As the implications of the major shift in sections of academia regarding the history and background of the New Testament, and in particular, regarding the proper reading of Paul and the specifics of his conflict with the Jews, filters down out of the ethereal realms into the pulpits and therefore into the churches (aka, the various “new perspectives” on Paul, those of Sanders, Dunn, and especially NT Wright), responses from a number of authors are appearing not so much on book shelves in the “mainstream” but on book listings in the more academic quarters. Among the small (but growing) number of responses interacting with the entrance of the general “New Perspectives” viewpoint into the conservative mainstream is Mark Seifrid’s 2000 book, Christ, Our Righteousness, a part of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series. Seifrid is a professor at Southern Seminary who did his doctoral work at Princeton. The editor of the series is D.A. Carson.
Many are recommending this as a response to NPism, but the book ends with a troubling section that seems to hand the case back to Wright and others on one of the most important areas of dispute: does the biblical doctrine of justification involve the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer? Is this the ground of the peace we have with God (Romans 5:1), or is this a traditional extrapolation without foundation in the text itself? Seifrid’s comments are troubling to many:
It is fair to say that something of the ‘Christ-centred’ understanding of justification which Luther and Calvin grasped was lost in subsequent Protestant thought, where justification came to be defined in terms of the believer and not in terms of Christ. It is worth observing that Paul never speaks of Christ’s righteousness as imputed to believers, as became standard in Protestantism (173-174).
At first glance one is taken aback by such a statement. It is surely common place for ‘subsequent’ generations to be accused of adding to or taking away from the thought of earlier generations, and surely there is a natural ‘formalization’ process that may or may not produce a more balanced viewpoint of any particular theological formulation. But I find it hard to understand how a recognition of the centrality of the divine act of justification in the life of the believer (this is the realm in which we all encounter the work of Christ, is it not, on the most personal, self-shattering level?) is tantamount to defining justification “in terms of the believer and not in terms of Christ” (emphasis added). Must not justification be defined first and foremost as the divine action of the Father based upon the work of the Son? But how can the term be understood aright without recognizing that it is God’s intention to justify the ungodly through Christ’s work? And given the constant temptation of man to insert himself into the work of God, is it not natural that we would have to defend the truth at that very point? I cannot follow Seifrid’s perspective at this point. What is more, what is the purpose of the final sentence? If by stating this we are saying nothing more than what is said when we say, “The creedal formulation of the Trinity does not appear in those exact words in Scripture,” then surely no one can argue otherwise. But that does not seem to be the intention here, in light of what comes after.
The common Protestant formulation of justification as the ‘nonimputation of sin and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness’ is understandable as a way of setting forth justification as a forensic reality, in distinction from the Tridentine claim that an infused, imparted or inherent righteousness had to be added to the grace of forgiveness. It nevertheless treats the justifying verdict of God as an immediate and isolated gift. The justification of the believer is thereby separated from the justification of God in his wrath against us. Salvation is then portioned out, so that one possesses it piecemeal. It is held together as a series of ideas (justification, sanctification, glorification), rather than being grasped “by faith” as the comprehensive act of God in Christ. The insistence that the sanctification of the believer always accompanies justification does not fully overcome this deficiency. Indeed, Protestant confessions sometimes take on the appearance of unreality at this point because they speak of believers in themselves.* Once one shifts away from Paul’s frame of reference in Christ to one located in the believer, the continuing demand of faith, hope and love is obscured (174-175).
One is again left wondering at the assertion that the recognition of the fundamental error of Rome regarding the nature of justification, and emphasizing those elements of the truth denied by Rome, results in justification being treated “as an immediate and isolated gift.” Immediate, yes, in the sense that Paul himself places justification as a past tense reality that brings peace with God (Romans 5:1), but why would this require it to be “isolated”? When we focus upon the proclamation or defense of the deity of Christ, does this mean we are viewing that truth in isolation from all the other truths of the Trinity? Surely not. So unless we are going to adopt the methodology of many in academia today that involves, in essence, a post-modern rejection of the propriety or usefulness of systematic theology, upon what basis are we to accept this assertion that to view justification in the “imputation/non-imputation” (forced upon us, we do believe, by Paul’s own argumentation) is to make it “isolated” from all other divine truths? Why is God’s justification in His wrath against us “separated” from the justification of the believing sinner whose sins are imputed to Christ and Christ’s righteousness imputed to him? We are not told. Is it wrong to see justification as a rich, full, divine truth that is placed like the perfect diamond at the center of the entire work of God in Jesus Christ? If so, why? Why do we have to flatten out the doctrine just to do “justice” to one aspect or another?
I confess I do not understand why Dr. Seifrid says salvation is “portioned out” in historic Protestant theology. Is the recognition of various aspects of soteriology wrong? If the Word differentiates between, for example, differing uses of “sanctify,” should we not as well? If a false teacher introduces a novelty into the church’s teaching on the means by which God glorifies Himself in the salvation of His people, are we precluded from correctly relating the relationship between elements of that work, such as calling, justification, sanctification, and glorification? Did not the Apostle Paul himself write,
Romans 8:29-30 29 For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; 30 and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.
Did Paul fail to grasp the “comprehensive act of God in Christ” by distinguishing these divine actions? Surely not. So why one must abandon the recognition of distinct elements in the work of God in Christ so as to hold only to a “comprehensive act of God in Christ” is not explained. A hint as to the reasoning is found in the assertion that the constant, consistent insistence of Reformed theology that those who are justified will also be sanctified “does not fully overcome this deficiency.” That is, even in the old systematic schemes of the modern era there was clearly a self-professed cohesion, a consistency that showed that in fact the over-all “comprehensive act of God in Christ” was not being overlooked, even if in the heat of battle the beauty of the forest might be obscured by the individual trees.
Next we are told that some confessions (the specific citation given is to the Heidelberg Catechism, Answer to Question 60) “take on the appearance of unreality at this point because they speak of believers in themselves.” The citation given is, “God … imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me.” Again, it hardly seems fair to the framers of the catechism to think that they were contemplating this separately from the over-arching work of God in Christ. Is there no place for the believer to consider the interface of that glorious work and my own personal standing before God? Has anyone ever suggested, in the history of Protestant thought, that such a divine truth should be separated from its Christological foundations and made a truth unto itself, focused solely upon the believer? Surely not. Whether the catechism’s statement is true should not be evaluated as to whether it carries the proper “emphasis” as interpreted by a particular scholar, but whether it reflects the reality of biblical teaching. And I believe firmly that it does.
We can appreciate the need to exhort believers to “faith, hope, and love,” but it is once again hard to understand what he means by “demand” and why we must believe that to properly recognize that I am the object of Christ’s work of redemption in a personal fashion (not individualistically, as if separated from the people of God, but personally, as a whole person, united with Christ, justified, forgiven, adopted) is to in some way lose focus upon the centrality and glory of Christ in redemption.
As time allows, I wish to continue reviewing these comments and considering this form or presentation which questions, and ultimately rejects, the Reformed teaching on the imputation of the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
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 (this post) 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