Monday, October 19, 2009

Jonathan Edwards on the Imputation of Sin (Part 1)

Orthodox Christianity will always have its opponents. This is due to the nature of humanity, which tends to reject the sovereign God in every possible way. In the 18th Century, Jonathan Edwards fought off such enemies of the faith. At this particular time, these people attacked the concept of original sin. Particularly – they asked – is it fair that I am responsible for a sin that Adam (the first man) committed? It is within Edwards’ answer to this incredible challenge that we find the thought of John Locke. Though in the final analysis, we shall see that Edwards’ answer trod its own path never before traveled. We will find that his answer actually stems from an eventual rejection of Locke’s view of personal identity over time. It is nonetheless crucial to grasp how this intellectual giant answered the challenges he encountered.

The Challenge
Attacks by Dr. John Taylor, a liberal arminian scholar from England, prompted the writings of perhaps the two greatest Reformed writings of the 18th Century: The Freedom of the Will and Original Sin. Both of these were written while Edwards ministered among the Indians in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It has been said by Notre Dame scholar George Marsden that The Freedom of the Will, in and of itself, prevented and even diminished the spread of arminianism in the American colonies for well over a hundred years. Further, he says, “its power…was a significant factor in the intellectual resilience and influence of Calvinism in America well into the nineteenth century” (Marsden 446).

In Dr. Taylor’s Attack, he charged that the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity is unjust and unreasonable for the rather simple reason that Adam and his posterity are not one and the same.

The Classic Responses
For the purposes of our present discussion, let us define the word “impute.” Romans 5:13 says, “For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed where there is no law.” The Greek word, which Paul uses in this particular passage, is ellogeo, which is translated “to reckon, attribute, impute, put on account.” In light of this, let us define imputation of sin as “that by which God regards an individual as a sinner.” The Christian church has held many different views of how or why Adamic sin is imputed to his offspring. Briefly, let us broadly examine the general theories of imputation offered by Edwards’ opponents.

Pelagians and Socinians
The Pelagians, as well as the Socians deny any real connection between Adam’s sin and our own. For them, the only connection between Adam’s sin and the sin of the remainder of humanity is that of an evil example, which we all emulate, though we are free to stop sinning, if only we would choose to stop. Each individual is regarded as sinful as soon as they commit an actual sin in practice.

Semi-Pelagians and Early Arminians
The Semi-Pelagians and some early Arminians believe that all human beings have inherited a natural inability from Adam, but that these human beings are not responsible for their inability, and thus, no guilt attaches to it. It may even be said, under this view, that God is in a way under obligation to provide a cure for it. The Wesleyan Arminians admit that this inborn corruption also involves guilt.

The Federal Head
• God ordained that in the pre-fall covenant, Adam would stand in, not only for himself, but also for his offspring. Thus, he was head of the race, not only in a physical/parental role, but also in a federal role.
• The covenant commanded obedience, yet guaranteed that persistent perseverance for a certain period of time would be rewarded with a fixation of Adam’s state in one of permanent holiness and perfect happiness.
• Obedience to the covenant would have resulted in a just claim to life eternal, not only for Adam, but also for his descendants. Thus, there were many benefits to the covenant, but there were also many risks which were involved.
• Transgression of the covenant would (and did) result in the opposite of eternal life – eternal death. Just as the arrangement would result in life for his offspring, it also would (and did) result in eternal death to his offspring.
• “In his right judgment, God imputes the guilt of the first sin, committed by the head of the covenant, to all those that are federally related to him. As a result, they are born in a depraved and sinful condition as well, and this inherent corruption also involves guilt.”
• Only the “first sin of Adam, and not his following sins nor the sins of our other forefathers is imputed to us. Also, this teaching safeguards the sinlessness of Jesus” (Paraphrased & Quoted; Berkhof 241-243).

The Federal Head view tells us that God constituted humanity with one man as the “stand-in” or leader, upon whose decision humanity would rise or fall. Essentially, the Federal Head view says, God chose Adam to represent all of us. This view appeals to God’s right to constitute nature in whatever way He pleases. It is, largely, the traditional Reformed view.

The Next Installment: Edwards' View of Imputation


  1. Many have criticized Jonathan Edwards. I would appreciate help from anyone who can help me find: [1]some definitive proof of Edwards making "unbiblical" statements or admitting to making inovations in Reformed Theolgy? [2] the most thorough refutation of Edwards "unbiblical" statements? I am particularly interested in finding a biblical refutation of Edwards' view of imputation. Is Charles Hodge the best available on this point? If so, in which of his writings? Thank you for your help. I am,

    Only By Christ's Mercies,

    Bill W. Lee
    Paris, AR

  2. Hi, Bill. Thanks for reading our blog. We appreciate your taking the time.

    I'm not sure, Bill, if you had an opportunity to read parts 2 and 3 of this series on Edwardsian imputation, but if you read them you would find that I do, in fact, answer question number 1, in a sense. Yes, Edwards departed from the traditional Reformed understanding of imputation, but I do not charge that his innovations are unbiblical. The substance of this assertion is contained in parts 2 and 3.

    Since I don't assert that Edwards' view of imputation is unbiblical, you will probably have to look elsewhere to find a refutation of his view. In John Gerstner's estimation, what you find in reformed circles is that most don't really understand Edwards' position on imputation, so if there is anyone who argues against him, I would like to know about it, as well.

    Hodge does argue against Edward's imputation, but as Gerstner points out, he misunderstood Edwards as a direct imputationist. So maybe Hodge isn't even a good resource on the subject.

  3. There was a discussion of it between Jonathan Edwards and John Locke. In "Reasonableness of Christianity", Chapter 1, Locke quotes from The Bible showing why the doctrine of imputation of sin is unbiblical. because of this, Edwards judged Locke and falsely accused him of being a socinian, but Locke wrote a second treatise called "The Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity" in which he responded.

    Such Edwards' attitude is unChristian and, even more, the fact that he was a Calvinist.


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