Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Imputed righteousness

Reformed Christians believe that justification—the event by virtue of which a person comes to be saved—consists in the juridical imputation of righteousness. This is distinguished from God's sanctifying the person, where righteousness is induced in the person. Reformed Christians, of course, believe that sanctification comes along with justification, but want to maintain a distinction between the two.

What would justification consist in on such a view? What is the difference between being justified and not being justified? In this post I want to clear the way for further discussion by rejecting some accounts that I think are particularly problematic. While I myself reject the Reformed distinction between justification and sanctification, I want to offer these arguments in a friendly way to my Reformed brethren.

Problematic account 1: Justification consists in predestination.[note 1] On this account what makes Patricia justified is that God has predestined her for salvation. Thus, her being justified is not grounded in any intrinsic property of hers, but in a property of God—that God intends to save her.

The most obvious problem with this account is that then Patricia is justified from the first moment of her existence. But if so, then she does not change in respect of justification when she repents of her sins and accepts Christ as her savior. It seems plausible to suppose that justification does not precede faith. (One argument for this is that according to the Reformed, one is saved by faith, and hence being justified cannot precede faith; this is a bad argument because it neglects the possibility of backwards causation or causation mediated by God's foreknowledge.) It likewise seems plausible to connect justification and the forgiveness of sins. Something changes for the Christian. She was lost, and now she is found. And this change seems tied to justification. The correct thing vis-à-vis Reformed Theology (and probably the truth, too) to say seems to be that prior to receiving salvific grace, Patricia was predestined but not yet justified; after receiving salvific grace, she is predestined and justified.

Problematic account 2: Justification consists in a changing divine attitude. On this account, when Patricia becomes justified, God's attitude towards Patricia changes.

A major difficulty with this approach is that it is difficult to square with divine simplicity or immutability. Perhaps one can square it with immutability by positing that God eternally has one attitude towards Patricia-at-t for t<t0 and eternally has another attitude towards Patricia-at-t for t>t0, where t0 is the moment of justification. If so, then in some sense there is no real change at all in anything at the time of justification—it's simply that Patricia has reached a time at which she is favored, but any change here whether on the part of Patricia or of God is a Cambridge change. Can justification be a Cambridge change? Does it make sense to rejoice in a mere Cambridge change in the way in which one rejoices in one's salvation?

Moreover, this will not take care of problems of divine simplicity. God being omnipotent could, surely, have justified Patricia not at t0 but at t1 instead. Consider a world just like this one but where that happens. What is the difference between this world and that world in virtue of which in this world Patricia is justified at t0 but in that world she is justified at t1? Since justification is an extrinsic property of Patricia on this view, the difference must lie in God's attitudes: in one world God has one set of attitudes and in the other another. But this seems to violate divine simplicity: it suggests that God is not identical with divine attitudes. There is a way of handling this in general, and that is to suppose that the attitudes are extrinsic properties of God. But this solution raises the question of what properties of creatures are such that in virtue of them it is correct to talk of God having one attitude in one world and the other in the other? Since on the present account Patricia's justification was supposed to be solely a fact about God's attitudes, it does not seem that there is room for such properties of creatures.

Problematic account 3: Justification is a dispositional property: x is justified at t iff were x to die at t, x would go to heaven. Granted, before the time t0 of justification, it was true of Patricia that she will go to heaven (this is true in virtue of predestination, say). But if t-1<t0, it was not true that of Patricia that were she to die at t-1, she would go to heaven—predestination only ensures the indicative that she will go to heaven, and therefore that she won't die before t0.

This account has several problems. The first is that on this view, it seems one only has instrumental reason to desire justification: the value of justification consists in going to heaven. Moreover, it is not clear why it makes sense, given predestination, to rejoice at all at having acquired justification. After all, now having this dispositional property is of little value as such (except insofar as now might be the exact time of one's death, which is improbable, especially of the now is instantaneous). What is of value is having this dispositional property at the moment of death. It is true that Reformed Christians generally believe that once you have this dispositional property, you have it for the rest of your life. Thus, evidence for having the property now is equally evidence that one will have it at the moment of one's death. But then one does not have reason to rejoice even instrumentally in the present possession of the dispositional property. The true object of rejoicing is the salvation, rather than the present having of the property of justification. It is true that on some Reformed views one comes to have knowledge that one will be saved at the time that one becomes justified, and it would make sense to rejoice in this knowledge. But the knowledge is distinct from the salvation. Granted, we can talk of Martha rejoicing at the negative results of her HIV test. But it seems that the appropriate object of rejoicing is her being HIV negative, or her knowing that she is HIV negative, though we admittedly transfer our joy to things associated with the primary object of our joy, and so perhaps there is something to the idea that Martha rightly rejoices in the negative results of the test. But, in any case, the joy at being justified should not be joy by association.

Another problem is with the ground of the dispositional property. We can't just "jump into heaven" at our death. "To go to heaven" is to be placed in a heavenly state by God. The dispositional property is not, then, grounded in some kind of a power of the person who has it. Nor, on the Reformed view, is it grounded in the merits of the person. Rather, it seems to be grounded in God's will. But if so, then the problems of Account 2 come back.

Conclusions: These three accounts are problematic, especially for those who accept divine simplicity (as at least some classic Reformed creeds apparently do). What these accounts all have in common is that they make the imputation of righteousness be an extrinsic, Cambridge property of the person being justified. I suspect that this is what is wrong with all of these accounts. Instead, one needs an account on which justification consists in a real, grace-wrought change in the person. From a Reformed perspective, the difficulty with such an account is the danger that the change will then consist in actual righteousness in the person, and hence the distinction between justification and sanctification will be erased. Personally, I don't mind this danger at all—the distinction between justification and sanctification is shaky biblically and pretty much non-existent patristically. But Reformed folks do mind it. I think that what they might do well to do is to adopt a view according to which it is a genuine intrinsic property of a person that the person is guilty or innocent of something (there are suggestions to that effect in Wojtyla's The Acting Person, so it's a view that not just Reformed folks might find congenial), and then hold that in justification God directly produces a change in the person in respect of that property.


Dan M. said...

Hi Dr. Pruss,

I think the second problematic account you mention would be the closest to the Reformed view (of the three), though I really like your suggestion in your conclusion too.

You pose problems with respect to immutability and simplicity, but I'm not sure I see the problem for justification in particular. It seems the problem is a general one; God's attitudes changing with respect to anything contingent that could have occurred at a different time would seem to fall into the problems for immutability and simplicity that you mention. If this were the case, it might actually alleviate the problem, because the problem would not be a problem with justification per se but with the God-world relation more generally. Even on a view where (initial) justification is a transformative event, God's attitude towards the recipient of justification would be changing at some time t in connection with the transformative event (e.g., reconciliation would occur, etc.), and we could imagine a different world where that happened at a different time too.

Construing (at least some) divine attitudes as extrinsic and based in properties in creatures, I see how the Reformed would - unless taking your suggestion in the conclusion - lack a property in the recipient of justification that the Catholic has, but I guess the problem here is mitigated in my mind by the problems I have with (if I am understanding you rightly) this general tactic for construing divine attitudes. Take God's love for a sinner. It seems this is a contingent attitude, supposing the sinner is contingently a sinner and that God contingently decides to take a redemptive as opposed to condemning stance towards him, yet I don't see how it can be explained in terms of anything in the individual; and if this is right, then it seems the Catholic would be on the same footing as the Reformed with any problem about immutability and simplicity in connection with dynamic divine attitudes towards creatures.

I wonder if your objections to the Reformed view of justification would also pose problems for the atonement. Christ was "made" "to be sin" on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21). Not only do we get Christ's righteousness, he took our sin (cf. Isa. 53:6). Was the Father's attitude towards the sinless Christ on the cross one that can be spoken of in terms of something actually in Christ? On the Reformed view our sins were imputed to Christ, paralleling the imputation of his righteousness to us. Imputation seems to be bound up with the very idea of vicarious sacrifice.

I don't see the problem in rejoicing in a change that occurs outside of ourselves, nor in our desiring justification instrumentally. Justification *is*, I take it, a means to other ends. Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God, and we exult in hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:1-2); cf. future glorification in ch. 8. It is about being saved, saved from the day of wrath (5:9; cf. 2:5's day of judgment). That's part of the contrast between the Reformed and Catholic views; for the former it is an eschatological verdict delivered in advance.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thanks for pointing out that the issue is going arise elsewhere. I agree, and in part for this reason think that divine simplicity is a really powerful theological tool, ruling out various theories. For an example you don't cite, divine simplicity rules out certain forms of divine command metaethics, namely those on which the wrongness of an action consists in God's not necessarily manifested disapproval of that action.

I don't think it is a contingent fact that God loves a sinner. I think it is a necessary truth that God loves everyone, even the wicked in hell. God is love.

That doesn't quite solve the problem you raise, for there seems to be a difference in the ways in which the saints in heaven and the damned in hell are loved. But I am willing to say that that difference supervenes on the fact that the saints are in communion with God and are being rewarded, while the damned are out of communion with God and are being punished. (There is a question whether I can make sense of "rewarded" and "punished" without adverting to contingent divine attitudes, but I hope one can solve that problem.)

The reconciliation that occurs between God and the sinner seems to me to consist in the sinner's acquiring a relation to God, or a property, that previously the sinner lacked. On a more Catholic view, this may be the relation of loving God. On a more Reformed view, this would have to be something else, perhaps the primitive and irreducible property of no longer being guilty.

I agree that the same problem occurs in regard to the imputation of sins to Christ. I have a story about this imputation, and it ends up supervening not on God's attitude towards Christ or us, but on our union with Christ. Insofar as it makes sense to talk of our sins being taken on by Christ, it makes sense to say that because we sinners are members of the Church, the mystical body of Christ, of which Christ is the head.

As for instrumentality, I do not think the peace we have with God is distinct from justification. Moreover, the peace we have with God is, I think, an intrinsic property of us. Christ gives us peace, though not as the world gives. This peace is a genuine relation we have to God, a relation of love, I think.

Pontificator said...

Dr Pruss, you may find of interest the way one Thomistic philosopher, Herbert McCabe, approached the matter of forgiveness. He liked to say, "God doesn't change his mind about you. He changes your mind about him." McCabe is a strong supporter of divine immutability.

I recently summarized McCabe's approach in a blog article: "Finding the God Who Is Love."

I'd really be interested to hear what you think about McCabe's approach.

Heath White said...


Thanks for raising this question. I’m generally of the opinion that there is a lot of low-hanging fruit in Reformed/Catholic dialogue, which hasn’t been picked due to historical animosities on both sides. I will also preface these comments by saying I am a rank amateur theologian.

I’m with Dan M. in not really seeing a problem in #2 that isn’t quite general. Suppose there is rejoicing in heaven when one sinner repents. Well, she might have repented at a different time. The repentance is a real change in the sinner; but is the rejoicing a real change in God? I don’t know; if God is immutable, I guess not. But if the repentance is contingent, and the rejoicing is a response to the repentance, then God’s attitude of rejoicing is contingent. If God is his attitudes, then God is contingent. Whoops!

Maybe we could say that angels, not God, rejoice. Then I will run my argument with “forgiveness” instead.

As far as your concerns about simplicity go, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the basic Reformed metaphor for justification is a law court. What justification consists in is being declared righteous (not guilty) by the judge, God. It doesn’t follow that the declaration is on the basis of no property at all possessed by the defendant; generally, Reformed Christians will say that you have to repent of your sin, give your life to Christ, etc. (You throw yourself on the mercy of the court.) What they will insist on is that these actions and attitudes do not amount to earning, or obligating, or requiring God to pronounce you righteous. In pronouncing you righteous, God is not evaluating you.

You might construe being declared righteous, in this forensic sense, along the lines of Wojtyla’s idea of acquiring a genuine property of being innocent of something. If so, I see only terminological differences between that view and the Reformed one.

Alexander R Pruss said...


It could be that the truthmaker of propositions of the form that God rejoiced at its being the case that p is God's unchanging nature (which rejoices at the good) together with the truthmaker of p. (I defend this in a forthcoming piece on divine simplicity.) In fact, if a strong doctrine of divine simplicity holds, it basically has to be that way. In other words, if a strong doctrine of divine simplicity holds, then radical externalism must be true for God's propositional attitudes--they get their content from the created world together with God's essential character.

(Or we could say the following: God rejoices de dicto at all cases of repentance; George's action is a case of repentance; hence God rejoices at George's action, but does not do so under the description "George's action". I find this somewhat unsatisfying.)

A strong doctrine of divine simplicity forces one to say is that in any case where God has a contingent attitude, his having that attitude supervenes on (in some sense that is not merely modal), and maybe even reduces to, God's essence and contingent facts about creation. This means that one must reject the law court analogy unless the contingency in the verdict comes from contingent facts about creatures.

On that view, even if it were the case that justification consisted in a divine declaration, the divine declaration would in part be constituted by a fact about creatures.

Heath White said...

A strong doctrine of divine simplicity forces one to say is that in any case where God has a contingent attitude, his having that attitude supervenes on (in some sense that is not merely modal), and maybe even reduces to, God's essence and contingent facts about creation. This means that one must reject the law court analogy unless the contingency in the verdict comes from contingent facts about creatures.

Well, the law court analogy is Paul’s, so I’ll let you take it up with him. :-)

What do you want to say about contingent divine actions? As in, God withholds rain from Israel or God transports Elijah to heaven? Are there facts about God’s essence that make for super-special laws of nature, about when rain stops or people get transported to heaven? And consider God creates the world? On your strong view, the creation of this world is as necessary as God’s essence; but that’s not my reading of Christian tradition.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I don't need to reject the court analogy, since I can just take the second disjunct, that the contingency comes from contingency in creation, not in God.

Likewise, I have no problem with contingent divine actions, as long as they are distinguished in virtue of differences in the effect rather than differences in the cause. What makes God's taking Elijah's body to heaven different from God's taking Elijah's body to Jupiter (which presumably he does in some possible world) is that in one case the body ends up in heaven and in the other case it ends up on Jupiter.

An old version of my account of creation is here.

Heath White said...

My worry about divine action was more along the lines of, what distinguishes God's taking Elijah to heaven from Elijah going to heaven? Or God's withholding rain from rain not falling? I take it that the difference is in the role divine will plays in the two cases. But if the events are contingent, then the divine willings are contingent.

You could take the position that all events are equally cases of divine action, so that the truthmakers of "God does X" and "X" are the same for all values of X, but it seems to me that there is an important sense in which that isn't true.

Jeremy Pierce said...

I think most Reformed theologians want to see objective guilt as something that is intrinsic. But I think they want to distinguish it from being sinful. Once you distinguish between guilt and sin, it allows for one to be removed while the other will still continue for the rest of this life. The trick, though, is figuring out what that distinction is and how guilt is removed without sin being removed while avoiding seeing guilt as merely extrinsic.

The other tricky element is where Christ's righteousness fits in. I really do think most Protestants, certainly Reformed ones, want to see objective guiltlessness as based not on ourselves but on Christ's righteousness. All the talk in Paul about possessing Christ's righteousness through union with him lies behind the loss of objective guilt. But then it doesn't produce righteousness in the sense of being sinless, at least not in this life.

My thought was to treat the mystical union between the believer and Christ as the ground of the objective guiltlessness and any sense in which the believer is righteous, and therefore it's not merely intrinsic, but it's hard to say it's purely extrinsic also. I'm not really sure how to talk about that. It does allow for someone to sin while being righteous in the sense of having Christ's righteousness. It's just not clear to me what this union with Christ and possession of his righteousness is going to amount to since it obviously can't consist of actually being righteous in the sense of having a perfectly righteous character.

Alexander R Pruss said...


It is metaphysically impossible for a change to occur without a cause. So if Elijah's moving from earth to heaven has no created cause, it must have an uncreated cause, and thus this is a case of God's directly and miraculously taking Elijah from earth to heaven. If Elijah's moving from earth to heaven has a created cause, then this is a case of God's concurring or cooperating with the created cause.

The rain case is a bit harder. Here is one way to handle it. Either there is a created cause that, given divine concurrence, would be sufficient to produce rain or not. If there is such a cause, but there is no rain, then this is a case of God's withholding the rain. If there is no such created cause, then this is not a case of God's withholding the rain.