Posted by: mattcolvin | February 8, 2010

Imputation and the Personhood of God

(I want to thank Mark Horne for pointing me to the information that I used in this post. All the vehemence is mine alone.)

Peter Leithart believes in imputation. Indeed, he has written some very stimulating and clarifying thoughts about the Biblical language of imputation here.

Leithart begins his post with a line that is richly ironic in light of his current ecclesiastical troubles:

Some partial, exploratory, perhaps incoherent thoughts on imputation.

Incoherent? No, his critics are incoherent. They haven’t stopped to think about what imputation really is, or about whether the Bible teaches what they think. Leithart’s view, by contrast, starts from square one with careful attention to the words of Scripture.

He writes:

2)There are hints within the Levitical system that imputation is not just a strange exception to the standard way of doing things, but that some act of imputation is always at work in any sinful action.

3) I have in mind the phrases “he shall bear his iniquity” and “their/his blood on them/him.” These phrases occur in contexts prescribing capital punishment for various crimes. When the text adds “his blood is on him,” the implication is that the blood is not on the people who shed the blood – namely, the citizens who stoned the criminal. But the further implication is that the blood must be on someone. Free-floating blood, as it were, is not an option. Either the person who did the crime must bear responsibility, or the people who failed to carry out the crime, or, in some cases, a substitutionary animal must bear responsibility for the crime. That is, some assignment of responsibility is necessary…

6) If there’s always an assignment of responsibility distinct from the wrong of the act itself, then that leaves open the possiblity (#4) that someone other than the actor might bear that responsibility. It suggests the possibility that the iniquity might be “imputed” to another, to a sin-bearer. On this theory, “imputation” is not what happens when someone else takes the guilt; imputation is necessary for any assignment of guilt, whether to the perpetrator or to someone else.

I find this compelling.

Lane Keister is one of Leithart’s critics who has shown himself incapable of processing this sort of argument about Biblical usage. I once got into a protracted tussle with him over whether pistis logizetai eis dikaiosynen means “faith is imputed as righteousness”. I maintained, on the basis of the Bible’s usage, that logizomai eis always equates the two things in question — e.g. “the nations are reckoned as dust in the scales” (Isa. 40:15) or “will not his uncircumcision be reckoned as circumcision” (Rom. 2:26). Lane, by contrast, insisted that we were dealing with telic eis here, and that the phrase should be rendered, “faith is reckoned toward righteousness.”

The real problem is not a disagreement over whether imputation takes place, but over what its mechanism is. Lane Keister and those like him believe that faith is the conduit which, by “resting on Christ”, allows us to “receive” his righteousness transferred to us. The regenerated heart of the believer has been infused with a new faculty, faith. This account is gnostic to the core. It locates salvation in the human heart. It drives a wedge between faith and faithfulness. It distorts the sacraments into rituals of individualistic gnosis, so that Presbyterians hunch over and ponder during the Lord’s Supper, as though by their thinking they could confect God. Hence the obsessive ponderings over assurance, since all hinges on the utterly unknowable question of whether one’s conversion was genuine. If you were truly converted, you have the gnostic spark of faith inside you. If you weren’t, then you’ve just been fooling yourself this whole time. This faith, in order to do its marvelous trick of resting on Christ, must be utterly free from any taint of works. Thus we get people insisting, in the teeth of the evidence, that the WCF’s statement that “faith is never alone in the person justified” means that AFTER justification, faith isn’t alone, but that it is alone before justification. Imputation is outward and quasi-commercial. It could hardly be otherwise, because this anti-Christian system of thought has nothing to do with how God works in the Bible. Sacraments cannot save, because salvation is really only achieved by the gnostic spark of faith inside you, and God imparts that in an immediate way, quite apart from water, bread, or wine.

Leithart’s account is, by contrast, sociological. As he says, it “rests on a social understanding of human beings” as over against an individualistic understanding. Which is another way of saying that it takes seriously the personhood of both God and men. This makes sense. If my child says he loves me, but is utterly disobedient to my every word, our relationship is going to stink. For him to protest that his works may be bad, but he has faith toward Daddy in his heart — that would be nothing but a lie, and everyone would recognize it as such. It is only when theologians are talking about relationship with God that they can swallow such absurdities.

Leithart does not bifurcate faith and faithfulness. The Biblical religion does not have a use for faith apart from obedience, not even for a “nanosecond.” (ht: Mark Horne) Therefore it teaches children to believe and obey, and it doesn’t withhold Jesus’ food from them until they can fool a session of Presbyterian elders into thinking they have the gnostic spark resting and receiving inside their hearts.

That stress on persons in relationship is, of course, the splendid genius of Leithart’s theology.


  1. Excellent post. Much appreciated. I had read that article by Leithart, but this really brought out the main points and applied it well to the general ongoing discussion on imputation.

    For myself, I am of the mind that imputation of Christ’s righteousness is a perfectly valid systematic-theology way of describing how a sinner can be seen as righteous in God’s sight. However, I don’t think that Paul uses the word “imputation” to describe this concept, even when he uses the word (particularly in Romans 5).

    It’s dismaying how many insist that the Reformed standards absolutely MUST be using language in exactly the same way as the Bible does in every case . . . or even worse, vice versa.

  2. I think it hugely important that elders repent and stop fencing off baptized children, so I like your sentence about not withholding food from such as these. But I don’t follow the reasoning for those who do “bifurcate faith and faithfulness” or “have a use for faith apart from obedience” and yet refrain from feeding such children until they can fool/convince an elder session via words. Maybe instead of putting faith in the children’s covenant membership (considered *in* until proven outside or worthy of discipline/fencing/excommunication), they put faith in their ability to detect lies and determine adequate responses that “prove” the existence of a new/regenerate heart. But why does covenant membership and its accompanying sacraments even require something new about their heart? Maybe the elders think the chance that God would punish baptized children with illness/death for merely eating food with their families outweighs the sacramental benefits that God could have given at least some of the infant members of the body.

  3. The image of hunched and pondering Presbyterians made me simultaneously laugh and sigh with relief (for not having married one).

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