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  • « Wesley and Regeneration | Main | The Next 2 Mondays... »

    A Few Thoughts on Federal Headship

    To those who decry the fairness of the federal headship of Adam, (that we are in bondage to sin because of his rebellion), consider that we see every day examples of this principle all around us ... your country of birth was not by choice, but because of your where your parents lived when they gave you birth. In many countries children are born into poverty, have disease and die in infancy, solely because of who their parents were. Did not God decide our parents?

    Adam's posterity are under a curse. We live in a world of sin and we all die because of his rebellion. Not Fair? Every time you sin you give your yea and AMEN to what he did. We have such solidarity with Adam as fallen creatures that he federally represented us - such that what he did, counts as what we did. Likewise the last Adam, Jesus Christ, federally represents us so that what he did for us also counts as what we did. You cannot reject this doctrine for Adam but have it for Christ.

    Therefore, we should not complain. God does not make mistakes. He does everything He does for a reason. He ordained your country of birth and your parents and the length of your life.

    Posted by John on July 15, 2010 01:54 PM


    Doesn't typical reformed teaching draw a distinction between imputed sin and inherited sin (i.e., mediate vs. immediate imputation)? One can "decry the fairness of the federal headship of Adam" by asserting an Augustinian realism according to which our standing in Adam is no mere legal fiction but an actuality due to our metaphysical connection with Adam. Indeed, your analogy of 'natural' connections (such as parents and countries) seems only to establish the idea of inherited sin, not imputed sin; the analogies say nothing to the morality of guilt transference. Say, for example, you were born in the state of South Carolina into a wealthy family, something which you had no control over. You are therefore subject to the laws of South Carolina, but you are also privileged to the wealth of your family. What, though, of your great great Grandfather's outstanding warrant of arrest in the state for holding slaves after the Civil War? Is it just for this way guilt to be transferred to you simply by virtue of your birth into a specific family and state? By no means. Guilt is not something that can be federally established.

    Also, one need not hold to a strong federal view (including imputation of guilt) in order to make sense of the atonement. See Oliver Crisp's "Original Sin and the Atonement" in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 430-451 for an example of a realist penal substitution argument.


    Thanks for your comments. Does the "realist penal substitution argument" then assert that our sin is not imputed to Jesus and His righteousness is not imputed to us, but, rather, is inherited?

    Or is there a discord in Romans 5? meaning was the way sin was imputed/inherited to us from Adam different than the way Jesus imputed to us his righteousness? And our sin to Him? Do you affirm the imputation of Christ's righteousness?



    Actually, Crisp uses a modified Barthian view of election and a perdurantist conception of personal identity (he's done some marvelous work on Jonathan Edwards's hamartiology) to suggest that the elect comprise a space/time entity that is not merely 'counted righteous' in the federalist sense of the term. Rather, they are made to be (really) partakers in the righteousness of Christ in the same way that all humanity (really) partakes of the sin of Adam. But no, the participation is not natural, but by a conception of Edwardsean 'arbitrary divine constitution.' Basically, federalism declares an "as if" whereas realism says that the given set of circumstances actually obtains. There is no 'legal fiction' in Augustinian realism.

    I studied Augustine's view in Seminary but I still felt more drawn and persuaded biblically for the federal view. The other seems to be, to some degree, to be built on unaided human logic. The 'legal fiction' argument somehow is not compelling enough to me.

    Barth, if I remember correctly, believed that all men were partakers of Christ's righteousness, not just the elect. This too seems to be taking liberties outside Scriptural boundaries.

    So can I assume from your answer that you reject the imputation of Christ's righteousness?


    Augustine's realism is based primarily off of the "in whom" in Rom. 5:12 as well as a more general theological interpretation of Scripture.

    The extent to which Barth is a universalist is questionable (for perhaps Barth's clearest treatment of this, see Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1960), 61-65). However, that debate is irrelevant to Crisp, since he limits the elect to a subset of humanity--he is no universalist.

    I'm not sure what makes you assume that I reject the imputation of Christ's righteousness? Nor am I certain how to answer your question, being unsure of what precisely you mean by imputation. I'd be happy to affirm something along the lines of what I think is the best way forward in the discussions of justification, namely what Kevin Vanhoozer brilliantly proposed at the recent Wheaton Theology Conference in his discussion of 'incorporated righteousness' (see also Michael Bird, "Incorporated Righteousness: A Response to Recent Evangelical Discussion Concerning the Imputation of Christ's Righteousness in Justification," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47, no. 2 (June, 2004), 253-275).

    As a side note, however, Augustinian realism actually asserts a stronger connection between the believer and Christ's righteousness than does federalism. It says that in being united to Christ the elect become partakers of Christ's righteousness; it is not merely 'credited' to their account.

    Is that more clear?


    It appears to me that you are speaking of what we call impartation and not imputation. Affirming that Jesus righteousness is somehow infused into us as opposed to counted toward us. What you propose, as I see it, is not that much different than what Roman Catholics believe. Are you Roman Catholic?

    We affirm, rather, than in our union with Christ, in the blood of His covenant, he "remembers" not to treat us as our sins justly deserve - the High Priest and the Sacrifices in the OT was not that much different. Jesus absorbs the full wrath of God for us, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. It is based on his covenant promise to us, not on some extra-biblical logic.

    “Before orphans can enjoy the love and care of a new family, they must be legally adopted. Adoption, like justification, is simultaneously legal and relational”
    -Michael Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ, pp. 247-248


    I do not affirm impartation, nor am I Roman Catholic. What do you make of union with Christ? Are we really united to Christ or only legally so? I take Calvin to be affirming something much more along the lines of the first--though, of course, he wouldn't buy into Augustinian realism.

    I can agree with everything you said in the second paragraph ("We affirm, rather..."). However, I would ask you what is the basis for God's 'remembering'? Does he remember a mere declaration, or does he see our union with Christ? Sure, there is likely a declarative pronouncement, but I take justification to be more than that. Again, realism entails more than a mere legal fiction.

    Regardless of my position on justification, my intent of the original comment I made was to merely make the point that there are other objections to Federalism than the 'fairness objection.' Moreover, one can reject Federalism and still have a robust (and orthodox) hamartiology. Still further, one can affirm a natural connection with Adam in which one inherits his corrupted nature while affirming that we are deemed guilty solely on the basis of our own sinfulness. Also, I wanted to bring to light the potential problems with transference of guilt theories.

    Anyway, I hope that makes sense. Thanks for the charitable discussion.


    >>>What do you make of union with Christ? Are we really united to Christ or only legally so?

    As my previous post clearly indicated, the answer is both. "Adoption, like justification, is simultaneously legal and relational” This is not an either/or question.

    Perhaps you are focusing in too hard on one aspect of Reformed thought with regard to union with Christ. Classic reformed theology actually does affirm the doctrine of IMPARTATION and this is accomplished through regeneration (one of the benefits of our union with Christ), not through justification. The Holy Spirit imparts a new heart to us so Christ is not only our justification, but is our sanctification as well. But impartation here is not what he is counting as our righteousness. So justification is not the only benefit from our union with Christ. In other words, Christ's work on our behalf is multi-faceted. These aspects of our union with Christ are to be distinguished but are certainly related. Therefore our union with Christ is much more than merely a legal declaration.

    Those who decry federal headship by saying "That's not fair!" better be quick to realize that to be consistent the same rebuttal must be made for the federal headship of Christ.


    Roman Catholics and some others (including you)have often made the charge that the imputation of our sin to Christ is a "legal fiction". Perhaps you are not looking at the issue from the right angle.

    If you were to break my computer and I say "I forgive you" this does not simply mean I am no longer angry with you. It also means that I am willing to absorb the full cost of the broken computer. Likewise Jesus' death does not make me righteous in myself, he counts me forgiven/righteous because he forgives me by fully absorbing the penalty I deserve ... because my sin is against Him. So there is nothing fictitious about this. That is as real as it gets. To call is a "legal fiction" 1000 times does not make it so.


    If you hold to a realist notion of union with Christ such that we are actually united to him, I see no need for any type of Federal representation. Realism does all the work that Federalism is designed to do and then some.

    But, as I mentioned before, my point was not about justification but hamartiology. As such, I'd prefer to stay on the topic of the post for any further discussion.




    "actually united to him"

    This comment is pretty out there James. Makes having a real conversation difficult. Bird et al are ignorantly taking us right back to the pre-Reformation soteriology: whereby God says what he does because we are intrinsically what we are. Even though you claim not to embrace Rome, how is this view substantially different than the Roman Catholic view of justification and some elements of NPP?

    Our view of union with Christ is not uni-dimensional Those who are regenerated are vitally connected to Christ. We affirm union is real and actual. Our sins are forgiven because we are in Him - but forgiven for His sake, not ours. HOWEVER, real union does not mean He has to pass the substance of righteousness or infuse it in us so that we are righteous in ourselves -- we are not sinless until we are glorified.

    Perhaps this is a good time to end the conversation.

    For those of you reading this post and want some resources on this I would recommend
    Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry which responds to this renewed realism

    Calvin's response to Sadoleto is also still relevant.

    Ask Achan's family whether or not guilt and the proceeding punishment can be imputed from Father to family!! You cannot call this inherited, but the idea of imputation or federal headship fits well. Joshua 7

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