Dear Dr. Seifrid:
I hasten to finish this open letter as I have so many pressing duties, and I’m sure you do as well. Unless events call for more, I intend this to be my final installment in this “saga,” one that has taught me many lessons, most of which have been surprising, disappointing, to be sure, but in the long run, worthwhile.
The next section of your response illustrates, rather fully, the problems inherent in being overly “nuanced” in your statements. If we were to read 4.5.1 by itself, it would seem to set all minds at ease until we read what comes immediately thereafter. I quote at length:
4.5.1. I have never rejected the truthfulness of the affirmation that Christ’s righteousness is imputed by God to those who believe. If someone insists on the distinction between forgiveness and positive imputation, or that between Christ’s active and passive obedience, I will happily affirm the imputation of the whole of Christ’s righteousness in all its distinctions to the believer.
4.5.2. It is necessary to observe, however, that while these formulations represent significant aspects of biblical truth, they are syntheses. Nowhere in Scripture does one find the explicit statement that “Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us who believe.” The Scriptures have other ways of speaking about justification. The apostle Paul in particular speaks about salvation first in terms of Christ and God’s work in him, not in the first instance in terms of the individual believer and how salvation comes to that one. Many Protestant schemes of salvation are inadvertently anthropocentric.
This observation should not lead us to reject an affirmation of “imputation” outright, as Robert Gundry has done. But it certainly should lead us back into the Scriptures, to hear them again. It is not irrelevant to mention that long before current debates others have complained about the way in which Protestant formulations of justification confuse the laity as they turn to the Scriptures. To my thinking, the founders of Southern Seminary exercised great wisdom in summarizing the doctrine of justification in terms which are understandable to the average Baptist in the pew, while losing nothing of what is meant by speaking of “Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us.”
4.5.3. It is also necessary to recognize that the language of “the imputation of Christ’s righteousness” came into prominence only in the 1550’s as Protestants debated with Andreas Osiander, who argued that is the indwelling divine presence of Christ which justifies. Naturally, the formula of “imputation” served equally well in defining Protestant views over against Roman Catholicism. It represents a partial summary of what the Scriptures teach from a certain perspective, and has its primary function in these debates. It is less able to bridge the gap to Christian living.
In some ways, Dr. Seifrid, I think you went farther in your reply on the key issues between us than you did in COR in 2000. In a sense we can at least understand more fully what you stated in the SBTS statement. You write,
If someone insists on the distinction between forgiveness and positive imputation, or that between Christ’s active and passive obedience, I will happily affirm the imputation of the whole of Christ’s righteousness in all its distinctions to the believer.
Given all you’ve said, obviously, you believe the distinction “insisted upon” here is unbiblical and the product of a later Protestant orthodoxy, resulting, you believe, in the bruising of the “nerve” that leads from justification to obedience (reflected above in the phrase “It is less able to bridge the gap to Christian living”). Likewise, this would seemingly indicate that you did, in fact, mean to say that the distinction between the active and passive obedience of Christ was “unnecessary and misleading” for you place it in the same category here of what someone other than yourself would “insist” upon. But when you say you will “happily” affirm imputation in this fashion, are you truly speaking in the same language as, say, the LBCF or WCF or Boyce or Warfield? The two paragraphs of nuanced qualifications you add to this single sentence confession would seem to indicate otherwise. You begin,
It is necessary to observe, however, that while these formulations represent significant aspects of biblical truth, they are syntheses. Nowhere in Scripture does one find the explicit statement that “Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us who believe.”
These are self-evidently true statements. Of course, when one is defending one’s confession of the Trinity it is somewhat odd to include as part of one’s confession “While this formulation represents significant aspects of biblical truth, it is a synthesis. Nowhere in Scripture does one find the explicit statement of the doctrine of the Trinity.” I point this out simply because for those of us who are less nuanced, saying “I believe in the imputation of the righteousness of Christ” means something considerably more than “I believe that in a very limited context this sub-biblical terminology developed by later Protestant orthodoxy had a place in the historical dialogue, but it is dangerous and misleading.”
The Scriptures have other ways of speaking about justification. The apostle Paul in particular speaks about salvation first in terms of Christ and God’s work in him, not in the first instance in terms of the individual believer and how salvation comes to that one. Many Protestant schemes of salvation are inadvertently anthropocentric.
And once again we are brought back to the original reason why your writings prompted this situation: it is one thing to say “This is a biblical and true means of speaking, and there are other ways in which these truths are expressed.” It is quite another to say, “This is what the confessions of later Protestants say, but the Bible never speaks like this, and in fact, speaks otherwise.” The two statements are not equivalent. I believe you introduce a false dichotomy when you seem to imply that the views of Protestant orthodoxy (to which you regularly contrast your own views) speak “first” in terms of the individual believer and how salvation comes to that one over against first speaking of Christ. The fact that some Protestants might inconsistently lose their bearings because of the constant push of the sinful nature seen in denials of justification (i.e., in response to Rome, for example) does not mean that the centrality of Christ is denied or lost. But the very examples of Protestant orthodoxy to which you have made repeated reference in contrasting your views are anything but anthropocentric, inadvertently or otherwise.
This observation should not lead us to reject an affirmation of “imputation” outright, as Robert Gundry has done. But it certainly should lead us back into the Scriptures, to hear them again.
Again, I cannot help but point out that if I said, “I believe firmly that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son,” and then wrote a paragraph of qualifications that then led to, “This observation should not lead us to reject the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son outright, as some have done,” the “normal” reader would be forgiven to wonder just a little bit about just how firmly one’s initial profession of faith in that belief should be taken. Let’s take it at face value that we should not “reject an affirmation of ‘imputation’ outright.” Is that the same thing as saying “We should confess the imputation of the righteousness of Christ as central to the doctrine of justification and representative of a vital aspect of its truth”? Or might it be better to take it as, “We should not be enslaved to Protestant orthodoxy’s language, should go back to the Scriptures and understand the topic in a different way than they did immediately after the Reformation, and be willing to correct that which is misleading, unnecessary, and may well lead to the bruising of the nerve that runs from justification to obedience”? You continued,
It is not irrelevant to mention that long before current debates others have complained about the way in which Protestant formulations of justification confuse the laity as they turn to the Scriptures. To my thinking, the founders of Southern Seminary exercised great wisdom in summarizing the doctrine of justification in terms which are understandable to the average Baptist in the pew, while losing nothing of what is meant by speaking of “Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us.”
I do not know who you are referring to when you speak of these “others.” I honestly cannot think of any aspect of theology that could not be plugged into the sentence, “Long before current debates others have complained about the way in which Protestant formulations of doctrine X confuse the laity as they turn to the Scriptures.” Surely that can be said of any aspect of Trinitarian theology, for example; and I hear that kind of complaint constantly about every aspect of soteriology, especially Reformed soteriology and its emphasis upon transcendent truths, eternal verities that challenge the mind to go far beyond what may be “comfortable” for most. But in this context it would seem to be your point that “Protestant formulations” would include the concept of imputation, and hence that this concept may be difficult for the laity to understand. There are two aspects of your last sentence that must be observed. First, how do we know what is “meant” by the phrase “Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us” outside of examining the beliefs of those who wrote the confessions to which we make reference? And is it not clear what Boyce and the other founders of Southern Seminary meant, and that what they meant is the very “Protestant formulations” that you here indicate may well be confusing to the “average Baptist in the pew”? Secondly, are you seriously suggesting that the formulation found in The Abstract of Principles is to be seen as a purposefullysimplified and less explicit statement of the theology found in Boyce’s fuller writings, so that the assertion being made is that there was a purposeful non-inclusion of the very theology Boyce propounded as definitional of justification so as to avoid confusing laypeople and provide a wider latitude of belief? Is there any historical basis for such a conclusion? Or would one be much better off concluding that the proper context for interpreting the meaning of the Abstract is the fuller expression in Boyce and the other founding professors?
It is also necessary to recognize that the language of “the imputation of Christ’s righteousness” came into prominence only in the 1550’s as Protestants debated with Andreas Osiander, who argued that is the indwelling divine presence of Christ which justifies.
And yet we saw Calvin (quoted earlier) using the term just as we are using it today. So why make reference to this, outside of making room for a less robust view of imputation as confessionally proper within “Reformed” theology?
Naturally, the formula of “imputation” served equally well in defining Protestant views over against Roman Catholicism. It represents a partial summary of what the Scriptures teach from a certain perspective, and has its primary function in these debates. It is less able to bridge the gap to Christian living.
Yes, the “formula” of “imputation” served well, and given the continuing presence of Roman Catholic teachings on justification, it continues to serve well for the simple fact that it is true. It is hard to avoid hearing the implication that this was a “formula” that derived its existence and utility from a pragmatic application, however, especially in light of the preceding statement that one can still “get” what was “meant” by that phrase, evidently by following your own suggested understanding rather than that of Protestant orthodoxy.
But few lines cited at all in this entire discussion more fully explain, and vindicate, my concern, than what follows. I apologize to all who think and write with far more nuance than I, but it is very, very difficult for me to see how one can say “I believe in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers” and then turn around and within a matter of sentences say that this belief represents merely “a partial summary” of the Scriptural teaching and that only from a “certain perspective” (evidently, in context, the perspective of conflict with Rome or Osiander) and then having its “primary function” only within the context of “these debates.” Again, if I were to say “I confess, wholeheartedly, the doctrine of the Trinity” but I then went on to make this kind of qualification, saying the Trinity is but a “partial summary” of the actual biblical teaching, and that it represents truth “from a certain perspective,” and is useful only within the context of particular “debates,” and that it can be “misleading,” etc., would not the average reader have perfectly solid ground upon which to question the validity of my initial confession? There are some situations, I truly believe, where “nuance” when it comes to confession is simply not allowable. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. I stand with Boyce in confessing:
Christ stood also as the representative of his people and their sins were imputed to him and he was treated as though personally a sinner. Likewise his righteousness is imputed to them, and they are treated as though personally righteous.
Without emendation, qualification, and nuance, what say you, sir?
Finally, in response to this section, I “hear” your concern for the ability of the views of Protestant orthodoxy to “bridge the gap to Christian living.” But I strongly insist that the very foundation of proper Christian living is first and foremost recognizing the reality of the truth this doctrine embodies. We have peace with God as a present possession, having been justified by faith. He became sin in our place that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. We cannot add to that perfect work, and because of that, our actions can never be tinged with self-righteousness. I truly do not believe that we are benefited by calling into question the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in the area of Christian living.
Excursus: At least if we follow the analysis of Albrecht Ritschl (McGrath in his survey does not touch on it), it was also Osiander who was the first to assign differing roles to Christ’s active and passive righteousness. Those who interacted with Osiander, took up these distinctions while rejecting his central thesis. Both Luther and Calvin speak of the active and passive of obedience of Christ, but they treat them (rightly, I think) as two sides of the same coin, rather than assigning them different functions.
This paragraph seems to provide the proper context for your statement on page 175 of COR where you refer to “the further distinction which some Protestants made between the imputation of Christ’s active righteousness…and his passive obedience” as “unnecessary and misleading.” While I embrace the terminology, I do not see why the recognition of the distinctions means they cannot be seen as two sides of the same coin. But since no elaboration is provided, one cannot pursue the discussion.
As I have stated openly, I find Luther’s way of speaking about justification much closer to the biblical text than that of later Protestantism. He does not speak of justification as the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, or does so only very rarely.
I hasten toward the conclusion of your statement, as I have raised more than sufficient issues above to justify the initial response to your comments in COR. Might I suggest with all due respect that holding a Lutheran view of justification while claiming fidelity to a Southern Baptist statement of faith may explain some of the problem here? It seems you wish to remove from the Abstract its historical context and clarity of definition so as to make it allow for a Lutheran view (as you interpret it) of justification. Might this be a rather simple way of viewing what has taken place here? Secondly, I am not the only person who has found your second cited sentence difficult to understand. If he does not speak of it, then he could not do so very rarely. If I say to my wife, “I will never cheat on you, dear, but if I do, it will only be very rarely!” should I expect her to take much heart in my statement? I would normally pass over such a statement, but those who caught it would never forgive me for so doing.
He speaks instead of God imputing righteousness to us because Christ is present in our hearts by faith. He speaks, too, of God’s declaration that we are righteous as an effective word, which makes us new creatures. The 1535 Galatians commentary is full of such language. Luther rightly borrows the imagery of Eph 5 (the marriage of the soul to Christ by faith) or of John 15 (the vine and the branches) to speak about how the righteousness which properly belongs to Christ and remains his nevertheless is made ours by faith. Our righteousness remains outside us, our works, our piety, our wisdom–it remains in him and is ours only as we cling to him.
All of this is fine, but I can hear the chorus of many of us “Protestant orthodox” who say, “And how is it that what we believe denies any of the truth that Christ’s righteousness is always His and not, by nature, ours? Isn’t that what an alien righteousness is all about?
This has huge implications for Christian living, since we cannot then treat the righteousness imputed to us as a sort of immeasurable bank account at our disposal at which we may draw at will: “cheap grace,” as Bonhoeffer rightly named it.
And may I be the first to say that to represent the view of Boyce or Protestant orthodoxy or the LBCF or Westminster, etc., as if it supported and promoted “cheap grace” by presenting the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as “a sort of immeasurable bank account at our disposal at which we may draw at will” is a gross, unfair, untenable, indefensible caricature? I have heard the accusation before, on the part of Roman Catholic apologists. I could understand how those in that context could so completely misunderstand the wondrous truth of imputation so as to create such an unrecognizable caricature of it, but I must confess, Dr. Seifrid, I see no reason why you would fall into the same trap.
Faith is not some latent power within us. As God’s work in us, it is always in action: our justification is found in our grasping Christ here and now, in whatever state we find ourselves. That means here and now confessing the justness of God in his pronouncement that we are sinners, whether we feel it at the moment or not. It also means gladly and freely grasping God as our justifier in Jesus Christ and his work alone.
And it likewise includes the self-righteousness killing, works-salvation destroying truth that God is just in not bringing His wrath upon us because our substitute has borne our sins, imputed to Him, and we have peace with God because His righteousness is imputed to us. And all this conversation has been about whether that truth is merely a later “addition” or if it is, in fact, part and parcel of the biblical message itself. And I believe your response has clarified that to a great degree, for those who have worked to follow the discussion.
Is this understanding, which I have undergirded biblically elsewhere, a great theological error? Do we really want to say that Martin Luther (and with him in considerable measure Calvin) were not Reformational because they did not speak in the way that later Protestants did? I find it hard to think so.
I.e., you admit that in fact you do not speak as “later Protestants,” including Boyce? Is that not exactly the conclusion we are driven to after all? Is it not your belief that the practice of “biblical theology” (as you put it above, “hearing” the Scriptures again) would remove this “addition” so as to give greater clarity in the current context?
Whatever our differences in the particulars, Dr White and I ought to rejoice in our common faith in Christ and embrace one another, just as we shall do one day before Christ’s throne.
In closing, Dr. Seifrid, I repeat what I have said from the start. This is not about you. It is not about me. It is far more important than either of us, and will remain that way long after both of us have passed from the scene. And despite the personal statements you have directed my way, I want you to know that though you do not seem to believe it possible, my intentions and purposes have been utterly non-personal from the start. I do not wish you ill in any fashion, and though you have directed people to men who do wish me ill in the strongest way, I do not hold it against you (you could not possibly know their true intentions or character). I submit this issue not to our readers, but to the Lord who knows the thoughts and intentions of every heart. May He grant to His people a clear knowledge of His truth in this most troubling time.
Update 12/30/2014: This review eventually became a major series of posts. For those interested in reading the entire series in order I post the links below. RP
Dr. Seifrid on Imputation July 9, 2004
More in Response to Southern Seminary Professor’s Denial of Imputed Righteousness July 9, 2004
Continuing Review of Mark Seifrid’s Views on the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness July 11, 2004
An Interesting Expansion in the LBCF, 1689 July 27, 2004
The Abstract of Principles on Justification July 30, 2004
The Imputation Controversy August 25, 2004
Imputation Controversy #2 August 26, 2004
Why I Care About “Christ, our Righteousness” August 28, 2004
Imputation Controversy #3 August 30, 2004
Southern Seminary and Dr. Mark Seifrid September 4, 2004
A Response to Southern Seminary and Dr. Mark Seifrid September 4, 2004
Listen to Today’s DL for a Full Discussion of the SBTS/Seifrid/Imputation Issue September 7, 2004
From the 1994 WTJ September 7, 2004
A Word of Rebuke to the Firebrands September 8, 2004
And Verily It Got Nuttier September 11, 2004
Yes, I Have a Copy, Thank You September 13, 2004
An Open Letter to Dr. Mark Seifrid (Part 1) September 14, 2004
Seifrid Response, Part II September 15, 2004
Seifrid Response, Part III September 18, 2004
Open Letter to Mark Seifrid, Part IV September 21, 2004
Open Letter to Mark Seifrid, Part V October 2, 2004
If I Misrepresented Dr. Seifrid, then…. December 3, 2004