The “Liberal” Hubris of Volf’s Dogmatic Denial that Guilt Can be Transferred

Warning: I just read Jamie Smith’s letters to “calvinists” so my head is full of the old cliches of “liberalism”. But let me begin by saying that Volf is so fixated on culture that he has a truncated, myopic, arcane, and inordinate rejection of legal imputation. Volf needs to smooth out and mature, and thus pick his battles so he’s not at war against those of us who happen to teach imputation.

Since Volf has his mind made up, he must not be a “honest searcher” because he is so dogmatic against the idea of a transfer of guilt to Christ. Punishment possibly yes. Like the Baptist Andrew Fuller and the New England theology which followed Edwards, many modern evangelicals (Blocher, for example) deny categorically that guilt itself can be transferred.

I am not the first of course to notice how illiberal (and anti-individualistic) “liberals” can be, but I want you to see just how intransigent people are when it comes to saying not only that salvation is conditional on the sinner, but also in denying that we can talk about the imputation of the GUILT of the elect to Christ.

Volf, Free of Charge, p147, “ I cannot assume his moral liability, as I can assume a loan he might be unable to pay. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. It is uniquely his. Moral liability cannot be transferred. (See Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Reason, p88).”

Now Andrew Fuller, Hopkins, and Edwards Jr do not quote Kant, but they think alike. One human sinner cannot take the guilt of another human sinner, and no judge can in justice punish one human sinner in replacement for the punishment of another sinner.

And then comes quickly the desired conclusion. I mean that “desired”. To be a politically correct member of the faculty at Yale, to be “wide-angled” in the way that “liberals” can approve, you cannot afford to believe in legal imputation. (Perhaps you could have it as a “shelf-doctrine”, like Richard Mouw has “definite atonement”, so that you can say that you are still a Calvinist, but with a wide angle that has shoved imputation of guilt off into the narrow margins.)

Volf of course has a system of cultural engagement which is attempting to do now what neither Adam nor Christ got done. But in Volf’s case, he is not simply domesticating the idea of individual salvation (keeping it on the shelf). Volf is against a legal transfer of guilt. He doesn’t want there to be such a transfer.

Kant and Volf deny that a transfer can happen. They say that the man Christ Jesus cannot bear another person’s liability, and that God does not make Christ to be a sinner by imputation. Possibly Christ can be made to bear the punishment of sins in general, or even maybe the punishment of some certain sins.

But what will not be tolerated to be preached as gospel is any idea that the guilt, the moral liability, before God, of any sinner was already transferred (or not) to Christ.

The false gospel ends up either denying any such moral liability (before God) or trying to separate sinners from liability, not by justification by the death of Christ but by God changing their lives. And of course liberals can always be relied on to pick the same old battle against individualism. To change lives, they think, we need to change the culture, and to do that, we need to water the infants and take up our vocation to be the elites who are influencing what books are being written.

It’s a very predictable: in the name of the collective, those who think of themselves as opposing individualism continue to attack legal solidarity in guilt. Yes, there are structural changes that need to be made, but to say that guilt goes from one man (Adam) to other individual persons gets read as mere pietism. Thus the illiberal dogmatic denial: the idea of imputed guilt is not only harmful but plain wrong.

Of course that denial of imputed guilt has as its corollary the denial of guilt being imputed (by God) to one man (Christ) from other individual persons (the elect). While everybody seems to be fighting about “open theism” or the nature of hell, the denial of legal substitutionary atonement is not being fundamentally challenged. Even those who think of themselves as advocates of “penal death” will not talk about the guilt of the elect being transferred. They only write of a “punishment” in general, and not of individual guilt already transferred.

In this false gospel, Christ’s death as the general punishment for sins is only an interim measure, an intermediate means to tide us over until we get changed enough by God to the point where we no longer need forgiveness.

The illiberal from Yale has no good news about the death of Christ being all the righteousness we need or ever will need. He has no good news about glorying only in the cross, or in the information that even glory itself has been paid for and bought for the elect alone by the precious blood of Christ. Such crass “commercial” language (wrote Andrew Fuller) oversimplifies a complex wide-angled story in which the death of Christ is only part of the picture.

In other words, if you believe in the transfer of guilt, then you are probably one of those old gnostic puritans who can’t enjoy Mose Allison or Bach or Dr Pepper or the good food of God’s big creation.

Isn’t it so neat and easy to caricature those who caricature you?! I don’t know him. He’s not somebody my friends even know. What he actually writes or thinks or lives doesn’t matter, because the differences you can assume (and not argue and defend) are the ones which keep on making your case. All you have to do is find the choir that likes your cliches. And if you have a bigger choir with a wider angle, that of course means that you (all) are better for society than the very narrow choirs.

Volf,p 151, “Both our transformation and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness depend on union with Christ…Because we are one, Christ’s qualities are our qualities…It has become clear that forgiveness is part of something much larger. What does God do with sinners and their sin? God doesn’t just forgive sin; he transforms sinners into Christ-like figures and clothes them with Christ’s righteousness. And even these benefits are the effects of something much more basic-the presence and activity of Christ in human beings. “

If the Lord Jesus died some general punishment for every sinner, is not the consent of such sinners more significant and decisive than whatever precise bookkeeping theologians think God was doing at the cross? And when I say “consent”, I don’t simply mean a one time decision. I mean that faith is really works, and that the reformation was a mistake and is now finally over (Noll and Hauerwas agree).

Imputation of guilt might have been the story for a little while in there, but blame that on Scotus, and now in redemptive history NT Wright has come at last to tell us what Paul really thought and this time together we will change the world, and begin that by writing books on how culture is made..

Why glory in the cross alone, when it’s merely one thing among many things? And even if it so happens that one little thing always gets left out or denied (anything about the specific guilt of the elect having already been transferred) isn’t that because it’s scholastic speculation and not biblical? “Biblical” is when you take anything remotely sounding like legal substitution and explain that as only one metaphor and then take the rest of the metaphors to explain why legal substitution is unworthy of God and the story.

The one thing they always want to leave out of course is the one thing by which I see everything else. I glory in the second advent and the resurrection to come, but only because I know that the elect have already been joined to Christ’s death, and that the elect on that day will still be putting to death all their deeds and placing all their hope in the doing to death of Christ for the elect alone.

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7 Comments on “The “Liberal” Hubris of Volf’s Dogmatic Denial that Guilt Can be Transferred”

  1. markmcculley Says:

    In his book, Free of Charge (Zondervan, 2005, p147), Volf writes: “Since Christ is our substitute, after reading ‘one has died for all,’ we’d expect him to continue, ‘therefore none of them needs to die.’ Had he written that, he would have expressed the idea that theologians call EXCLUSIVE SUBSTITUTION. According to this view, Christ’s death makes ours unnecessary. As a third party, he is our substitute, and his death is his alone and no one else’s. But that’s not how the Apostle thought. Christ’s death doesn’t replace our death. It enacts it, he suggested. That’s what theologians call INCLUSIVE SUBSTITUTION.”

    My goal in this essay was not for the reader to get exasperated with liberal doubletalk. Rather, the question is what we mean by substitution. The problem here cannot be fixed by simply noticing that Christ died only for the elect. Not all liberals are Arminians who condition the salvation of a sinner on the sinner.

    Many universalists who say that God will save everybody because Christ was the substitute for everybody. What we need to think about is the nature of the substitution.

    If Christ’s death replaces people’s death, why does the text say that all died? My answer is that “all died” is how the text tells us that the death of Christ replaces the death of all.

    Since the death of Christ comes to count as the death of the elect, once the elect have been joined to that death, this tells us that another death is not necessary.

    I’m not sure what “enact” is supposed to mean, and perhaps the word is chosen for its ambiguity, but nobody else but Christ can or will die as punishment for another person’s sins. And if Christ’s death gets counted as the death of the elect, the death of the elect is a death like Christ’s death (because it IS Christ’s death).

    It is not some other death. It is one death, counted as the death of all the elect.


    The atonement is BOTH substitutionary and representative. The death of Christ is not only representative, not only “on behalf of”, as if there could be other deaths along side the one death. But also the death of Christ is not only substitutionary, as if Christ were some arbitrary individual who died for no one in particular because he had no covenantal relationship with those for whom He died, as only some “available substitute”. Christ was already united by election to those for whom He died.


    unless the atonement can be left out of the gospel, then neither can election be left out of the gospel

    Lewis Sperry Chafer. ST, 3, p187—-”The highway of divine election is quite apart from the highway of redemption.”

    Herman Bavinck, Sin and Salvation, volume 3, Reformed Dogmatics, 2006, p 469—-”The center of gravity has been shifted from Christ and located in the Christian. Faith (not the atonement) has become the reconciliation with God.”

    Jonathan Gibson, From heaven, p 358—-Election and the Atonement do not operate on separate theological tracks. What God has joined together, let no theologian separate. Affirming union with Christ before the moment of redemption accomplished counters any disjunction between the effect of Christ’s death and the effect of His resurrection. (Those who put union later) sound as if Christ’s death might lead to the death of some sinners, but not also to their resurrection. This is not only analogy. if one, then the other. if death with, then resurrection with.

    Romans 6:5 For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like his.

  4. markmcculley Says:

    Gathercote—I am defining substitutionary atonement for the present purposes as Christ’s death in our place, instead of us. The “instead of us” clarifies the point that “in our place” does not, in substitution at least, mean “in our place with us.” In a substitutionary theory of the death of Jesus, he did something, underwent something, so that we did not and would never have to do so

  5. markmcculley Says:

    Gathercote–one can have substitution without that being penal substitution, that is, without punishment for sins involved.11 These are often treated together: what is taken in our stead is the penalty for sins. Substitution is not always necessarily that, however. In the case of the Old Testament scapegoat, for instance, one has a clear enough example of substitutionary expiation, that is, where the goat is a substitute for the people, bearing their sins and thereby eliminating those sins. The scapegoat, however, is not clearly bearing the penalty; it is not explicitly a penal substitution. As Leviticus 16 puts it, Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. (Lev. 16:21) The sins, therefore, are put on the head of the goat, but these sins are then carried away rather than punished in the goat. Similarly, Christ’s death could in theory be described as a nonpenal substitution: in parallel to Shakespeare’s Olivia leading her graces to the grave (and depriving the world of them),12 Christ might simply have borne our sins away to the grave (thus saving the world from them). Whether substitutionary atonement should be described specifically in terms of penal substitution needs to be argued exegetically rather than being seen merely as a logical corollary of substitution per se. In a quite di!erent way again, one Reformed theologian, John McLeod Campbell, o!ered an account of the atonement centered on Christ’s substitutionary penitence rather than his bearing the guilt incurred by our sins.13 It is less evident how this would relate to Christ’s death on the cross, however. Second, conversely, one can have punishment or penalty without substitution. We will see an example later of a view according to which Jesus identifies with us in our condemnation (chap. 1, §1). In this view of the atonement we have Christ sharing in the judgment of God, but this is not in our place in the sense that he bears it and we do not. Rather, on this view, he would bear it with us (rather than instead of us) and accomplish atonement that way. Because he identifies with us so completely—not just in the incarnation but also in sharing the penalty of sin in death—he thereby represents us to God. Representation itself is not the same as substitution, however

  6. markmcculley Says:

    orn and raised in former Yugoslavia, Miroslav Volf currently serves as professor of theology at Yale Divinity School. His writings have earned him the reputation of being a leading expert on religion and conflict, and he won the 2002 Grawmeyer Award in Religion.

    Allah: A Christian Response addresses how Christians view the God of the Qur’an. Writing as a committed Christian, he aims to reach peace between Christians and Muslims. He also writes to Muslims, calling on them to reflect on his proposal. The bulk of the book attempts to show that both Christians and Muslims worship the same God based on their belief that there is only one creator God, who is good and calls people to love him and their neighbors. Acknowledging differences between the two religions that require them to remain different religions and not one religion, Volf attempts to minimize these differences: what the Qur’an denies about the Trinity is what the Bible also denies, and it is possible for a person to be both a practicing Muslim and committed Christian.

    Volf should be commended for championing peace and tolerance between Christians and Muslims and for calling on freedom of expression in healthy dialogue. He admirably calls on Christians and Muslims to work together for the common good of humanity.

    Volf also highlights Christian and Muslim mistakes through history, referring to historical figures spanning the Crusades, the Turkish invasions, and events surrounding the Common Word document (2007). Volf acknowledges that the Crusades had no biblical warrant, and he calls on Muslims to renounce all forms of violence.

    Volf defends the doctrine of the Trinity against Muslim critics, and he correctly connects the Trinity to the attribute of love. He boldly shows the contradiction in Islam’s claim to believe in the same God Christians do while believing that the doctrine of the Trinity compromises God’s oneness. Volf also shows that the punishment for disobedience in the Qur’an is much more severe than in the Bible and that God’s love is less obvious in the Qur’an than the Bible. He notes that Muslims, as a whole, insist on punishing conversion to another religion while modern Christians do not.

    The book has several serious weaknesses. First, while Christianity and Islam may have the same starting point or referent in the word “Allah,” their descriptions of this Allah are much further apart than Volf claims. He accurately stresses that “Allah” is the Arabic word for God used in the Arabic Christian Bibles today (while inaccurately stating it includes a definite article). It could be added that “Allah” comes from the original Aramaic, appears in the Aramaic portions of the OT, and is the very word Jesus would have used in referring to God. In other words, the word “Allah” did not originate with Islam. The point is that what is said about this Allah is what counts. For Volf, it is as though Christianity and Islam have the same subject but different predicates. But then the predicates are so different that they redefine the subject so as to question the premise of being the same God. Volf fails to acknowledge that by Islam’s claim to believe in the God of the Bible, while denying not only the Trinity but all the theology behind it, they end up attacking the very God they claim to believe in!

    Second, Volf seeks to reach peace at all costs, even if it means compromising (or hiding) the truth. He calls for “striking deals,” seeking “charitable interpretations of others’ views,” and building on “sufficient similarity.” But he fails to show that settling for “sufficient similarity” deprives the other side of unique claims deemed critical to eternal destiny. Regardless of whether the two groups worship the same God or not, their views should prompt them to rise to the highest level of living at peace with each other. In the end, however, Volf’s idea of elevating relationships over truth eventually leads to losing both.

    Third, the author recognizes that for moral attributes to be active in God apart from creation requires a relationship within God; otherwise, God would need to become dependent on creation to exercise them. But Volf finds this relationship expressed in God’s self-love in Islam as adequately similar to the inter-trinitarian relationships in Christianity. There are serious flaws here. No adequate relationship can exist in one unipersonal being, and the triune relationship is others-love and not self-love. In fact, the glory of the Trinity is in the honor each person gives to the others. This love and humility not only overflowed in creating but also in Christ’s death on the cross. Volf finds the self-love concept in the minor Sufi sect of Islam that does not represent all Islam, ignoring the formal dominant historic Ash’arite position on the attributes of God, which emphasizes that all moral attributes stem from God’s powerful will (not his nature) so that they are accidental and not essential to his nature. Herein, God loves not because he is love but because he chooses to love and could choose not to. Similarly, God being “merciful and compassionate” in Islam describes only what he can do, not what he is. In Christianity, however, God’s mercy and compassion are grounded in eternal relationships between persons in the perfect unity of God’s being. Additionally, God’s relationship to his people in the Bible is further described as that of a spouse, a lover, a father, a brother, a friend, etc.—concepts foreign to Islam, and possibly offensive. Love in Christianity is initiated by God, not man (1 John 4:10). Finally, why would Islam close the door on God revealing truths about the mystery of his oneness in ways above Muslims’ understanding?

    Volf tries very hard to dress Islam with Christian values wherever he can. For example, in showing that Islam calls people to love God, the only supporting reference Volf cites is the qur’anic assertion that there is no God but Allah. Similarly, he cites no qur’anic verse calling for love of neighbor, but only in the Hadith, while ignoring so much in both the Qur’an and the Hadith calling for the exact opposite. Though Volf’s motive may be noble, it seems very forced.

    Volf forces Christianity into the confines of Islamic theology. Responding to the strong qur’anic teaching that God’s love is conditional, he tries to show that Christianity is the same, ignoring the notion that obedience in the Bible is a result of a regenerated and justified life, truths absent in the Qur’an. Here Volf confuses the root with the fruit of Christian life. He also constantly compares the behavior of select historical Muslim figures or nations with behavior of select Christian figures or nations. However, the question should be this: Does a person’s behavior become better or worse the closer they come to the Bible or to the Qur’an? At one point, Volf attempts to define “normative versions” of Islam and Christianity without consistently tying them to the Bible and the Qur’an.

    This book purports that just as Christians hold that Jews believe in the same God while denying the Trinity, they ought to say the same about Muslims. However, Volf fails to show that the OT understanding of God lays the foundation for the NT revelation of the Trinity. This foundation includes elements about God that are absent in the Qur’an, including many references to God’s desire to be known and trusted based on his unchanging attributes, the acceptance of the many anthropomorphic expressions of God, numerous references to God’s diversity in unity, and the frequent theophanies. In other words, Volf fails to see that Jewish monotheism differs drastically from Islamic monotheism, and he glaringly ignores what the resurrection did to the early Jewish Christians who were steeped in monotheism and who had an overnight change bringing them to worship a human being! Why? They were impacted by the power of his person and the reality of his resurrection, coming to see that the fullness of deity dwells in him.

    Volf also displays a serious misunderstanding of God’s OT command to obliterate entire nations. It is very different than the qur’anic Jihad. The biblical conquest is marked by the following:

    It is limited to one time, not all times.
    It is limited to one land, not all lands. It judges sin to fulfill prophecy, not to adhere to a religion.
    It shows God’s holiness, not his power. Its goal is to bless the whole earth, not subdue it. It is God fighting for his people, not the people fighting for God.
    It is according to God’s trustworthy nature, not according to a capricious nature.
    It prefigures God finally absorbing the deserved judgment and wrath on all nations in Christ’s death on the cross. Judgment deserved became judgment absorbed.
    Just because the NT is continuous with the OT does not mean that the Qur’an is continuous with the NT as Volf implies. This is a very dangerous thesis. The Muslim claim to believe in selected portions of the Bible does not require Christians to do the same with the Qur’an. The main reason is that the Qur’an presents different versions of the stories of the Bible and gives an incomplete picture of Christ and salvation, meanwhile contradicting many teachings and accounts of the Bible.

    The lack of freedom in Muslim countries today is also more serious than Volf maintains. In the relatively rare conversion of a Muslim to Christianity, while patience is called upon for the new believer in Christ from a Muslim background, the NT calls on all Christians to grow to maturity in Christ, who as God is superior to all other revelation and to all prophets and angels. While a Christian from a Muslim background could retain their cultural identity, their new identity is in Christ alone.

    Imad Shehadeh
    Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary
    Amman, Jordan

  7. markmcculley Says:

    Tiessen is not merely for “incorporation, but against “imputation”

    Although Jesus “knew no sin,” in accordance with what Reformed theologians call the “covenant of redemption,” God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Here we see the core of the doctrine of incorporatedguilt and incorporated righteousness.

    [Protestants have tended to speak of imputed guilt and righteousness, and our intent has been good, but I think the choice of terminology is unfortunate. It implies an externality which prompts people to question why one person should be accounted guilty for the sin of another {Adam}, or accounted righteous for the righteousness of another {Jesus}, as though some sort of external transfer was the mechanism at work in such accounting. But I believe that the more biblical way of speaking is incorporation

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