Computing the Imputing image

Computing the Imputing

It’s quite some time now since the arguments swirling around NT Wright’s definition of justification and imputation were at their hottest. But for a while it was very hot indeed, generating volumes of argument and counter-argument. Unfortunately, a number of those involved in the debate seemed to spend more time talking past one another than really engaging the different perspectives, but it now feels like an uneasy truce has descended. (If you need a reminder about the issues at stake, here is an interview with John Piper from 2007.)

One of Wright’s statements that caused particular debate was this,

If we use the language of the law-court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom.
- What Saint Paul Really Said, 98

As the debate over this heated up, with heavyweight New Testament scholars taking lumps out of each other, I felt increasingly out of my depth. But over the past couple of years, as I’ve gone about my normal reading through the Bible, I’ve jotted down verses that suggest imputing, imparting, bequeathing, conveying, or otherwise transferring, in a way that imply Wright was perhaps missing something. I tend to spot one I’ve previously missed every few months. Here is my collection so far:

Ex. 29:37 Seven days you shall make atonement for the altar and consecrate it, and the altar shall be most holy. Whatever touches the altar shall become holy.

Ex. 30:29 You shall consecrate them, that they may be most holy. Whatever touches them will become holy.

Lev.6:27 Whatever touches its flesh shall be holy, and when any of its blood is splashed on a garment, you shall wash that on which it was splashed in a holy place.

Num. 11:25 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it.

Ez. 44:19 And when they go out into the outer court to the people, they shall put off the garments in which they have been ministering and lay them in the holy chambers. And they shall put on other garments, lest they transmit holiness to the people with their garments.

Ez. 46:20 And he said to me, “This is the place where the priests shall boil the guilt offering and the sin offering, and where they shall bake the grain offering, in order not to bring them out into the outer court and so transmit holiness to the people.”

Hag. 2:12-13 ‘If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?’” The priests answered and said, “No.” Then Haggai said, “If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” The priests answered and said, “It does become unclean.”

The idea that holiness (or unclean-ness) are in some way objects or substances that can be transferred between people or things seems odd to the modern mind; but for the apostle Paul, steeped as he was in the mind of the Law and the Prophets, it probably didn’t seem odd at all. Is it not likely this shaped the way he understood justification? I might be missing something, but I wonder if Wright did, too.


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