Some passing thoughts on imputed righteousness

Imputation means that something is reckoned to our benefit, or, as it were, a debt paid on our behalf by someone else. The term is of Latin derivation, as puto, putare, means to think, to believe, to reckon, to value, to esteem. As a Calvinist, as a Protestant, few things were more important in my theology than imputed righteousness. The distance between God and the sinner, the state of our corruption, our inability due to our lack of original righteousness, made this doctrine a nice, tidy answer. Adam failed the test; he lost his innocence. As the federal head of the whole human race, he stood before the judgment of God as our representative, and thus passed to us not only corruption, but also guilt. We were as guilty of Adam’s sin just as if we were Adam. The law, that is, the Mosaic law, was a refined and exquisitely articulated restatement of the law given Adam. After all, were not traces of this found before Moses: the giving of tithes, the injunctions against murder, inter alia. Indeed sin, as St. John said, is a transgression of the law. When Christ comes, he comes as the second Adam. Where Adam failed, he succeeded. By His active obedience (the keeping of the law) he inherits for us righteousness, and by his passive obedience (his death) he satisfies God’s justice by being punished in our place. God then imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, that is, when he looks at the ledger of our life, he does not see our righteousness, for we have none, but sees that of Christ. Such verses as II Cor 5:21 (“For He hath made him to be sin for us who knew no sin that we might be made the righteousness of God in him”) seemed clearly to teach this.

But there are problems. Lots, in fact. For this post, only one will be addressed, and that is, that it robs the Person of the Son, the divine Logos, of being the sole mediator between God and man. For Calvinists, of course, it goes without saying that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God incarnate, and that only the God-man could provide redemption. In this Calvin, Vermigli, Bullinger, and Zanchius were all following St. Anselm (though with the necessary Protestant twists, for St. Anselm did not hold to imputed righteousness) that God had to become a man for only eternal God provide the means to fulfill the infinite demands of justice, and only man could pay for man’s sins, and thus the God-man. Yet from this very definition we will see the problem.

But first, some side notes. For the Church fathers, whether Irenaeus, or Origen, or St. Athanasius, or the Three hierarchs (Gregory Nazianzen, Basil the Great, and John Chrysostom), or St. Ambrose, or St. Augustine, our chief problem is that we lack life, and that having turned to death and unreality, we have separated ourselves from God. This we all do because of our corruption (the death inherited from Adam), and while all are corrupted by Adam, we are guilty of our own sins (and we sin inescapably due to the fact that we are turned to death). Our nature is not sinful, but corrupted. More importantly, in each of us is our own individual mode of willing, in which sin resides. Thus we are each individually guilty of sin by the exercise of what the fathers called our gnomic will (will is a natural human faculty, and since natural, is not changeable, otherwise we would stop being human and start being something else).

Next, between human nature and the divine nature there is an infinite gulf. Indeed, for the Fathers, God is so infinitely removed from us that we cannot even speak in univocal terms about anything to do with God. While this is given in exquisite form by Pseudo-Dionysius in the late fifth century, it was also well said by Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great of Caesarea (for a really good intro on this, see Deirdre Carabine, The Unknown God. Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition: Plat ot Eriugena). If God’s glory is infinite and indescribable, how much more so his very essence, said St. Basil. This was stated in their arguments with the Eunomius. For Eunomius, the divine nature could be reached by the human intellect. One consequence of this is that there is no need for Christ to be God. Why? Because the mind, linked to God by intellected categories, had those categories as intermediaries. If I know something in the same way that God knows something, or I know something univocal with that category in God (for Eunomius it was God’s unbegottenness), then God and I share that in common. Having this in common, why do we need something else then in common to reunite us?

This brings us back to imputed righteousness. The righteousness that Christ gives us, according to the Calvinists, is a created righteousness, not uncreated. Christ fulfills the law that Adam failed to do, and thus we are saved by Christ’s works. Were it argued, and perhaps there are some that will argue thus, that the works Christ performed, and the righteousness that he gives us, is the righteousness of the divine Son (and this is clearly not what Calvin taught), then it would have to be admitted that there was no necessity within this economy (within this created universe) for the incarnation. Further, this so divides Christ as to make him two Lord Jesus Christs. But, Calvinists don’t argue this way, for they will say that the Divine Transcendence, and the creature/Creator divide is only bridged in Christ (and thus the real tendency to Nestorianism among them, but more on that at another time).

But the real problem is, even were we to admit that Christ’s righteousness whereby he merited us righteousness was a divine righteousness, is that to hold to the imputation theory, the category of justice or righteousness now inhabits that place uniting us to God, and it is righteousness or justice that is the mediator, and not the second person of the Trinity. The union between us and God is not established by an attribute or property of God (righteousness or justice, though I should note, these words are the same in the Greek), but by the second Person of the Trinity, the eternal Son, the Logos/Word of God. And this is where salvation resides (and I should note also, that in both Greek and Latin, the word we translate as salvation comes from the word for health or wholeness). The Calvinists will go on no end about the communicable and incommunicable attributes of God, though with a good bit of fudging: e.g., Louis Berkhof in his Systematic Theology (pp. 55-56) writes that since “none of the attributes of God are incommunicable in the sense that there is no trace of them in man, and none of them are communicable in the sense that they are found in man as they are found in God, we see no reason why we should depart from the old division which has become so familiar in Reformed theology.” Yet for the Orthodox all the divine attributes are communicable to us, for the divine nature is shared by the human nature, and vice versa in the Son. Both St. Maximus the Confessor and St. John of Damascus maintain that even the eternity and infinity of God are ours, in that Christ in his Person mediates these to us. Thus it is not righteousness that saves us and brings us to God, but the second Person of the Trinity brings us to God, and God to us, for within his Person our nature is deified, made partakers of the divine nature, and of all the divine properties.

Well, please tell me what you think.


About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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12 Responses to Some passing thoughts on imputed righteousness

  1. Pingback: Some passing thoughts on imputed righteousness « Energetic Procession

  2. Okay…let me think on this. Amazingly enough, I had this huge FaceBook discussion (not the best venue for such things) with some Calvinist and Protestant friends over this very thing, even to the point of linking Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo for their bedtime reading.

    Imputed righteousness is foundational to Calvinist thinking and was one of the larger stumbling blocks for me as I moved into acquiring an Orthodox mind. So I thank you for this. It’s clear, concise, and will generate much discussion as I process it in the next day or two…or 5687, assuming I have that many left.

    And I’m very pleased to read that I am not the only person to have thought Louis Berkhof did a lot of fudging. Thank you, especially, for that.

  3. Davd Fraser says:

    Perhaps a hermeneutics of suspicion creates too much distance between articulations of one another’s positions. If we stress CRITICAL openness rather than critical OPENNESS, we may miss what is true in the other’s position. I must confess I am more of a mind to see what is good and true in the other’s position, of a mind to think that there must be something important in what they are saying if it has been said for so long by so many and by such articulate people.

    All articulations of the truth are partial and influenced by what they are responding to. All statements are answers to some prior question (and prior answers). The Reformation responded to a world where works-righteousness in the form of an elaborate merit system had corrupted the Church. To challenge that world-view and practice meant to underline and shout the texts of scripture that grow out of a Pauline set of metaphors and logic (and not especially those of John). It is not an either/or: Christ saves me. Absolutely true. Salvation is both a past, present and future reality (I have been saved; I am being saved; I will be saved). Those stressing imputation underline the present reality so those “in Christ” are all “saints.” Without righteousness I am not, have not, and will not be saved. But it is an act of Christ, a free gift of grace, received by faith, credited to us as to Abraham– ἐλογίσθη.

    22 διὸ [καὶ] ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην.
    23 Οὐκ ἐγράφη δὲ δι᾽ αὐτὸν μόνον ὅτι ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ
    24 ἀλλὰ καὶ δι᾽ ἡμᾶς, οἷς μέλλει λογίζεσθαι, τοῖς πιστεύουσιν ἐπὶ τὸν ἐγείραντα Ἰησοῦν τὸν κύριον ἡμῶν ἐκ νεκρῶν,
    (Rom 4:22-24)

    Methinks there are problems with both the traditions of infused and imputed righteousness (and N.T. Wright is the most recent way of noting the weaknesses in both ways of handling Paul). Imputed righteousness emphasizes the fact the salvation is a gift from God, and dependent upon him, while infused righteousness emphasizes the responsibility of humans to cooperate with God’s actions in transforming their lives. The excess of infused righteousness is its tendency to various notions of merit. The excess of imputed righteousness is to make this transaction so “alien” to human life that it is hard to see how sanctification has any real currency. Both of these go back to deeper assumptions about the nature of human nature as well as the nature of the schism caused by the disobedience of Adam and Eve and then the nature of salvation. But when we shout one emphasis, grounded in Scripture, we often drown out its tensive partner that keeps us at the center of biblical truth (sort of the way the opposite muscles allow the hand to open and close).

    I am hopeful we will continue to dialog without divisiveness, distortion of each other’s emphases and arguments or distancing those who are authentic Christ followers, regardless of historical labels and traditions. Being more than a little Gadamerian in my hermeneutics, I think our traditions (horizons created by our standpoints) both enlighten and limit.

  4. Cyril says:

    David, thanks. Just some very quick thoughts. The main one is, that I don’t hold to either imputed or infused righteousness. There are elements in each which resonate with Orthodoxy, but that is a post for another day. Second, yes, I quite agree with you about what the Reformers were facing, but that begs the question of whether their answers were a return to Biblical truth, or simply yet another reading arising out of a tradition itself already skewed. These are, of course, enormous issues. We all read out of our traditions, whether Patristic, Scholastic, Reformed, or Bart Ehrmanist/Elaine Pagelsist (and I think that the Reformers were responding to things far more late medieval and Ockhamist than Scholastic, and de Lubac has opened the lid up further showing us what an enormous can of worms this question is). N.T. Wright certainly has shaken and stirred the more strict Reformed of late (my friends in the PCA thought it was ready to split a few years ago over New Perspectives). You are of course right, that all our thoughts and writings are provisional, but there must also be a truth that is present and within our grasp. Since we all read within our traditions, this becomes the operating system that makes our system run. Umberto Eco some years ago wrote about how Catholics were Mac users and Protestants were Windows users. I don’t know that I completely buy his points, since clearly St. Thomas is not St. Athanasius, but his point about Protestantism was rather keen: when something goes wrong with the system, then Windows users run back to DOS to start over (not quite so true anymore). I think this has some merit, and I shall blather on about it another time. But did want to get back to you. Thanks again for posting, and I hope you are well. I have news, but shall not put it on the blog.

  5. marcusjosephus says:

    As as Latin (western) Rite Catholic perhaps it is fitting for me to point out that one of the Protestant Founders major problems, following as it did Late Renaissance/Early Modern Latin Catholic West, is that they had little to no exposure to the Christian East, especially the 5th, 6th and 7th Ecumenical Councils. They took a portion of Western Theology, stressing much more the legal and juridical aspects of the Redemption and totally abandoned most if not all the Ideal of Recapitulation retained primarily in the East. From this plain of departure their the Eccliesiology, Soteriolgy and Sacramentology went down an ever erring path.

    I digress a bit but this reminds me of Karl Barth’s Dream of Mozart recounted by Thomas Merton. BLUF: Mozart was always piqued by the “headiness” of Protestentism and Barth was always puzzled by Mozart’s “theology”. Merton’s full account is below.

    “Karl Barth had a dream about Mozart.
    Barth had always been piqued by the Catholicism of Mozart, and by Mozart’s rejection of Protestantism. For Mozart said that “Protestantism is all in the head” and that “Protestants did not know the meaning of the “Agus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi”.’
    Barth, in his dream, was appointed to examine Mozart in theology. He wanted to make the examination as favourable as possible, and in his questions he alluded pointedly Mozart’s masses.
    But Mozart did not answer a word.
    I was deeply moved by Barth’s account of this dream and wanted to write him a letter about it. The dream concerns his salvation, and Barth perhaps is striving to admit that he will be saved more by the Mozart in himself than by his theology.

    Each day, for years, Barth played Mozart every morning before going to work on his dogma: unconsciously seeking to awaken perhaps, the hidden sophianic Mozart in himself, the central wisdom that comes in tune with the divine and cosmic music and is saved by love, yes, even by eros. While the other, theological self, seemingly more concerned with love, grasps a more stern, more cerebral agape: a love that, after all, is not in our own heart but only in God and revealed only to our head.
    Barth says, also significantly, that “it is a child, even a “divine” child who speaks in Mozart’s music to us.” Some, he says, considered Mozart always a child in practical affairs (but Burckhardt “earnestly took exception” to this view). At the same time, Mozart the child prodigy, “was never allowed to be a child in the literal meaning of that word.” He gave his first concert at the age of six.
    Yet he was always a child “in the higher meaning of that word.”
    Fear not, Karl Barth! Trust in the divine mercy. Though you have grown up to become a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we might think! There is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation.

    Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
    Thomas Merton

  6. Cyril says:

    Though I don’t get to read him enough, and would have some problems with certain aspects of his Theology (the filioque aside), I love Merton.

  7. Davd Fraser says:

    Barth was one theologian with deep humility. One must remember that, for all his calling to trace the logos in the gospel, he knew his own thoughts were far below that of God. When asked in 1962 (on his one visit to America) how he would summarize the essence of the millions of words he had published, he replied, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” He was a “narrative” theologian who believed one tells the story of Jesus and that is the story of God and humans.

    In his older age Barth said: “The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume and each is thicker than the previous one. As they laugh, they say to one another, ‘Look! Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics! –and they laugh about the men who write so much about Karl Barth instead of writing about the things he is trying to write about. Truly, the angels laugh.” (Quoted in Casalis, Portrait of Karl Barth, p. 3)

    In an interview with A. J. Seiler published in the Zurich Die Woche in January 1963 he said of the “The ‘Un-Mozartean’ Swiss”: “…one should guard against driving out the demons from which one is not free oneself, or against which one is not proof. This applies especially to a nation of born pedagogues such as we Swiss now are. We like getting up on the platform and telling other people what to do. This is being shown again now in our very unchristian pride in relation to the Italian and other foreign workers whose labour we find useful enough in keeping our economy booming. It also appears in our ostrich policy of refusing all contact with the East….If we go on like this, we shall end up by looking like the village idiots of Europe. Since 1945 the mission of Switzerland should have been to stand au dessus de la melee and build a bridge between East and West. That would be a truly Christian mission. But we Swiss lack the Mozartean element, the calm joyfulness so badly needed now in a torn a divided world. We lack the ability to see ourselves in our own relativity — it is from that which true peace comes.” (from Fragments Grave and Gay, pp. 52-53).

    Barth was never puzzled about Mozart’s music. He also was never puzzled about the nature of his own relativity.

  8. Pontificator says:

    It has been many, many years since I read Calvin on justification, and at that time I read him through the spectacles of Thomas F. Torrance, so it’s quite possible that my grasp of Calvin is skewed. But it seems to me that your article here misses a key ingredient of Calvin’s thought, namely, his understanding of “union with Christ”: we are justified by our incorporation into Christ through the Spirit. In his book *Iustia Dei* Alistair McGrath argues that is this notion of incorporation that distinguishes Calvin from Melanchthon:

    “Thus Calvin speaks of the believer’s being ‘grafted into Chirst’, so that the concept of incorporation becomes central to Calvin’s understanding of justification. The iustitia Christi, on the basis of which humanity is justified, is treated as if it were that of humanity within the context of the intimate personal relationship of Christ and the believer. … The two consequences of the believer’s incorporation into Christ are iustificatio and sanctificatio, which are distinct and inseparable. Thsu where Bucer speaks of iustificatio pii or ‘secondary justification’, Calvin speaks of sanctificatio; where Bucer links the first and second justification on the basis of the regenerating activity of the Holy Spirit, Calvin relates them on the basis of the believer’s insitio in Christum. Justification and sanctification are aspects of the believer’s new life in Christ, and just as one receives the whole Christ, and not part of him, through faith, so any separation of these two soteriological elements–which Calvin refers to as les deux principales graces–is inconceivable. … Where Zwingli and Bucer tended to make justification dependent upon believers’ regeneration through the renewing work of the Holy Spirit, which enabled them to keep the law and imitate the (external) example of Christ, Calvin understands both justification and sanctification to be the chief beneficia Christi, bestowed simultaneously and inseparably upon believers as a consequence of thier insitio in Christum. Sanctification is not the effect of justification; both justification and sanctification are effects of union with Christ.” (pp. 255-257)

    If McGrath is right in his interpretation of Calvin, does this affect your argument?

  9. Cyril says:

    Dear Pontificator (Are you indeed the fabled pontificator of yore? It is an honor.)
    This is also what the Westminster Confession teaches, though what it says about regeneration all goes under the heading of “Effectual calling.” God calls and regenerates and then justifies. It should be noted, however, that this is a logical and not temporal reality, for regeneration/calling would occur temporally at the same time as justification, and indeed justification is predicated on that activity of Christ applied to us by the Spirit. It is also interesting as regards the WCF, since D. Fraser above cited Romans 4 about Abraham believing and God imputing (reckoning) it to him as righteousness, that the WCF says that God does not impute righteousness to us on account of our faith.

    As to the specifics of Calvin, who taught a mystical union of the believer and Christ, many things could be pointed out, for Calvin was a self-taught theologian, unlike Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, or Vermigli, and there are all sorts of strange lacunae in Calvin’s theological logic. Most importantly, though, as regards McGrath’s points (and I take them as true,as this is my reading of Calvin as well), the righteousness of Christ given us, the Christ given us, possesses a righteousness that is declared righteous by the Father (see especially Inst. II.17). Whatever we want to say about justification and sanctification, they are both still predicated on forensic actions and forensic exchanges. This is why some of the Finnish theologians in talking about Luther (and they now have many followers such as Braaten and Jenson) can look at the Happy exchange Luther speaks of as embracing a real deification. I don’t buy it. I will say that Hooker far more closely approximates an Orthodox doctrine on this point, and largely because he throws previous Reformed thinkers under the proverbial bus by embracing Cyril of Alexandria on the Incarnation, whereas for Vermigli et al, the preferred theologian was Theodoret of Cyr. More of that anon.

  10. marcusjosephus says:

    Early Merton is great. Fr. Seraphim Rose thought highly of his early writings and was of course critical of his later writings. He went through a type of “Male Monastic Menopause” at the worst time in history and began to produce a mixed bag, some very bad.

    There are those who say that some western monasticism has become “Mertonized”, more effectual, more concerned with meditation, silence and “prayer” as an end and a bridge to a “higher” (new Hindu) understanding. The monastery is no longer the Schola Christi as envisioned by S. Bendedict and I might ad S. Pachomius and disciples). A tough label to hang but there is truth in it. Not all of this ongoing but weakening “Mertonization” is his doing, as is often the case a legacy can be hijacked.

    One of the greater things he did late in his life was make western Christians aware of the Desert Fathers and other light from the East. he along with Jean LeQlercq worked hard to have as much of the Church Fathers in the hand s of the Laity. Mostly ignored by those who profit from this treasure.

    It has become fashionable in some corners to discount Merton and bash him about. Ralph McInery recently said that before anyone can begin to even critique Merton perhaps he should try to live for 25 days the Trappist regimen in the American South that lived for 25 years. No hyperbole here it was a tough life that he prospered under. The Waters of Siloe are resplendent with hardship warmly embraced.

    I pray for Merton’s Soul. I believe he is a great man who has been trivialized by those who say they love him and have a certain hold on his legacy. It nay before we see the words of Hamlet to Hoaration concerning his own father’s legacy. “He was a Man take him for ALL in ALL!”.

  11. Pingback: Some passing thoughts on imputed righteousness » Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy

  12. marcusjosephus says:

    Not sure the Filioque clause was ever an issue for him. His earlier stuff is GREAT. Merton really could write. His legacy is being hijacked by Modernists and Pseudo-Hindus. Many are not aware that his greatest legacy, with the assistance of Dom Jean LeClerq, was helping to start Cistercian Publication and sell others on the ideal of bring many unread works of the Father’s of East and West into the hands of “you even Christian”

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