Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Robert H. Gundry

On Oden's Answer

My thanks to Books & Culture for inviting me to respond to Thomas C. Oden's "Calm Answer" to my critique of "The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration," and to Oden for trying to answer the critique calmly. Naturally, third parties will judge for themselves whether or not there is enough calmness in his answer to make a true contrast with agitation in the critique.

Oden writes that he and his fellow drafters of "Celebration" had hoped to be spared "this sort of public squabble." What then of their statements in "Celebration" that "doctrinal disagreements call for debate" and that "useful dialogue … requires not only charity in our attitudes, but also clarity in our utterances"? On what grounds has Oden classified the present debate as a "public squabble" rather than as a "useful dialogue"? And since my discussion of imputation, which captures more space by far than lesser topics, deals with the self-proclaimed center of "Celebration," how can he rightly accuse me of an attack on the "edges"?

I accept Oden's statement that "the drafters of 'Celebration' sought to be as inclusive as possible of major evangelical voices"; but as explicitly stated in the critique, my concern has been that whatever the drafters' intention, at points the wording of "Celebration" excludes, or at least can easily and naturally be read as excluding, such voices. Oden's suggestion to the contrary notwithstanding, nowhere have I said or hinted, nor have I entertained the thought, that it "is not a decent goal" for "'Celebration' … to define those points of common understanding upon which diverse evangelicals agree." My criticisms do not imply an assault against that worthy goal. By and large they have rather aimed to help achieve it by insuring that the wording of "Celebration" not exclude certain evangelicals. It is therefore out of bounds for Oden to ask, "Why would not our critic wish to see such an irenic effort succeed … ?"

"It is an exaggerated and defensive and tendentious reading of 'Celebration' that leads the critic to conclude that 'such evangelicals' as Arminians are being 'kept outside the fold.'" So writes Oden. But this statement of his is itself exaggerated, defensive, and tendentious. For I asked a question which he has now transmuted into a conclusion. Then, after applying to Arminians a phrase of mine that has nothing to do with them as such—rather with all those, whether Arminian or not, who think that Jesus' "one act of righteousness" refers solely to his propitiatory death on the cross—Oden asks whether I think the "prominent Wesleyans and Pentecostals and Charismatics" who endorsed "Celebration" did not read it, did not know how to read it correctly, did not endorse it with integrity, or do not know their own true beliefs.

Well, I said that I was "surprised and puzzled to see … the names of drafters and endorsers … recognizable as Arminian, Holiness, Pentecostal, and otherwise charismatic," and that "their subscription to 'Celebration' deserves respect." I even asked myself "whether I am being too picky." Do those statements and this question sound like an arrogating to myself of superior intelligence or a discrediting of others' integrity?

Oden does not help me out of my puzzlement over the reason or reasons why Arminians, Holiness people, Pentecostalists, and other charismatics have not seen in "Celebration" some wording that negates their beliefs in free will, a second work of grace, and an empowering baptism in the Holy Spirit unentailed in justification. For with one exception, Oden's assertions to the contrary do not constitute an exegesis of "Celebration" that would indicate how its wording might be construed at points as compatible with those views. I did engage in an exegesis of "Celebration," one that raised doubts deserving, I think, a more exegetical than assertive comeback.

According to Oden, my critique contains an advocacy of Arminianism, and I "apparently" want "to defend Arminians from overweening Calvinists." But I stated outright that I am not Arminian, so that the critique hardly advocates Arminianism. And by making my defense of Arminians against overweening Calvinists cover the issue of justification by the imputation of Christ's righteousness, Oden neglects the limitation of that defense to the matters of free will and, for many but not all Arminians, a second work of grace or an empowering baptism in the Holy Spirit usually subsequent to conversion. Therefore his citing agreements between Arminians and Calvinists on justification is beside the point of my objecting to seemingly anti-Arminian statements on the other matters.

Oden says that "Celebration" does not attempt to answer "in detail" the questions whether "empowerment for Christian life and witness requires a work of the Holy Spirit above and beyond justification by faith" and whether "all Christians have experienced this further work." Not in detail, to be sure; but the statement that "the Gospel assures us that all who have entrusted their lives to Jesus Christ are born again … [and] empowered … by the Holy Spirit" does not seem to lack clarity. As one who in the past seriously considered the Holiness-Pentecostal view (if for the moment I may merge the two similar views into one), read widely in literature and listened to many sermons advocating it, and held that view for a while, I can say that if I did still hold it this statement in "Celebration" would wave a red flag in my face. Oden's attempt to soften the statement by reading into it a question of "the extent" to which the Holy Spirit's empowerment takes place at conversion founders on the parallel drawn by "Celebration" between that empowerment and being born again. For surely he and his fellow drafters do not read a question of extent into rebirth by the Spirit. But I am glad to learn that regardless of wording, there is no intention to deny evangelical citizenship to those who disagree with an immediate empowerment of all Christians. For in other quarters I have heard just such a denial.

Though doubting its contextual support, I myself noted a way in which free-willers might accept the statement that "our faith itself is the fruit of God's grace." But Oden's claim, "The free will that is enabled by grace is strongly affirmed in Celebration," spurs me to ask, Where? As to the observation that "Arminius's theology is to be understood as a type of Calvinism," I said almost as much in my own observation that "Arminians as well as Calvinists trace their roots back to the Protestant Reformation and can speak of faith as the fruit or gift of God's grace in the sense that he gives human beings opportunity to believe and by his Spirit prompts them to do so by an act of their own free will."

"The critic dislikes repetition in 'Celebration.'" Where do I say so? I only point out that the repetitiveness with which justification by an imputation of Christ's righteousness is put forward makes for a huge, advertised emphasis. My concentration on this point of doctrine simply reflects that emphasis in "Celebration." It does not represent inconsistency with a dislike of repetition qua repetition.

To the means of justification, then. Something seems to have gone wrong in Oden's statement that "believers' sins are accounted as sharing in Christ's righteousness." I suspect he means that believers' sins are accounted to Christ in order that believers themselves may share in his righteousness. Oden then asks "who among evangelicals … could not endorse the complementarity of the active and passive obedience of Christ," which he defines, respectively, as Christ's active fulfillment of God's law prior to the crucifixion and Christ's passive submission to a vicariously sacrificial death in the crucifixion.

Though Oden speaks of my "apparently … categorical disagreement," asks whether Jesus "would … be qualified to become our Mediator" if he were "a bum, a philanderer, a punk," and warningly says "it is a classic heresy to assert that Christ's life had no salvific reference to his death," I affirmed that complementarity in my statement, "Certainly evangelicals affirm that Jesus had to live a life of perfect righteousness if he was to qualify as the bearer of our sins." I likewise affirmed justification as a forensic declaration of believing sinners to be righteous and, no fewer than six times, the imputation of our sins to Christ and the counting of faith as righteousness: (1) "Here Paul does use the language of imputation, but only in the negative, 'not counting,' and only in connection with the world's 'transgressions'"; (2) "Gal. 3:6 contains the language of imputation but similarly connects righteousness with faith"; (3) "In Rom. 4 we finally come to statements which say that righteousness is imputed"; (4) "But these statements are bounded and interspersed with others that say faith is counted as righteousness (just as in Galatians)"; (5) "Since faith as distinct from works is credited as righteousness, the righteousness of faith is a righteousness that by God's reckoning consists of faith even though faith is not itself a work"; (6) "We do read of imputation, but in regard to counting faith as righteousness so as not to take account of sin, not in regard to counting Christ's righteousness as belonging to sinners who believe in him." How astonishing and false, then, for Oden to make me "argue that Paul does not use the language of crediting or imputation or the accounting metaphor at all (!)" (italics and exclamation mark original).

What is at issue is whether a righteousness of Christ is correspondingly put to the account of believing sinners and, if so, whether that righteousness includes his fulfillment of God's law prior to the Crucifixion in addition to his submission to a vicariously sacrificial death. Many evangelicals who affirm an imputation of Christ's righteousness deny an inclusion of more than his submission to death. Who are they? Generally speaking, they are the Baptists, nondenominationalists, and dispensationalists among whom I did most of my growing up (with frequent excursions into Holiness and Pentecostal circles), who have played a major, perhaps dominant, role in American evangelicalism, but who apart from borrowed references to A. J. Gordon and R. A. Torrey are conspicuously missing from Oden's account, limited as it is to evangelicals in the Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, and non-Pentecostal charismatic traditions. I can still remember my teacher of systematic theology—a Plymouth Brother and no stranger to the classical Reformed tradition, for he took his education at Princeton Theological Seminary under the tutelage of A. A. Hodge, G. Vos, J. G. Machen, O. T. Allis, and R. D. Wilson—expositing the disagreement between Reformed and non-Reformed evangelicals on the question whether an imputed righteousness of Christ includes more than his submission to the cross. Because non-Reformed evangelicals see a stronger distinction between the church and Israel than Reformed evangelicals do, the non-Reformed ones feel less or no need to have Christ fulfill Israel's law on their behalf and have that fulfillment imputed to them.

But I join the growing number of biblical theologians, evangelical and nonevangelical alike, who deny that Paul or any other New Testament author speaks of a righteousness of Christ (whatever it might include or exclude) that is imputed to believing sinners, and find instead a doctrine of God's righteousness as "his salvific activity in a covenantal framework, not in terms of an imputation of Christ's righteousness in a bookkeeping framework" (so my critique). Oden calls this view "highly idiosyncratic." The description is dead wrong, as my citation of Mark Seifrid, Tom Wright, James Dunn, Chris Beker, and John Reumann showed. Other recognized scholars could easily be added to the list, so many in fact that it would not exaggerate to speak of a developing standard in biblical theological circles. Oden appeals on the contrary to "many highly qualified New Testament exegetes" who "signed 'Celebration' in good conscience." I count only five known to me as fitting his description. Be that as it may, however, inasmuch as my own "conversion" on this matter occurred only recently through a serious study of the topic, I shall not fault those signatories but only issue them a friendly challenge to provide a convincing exegetical basis for the imputation of Christ's righteousness.

In a patch of purple prose, on the other hand, Oden describes me as "unawed, even bored," by the "hard-won and long-standing achievements of Protestant exegesis" in regard to an imputation of Christ's righteousness, as preferring "to deal only with recent exegesis, as if these crucial exegetical points had no relevant history of interpretation," as not understanding that my ancestors "were willing to bleed and die for these precise definitions," as "cavalier about the blood-stained work of the Holy Spirit in the history of the church amid its struggle for doctrinal clarity, balance, and rigor" (as though I am not engaged in that struggle right here and now), as forgetful "that church history is essentially the history of exegesis" (as though I am not participating in that history), and as unmindful that "contemporary exegesis" cannot "divorce itself from the layers of history of interpretation of the text." But does not Oden allow that contemporary exegesis may correct an aspect of classic Protestant teaching on justification just as that teaching corrected an aspect of classic Roman Catholic teaching on justification? Or does he think that corrective exegesis stopped with the Protestant Reformation? Presumably not, but then he needs to withdraw his argument from Protestant exegetical history.

Let us take up Oden's exegetical arguments. Of me he writes, "The critic at tempts an unusually sharp bifurcation between the righteousness of God and the righteousness of Christ, arguing that Paul never speaks of the latter." But there is no attempt and no argument, only a factual observation. Since Paul never speaks of Christ's righteousness, a distinction between Christ's righteousness and that of God does not even exist in Paul's soteriology.

"But if Christ is God (as John 1 states)," asks Oden, "then is not this distinction dubious?" No, because Paul repeatedly mentions the righteousness of God in passages where he distinguishes between God and Christ (though without denying Christ's deity), gives himself plenty of opportunity to mention a righteousness of Christ, but never does.

Oden then appeals to Phil. 2. But that passage does not talk about Christ's righteousness, rather about his obedience, relates it to his death on a cross, not to his preceding lifetime, and uses no language of imputation. (By the way, "taking the form of a slave" should also be related to the cross inasmuch as crucifixion was considered a slave's death and allusions to Isaiah 53 abound.) Next, Oden appeals to Rom. 5:18, which he mistranslates, "So one man's act of righteousness [sic, 'one act of righteousness,' references to 'one man' appearing in surrounding verses] leads to acquittal and life for all men," and asks whether Jesus' one act is "inclusive of both his life and his death," and whether his death "could … be bifurcated from his life." I answer no to the first question, yes to the second, and note that these merely rhetorical questions do not even begin to address the half-dozen exegetical reasons I listed for denying a Pauline reference to the totality of Jesus' earthly life of obedience to God and the law. That one act of righteousness does not include Jesus' previous life any more than Adam's contrastive one transgression included a subsequent life of sinning. Contextually, Jesus' one act of righteousness refers to his dying for the ungodly, dying for us while we were still sinners, shedding his blood for our justification, and reconciling us to God through his death—period. Nor does Paul say that God credits Jesus' one act of righteousness to the account of believing sinners in place of their sins.

Therefore when Oden cites the crediting of Abraham's faith as righteousness, he makes my point. It is our faith, not Christ's righteousness, that is credited to us as righteousness. The problem is not that " 'Celebration' is too dependent upon Pauline language of 'accrediting,'" as Oden alleges I think, but that "Celebration" attaches Christ's righteousness as a direct object of accrediting, as Paul never does. This unscriptural attachment falsifies Oden's statement that "'Celebration' does not attempt to argue in detail a particular view of the language of the crediting of sin and righteousness."

Proceeding to Rom. 5:19, Oden writes that "this text does not specify whether the obedience of this One [Jesus Christ] is through his life or death or both." But the very preceding verse has specified "one act of righteousness" in contrast with "one transgression," a contrast avoided by Oden. Then he opines that Paul's Greek verb katastathesontai "can be argued exegetically" to imply the accrediting metaphor. No exegetical argument appears, though; and even if the verb be taken to entail a forensic declaration, as some commentators do take it, Paul does not say that believing sinners are declared righteous through having Christ's obedience imputed to them. A forensic declaration does not equal or demand that kind of imputation. All that is needed to make forensic sense of Paul's statement is for Christ's obedient submission to death for our sins to result in God's declaring righteous us whose sins have thus been imputed to Christ.

Oden describes as "selected" the New Testament passages using the metaphor of accounting and treated by me. Be it known, however, that I selected them be cause they are the only New Testament passages which use that metaphor, not because I found them easy pickings for my case and neglected harder passages. Then Oden distills the thought of Rom. 3:24-25; 4:6-8; 10:3-9; 2 Cor 5:21 into an "accounting … to the believer by God himself the perfect righteousness of God's own representative and guarantee: God the Son, Jesus Christ," so that "the [believing] sinner now possesses … God the Son's own righteousness." Unfortunately for this distillation, and as I pointed out in my critique, those Pauline passages mention God's righteousness, not his Son's.

I do not understand the relevance of Oden's statement, "The idea that one's sins are unconditionally covered by an other's righteousness may, indeed, if misunderstood, tend toward license." For I did not raise this concern. Nor do I understand the question, "Does 'Celebration' indeed say, as charged, that the perfect life of Christ is unilaterally imputed to the actual behavior of believers?" (italics added). Where did I make such a charge? Finally on this topic, it should be clear that I support the opposition to a Roman Catholic doctrine of in fused righteousness, but for the sake of fruitful dialogue it seems to me that Protestants should exhibit as much willingness to accept scriptural criticism as they expect Roman Catholics to exhibit.

The rest can be disposed of in short order. Contrary to Oden's declaration, I have never suggested that "Celebration" is "soft or ambiguous in fostering a tendency toward 'universal salvation' … or edging toward universalism." It clearly does not. I only noted that evangelicalism "has long included … even some who believe in universal salvation" and that at the present time evangelicals are migrating to or to ward universalism "occasionally." Since I declared myself an exclusivist, how can Oden countenance the possibility that I disagree with the evangelical persuasion that "no one comes to the Father except through the Son"? I did express concern, however, over "the currently massive migration of evangelicals from exclusivism to inclusivism" and what I take to be some ambiguity in "Celebration" on this issue. Oden does not address it (unless he confuses inclusivism with universalism, as I presume he does not).

I am interested to learn that "annihilationism cannot by any means come under" the "definition" of "eternal retributive punishment" in "Celebration." But it remains a question in my mind whether all the signatories understand annihilationism to be excluded.

Robert H. Gundry is scholar-in-residence at Westmont College. He is the author of many books in the field of New Testament studies, including commentaries on Matthew and Mark.

Most ReadMost Shared