Monday, October 29, 2007

Bird on Imputation (Once Again!)

Over at Reformation 21, Philip Ryken has an article on Justification and Union with Christ. During the course of discussion I get a mention under the heading "Current Distortions of Biblical Justification" as an example of one (along with N.T. Wright, Bob Gundry, and Don Garlington) who rejects imputation in favour of union with Christ. Sigh! I have been here before and I am loathe to enter into it further. But since my good name is at stake I offer a slight qualification.
1. My point is that in terms of exegetical content, no single verse establishes the confessional formula that Jesus' active obedience is imputed to me while my sins are imputed to Jesus. Some verses come very close, some verses say part of this, but no single text gives us all of it. Most texts speak of believers being justified through union with Christ (e.g. Gal. 2.17; 2 Cor. 5.21, Rom. 8.1, etc) and I have termed this "incorporated righteousness". In many cases what is spoken of is believers participating in the vindication of Christ as achieved in his resurrection (e.g. Rom. 4.25; 1 Tim. 3.16). I'm glad to say that I am in good company with Mark Seifrid and Richard Gaffin being very close to this and Brian Vickers is probably not far off either.
2. What I am objecting to is what Ryken says here: "The biblical terminology for imputation—chiefly the verb logizomai, “to count” or “to reckon”—is only used in some of these passages (which are briefly considered here, giving only the broad outlines of a full exegesis). However, the concept of imputation is logically present in all of them. In each case God declares sinners to be what they are not in themselves, namely, righteous in his sight. In other words, God justifies them. He does this on the basis of the saving work of Jesus Christ, which is imputed to them by faith". I wouldn't reject all of this, but the content in bold sounds like special pleading. This sounds to me a bit like saying: "Well some texts don't actually mention imputation, but of course we know from the confessions that that is what they mean". But in Philippians 3.9 the preposition ek is not a synonym for logizomai. In 2 Corinthians 5.21 ginomai/poieo is not a synonym for logizomai either! These texts do not deny imputation, they are consistent with imputation, but they are not saying that Jesus' active righteousness is imputed to believers. As an exegete, I cannot and will not call an Egg an Ostrich in order to keep my Reformed Club Card.
3. Lo and Behold, I actually do believe in imputation (shock, cry, gasp)! The question is how do you get there? Well, you can either argue that the usual proof texts really do teach imputation and everyone who denies it is a Wrightophile who has gone off the edge (this is my own caricature and nothing to do with Ryken's article). Or you get your methodology (w)right and shift from exegesis, to biblical theology, to systematic theology. Exegetically I think that "incorporated righteousness" is a good description of what is happening at the exegetical level in these verses (see Timo Laato's essay in JVN vol. II for something similar). If we ask, "how does union with Christ or incorporation into Christ justify?" then I think something along the lines of imputation is required or even necessitated. If we take the forensic nature of justification, the representative nature of Adam and Christ, the language of "reckoning", the idea of righteousness as an explicit "gift" then the only way to hold it all together is with a theology of imputation. So imputation is a coherent and legitimate way of explicating the biblical materials in the domain of systematic theology; but we do violent damage to the text if we try to read each text as proving this systematic formulation. Let the text say what it says, nothing more and nothing less.
4. I think Mark Seifrid hit the nail on the head in his 1992 dissertation when he said that alot of these debates are between those who want to read the Bible historically, and those who want to read the Bible theologically. Truth be told, I want to do both, but I'm finding that Systematic Theologians do not want to allow the Bible to be read with any sense of historical contingency or allow meaning to be determined by reading the Bible alongside other ancient writings (ANE or second-temple Judaism). That just won't do!
So in sum, I am not trying to play off imputation against union with Christ. My concern is to differentiate between exegetical and doctrinal formulations and not to confuse the two (because they often are confused!). I am convinced that, understood in that sense, Ryken might even be sympathetic to my viewpoint. For those interested in what I do say on justification/imputation see my Saving Righteousness of God and (for a simpler and less technical exposition) A Bird's Eye View of Paul (out early next year).

14 comments: said...

Perhaps, like J West, you should write some special material just for those down there in the pews. I am sure the earliest Christianity was not so complicated.

Denny Burk said...


You're a Wrightophile who has gone off the edge. :)


T. Michael W. Halcomb said...

well said. by the way, i am asking a handful of knowledgeable bible bloggers to participate in an exegetical synchro-blog at pisteuomen. in short, if you want to participate, you will be one of about 4 or 5 persons who discuss a select passage in Mark and write a brief post about how you moved through the exegetical process and into the explanation/meaning (or application) process. if you're willing, you can email me at: halc dot 40dp at mailcity dot com or just leave a comment on my blog at:

thanks, michael

Doug said...

Even taking a mediating view of historical Paul is Wrightian heresy! Mind you, having looked at the article, I think you could make a good case that the opening sentence is quite un-Pauline "If there is one thing I love in life, it is the doctrine of justification"

Tony Stiff said...

Mike I just wanted to say as a regular reader I thought your back and forth with Ryken's piece was irenic and Christ-like. Reading the text historically rather than systematically does give us a different grid at the exegetical level. Or perhaps we could say reading the text with an historia salutis rather than an ordus salutis tendenz offers us more faithful readings at the exegetical level.

Save for the TR types out there, many of us in the Reformed tradition appreciate deeply the mediating role you've been playing in these debates. My only hope is that Phil Ryken can see this brief reply here and reconsider widening his proof-texting acceptance or non-acceptance of people like yourself.

Tony Stiff

PS Love the new title

DCH said...


Would you mind enlightening me a bit on where else your ETS article was scouraged in writing?

I've been reading on imputation and active obedience recently, but have not found any responses to your ETS article other than Ryken.

Sorry to bring back bad memories....

Michael F. Bird said...


You can find references to my article in an essay by Cornelius Venema in the book "Always Reforming" and I'm also mentioned in the OPC report on "101 Reasons why NT Wright is the Anti-Christ" or some report with a similar name to that one. Several persons have also disagreed with my views in personal exhcanges, which is good 'cause then I can explain myself.

Marty said...

Dear Michael,

I really appreciate your work and love that your don't want to move into systematics until exegesis is done properly first. (I teach systematics and am continually emphasizing this point!).

I do have one question though. Don't you think logizomai could be understood as something akin to imputation in Rom. 4:6?


Marty Foord.
(ps: you referenced my article on Hooker's doctrine doctrine of justification in your ETS article)

Michael F. Bird said...

I think Rom. 4.6 comes very close. The things to remember are: (a) logizomai dikaiosyne xwris ergwn is using the langauge of Gen. 15/Ps 32 to reiterate dikaiow xwris ergwn. So Paul is using OT language to reaffirm justification by faith without works, the question of "how" is not the point. (b) It nowhere mentions Jesus' own righteousness so it is hardly espousing (clearly) the imputation of his active and obedience.

Nice to hear from ya, I've heard good things about you guys over in Perth and wish you every blessing in your ministry there.

Marty said...

Dear Michael,

Cool, I understand what you're saying and wholeheartedly agree.

Hope life isn't too cold in Dingwall. My only memories of Scotland were cold ones!

God bless,

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