Anyone who has been paying attention to Evangelical theology in North America knows that the doctrine of Justification has become quite a hot topic. Not only has the “New Perspective” on Paul offered a challenge to the traditional Protestant formulation (e.g. James Dunn, N. T. Wright), but so have some dissenting voices from within the conservative sector of the evangelical fold (e.g. Robert Gundry).
In 1999, when Christianity Today published “The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration,” Robert Gundry responded by saying, “the doctrine that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believing sinners needs to be abandoned” and “that doctrine of imputation is not even biblical” (source). The opinion that Gundry expresses has become somewhat of a standard view among scholars of the New Testament, and this departure has caused no little controversy among evangelicals who continue to regard the doctrine of imputation as a crucial biblical teaching (see the exchange between Gundry and Thomas Oden in Books & Culture as well as the essays by Gundry and Carson in Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates?).
Brian Vickers enters this fray with Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Imputation. Vickers is a New Testament scholar by training, but he goes against the tide of his guild by defending the traditional Protestant formulation of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, though he does so in a way that interprets key Pauline texts in a non-traditional way.
After a brief introduction, chapter one introduces the reader to the history of interpretation of the key textsâ€”a history that begins with Martin Luther and traces through the modern day. Chapters two through four consist of Vickers’ exegesis of three Pauline texts that have had a central place in discussions of imputation: Romans 4, Romans 5:19, and 2 Corinthians 5:21. In each of these texts, Vickers contends that there is a subject, an action, and a result.
|Romans 4:3||Abraham||Faith||Reckoned Righteousness|
|Romans 5:19||Christ||Obedience||Made Righteous|
|2 Corinthians 5:21||God||Made Christ Sin||Became Righteousness|
Though the subjects and actions are different, all of these texts result in righteousness to the sinner. Chapter five synthesizes the Pauline teaching with respect to imputation and answers objections to the tradition formulation of the doctrine. Chapter six concludes with a summary of the book’s arguments and a recapitulation of the book’s thesis that Paul teaches Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer.
I noted above that Vickers argues for imputation in a “non-traditional” way. What I mean by that is that he comes to his conclusions through an exegesis that is decidedly non-traditional. Vickers writes, “No single text contains or develops all the ‘ingredients’ of imputation . . . Taken alone, not one of the ‘key’ texts that have played such an integral role in the historical discussion [of imputation] argues decisively, or explicitly, for a full-orbed doctrine of imputation” (pp. 18, 235). For Vickers, not even Romans 4 (in which logizomai figures so prominently) teaches the full-blown doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.
Thus, even though traditionalists may like Vickers’ theological conclusion affirming imputation, they may chafe at some of his readings of particular texts. But Vickers’ approach to these Pauline texts should not diminish the fact that his argument taken as a whole comprises a thoroughgoing defense of the traditional view. Vickers is showing that even though Christ’s righteousness is never explicitly named as that which is imputed (as Gundry charges), the doctrine is the necessary correlation of a synthesis of Paul’s teaching.
Traditionalists will continue to debate Vickers’ description of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience. In traditional formulations, Christ’s active obedience refers to the life of obedience to God’s law that Christ rendered in His incarnation. Such obedience to God’s law is the obligation of every person, but no person ever achieves it. Vickers thinks that Paul does not necessarily have this total obedience to the law in mind when speaking of Christ’s obedience in Romans 5:19. Rather, Paul has in mind Christ’s obedience to the point of death on the cross. This obedience cannot be neatly separated from Christ’s total obedience to God’s law, but this singular act of obedience on the cross is nevertheless the focus in Paul. Thus Vickers suggests a redefinition of Christ’s active obedience (pp. 196, 198, 226-28) that may not fulfill the so-called “covenant of works” (which is a central feature in covenant theology).
Vickers has done a masterful job in Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness. Not only is it an indispensible introduction to the issues at stake in the current debate, it also offers a compelling interpretation of Paul that affirms the traditional formulation of imputation. There are very few books like this one, and anyone who is concerned about having a biblical theology should give this volume careful consideration.