Bird’s Eye View of Paul (15) Debating imputation

Continuing our tour through Michael Bird’s excellent book, A Bird’s Eye View of Paul

An aside on imputation

Since the Reformation, much has been made of imputation as the basis of justification: the double sided notion that God imputes the merits and obedience of Jesus to believers, and imputes back their sin to Jesus on the cross.

One reason why some Reformed people are so vehemently opposed to N T Wright is that he says there is no such imputation going on in the NT. It just ain’t there. He rejects the notion that some abstract ‘righteousness’ of Jesus can be transferred to another person. In other words, a key platform for Reformation understanding of justification by faith is built on sand.

Michael Bird has an interesting take on this. On the one hand, he agrees with N T Wright that the classic imputation texts [2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 4:1-5; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Philippians 3:6-9] don’t explicitly say what some people want them to say.

“Well, the fact of the matter is that we cannot proof text imputation … the texts come close to saying something like [imputation], but fall short of doing so … if we think we can find … the entire package [of imputation] … in all of these texts we are sadly mistaken”

On the other hand, he argues that taken together there is overwhelming evidence that the NT does support some form of imputation. It is hard to understand the cross without some sense that Christ’s perfection becomes the believer’s, and the believer’s sin and imperfection in some sense becomes Christ’s.

Bird explains it in terms of what he calls incorporated righteousness. Through incorporation into Christ by faith, what is Christ’s becomes ours and what is ours becomes Christ’s. Paul’s favourite phrase for the Christian after all is someone who is ‘in Christ’.

And imputation is ‘a necessary logical inference to make’. It makes sense of how the NT talks in lots of different ways, of how there is a ‘transfer’ between believers and Jesus; how he takes what is ours and we are given what he is.

– Believers are ‘in Christ’ – in union with him.

– He is the New Adam

– He is perfect and sinless

– Believers are declared righteous in Christ, who alone fulfils the law

– Righteousness if a ‘gift’ given to believers

Some comments

The real issue here is that the NT is a not a systematic theology textbook. The strong sense of imputation Bird describes is more implicit than explicit. It is more an assumed truth than an issue specifically addressed in a letter to an early church community.

If the classic Reformed doctrine of imputation needs an overhaul, in theory this should  pose no problem to a church that is semper reformanda (always reforming). Reality though is different. As Thomas Kuhn showed years ago with science, people can invest so much in certain interpretations and systems, that when challenged, rather than being open to fresh understandings, defend those interpretations to the hilt.

4 thoughts on “Bird’s Eye View of Paul (15) Debating imputation

  1. Hi Patrick,

    In general I agree with Bird about imputation. My one question for him (and I would like to know your opinion on this) is whether the language of “in Christ” is corporate or individual? Is it the People of God/The Church or each individual which receives the transfer? For me, the correct critique of the Reformers it that their soteriology is too individualistic. It has become about Jesus and me making a transaction at the cross. This bears little resemblance to what we see in Leviticus 21 where the sacrifice of the “scapegoat” is made for all Israelites (and Aaron represents the whole community).

    Hope that is clear enough,

  2. Hi Andrew,
    I’d say it has to be individual as each believer is a person who has personal faith in Christ. Paul talks of his individual experience of being ‘in Christ’ in Roms 16:7 for example. It can’t be less than this. But it is also more than this. Each individual is then joined to others in Christ, or within the body of Christ. Which is why the vast majority of ‘in Christ’ language is corporate.
    I’m not an expert on the Reformers, but in their defence I would have thought that they had a far more worked out sense of the indispensable role of the church / covenant community in salvation than much contemporary evangelicalism?

  3. Hi Patrick.

    Im liking this book review ( also i like your style of book reviewing. Keep it up. Its meaning i dont have to do as much as reading as i would like to 🙂 )

    Just curious if he interacted wih Wrights idea of justifiaction based on future pefection?


  4. A belated reply, Richard – glad you’re enjoying the review. No, he doesn’t get into that.
    Warmed up dinners of course are not as tasy as the original 🙂

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