Friday, January 22, 2010

The Imputation of Faith as Righteousness in Genesis 15:6

Imputation has been vigorously discussed by evangelicals in more recent years. The debate between Robert Gundry, John Piper, and Don Garlington, regarding imputation in Paul comes to mind. But something needs to be said for Gen 15:6 in the Hebrew.

The verb ויחשבה in Gen 15:6 contains a feminine singular pronominal suffix. So the second clause in Gen 15:6 literally reads: and he counted her to him as righteousness. The question is: what is the feminine pronoun referring to, and why is it feminine?

There are two options. Perhaps the pronoun is feminine because it refers to the Hebrew word for faith (אמונה), which is a feminine noun. Even though this noun does not appear in the immediate context, it could possibly be implied from Abraham's act of believing, which is recorded in the first clause in Gen 15:6.

The second option is that the feminine pronoun is being used in an abstract way to refer to a concept that has been mentioned in the preceding context. In other words, the her refers to the act of believing in the previous clause.

The difference between the two options is not great. According to option 1 the referent of the pronoun is Abraham’s faith. According to option 2 the referent is Abraham’s act of believing. But despite this, I think that linguistically speaking option 2 is the way to go.

Option 2 is to be preferred on the basis of a similarity with Ps 106:31, which also speaks of the imputation of righteousness. Verses 30–31 recount Phinehas’s zeal in spearing to death an Israelite man and his Midianite wife (see Num 25:6–8 for the gruesome details), and God’s approbation of this act. Verses 30–31 read as follows:
“Then Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was stayed. And that was counted to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever.”
The interesting point regarding the Hebrew of v. 31 is that the verb ותחשב is a third person feminine singular verb, literally, and she was counted. Why is the verb in the feminine? Presumably because the feminine singular subject pronoun implied within the verb is being used abstractly to refer to a concept that has been mentioned in the preceding context. The use of the implied feminine singular pronoun in Ps 106:31 to refer to Phinehas’s intervention thus serves as a linguistic precedent for taking the feminine singular pronoun in Gen 15:6 as an example of an abstract use of the feminine singular pronoun in a similar context.

But either way, the Hebrew of Gen 15:6 is saying that Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. That is to say, when Abraham responded positively in accepting God’s word, this was considered by God to be the right response in the context of God’s relationship with Abraham. Responding to God rightly, Abraham was considered by God to be righteous. Genesis 15:6 is talking about the imputation of Abraham's faith as Abraham’s righteousness before God.

The obvious question for the issue of imputation in Paul is: Was Paul aware of the meaning of the Hebrew of Gen 15:6? Trained as he was as a Jewish rabbi, I would find it hard to believe that he was not aware of the meaning of Gen 15:6 in the Hebrew. This obviously has implications for the current debate over the meaning of imputation in Paul.


Nick Mackison said...

Steven, have you read Gundry's article in the Husbands and Treier book? It's a very powerful polemic with some rigorous exegesis. Gundry himself sent me an extended version of it if you'd like a copy.

What do you make of his arguments?

John Thomson said...


'Responding to God rightly, Abraham was considered by God to be righteous. Genesis 15:6 is talking about the imputation of Abraham's faith as Abraham's righteousness before God.'

I am not sure what you are saying here. Are you saying Abraham's faith is meritorious? Are you saying that faith has inherently the value of righteousness, that in some sense it had intrinsically worth before God sufficient to declare the whole of Abraham's life righteous? Are you saying faith is a righteous work?

If so, I am not with you. Now of course the 'right' thing for Abraham to do was trust God. Yet that 'right' thing did not equal an ungodly life declared righteous. Faith in no way justified a whole life being declared righteous.

That is one reason why understanding imputation as the transfer of 'a sum of righteousness' is to my mind misguided. For in the occasions in the NT where A is imputed for B transfer is not involved. The A imputed is substantially different from the B.
EG Circumcision is reckoned for uncircumcision; that is a man is considered circumcised when he manifestly is not.

The point about faith is not that it is 'right' and has the market value of righteousness, but that it trusts God to do so (Roms 4:1-4). It trusts God to 'justify the ungodly'.

Roms 4:1-12 is teaching that God righteouses people quite without merit but graciously so that they have no basis for boasting.

Thus faith has no inherent value that can be transferred as righteousness but is the means by which God considers/regards/reckons us as righteous. Faith imputed does not answer the question of how we are righteous that is another question.

One reason why I object to IAO is that it is using imputation language in a way the bible doesn't. It treats it as transfer. The thing imputed (Christ's righteousness) is of inherent worth, it equals righteousness and is transferred to us, whereas in the biblical use of imputation the thing imputed is has no such value. Indeed, the point of biblical imputation, where A is imputed for B, is that A is so self-evidently not the same as B that we ask 'how can this be'. Imputation produces a conundrum,a shock, 'God justifies the ungodly'. Faith is not the why he is righteous but the means.

Perhaps I am misunderstanding where you are heading Steven. However, since others do take the position I am attempting to counter this comment may still be worthwhile.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi Nick,

I think Gundry does a very good job in showing how imputation language is actually used in Scripture. But from my perspective, we need to understand the Old Testament background to these concepts rather than just argue about Paul. As part of this, we need to think more about the Old Testament system of atonement. So even though I agree with Gundry regarding how imputation language is used in Scripture, there is still something to be said for the idea of our sins being covered by the blood of a perfect sacrifice.

The Old Testament idea of atonement seems to be that because God can see sin, we cannot safely come into his presence as we are. Our sins need to be covered so that (it is almost as if) God can’t see them anymore. On the basis of Lev 17:11, the blood of the sacrificial victim is one life substituting for another, which also results in the sin of the other being covered. The idea of human sin being covered by the blood of a perfect sacrifice is there in the Old Testament system of atonement, and that is fairly close to what has been meant traditionally by imputation.

There is also Old Testament langauge regarding righteousness that is given by God to his people (see Ps 24:5). Hosea 10:12 is interesting in this regard:

"Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you."

In other words, God’s people should pursue the righteousness of covenant obedience with a view to participating in a righteousness that God will rain down upon them in the future.

There is also the biblical idea of being clothed in righteousness or white garments (Isa 61:10; Zech 3:3-5; Rev 3:4-5; 6:11). This also needs to be examined in relation to the debate about imputation.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi John,

All I’m saying is that responding positively to God’s word (i.e., accepting God’s word, namely, faith) constitutes the right response, and therefore results in the person of faith being viewed by God as righteous. Righteousness has to do with the (legal) state of those who do what is right before God, as per 1 John 3:7: “whoever does righteousness is righteous.” John is stating a perfectly valid Old Testament principle regarding the imputation of righteousness.

I think your logic of A being substantially diffferent from B when A is imputed for B, doesn’t hold in terms of the Hebrew usage of חשׁב, which is the key Hebrew term that underlies Paul’s language of imputation in Galatians and Romans. חשׁב basically means to think of or to consider something as some other thing. See 2 Sam 19:19. Shimei had cursed David (2 Sam 16:5-8); and then on David’s return, he begs for mercy, saying (literally): “May my lord not consider it to me as guilt.” He didn’t want his cursing to be considered by David as sin (deserving of punishment), despite the fact that cursing is sin. In a similar way, Abraham’s faith is righteousness. It’s the required response from God’s point of view, the one that pleases him.

Christ’s righteousness is absolute righteousness. But the righteousness of Abraham’s faith is also righteousness. Abraham’s faith righteousness is not like Christ’s righteousness in being absolute, but nevertheless it still is the right response in the context of God’s gracious relationship with Abraham, and therefore a form of righteousness.

It is possible to distinguish between the righteousness that God works in his people from the righteousness that Christ possesses in and of himself. In fact, I think that this distinction is not just possible but necessary, on the basis of how the language of righteousness is presented in Scripture.

John Thomson said...


The OT has examples of A being reckoned for Non-A. EG Leah and Rachel assert their father reckons them as strangers when they are not (Gen 31:15). The question is whether Paul sees Faith being a little righteousness standing for full righteousness or something of one species standing for another. Paul's whole thrust in Romans is to give no place to human righteousness. All righteousness must be God's alone. Thus, I believe, to give faith the category of righteousness is to miss Paul's stark contrast. If Abraham is righteousness is even in part because he is righteous (in believing) then justification is his due not by grace and he has something to boast about before God. To introduce faith=right is both foreign to Paul's intent and indeed in my view undermining of that intent. I think your reluctance to let the NT have primacy in interpreting the old leads you into difficulties. You face the danger of allowing Jewish exegetical conclusions on the old having too much sway. Paul no doubt understood jewish interpretations what he does is contradict them.

Sorry if I seem contentious.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks for your comment, John.

“The OT has examples of A being reckoned for Non-A.” Yes, Gen 31:15 is a good example. This shows that the verb חשׁב is basically neutral, therefore the wider context must determine the relationship of A to B on a case by case basis, although the reckoning of obedience as righteousness, and the reckoning of disobedience as unrighteousness, is the standard way of thinking when it comes to legal justice in the Old Testament.

The Old Testament actually teaches that the covenantally righteous benefit from the absolute righteousness offered to Israel in the sacrificial system, in contrast to the wicked. Psalm 24:3-6 is a classic example:

“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation. Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.”

In other words, from the Old Testament perspective, it’s the covenantally righteous who will receive blessing and righteousness from God. The wicked will miss out on this.

And just in case you think that no one can be covenantally righteous, how would you explain Ps 112?

“Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments! … Wealth and riches are in his house, and his righteousness endures forever” (Ps 112:1, 3).

The person who fears God and walks in his commandments enjoys a personal righteousness that is eternal.

David in Ps 18 claims to have been rewarded by God because of his (i.e., David’s) own personal righteousness:

“The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his rules were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me. I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from my guilt. So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight” (Ps 18:20-24).

In your view, does Paul’s concept of grace contradict this kind of Old Testament covenantal logic?

Steven Coxhead said...

Just further on the intrinsic value of faith. Hebrew 10:38 suggests that faith is pleasing to God. But the following verses are very clear on the matter:

“By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God” (Heb 11:5).

“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb 11:6).

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised” (Heb 11:39).

Faith is pleasing to God. It is the right response to God and his word.

I am also mindful of 1 Pet 1:7, which describes the value of faith as more precious than gold. This precious faith “result[s] in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” That’s praise, glory, and honor, for the believer (I take it), through the grace of God.

John Thomson said...


I have no problem with the saying faith is 'right' and that it pleases God. Nor with with saying that obedience is 'right' and pleases God. Nor with the idea that God finally rewards faith and obedience for he clearly does. Paul says he has fought the fight, kept the faith and finished the course and there is laid up a crown of righteousness which the Lord the righteous judge will give...

My concern is to retain Paul's perspective in Romans and especially as it impinges on Gen 15:6. Paul in Romans does not reason Abraham's faith is equivalent to righteousness or is in some way meritious. Rather the opposite. Faith is the least merititious human response he can imagine. It is not righteousness reaping righteousness but simply the instrument through which 'the righteousness of God' is received. Righteousness grounded not in faith but in the cross of Christ

Rom 3:24-26 (ESV)
...and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.'

This text lays the basis of what Paul means by justification by faith. Clearly in the text faith is instrumental. Faith 'receives' the salvation. In Romans and Galatians all thought of merit in faith or intrinsic worth is strenuously resisted. All is sourced in God's righteousness and grace. Paul insists on great clarity here so that no smidgeon of contributing works is allowed to seep into our thinking. God will give us no ground for boasting.

Abraham did not see his faith in God's promise as virtuous rather it was a belief founded on his profound sense of unrighteousness; his belief that God would do the seemingly impossible and justify the ungodly.

I think we must take care to see Paul's reading of Gen 15:6 not simply as his take on the text but the Holy Spirit's interpretation that the church may learn more clearly what the Gen 15 text reaaly meant.

Of course elsewhere we will discover that faith and obedience please God. More we will discover that both are gifts from God. That what God rewards in his children is in fact a product of God's grace in their heart.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks for that, John.

I appreciate your concern that none of us have anything to boast in before God. But the boasting that Paul has in mind in Romans seems to have a strong ethnic dimension to it.

The Jews boasted in their knowledge of God vis-à-vis the Gentiles (see Rom 2:17-20). They boasted in having the law (2:23). In Rom 3:27 Paul links boasting with the law of works (i.e., the law of Moses). And in 3:29 he argues that God is also God of the Gentiles in order to prove the truth of justification by faith. There is a strong ethnic dimension to his doctrine of justification by faith and the problem of boasting.

Even if Abraham's faith is reckoned as righteousness (such as I am suggesting), the fact that such righteousness was by way of something other than the works of the law of Moses precludes any kind of "Jewish" boasting on Abraham's part, since the righteousness of faith is one that any one (no matter what ethnic group they belong to) can share in. So, from a logical point of view, denying the righteousness of faith isn't the only exegetical option we have in order to counter the problem of boasting.

I agree that faith is instrumental for salvation. Saying that faith is a form of righteousness before God does not change the instrumental nature of faith. Putting this in Old Testament language, the (covenantally) righteous share in the blood of the covenant sacrifices.

I view Galatians and Romans as engaging in the primary debate of Paul's day: How should covenant righteousness be defined, now that the Messiah has come? Is righteousness to be defined in terms of commitment to the law of Moses (as per how it was under the Mosaic covenant), or in terms of the non-Mosaic faith of Abraham (which opens up the door of covenant righteousness to Gentiles and precludes Jewish boasting)?

I'll endeavor to point out more things worth thinking about from the Abraham narrative in the days and weeks ahead (God willing), so I'm confident that we'll have the chance to discuss these things further.

John Thomson said...


I know you are more attracted to the NPP on Paul than me. I tend to the view that the NPP is largely right on what it affirms and wrong in what it denies - hardly a view peculiar to me, I know. In most respects I think M Bird has it about right.

I struggle to retain the language of discourse since I am not using it regularly. I am also grieved/frustrated/embarrassed at how quickly I forget the nuances of - Dunn, Wright, Gundry,FVists, Piper etc.

The issue I strongly support in NPP, or at least Wright's version, is its nuancing of IAO. Thus while not convinced of Gundry's faith=righteousness I applaud him for refusing to sign the CE statement viewing it as too reformed particularly in this matter.

I am glad you are able to be presbyterian yet question and challenge some confessional stands. However, I am a little concerned that you may move from what is right and important. Of course, this works completely on the assumption that I have it pretty well right myself.

I do find your blogs challenge my thinking and help to sharpen my understanding.

At the same time I am aware the issues have ramifications and are not just academic. A question I ask myself is 'If my view on this or that were accepted as the proper teaching of Scripture by the evangelical church at large what effect would this have on the gospel and would I be confident that the change was gospel promoting'.

I do suspect that some NPP perspectives if pressed are likely to tilt the gospel into legalism.

I can see the question of Jewish exclusivism in Romans and Galatians. It is clearly there. It was seen by previous generations too. However, I do ask if NPP gives it a significance beyond what it deserves. Does the minor element get made the major one?
For while I agree that in the context of Romans/Galatians Paul is confronting Jewish boasting in the Law and ethnicity Paul's concern is not simply to find a way through the Jew/Gentile divide. He is not simply concerned with ecclesiology and looking for a solution he is concerned with soteriology. he believes Israel has seriously misunderstood their national privilege and the Law and as a result have been blind to Messiah. The root problem is soteriological; they have lost sight of faith and what it means and believe they can contribute to their own salvation. they do not submit to the righteousness of God. Paul abhors the boasting in privilege and performance.God will allow no flesh to boast before him. He that boasts must boast only in God.

No doubt we will discuss these issues in further discussions on covenantal righteousness etc.

In the meantime I trust that I am not too much of a thorn in the flesh.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, John.

I personally don’t see myself as NPP, even though there are some similarities. NPP has sought to get into Paul’s mind via first century Judaism, whereas I’m approaching Paul from an Old Testament perspective. My journey has been: Let’s understand the Old Testament on its own terms, then when we read Paul what do we see.

I view it as the providence of God (for which I am greatly thankful) that when I began teaching theology back in 2002 my main area of focus was the Old Testament prophets. A couple of years later I also had the opportunity to lecture on Romans. All of sudden I was reading Paul with Old Testament theological categories and the movement of Old Testament prophecy (the old being transformed into the new through the coming of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit) more in mind than Protestant tradition about how Paul should be read.

So I do not see myself as NPP, but if there are similarities at points between my view and the NPP, I wouldn’t be surprised. You’d expect first century Judaism to have been strongly influenced by the Hebrew Bible.

As a Presbyterian in the Presbyterian Church of Australia I am committed foremostly to the Scriptures—that’s actually the confessional position!—and I accept the basic system of theology taught in the WCF as an expression of how I understand the Scriptures. Within the basic systematic framework, I would argue that there’s a lot of exegetical room to move. The Reformed tradition has been fairly broad from the beginning, and I feel comfortable within it, although we’ll have to wait and see what others think about that.

I appreciate your concern with legalism, but I’ll have more to say on this later on. It's interesting how Jesus deals with the Pharisees. Somehow he doesn't sound very "Pauline" when doing so.

Thanks for your thoughts and interaction.

Nick said...

Darn, I missed a great discussion. Anyway, here is a post I made on this very issue, it's amazing how many scholars fail to take logizomai into consideration:

Regarding imputed righteousness, here are my thoughts:

In my study on this topic, the Greek term “logizomai” is the English term for “reckon/impute/credit/etc,” (all terms are basically equivalently used) and when I look up that term in a popular Protestant Lexicon here is what it is defined as:

QUOTE: “This word deals with reality. If I “logizomai” or reckon that my bank book has $25 in it, it has $25 in it. Otherwise I am deceiving myself. This word refers to facts not suppositions.”

The Protestant Lexicon states this term first and foremost refers to the actual status of something. So if Abraham’s faith is “logizomai as righteousness,” it must be an actually righteous act of faith, otherwise (as the Lexicon says) “I am deceiving myself.” This seems to rule out any notion of an alien righteousness, and instead points to a local/inherent righteousness.

The Lexicon gives other examples where “logizomai” appears, here are some examples:

Rom 3:28 Therefore we conclude [logizomai] that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

Rom 4:4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted [logizomai] as a gift but as his due.

Rom 6:11 Likewise reckon [logizomai] ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Rom 8:18 For I reckon [logizomai] that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.

Notice in these examples that “logizomai” means to consider the actual truth of an object. In 3:28 Paul ‘reckons’ faith saves while the Law does not, this is a fact, the Law never saves. In 4:4 the worker’s wages are ‘reckoned’ as a debt because the boss is in debt to the worker, not giving a gift to him. In 6:11 the Christian is ‘reckoned’ dead to sin because he is in fact dead to sin. In 8:18 Paul ‘reckons’ the present sufferings as having no comparison to Heavenly glory, and that is true because nothing compares to Heavenly glory.

To use logizomai in the “alien status” way would mean in: (1) 3:28 faith doesn’t really save apart from works, but we are going to go ahead and say it does; (2) 4:4 the boss gives payment to the worker as a gift rather than obligation/debt; (3) 6:11 that we are not really dead to sin but are going to say we are; (4) 8:18 the present sufferings are comparable to Heaven’s glory.
This cannot be right.

So when the text plainly says “faith is logizomai as righteousness,” I must read that as ‘faith is reckoned as a truly righteous act’, and that is precisely how Paul explains that phrase in 4:18-22. That despite the doubts that could be raised in Abraham’s heart, his faith grew strong and convinced and “that is why his faith was credited as righteousness” (v4:22). This is also confirmed by noting the only other time “credited as righteousness” appears in Scripture, Psalm 106:30-31, where Phinehas’ righteous action was reckoned as such.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Nick. Your observations about logizomai are good. I think you are right to say that logizomai (when used in the sense of counting/considering) normally means to consider one thing as something else in a way which is perceived to be correct or logical. You can also consider a cat to be purple bubblegum, but most people would think you were crazy.

When it comes to God considering things, does he “wrongly” consider Abraham’s faith as righteousness? I don’t think so. He rightly considers Abraham’s faith as the right response, because faith is a positive response to the word of God. It’s a positive quality, and something which pleases God (Heb 10:35, 38). According to the writer of the Hebrews, by faith we please God, and are actually rewarded for seeking after God, just like Enoch (Heb 11:5-6).

As you point out, Ps 106:30-31 is the clincher.

Nick said...

Yes, Hebrews 11 is key in all this too.

It's not a good sign when people discuss WHAT 'faith' means in Romans 4 while not taking into account 4:18-22 and Hebrews 11. I believe this is because the evidence clearly shows faith is an active and God pleasing action, not a passive 'empty hand'.

Hebrews 11:4 is another good one: By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings.