representation a long the lines of federal headship. Edwards, (don't quote me) is more representative headship plus spiritual existence. In other words Edwards would argue (I gather) we exist "spiritually" (my word) as one with Adam and multiple individuals at the same time because God made the us and Adam that way. I wonder what Edwards would think of Luther's "organic fusion" language?

Al Bain said...

Luke. How much space have you got!!!

I'll just cut and paste a paragraph from an MA essay of mine to answer your question.

"Following Letham, we see that there are three ways in which union with Christ is expressed in the experience of the believer.

The first is that Christ, as the second Adam, is our representative. He obeyed God and his obedience is imputed to us by virtue of the “legal and corporate solidarity” between us and him (Rom. 5:12-21).

Secondly, we are being changed from within by the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit. Just as Christ was raised, so are we (Rom. 6:1-9; Eph. 1:18-22).

Thirdly, there is a deep personal intercommunion between us and Christ which is perhaps best described as a mutual indwelling (Jn. 14:20; 17:23). Christ lives in us and we in him. “Jesus himself draws an analogy between the mutual indwelling of the Father and the Son (in the Spirit) and that between him and his people.” Gaffin describes this mutual indwelling as “the climactic realization of [the] covenantal bond between the triune God and the church” and that “for those ‘in Christ’ this union or solidarity is all-encompassing, extending from eternity to eternity. They are united to Christ not only in their present possession of salvation but also in its past, once-for-all, accomplishment (e.g. Rom. 6:3-7; 8:1; gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:5-6; Col. 3:1-4), in their election ‘before the creation of the world’ (Eph. 1:4,9), and in their still future glorification (Rom. 8:17; 1 Cor 15:22).”

Al Bain said...

I should have given my sources.

Robert Letham, The Work of Christ (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 80.

Richard Gaffin, “Union with Christ: Some Biblical and Theological Reflections.” Pages 271 – 288 in McGowan, A. T. B., ed. Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology (Leicester: Intervarsity Press, 2006), 272.

Letham helpfully says (citing Eph. 1:3-14), “justification, sanctification, adoption and glorification are all received through our being united to Christ” and, further, that union with Christ is appropriated in our own experience through faith and repentance.

Luke said...

Al, I guess I'm still unclear about the distinction between being "in Christ" and imputation. In 1 Cor 15 the language is "in Adam" and "in Christ." (An obvious link to the implied imputation of Romans 5:12-21.)

So are you saying imputation is a subcategory of being "in Christ?"

Al Bain said...

Luke. I am not introducing a distinction. You appear to have done that. None of Christ's benefits can be reduced to a single category. But neither should they be be seen as separate events which form an ordo salutis. We get in trouble when we try to separate various gospel-wrought accomplishments.

I am saying what I said in my first post. i.e. imputation and other benefits flow from our being "in Christ." There is a logical, but not necessarily a chronological, order to our salvation. And being united to Christ has logical, but not necessarily chronological precedence.

I don't want to get into silly arguments about what comes first. I don't think Scripture does that. And I certainly don't want to say that imputation is the mothership carrying within her all of Christ's benefits.

If I were forced into a corner and asked what I think the centre of Paul's theology is - I would say that for him being "united to Christ" (i.e being "in Christ") is everything.

Where are you going in all of this?

Luke said...

I think there is a distinction in that "in Christ" is better as a catch all phrase, while imputation describes how we justified. I wouldn't want to elevate imputation beyond it's proper place, so maybe we're closer then we realise! Because my MDiv is about how Augustinian is Jonathan Edward's doctrine of Original Sin and prima facie it seems imputation will be one the key areas of divergence. Given Romans 5:12-21 it seems there are some parallels (and some great distinctions) between Adam and Christ, imputation being one of them. So that's why I'm all curious about imputation.

Al Bain said...

I'm not with you there Luke.

Again, from my essay

"Lane Tipton agrees. [ie that union with Christ logically precedes everything] He points out that believers are elected and predestined in Christ (Eph 1:4,5), die and rise with and in Christ (Eph 2:4-6; Col. 2:11-13; 3:1-4), are called in Christ (1 Cor 1:9; 2 Tim. 1:9), regenerated in Christ (Eph 2:5; Col. 2:13), justified in Christ (Rom. 8:1; Gal. 2:17; 1 Cor 1:30), sanctified in Christ (1 Cor. 6:11; Rom. 6:5ff.), persevere in Christ (Rom. 6:4; 1 Cor. 4-9; Phil. 1:6), die in Christ (1 Thess. 4:17), and will be raised and glorified in Christ (1 Cor. 15:22; Rom. 8:30). "

In other words, it is by virtue of our uninion with Christ , not our imputed righteousness that we are justified etc.

Luke said...

So you'd do away with the idea of imputation altogether?

What about the all the language of "reckoned" and "counted?" The phrase "in Christ" seems to be more a general category then a specific explanation of how through Adam we are sinners and through Christ we are righteous. (Thanks for commenting about this, it's coming up in theology at the moment at Ridley and I'm trying to get my head around it all.)

Al Bain said...

"So you'd do away with the idea of imputation altogether?"

Absolutely not. I insist on it. But I argue that en Xristo has logical precedence.

Luke said...

Sure I get you. Thanks for following this thread through. Maybe "catch all phrase" is too flippant.