T h e o • p h i l o g u e

Home » Uncategorized » Does The Letter to Diognetus Teach Imputation? :: A Response to Ligon Duncan’s Analysis

Does The Letter to Diognetus Teach Imputation? :: A Response to Ligon Duncan’s Analysis

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




  1. Ultimately it does not matter since the epistle to Diognetus is not inspired Scripture.

    What does matter is what Paul says in Scripture.

  2. theophilogue says:


    What matters is whether the pre-Reformation church went to perdition for not having understood “the gospel” (i.e. Ligon Duncan’s version of the gospel). This matters because people matter.

    But as far as where our ultimate authority lies. Yes. What the Bible teaches is much more important than whatever we find in the Epistle to Diognetus.

    Your point, therefore, is well taken.


  3. Bradley, obviously God always has a remnant of true believers. The Bible has always been available in some form or another and therefore there have always been believers, however imperfect their understanding was. What is MORE to the point, however, is that the early centuries of the church were not medieval Roman Catholics either!

    So the sword cuts BOTH ways. And lets not forget the reform movements throughout church history….


  4. theophilogue says:


    I’m confused. Not sure what exactly you are trying to convince me of.

    Where in my comment did I say God doesn’t always keep a remnant? Where did I say people needed perfect understanding to be Christian? Where did I say that the church has always been Roman Catholic?


  5. David Pell says:

    “The Bible has always been available in some form or another and therefore there have always been believers, however imperfect their understanding was.”

    If we are to be honest with ourselves historically we have to say that this claim is either patently false or too ambiguous to be of any use. We can simply ignore the question of the date at which the Jews set the canon of the Old Testament, and whether Christians should care what Jews say about the Old Testament canon, and focus on the fact that there no documents which currently comprise the New Testament existed for at least two decades after the death of Christ. In the Old Covenant, God gave us a book and told us to establish our community upon the precepts of the book. In the New Covenant, God didn’t give us a book; He gave us His own Son, who received all authority in heaven and on earth, and who subsequently delegated His own authority to certain individuals, who then appointed other individuals to succeed them in authority over the Christian flock. In this sense, i.e. speaking in relation to the nature of the texts of the Old Covenant, the scriptures of the New Covenant are more of an “afterthought.”

    The documents of the New Testament were themselves written over a period of several decades and were not collected into one definitive volume until at least the end of the fourth century, more than 350 years after the death of Christ. Throughout this period, as I’m sure Charlie must be aware, the brightest and holiest men of Christendom often disagreed with each other over the contents of the New Testament, and the scriptures which were considered holy enough to be read in the liturgy varied relatively widely from place to place.

    On top of all of this, we have to face the difficult fact that the Old Testament which these Christians used, and which continued to be used in all of the bibles that were available believers until the 16th century, contained seven more books than the Bible handed down to us by the magisterial reformers and the creeds of the 16th and 17th centuries.

    All of this is to say that Charlie’s statements about the accessibility of the scriptures are a gross over-simplification of the case. And we haven’t even begun to consider the practical availability of the scriptures. Charlie takes it for granted that he can go to the store and purchase something called a “Bible” quite inexpensively. Bibles aren’t quite so cheap and readily available for everyone to read and interpret for themselves when there is no printing press and you have to make books out of animal skins. Not only is Charlie’s assertion a gross over-simplification regarding the contents of Scripture, then, but also regarding the practical ability for everyone to do what he considers a crucially central part of his Christian life for the first 15 centuries of Christian history. Yet Charlie acts as if his bible with its 66 books that he can buy for $10 at Family Christian Bookstores or Books-a-Million is simply a given. I say: why is Joseph Smith any more to be blamed for adding books to the Bible when Charlie is fine with using one from which his Reformed heroes removed seven books?

    As for the reform movements throughout history, real reform movements seek reform, not schism. Many reform movements existed before the 16th century, and there was a great reform movement contemporaneous with Luther that sought to reform what actually needed to be reformed, and never at the cost of destroying the unity of the Church. Evil must be combated with love, not with evil.

    Notice also how Charlies asserts that the Christians of the early centuries were not “medieval Roman Catholics.” Apparently he is not aware of the important work done by Allister McGrath, a fellow Anglican, on the history of the doctrine of justification, in which he shows that the Medieval theologians were not innovating and making up all kinds of new ideas, but were faithful to the patristic tradition, particularly to Augustine, and it was the Reformers who came up with strange new doctrines that had never been heard of before (my words; McGrath calls Luther’s doctrine a “theological novum”). But I suppose Charlie would just respond to that by saying McGrath, too, must be blind to the obvious facts that are so clear to Charlie.

    Anyway, thank you for this bold post, Theophilogue. There is, indeed, a great Reformed bias in their reading of the fathers. I think you’ll see if you keep looking that this same bias is applied to the New Testament itself. Many blessings on your studies.

  6. It is true that the NT canon was not official until the 4th century. But that does NOT mean that the OT Scriptures were unavailable and Paul says that the OT Scriptures are sufficient to lead someone to salvation. Combine that with Christian preaching and you have a winning combination. On top of that the books of the NT were already being accepted as Scripture in the first century. Cf. 2 Peter 3:16 and Romans 16:26.

    You are assuming only the Reformed are biased:) The Catholics can find all sorts of hidden and implicit doctrines in the church fathers that magically appear centuries later.

    You guys should go ahead on and join Rome. You’re already there:)

    Work your way to heaven and stand before God in your own righteousness. If you can.


  7. Tap says:

    Wow! a Reformed person on the internet, that doesn’t just argue for a sake of arguing. No dissembling, no out of context arguments. Seriously you’re a rare breed. I’m not trying to be patronizing dude, but i’m impressed.

  8. Ricky Love says:

    Brad, I’ve been waiting for you to post something new. This is definitely interesting. I listened to this talk and was wondering, “wwbctat…that is ‘What Would Brad Cochran Think About This?'”

    Another thing are you saying that you’re the new Protestant Pope?

  9. Bryan Cross says:


    Ditto what Tap said. Thanks for being a reasonable voice. If you’re at Dayton, I hope you get a chance to study with Levering.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  10. theophilogue says:




    LoL! No. I’m not saying I’m the Protestant Pope. John Piper already has that authority. I’m more like the supreme Protestant overlord of all that exists (not just the church).

  11. theophilogue says:


    Thanks. Glad you read the piece (or at least my conclusion).

    Actually, I am at Dayton, and I took a Ph.D. level course with Dr. Levering last semester: The Theology of Thomas Aquinas. As you know, Levering is a happy Thomist scholar. I loved the class and I love Dr. Levering. I’m in communication with him about taking a Directed Study with him for the Fall Semester.



  12. Celucien Joseph says:

    Good exegesis and critical reflection on the text!

  13. “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.” Very well said!

  14. Bryan says:

    Dear Mr. Theophilogue,
    I sincerely trust that was a “tongue-and-cheek” comment about Dr. Piper, since he would not even be considered Pope of Bethlehem Baptist Church, because he takes a different stance on certain issues than the rest of the Elders. I would have to re-read your article to grasp it better and candidly admit that I am NOT a grammatical expert nor do I read Greek, Hebrew, etc. Thank you.

  15. Bryan,

    LoL! Yes. My comment about Piper being Pope was just as “tongue-and-cheek” as my comment about myself being “the supreme Protestant overlord of all that exists.” LoL! I’m aware of the struggles he has had convincing the rest of the Elders on certain matters.


  16. So, you say that the Epistle rejects the Protestant view of the “Great Exchange,” and then you essentially prove that Penal Substitution was taught.

    For the record, I also cannot find the positive imputation of Christ’srighteounsess in this text, but the payment of man’s penalty is clearly taught and missing from the Roman Catholic Satisfaction view.

  17. Craig,

    Where did I say the Epistle “rejects” the Protestant View?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow T h e o • p h i l o g u e on WordPress.com
%d bloggers like this: