Craig’s Atonement and the Death of Christ— Part Seventeen

Craig’s Atonement and the Death of Christ— Part Seventeen April 7, 2021

Q. Your chapter on the Reformers and their views on the atonement is helpful, not least because few of our readers will have known the nature of Socinius’ critique of penal substitution theory, nor Grotius’ response and so-called governmental theory. What you do not discuss, unfortunately is Erasmus, to whom we actually owe the language of imputation (cf. my Romans commentary pp. 121-22).

As J. Fitzmyer points out in his Romans commentary, Erasmus, like Calvin, used the common legal language of the day to talk about these matters, including God’s righteousness. Calvin of course had been a lawyer. And here’s the rub….whereas Paul in Romans 4 clearly uses business language of Abraham’s faith being reckoned as Abraham’s righteousness, Erasmus in his 1516 Novum Instrumentum chooses to depart from the Vulgate which says Abraham’s faith was reputed to him (reputatum) as righteousness, and he chooses instead ‘imputatum’. Now ‘reckoned’ again is not legal language it is business language from ledgers that have credits and debits and there was precedent for Paul to use such business language of human conduct in 1 Macc. 2.52 and Psa. 106.31 (cf. Philm. Vs. 18). In early Judaism, there was the notion of aheavenly ledger recording human deeds (Esth. 6.1; Dan. 7.10; Test. of Ben. 11.4; Jubilees 30.17). Paul is well aware of these things and his language comes from that sort of Jewish business universe of discourse, not from later forensic or legal discussions. And as you have pointed out, the SEDEK language in the OT about half the time comes from the moral sphere, and half the time it comes from legal discussions. It is interesting as well that Luther, who knew Erasmus and his Greek NT well, nonetheless does not usually use the language of imputation when talking about these matters. There is no doubt that Calvin the lawyer does. What happened in the history of Reformed approaches to these matters is that later Lutheran orthodoxy as well as Reformed orthodoxy picked up the imputation ball and ran with it right down the field of atonement theory.

Now there is no doubt that Paul in 2 Cor. 4-5 and elsewhere thinks that a remarkable moral transformation happens to a person at conversion. In 1 Cor 6.11 he speaks of his converts as having already been washed, sanctified, and set right. The old person has passed away and if anyone is in Christ they are already a new creature. They don’t have to wait for a long process of sanctification, though such a process of being conformed to the image of Christ does begin at conversion. Paul expects of his new converts in Corinth that they lead new more morally upright lives. He does not expect them to simply claim they have legal right standing with God. I would say, Paul would be appalled at the notion that he was talking about some sort of legal fiction when he refers to the believer being made righteous (2 Cor. 5.21). Even worse would be the notion that when God looks at Christian sinners, he is deceived about them, and actually sees the perfectly righteous Christ—Christ’s righteousness somehow being credited to the believer’s account without them actually having to become righteous. So, when Paul quotes the Psalms about a person being blessed whose sins are not credited to him because they are forgiven, we need to let that language be what is. It’s not about imputation which involves a transfer of something from one person to another. It’s about reckoning.

The interesting thing is, that yes Paul affirms a penal substitutionary theory of the atonement, no question, but not the later theological notions of imputation of sin or righteousness. Christ bears the punishment for our sins which meets a righteous God’s requirement that justice be done at some juncture. He is not a sinner, nor is he guilty (despite Luther’s colorful language) but he is the substitute who propitiates the wrath God and expiates or cleanses us from the effects of our sins and so makes atonement. Mk. 10.45 calls this ‘the one providing the ransom for the many’ (which is everyone else). Jesus is the one person for whom Jesus did not need to die, and should not have been punished for human sin by death on a Roman cross. In short, the announcement of the theme of God’s righteousness in Rom. 1.16-17 leads into a discussion about God’s wrath in Rom. 1.18-32 for good reason— it’s about God moral character and the need for human character to change, as well as human relationship to a righteous God to change. Paul rings the changes on righteousness language for a reason, and it is not primarily for legal reasons. After all, the majority audience in Romans are formerly pagan Gentiles and they were not under obligation to the Mosaic legal requirements of what counted as legally right behavior. Reactions???

A. Again, rather than write an article in response, I invite the reader to compare my discussion about imputation and the use of legal fictions in the law (pp. 183-86) with your remarks and to decide for himself. I’ll just make a couple brief comments. (1) Erasmus did not contribute significantly to the study of the atonement but merely used in his commentary on Romans 4.3 the expression imputatum est that later proved useful to Lutheran and Reformed dogmatics for clarifying theological discussions of soteriology, just as terms like trinitas, persona, ousia, and hypostasis became useful technical terms among the Church Fathers for clarifying discussions of the Trinity and incarnation. It is not word origins but word use that is important. Such technical terminology can be helpful and even crucial for capturing biblical concepts. As I said, the concept of imputation is to be found, in my opinion, in the NT, and it is incidental whether the concept is expressed in accounting vocabulary as reckoning or in legal vocabulary as imputation. (2) Paul’s use of accounting language from the field of business illustrates once more my point about the variety of metaphors and motifs the Bible uses with respect to the atonement. Paul also uses legal language. Language of the court, the Judge, guilt, condemnation, justice, and punishment pervade Paul’s discourse. This was fully in line with OT Judaism. Indeed, no religion is so suffused with concepts of law as Judaism. (3) Of course, Paul expects his Corinthian converts to lead moral lives, but he does not think that because of their justification in Christ they have suddenly become paragons of virtue. Obviously not! It is a serious misunderstanding to think that imputation is a legal fiction. These are very different legal concepts. A divine pardon and the blotting out of our guilt is no more a legal fiction than the President’s pardon of a convicted criminal and his consequent release from prison is a legal fiction.


Browse Our Archives