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Now Andrew Fuller, Hopkins, and Edwards Jr do not quote Kant, but they think alike.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.