Monday, January 16, 2006

Simeon Zahl responds to Al Kimel:

(for background, read the posts and comments below dealing with imputation. Simeon is writing in specific response to comments made on Al's blog, Pontifications, where two articles re: Simeon's thoughts can be found. Here I link to the most relevant one: "Losing the Bible" by Al Kimel)


Thank you once again for a great piece, for flattering me again with such a thoughtful reponse, and for furthering this discussion of what I think are some of the most important issues there are. You are a great dialogue partner and host.

I agree that there is more to understanding the Bible than looking at isolated texts and their singular grammatical-historical meaning. I agree wholeheartedly that we must look to the wider Scriptural witness on various issues if we in our sinfulness are to approximate anything anywhere near the “true meaning of Scripture.” Even so, would you agree that the first step towards such a more comprehensive view is to assess as best we can the grammatical-historical meaning of individual passages in Scripture?

To apply this to the imputation/ infusion discussion, I would agree that 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Galatians 3:13 are not enough in and of themselves on which to base our entire doctrine of justification. But I see imputation everywhere in Scripture. As I have argued before, I think that atonement, and the very forgiveness of sins, imply an imputational framework. That an atonement for our sins through someone else bearing them for us took place on the Cross surely is not in doubt here. For us to be treated in any sense as righteous on the basis of the righteousness of someone else—an idea that permeates Paul, however you interpret “on the basis of”—it seems to me must be an imputational rather than an infusional event. And I do not think you can have both—this particular issue is an either/ or. I have already argued this, and many are not convinced. But neither have I as yet been convinced by the responses.

For our present purposes, the point is that I see imputation as basic in Paul, and as profoundly present in the major emphasis in all four Gospels on the Passion that results in the Death of the Innocent.

Furthermore, I see imputation as absolutely necessary to any idea of loving the unlovable, of loving sinners. The Incarnation is the first word to us of a love from God that we do not deserve, a love we did nothing to earn or even accept. John tells us, in fact, that we did not accept it (“He was in the world… yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive Him”- 1:10-11).

Justification is true in the here and now, in our lives, not just in the abstract. This means that imputation and infusion each have their own practical consequences in how people are treated. To love a sinner in practice is to impute righteousness to them. It is to love them although they do not deserve it, because of what Christ has done. We see imputation in practice everywhere in the Gospels. The injunction to love our (sinful) neighbor, much less our enemy, would mean loving sin for its own sake, were it not for the imputation that stands behind it. Let me explain.

Jesus’ loving interactions with sinful and unlovable people also permeate the Gospel texts. We all know that God does not and cannot love sin. Therefore for Jesus to love sinners, he must have loved them on the basis of a righteousness, a sinlessness, that was not theirs. This is imputation practiced. Jesus practiced it with the woman caught in adultery, when he treated her precisely as if she had not broken the Law, though she undeniably had. He practiced it when he raised Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter and the widow’s son from the grave—that love was certainly not contingent on their active, willful “response” to his love! He practiced it when he restored Simon Peter following his denials—He responded to Peter’s sin by restating Peter’s position of leadership in the Church! This, too, was love based on imputation, not infusion.

God meeting us in our sin is not the exception, but the rule, at least if you see Jesus’ treatment of sinners in the Gospels as paradigmatic of God meeting us in our sin. I do. A perfect and perfectly just God, the God of whom the Psalmist says “Evil may not sojourn with thee” (5:4), cannot love sinners unless there is some mechanism behind it—he can love sin only if he does not see it as sin, and that is precisely what imputation enables. Or, rather, imputation explains what is going on when he loves us and we do not deserve it. It is a thoroughly biblical description of an even more thoroughly biblical love of a perfect God for sinners.

You may argue that he loves sinners not on the basis of their sin but because there is yet some good in them—the image of God left over from Creation, that persists in spite of the Fall—but I cannot accept this argument. To me, it sounds like a cop-out: the clear emphasis in the Gospels and in Paul and John and virtually everywhere else is on the love for the sinner, not the love for the one who is mysteriously good deep inside where no one can see. He did not love the adulteress in her secret, intrinsic, albeit thwarted goodness. He loved her in her sin, and that can only take place if his righteousness is imputed. His strength is not just made manifest also in weakness, it is made PERFECT in it (2 Corinthians 12:9). Here is my thesis: Love for sinners means imputation.

And for all its origin in the subtle mechanics of atonement, imputation is alive and real today. When we love our sinful neighbor. When a shepherd loves his wayward flock. When my wife loves her proud and absurd husband.

Al, as a priest, you have far more pastoral experience than I do. When someone is difficult in your congregation, someone is acting out in their sin in a way that is extremely distasteful and uncomfortable for you and everyone else, on what basis can you love them as Christ loved them? They do not deserve love, and yet Christ loved them, and so I have no doubt you loved them too. What I am saying is that your love for the unlovable, your mercy for the merciless, by definition is based on an imputational rather than infusional model. Do you disagree? I would appreciate you thoughts on what it means to love a sinner, in light of our differing views of justification.

But what of all the verses you say imply transformational models of justification, i.e. that say we must be improving or else we are not Christians? The verses that supposedly see sanctification in this life as a requirement for acceptance at the final judgment? First of all, this supposed profusion of verses is often appealed to in abstract, very rarely more specifically. If you want to talk about “those verses”, then please cite them, and we can discuss. The only verse that has been quoted so far in this discussion concerns God pouring his love into our hearts (Romans 5:5), an event that can be understood perfectly well in an imputational framework. I would just say, “Yes, his loved is poured into our hearts. But it is his love, not ours. It has nothing to do with an infusion, with an improved state in terms of less tendency to sin and greater tendency to love in our very nature. It is his love, not our love activated by his love, as an infusional view would have to assume”.

You referred to the wider Pauline and NT witness to “regeneration, adoption, union with Christ, baptismal incorporation into the Church, growth in holiness, death and resurrection, final judgment.” First of all, of all of these categories, the only ones that are remotely problematic for a full imputational view are “regeneration” and “growth in holiness”—and I think they too can be understood by imputation. Adoption? What a great metaphor for imputation! Union with Christ? Absolutely, though with no fundamental ontological change in our nature in this life. Baptismal incorporation into the Church? Yep, but only on the basis of his righteousness, not ours. Death and resurrection? Of course! “Death, where is thy sting!” Christ defeated death for me, not on the basis of my righteousness, but on the basis of his. Final judgment? Thank God I will be covered with the blood of the Lamb on that Day, or surely I would be damned.

But what about regeneration and growth in holiness? The imputational view accepts these, too, but only descriptively, not prescriptively. I believe that imputation really does produce fruit in our lives, that there is real love that is poured in our hearts for others. But it does so on the basis of his righteousness and most emphatically not our own, so that He is always the initiator, we always the theologically passive object of his initiating love. So yes, I believe believing Christians do change, and do bear fruit. But I do not think this has anything to do with an ontological change that results in a new ability not to sin located in the believer’s nature. And when it does not appear to be occurring, when believers do not appear to be producing fruit, we can only say, with Paul, “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).

The dominant NT metaphor for sanctification is that of “fruit”. Jesus says that a good tree will produce only good fruit, and a bad tree only bad (Matthew 7:17-20). The fruit metaphor (in addition to Matthew, see especially Galatians 5:22-23) is a profoundly passive one. Does the tree have control over whether or not it is healthy? Can it “participate” in the production of fruit in any sense that could involve the will? Does a tree even have a “will”? Are the water, the good soil, the weather, and its very genetic makeup, in any way a result of the tree’s initiative or participation?

Of course not. It is the most passive of metaphors. With the Lord as our planter, Creator, and gardener, we cannot but produce the fruit he chooses. But our status as a “good tree” is based on imputation, not infusion; substitution, not progressive improvement. So insofar as “transformation” is occurring in us and fruit is being produced, it is on the basis of his action, not ours. Infusion requires that we in some meaningful sense “participate” in that transformation. Imputation says that it simply happens, because of what has been done to us, not because of how we interact with what has been done to us. If we love back, it is with his love, not our own. Imputation, not infusion.

Finally, the infusion perspective deals very poorly with recidivism and persistent sin in the baptized believer. And show me a Christian who does not “backslide” every minute and every hour! Who is not enraptured with love for themselves on a regular basis! Whose first instinct is not to defend themselves against ad hominem arguments…! You did not defend yourself earlier in this thread when attacked by someone in this way: you just defended your point, and I applaud you for it. But if you are anything like me, who was also subject to that attack, your initial feeling was anger at being treated unfairly, and a desire to retaliate in kind. The loving dismissal you gave was not your first instinct, surely? If it was, you are a better man than I; I can tell you, love was not my first reaction!

It is in such things that I see the highly apparent lack of an infusion of righteousness in my nature. I cling to the Blood, which effected my righteousness through imputation, because without it I am damned. Otherwise, I missed my infusion, and that is a very scary thought. Some would dismiss my subjective account of my own sinfulness as missing the deeper and hidden reality, the “mystery” that the infusion is real even if I can never see it. But if the infusion is so “mysterious” that I never see its results, and never feel comforted in my sin by a sense of improvement, what use is it to me? It becomes a mere fantasy, totally out of touch with the reality of my sin and need. It morphs into a dreadful judgment on me for not bearing more fruit—it leads to guilt and death and exhaustion, subjected once again to a Law from which I thought Christ had freed me. Imputation covers me in this; infusion does not. Imputation allows for recidivism, without condoning it. As Thomas Nipperdey once described the Lutheran view of justification over and against the Reformed view (which is eerily similar in practice to the RC view), it is “an ethic of mercy” instead of “an ethic of probation”.

I find far more mercy in imputation, and I need far more mercy. Thank God I do not have to look far in the Scriptures to find a persistent love for sinners, based not on their own righteousness but on His. It is acted out in the Gospels. It is achieved on the Cross. And it is explained by Paul, not to mention Peter and John. It is far more than a first-phase exegetical grammatical-historical step.

Again, in your open-minded and absolutely fair treatment of my views, and your willingness to discuss them in light of your own, differing views, you have imputed to me a right to your time and gifts and experience that I do not deserve. As my brother put it recently, “When you disagree with someone strongly, you have two options: to impute love to them, or to hate them.” You have certainly done the former, and I thank you for it.

Simeon Zahl


Pontificator said...

Simeon, if my little articles can provoke you into such thoughtful articles, then I'll have to keep responding to you. :-)

God bless!

ethanasius said...

Amen and Amen (see, you got two!) to your wonderful response to Al. You nailed it.

Acolyte4236 said...

You write "The injunction to love our (sinful) neighbor, much less our enemy, would mean loving sin for its own sake, were it not for the imputation that stands behind it."

This would only be true if we conflate person and nature. Jesus comes to save the sheep that was lost. Sin doesn't alter the imago dei because sin is personal and the imago dei is natural. Your confusion here makes the forensic view necessary and commits you to a form of manicheanism.

Moreover, if there is no true union with God in this life, then how are we to be said to have eternal life, specifically the life that is God's? 2 pet 1:4 makes it clear that we become partakers of the divine nature, and not a created mental relation.

Lastly, the woman caught in adultery doesn't support a forensic reading of justification. The Law requires that the man and woman caught in adultery be brought to trial. The Jewish leaders break the law in bringing only the woman. Jewish law requires that those who break the law in bringing a charge are themselves punishable by the penalty for the offense that they brought the accused. Hence Jesus' statement, of those without sin cast the first stone. Jesus upholds the Law, since He gave it. It isn't an example of imputation.

Jeff Dean said...

This might not be a helpful comment, but I would be interested in comparing SERMONS by Simeon and Father Al.

When it comes to explaining the finer points of doctrine, they clearly disagree. But I suppose an evangelistic sermon by each would be much more similiar than we might guess.

Suffice it to say I would be proud to have both preach from the pulpit of my church some day!

Anonymous said...

Genuis Herr Zahl. And John, fabulous use of Manet, gas masks, and breakfasting methods.

4236, If your are just saying hate the sin love the sinner, the Jesus of The Book of Daniel on NBC is for you. I lost my imago dei in the garden.

Anonymous said...

What a great bumper sticker that would make.

Anonymous said...

little brother done good. real good,


Zadok said...

I pity people who have to look into the deep, inaccessible-to-your-everyday-lay-man, background of ancient Jewish Laws in order to deliberately miss the obvious point of a living and life-giving text.

bonnie said...

I wondered if anyone can point me to post-Fall scripture that says explicitly that we retain God's image. I don't know that we do. If we are sons and daughters by adoption (and not by blood) it means, therefore, sons and daughters by (perfect) nature along with the fall.

bonnie said...

Oops I totally didn't make any sense. Scratch the last post.

What I meant to say was, if we were sons and daughters by adoption, then we are by default NOT sons and daughters by nature. We lost that identity along with the fall.

John Zahl said...

Yes Bonnie, we are "creatures of God" not "children of God"! The latter is something we "become" at conversion according to John 1:12: "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God"...(and verse 13 highlites the issue) "--children born not of natural descent, ...but born of God".