Monday, October 26, 2009

Jonathan Edwards on the Imputation of Sin (Part 3)

Edwards’ View of Imputation of Sin
Most of Edwards’ statements of this doctrine appear in his writings in Original Sin, though one can also find the vein of Edwardsian personality running through other aspects of his writing. Primarily, one sees his deviation from the Reformed tradition with the example of the tree and its roots.
So root and branches being one, according to God’s wise constitution, the case in fact is, that by virtue of this oneness answerable changes or effects through all the branches coexist with the changes in the root: consequently an evil disposition exists in the hearts of Adam’s posterity, equivalent to that which was exerted in his own heart, when he eat the forbidden fruit (Edwards 221).

In the context of this section of Original Sin, Edwards is stressing the fairness of the constitution of mankind, placing Adam as the root, and humanity as the tree that springs from that root. In a sermon on Revelation 19:2-3, Edwards stresses a person’s guilt, even if he is involved or has a hand in another’s sin. The question then arises, “did we have a hand in Adam’s sin?” According to Gerstner, “He goes on to prove not only that we had a hand in Adam’s sin but that it was our sin; we committed it.” George Parks Fisher comments regarding Edwards’ view, “The sin of apostasy is not theirs merely because God imputes it to them, but because it is truly and properly theirs, and on that ground God imputes it to them” (Fisher 284-303). If Fisher’s assessment holds, then Edwards’ view should not be regarded as a view of imputation but instead as a view of identity.

Listen to the undertones of Edwardsian Identity in the following quotation from his sermon on Romans 7:14:
Adam’s posterity came by the corruption of nature by God’s withholding his Spirit and image from them judicially for their breach of the first covenant. It is not derived down naturally but God withholds his Spirit from them in judgment for their first sin viz. for their eating the forbidden fruit…They are looked upon as having eaten the forbidden fruit as well as Adam. They transgressed in Adam and therefore are subject to the same judgment (Gerstner 327).

He here refers to us – Adam’s posterity – as having actually committed the sin of eating the first fruit. For Edwards, we have all eaten the forbidden fruit. We all – humanity as a whole – had our hand in Adam’s first sin. Gerstner comments:
“Edwards [here] is clearly departing from the Reformed tradition fundamentally, and seems fully aware of it. Here the problem is not that the reformed tradition tended to be silent about the subject, but that the solution it offered did not satisfy Edwards.”

His enemies have argued that it is unfair for us to suffer because of the sin of Adam. From a strictly pragmatic perspective, there is little room to debate that Edwards’ proposition entirely eradicates his opponents’ objection, if in fact, his thesis that we are all identified with Adam and guilty of his first sin can be shown to accord with scripture. In one sense, however, Edwards does not desire to prove that his view of imputation is true, but only to show that this is a possible answer to the charge of unfairness.

Our reaction to Edwards’ view of imputation of sin is probably mixed. Some will appreciate his view for the sheer novelty and originality. Some will reject his view, arguing that it is based on conjecture and not enough on direct biblical statements. Others will choose to adopt his view based on the effectiveness with which it dispatches the charges of unfairness (if such an argument should even be considered valid!). One perfectly reasonable question which we could ask is, what did other Reformed theologians following Edwards, think of his idea? Arthur Crabtree put forth this criticism:
It tells us that two things are identical if God wills them to be so. It tells that if his teaching conflicted with its teaching he must be in error. Obviously [Edwards] had no such notion concerning the doctrine of personal identity. He was aware that it was different from ordinary reformed thinking but he did not think it inconsistent with…the Bible, but, in fact, most satisfactorily explained it.

By John Gerstner’s estimate, Charles Hodge looked at Edwards as an immediate imputationist, and thus, did not correctly understand Edwards’ view in order to critique it. He “does not seem to grasp the immediate immediacy of Jonathan Edwards...Adam’s act was not even immediately imputed to descendants, but was the descendants very own” (333). This criticism also holds true for John Murray, who “located Edwards between the immediate and mediate views of imputation” (333).

It would seem that Edwards has received little, if any criticism for his personal identification of Adam and his descendants. This means one of two things: 1) It could mean that few of those who came after Edwards looked deeply enough in his writings to see this doctrine, or 2) The doctrine itself was not a real issue with preceding theologians, since – though it was certainly a unique route to travel – its destination remained the same as the classical view that all of humanity suffers because of Adam’s first sin.

We should view and judge Edwards’ perspective in light of his intention in formulating this view. It would appear that Edwards saw himself as a champion of the classic Reformed doctrine of imputation. He did, however, perceive what could be considered a “weak spot” in the doctrine, which he saw himself as “safeguarding.” In this light, we should look at Edwards’ view as an addition or addendum to what was already an accurate and biblical perspective on humanity’s sinful condition. His view was not a replacement, nor was it challenge, but rather an addition. My primary rationale for adopting this assessment is based upon the many affirmations, which Edwards makes, favorable to the traditional view. If Edwards thought that his view should subvert or replace the traditional view, then surely he would have spoken against it or challenged its validity, yet one does not find such offensive statements in Edwards’ published works, to be sure. As I stated earlier, it would seem that Edwards saw his contribution as complementing, not subverting classic orthodox imputation.

With regard to this matter, the words of Scripture are always our roadmap, and our inerrant guide to knowing truth about God. As such, I close with the words of the Apostle Paul, our great theologian and forerunner:

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned…Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous (Romans 5:12, 18-19; my emphasis).


  1. I think when people level the accusation of injustice in regards to original sin they do so outside the Christian worldview. If you start with God who is the creator of man, then federal headship or even that we sinned with Adam (as Edwards seems to say)could be easily conceived as just. Adam, can you think of examples where our society uses headship, or do you think it is a purely Biblical concept?

  2. Would you guys be universalists if all you had access to was Romans 5?

  3. As to the Romans 5 question, the answer is no, I wouldn't be a universalist. After all; the first two verses of Romans 5 tell us that we have access to Jesus through faith. To my mind, that precludes the idea of someone having access to Christ without faith.

    As far as the question whether Federal headship is a common practice in society, my tentative answer is no. At least not in western society, that I can think of.

    The interesting thing about what Edwards is saying here is that the relationship between Adam and his progeny is unique, so we wouldn't expect to find any sort of headship like Edwards is describing in society. I'll get back to you if I change my mind on this answer. I haven't thought enough about it.

  4. How would you say Edward's view works in regards to Christ? I mean, it is all well to say that we sinned with Adam, but one could not say that we fullfilled the law with Christ.

  5. Oh absolutely you could say that we fulfilled the law in Christ. Absolutely. I was actually hoping someone would catch on to the implications for the imputation of Christ's active righteousness in reading this article.

  6. I know Christ's fullfillment of the law is imputed to his people, but are you saying that his people actually participated themselves in fullfilling the law in the way that Edwards said they actually participated in disobeying God with Adam?

  7. I'm saying that might be the implication if Edwards' view is correct. Do you think that's problematic?

  8. I guess I do not understand how one person can actually sin with Adam, and then actually fulfill the law with Christ. I understand that a sinner can have righteousness imputed to him as in a legal declaration, but how does a sinner actually fulfill the law?

  9. Hmm... the way you put that does create the potential for a contradiction. It would be possible, I think, that Adam and I are one and the same, but it does sound problematic to say that Christ and I, by virtue of His saving me, are also one and the same.

    The solution, of course, would be that we are one and the same with Adam, but that in Christ, his righteousness is imputed to us simply by virtue of God's declaration, which to my mind is more than sufficient. I had hoped (but not thought about it much) that imputation of sin would work in the same way as imputation of Christ's righteousness, but in the Edwardsian scheme this may actually create problem: how can anyone be two people?


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