Reformed Bias Exposed
Is the Doctrine of Imputation Found in The Epistle to Diognetus?
NOTE: For the catalyst for this post, see Bryan Cross’s post about Ligon Duncan’s lecture: Did the Fathers Know the Gospel?, which contains (in the thread) Duncan’s response.
Statement of Purpose – The following is an attempt to demonstrate what would have been obvious to me if I were inclined to consciously and aggressively counter my Reformed bias by limiting my interpretation to what is actually within the text. The analysis below does not aim at exploring every grammatical/textual observation which could be expounded, but rather aims at exposing the flow of thought in the passage relevant to our question as proposed in the subtitle. Without such analysis of thought-flow one cannot perform safe exegesis (the process by which one pulls meaning out of the text itself), but ever risks her interpretation to that infamous activity known as eisegesis (the process by which one reads into the text what she wants to see). It is not my intent to claim the doctrine of imputation is false but only that it is not to found in “The Epistle to Diognetus,” and that reading into this text the doctrine of imputation is therefore a vulnerable example of Protestant hermeneutical bias.
It is necessary that the reader have in front of her a copy of this letter in order to truly follow the logic of the exegesis: “The Epistle to Diognetus and the Fragment of Quadratus,” The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed., ed. Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007), 686-721.
The Epistle to Diognetus, IX
1. The “former time” is characterized by unrighteousness in nobis (inside of us), that is, unrighteousness which consist in internal “impulses,” “pleasures and lusts.”
2. This “unrighteousness” of the former time is intended to be contrasted with the “season of righteousness which is now,” the latter being the solution, or answer, as it were, to the former.
3. This comparison between the “former time” and the present season is paralleled in the text by a comparison between the “past time” in which “from our own deeds” (in nobis) we were “convicted as unworthy of life,” and the “now” in which “by the goodness of God” we are “deemed worthy.”
4. In both of the temporal comparisons mentioned above (1-3) the unrighteousness is in nobis or inherent to the persons to which the “righteousness” is intended to be the cure. It is most natural, therefore, to take the author to understand the “righteousness” which is characteristic of the “season of righteousness” to also be in nobis—the opposite of unrighteousness in nobis.
5. The above interpretation (4) is confirmed by the text itself as the author speaks of the contrast again in just this sense. The former time is characterized by an inherent inability “of ourselves … to enter into the kingdom of God,” as opposed to the present time in which, by the “power” of God we are “able.” Both the former and present states are described in terms of a quality which is inside of us (inherent powerlessness vs. ability)—albeit worked through the divine “power” which is extra nos (outside of us).
6. The “goodness” and “power” of God (by which it is said that we are “deemed worthy” and made able) is contextually described with words which function as virtual synonyms, namely, His “exceeding kindness and love,” not Christ’s active and passive obedience (the grounds by which we are deemed worthy according to the Reformed tradition).
7. Beginning with the phrase “Himself in mercy took on Him our sins,” the latter half of verse 2 is grammatically subordinate to, and explicatory of, the first part of the sentence in which the main idea is seen in the main verb, “bore.” All that follows in verse 2 explains in what sense God “bore with us” patiently. One must not miss the penal tension—”our iniquity … its reward of punishment and death was awaited”—which is explicitly understood as the dilemma to which this bearing is the answer.
8. Although we might understand that Christ “bore with us” patiently in seven different ways, it is more rhetorically sensitive to see our author explaining this one same act with several expressions. In other words, it is overwhelmingly likely that the seven phrases which follow this main verb (and are explicatory of it) are listed in typical parallelism fashion, and therefore mean virtually the same thing.
9. These parallel phrases mentioned above are the following:
Himself in mercy took on Him our sins
Himself gave up His own Son as a ransom for us
the holy One for the wicked
the innocent for the guilty
“the just for the unjust”
the incorruptible for the corruptible
the immortal for mortals
10. The above parallel phrases, being seven different ways of referring to Christ’s taking on our sins as a ransom, each refer to the idea of penal substitution on the basis of the death of Christ, not the idea of positive forensic status substitution on the basis of the active and passive obedience of Christ.
11. Verses 3-4 combined compose a ground (“for”) in support of the necessity of such penal substitution heralded by the author in verse 2.
12. The grounding in verses 3 and 4 is based on the following argument—”what else could cover our sins but his righteousness?” Contextually therefore, the “righteousness” which “covers our sins” is the death of Christ, since the phrase “what else” most naturally and necessarily (if it is to ground the previous phrases) refers to the main idea in the preceding sentence, explained by the parallelisms which follow (9).
13. Likewise verse 4 bears the same idea of necessity as does verse 3. The question is—”In whom was it possible for us, wicked and impious as we were, to be justified”? The answer is, “in the Son of God alone.” Contextually, that the wicked and impious are able “to be justified “in the Son of God alone,” means that they are able to be justified by the penal substitution of Christ only.
14. The “sweet exchange” of verse 5 need not bear any more meaning than what has gone before it (and what comes after it, as we will see in 16)—namely the penal exchange in which Christ exchanged himself in our place to bear the punishment for our sins. This is the “exchange” our author has gloried over in the previous verse and wished to ground in verses 3 and 4.
15. The phrases which follow the first phrase of verse 5 (“O the sweet exchange”) are another example of parallelism in which the phrases which follow refer to virtually the same thing:
O the sweet exchange
O work of God beyond all searching out,
O blessings past our expectation
16. The author gives us an explicatory clause, or content clause if you will, which perfectly accounts for all the previous language of exchange—”that the wickedness of many should be hidden in the one righteous Man and the righteousness of the One should justify many wicked!”
17. Unless we take this last clause completely out of the logical and grammatical range of the context, our author is most naturally understood to be reiterating his main idea (as he has been doing since the latter half of verse two)—not introducing some brand new idea at the end of the section. That is, the wickedness of the many as hidden in the one righteous Man refers again to the penal substitution in which Christ “bore our sins” as it were, taking on the punishment for them even though he did not deserve it, but was perfectly “righteous.” And the next phrase reiterates the result of this penal substitution—the act of penal substation is “the righteousness of the One” which “should justify the many wicked.”
18. Verse six revisits the theme of temporal contrast in which the “former time” is characterized by the “powerlessness” of our “nature to gain life,” to the “now” time of the Savior in which we are “save[d]” in spite of our powerlessness. This “life” which is spoken of is not something wholly extra nos which is imputed to us, but a “salvation” in nobis which is to be the opposite of our state of “powerlessness” (cf. 5).
19. “His goodness” is once again clarified for us, reinforcing our previous interpretation (6) by which we have concluded that “His goodness” does not refer to the active and passive obedience of Christ by which we obtain forensic status before God, bur rather the “goodness” which God illustrates in sending His son to provide redemption for us—namely, his nature as “guardian, father, teacher, counselor, healer, mind, light, honour, glory, strength,” and “life.” Note: This would have been the perfect place for our author to identify this “goodness” by which we are “deemed worthy” in verse 1 as the active and passive obedience of Christ, but our author does not even go as far as to call it “righteousness” or “obedience” here.
20. As a result of our being confident in God’s good will and love toward us, demonstrated in sending his Son to die for our sins, we are to be freed in nobis from “anxiety about clothing and food.”
Exegetical Conclusion – The assumption of the reader who sees the doctrine of imputation in this text is plain—that wherever the “righteousness” of Christ is spoken of as that which justifies, or by which we are deemed worthy, it refers to the active and passive obedience of Christ rather than the more obvious contextual and grammatical referent—namely, the righteous act of substitution which Christ performed on our behalf. Similarly, when the author reminds us that Christ is “righteous” (as the spotless lamb of a sacrifice), the Protestant reader tends to read into the word “righteous” the active and passive obedience of Christ which is imputed to us for our formal basis of justification. The idea of substitution, to be sure, is in the text quite clearly (i.e. “exchange”), and therefore easily misread by those who are of a Protestant/Reformed perspective (such as myself) as referring to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness spoken of by Luther as “the sweet exchange.” However, the substitution in which the author glories is nowhere spelled out as the active and passive obedience of Christ extra nos by which we are counted as righteous before God. Such concepts are simply absent from the text. The language and logic nowhere imply such a reading, much less demand it. The section is sufficiently understood in terms of penal substitution. Thus I conclude that Protestant bias has won the day in the interpretation of this text to the negligence of diagrammatical analysis.
My good brothers, if I have been in consequential error in my interpretation due to my own ignorance or blind spots, I have conveniently left you my step-by-step analysis by which you could demonstrate which is the weak link in my exegetical development. Please make use of my numbered propositions for reference if you choose to interact. I welcome all who would wish to correct me on this one condition—show me in which step(s) my exegesis breaks down, and how it effects my other propositions. Otherwise, I would not be confident you have followed my argument. Your Reformed, Protestant, and Evangelical brother,
–Bradley R. Cochran