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Mediate or Immediate Imputation?

Theologians have long debated the nature or mode of the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity. This dispute is predicated upon a distinction, not always acknowledged by Calvinists as valid, between imputed sin and inherent sin, or between original sin as guilt and original sin as corruption.  According to the view called “immediate” or “antecedent” imputation, the guilt of Adam’s transgression is directly imputed to his posterity prior to their individuated existence as persons. This immediate imputation of guilt thus logically precedes and is the cause of inherent sin or corruption of nature.

Reformed theologians have not always agreed on what this imputation entails. Charles Hodge (Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970], 2:149-256) defines imputed sin as consisting simply of the obligation to satisfy justice, i.e., the exposure to punishment on account of Adam’s sin (the reatus poenae). John Murray (Imputation), in contrast to Hodge, argues that the reatus poenae, or obligation to satisfy justice, may be imputed only on the grounds of a logically antecedent culpa or demeritum. He concludes his response to Hodge by noting that “Reformed and Lutheran theologians [historically] did not conceive of the reatus of Adam’s sin as imputed to posterity apart from the culpa of the same sin. And this is simply to say that the relation of posterity to the sin of Adam could not be construed or defined merely in terms of the obligation to satisfy justice (reatus poenae) but must also include, as the antecedent and ground of that reatus, involvement in the culpa of Adam’s transgression” (p. 84).

The doctrine of “mediate” or “consequent” imputation likewise distinguished between the two elements of original sin, but unlike immediate imputation reverses their causal relationship. The guilt of Adam’s sin is alleged to be mediated through that corruption of nature inherited from him. Thus whereas the former doctrine insists that the imputation of Adam’s sin precedes corruption of nature and is reckoned to be its cause, the latter doctrine maintains that the imputation of Adam’s sin follows hereditary depravity and is its effect.

The “Peccatum Alienum”

The objection with which Jonathan Edwards is confronted has often been referred to as the peccatum alienum, or the problem of an “alien guilt.”  The heading of the chapter in Edwards’ treatise on Original Sin describes it this way: “That Great Objection against the Imputation of Adam’s Sin to his Posterity considered, that such imputation is unjust and unreasonable, inasmuch as Adam and his Posterity are not one and the same” (p. 389). Simply put, when Adam sinned his posterity did not exist as personal voluntary agents. Therefore, to indict posterity with the guilt of Adam’s sin (which is the peccatum alienum) is a legal and moral monstrosity. 

Edwards’ treatment of the peccatum alienum is presented in two parts.  He proposes first to define and describe the nature of the imputation of Adam’s sin and then, secondly, to demonstrate that such imputation is both reasonable and just.  Although my primary concern is with the latter of these two aspects in Edwards’ theory, the distortion by subsequent interpreters of the former element in his doctrine, to wit, that Edwards taught mediate imputation, must be corrected.  (It is my view that Edwards taught both the representative view of Adamic union and the doctrine of immediate imputation.)

Edwards and Mediate Imputation

Of those who have interacted critically with Edwards’ treatise on divine imputation, the majority have insisted that he taught the doctrine of mediate imputation. The statement by Edwards that is principally responsible for what I believe is a misunderstanding of his theory reads as follows:

“The first being of an evil disposition in the heart of a child of Adam, whereby he is disposed to approve of the sin of his first father, as fully as he himself approved of it when he committed to it, or so far as to imply a full and perfect consent of heart to it, I think, is not to be looked upon as a consequence of the imputation of that first sin, any more than the full consent of Adam’s own heart in the act of sinning; which was not consequent on the imputation of his sin to himself, but rather prior to it in the order of nature” (p. 391; some have thought that in quoting Johann Stapferus (1708-1775) of Zurich (see Original Sin, pp. 392-93), Edwards was endorsing the doctrine of mediate imputation.  But see Murray, Imputation, p. 63, and Warfield, “Edwards,” p. 530).

It should be remembered that the doctrine of immediate imputation asserts that corruption in human nature, or what Edwards calls an “evil disposition,” is the penal consequence of the imputation of the guilt of Adam’s transgression.  Is this not precisely what Edwards denies?  I do not think so, once his statement is examined carefully and in its context.

Edwards builds his case for imputation on the assumption of a divinely ordained unity between Adam and his posterity (the alleged propriety of which he will in due course seek to prove; at present it is assumed for the sake of argument).  Edwards believes that “God in each step of his proceeding with Adam, in relation to the covenant or constitution established with him, looked on his posterity as being one with him” (p. 389). Although God dealt directly and personally with Adam, “it was as the head of a whole body, and the root of the whole tree; and in his proceedings with him, he dealt with all the branches, as if they had been then existing in their root” (p. 389).

I should here point out that this “existing in” and thereby “acting with” Adam on the part of the species is not the doctrine of “realism” or “seminal solidarity”. According to realism, the species really sinned when Adam did, even if not consciously.  According to Edwards, God treats the species as if it really sinned when Adam did.  For the realist there is no peccatum alienum.  As far as the species is concerned, Adam’s sin is truly and properly committed by them in him.  Edwards’ theory, however, is that the ground of imputation is a divinely constituted covenantal oneness (see Misc. 1091, 1215), not a divinely constituted seminal or physiological identity.

It is Edwards’ concept of personal identity in particular that has linked him (unjustifiably) with the doctrine of realism. Here is how Charles Hodge (Systematic Theology) viewed it: “The strange doctrine of Edwards [on personal identity] . . . agrees with the realistic theory so far as that he and the realists unite in saying that Adam and his race are one in the same sense in which a tree is one during its whole progress from the germ to maturity, or in which the human soul is one during all the different periods of its existence.  It essentially differs, however, in that Edwards denies numerical sameness in any case.  Identity, according to him, does not in any creature include the continued existence of one and the same substance.  The realistic doctrine, on the contrary, makes the numerical sameness of substance the essence of identity.   Every genus or species of plants or animals is one because all the individuals of those genera and species are partakers of one and the same substance.  In every species there is but one substance of which the individuals are the modes of manifestation.  According to this theory humanity is numerically one and the same substance in Adam and in all the individuals of his race.  The sin of Adam was, therefore, the sin of all mankind, because committed by numerically the same rational and voluntary substance which constitutes us men” (2:220-21).

Returning now to the issue at hand, Edwards infers from the principal of covenantal solidarity that both guilt and moral depravity come upon the species in precisely the same manner as they come upon Adam, “as if he [Adam] and they [his posterity] had all coexisted” (p. 389). God so views the species in its representative head that any alteration or occurrence in the latter is attended with an identical (although obviously not simultaneous) alteration and occurrence in the former.  All this, again, is predicated upon assuming “a constituted oneness or identity of Adam and his posterity in this affair” (p. 390).

By conceiving of the matter in this way Edwards effectively dispenses with the notion that the children of Adam come into existence with a double guilt: (1) the guilt of Adam’s transgression (it having been imputed to them) and (2) the guilt of a corrupt nature, the latter guilt being logically subsequent to, because the penal effect of, the former guilt.  Edwards explains:

“The guilt a man has upon his soul at his first existence is one and simple: viz. the guilt of the original apostacy, the guilt of the sin by which the species first rebelled against God.  This, and the guilt arising from the first corruption or depraved disposition of the heart, are not to be looked upon as two things, distinctly imputed and charged upon men in the sight of God.  Indeed the guilt, that arises from the corruption of the heart, as it remains a confirmed principle, and appears in its consequent operations, is a distinct and additional guilt: but the guilt arising from the first existing of a depraved disposition in Adam’s posterity, I apprehend, is not distinct from their guilt of Adam’s first sin.  For so it was not in Adam himself (p. 390; cf. Misc. 384).

Whereas this statement may again appear to indicate that Edwards taught mediate imputation, the crucial sentence proving otherwise is the final one: “for so it was not in Adam himself.” Edwards is insisting that the experience of Adam’s posterity is identical in both order and form (i.e., sequence and nature) with that of Adam.  In Adam’s case Edwards envisions this sequence: (1) the first existing or emerging of an evil disposition exerted in his act of rebellion against the divine command, (2) the indictment or imputation of guilt consequent to that sin, and (3) a confirmed and abiding evil disposition of heart continuing on as a punishment by God for Adam’s first transgression.

With regard to “(1)” in this sequence, Edwards argues that “the first evil disposition or inclination of the heart of Adam to sin, was not properly distinct from his first act of sin, but was included in it.  The external act he committed was not otherwise his, than as his heart was in it, or as that action proceeded from the wicked inclination of his heart” (p. 390). Therefore, there was no double guilt in Adam, as if for two different sins, one for the evil disposition and one for the sinful act that followed.  Rather, “his guilt was all truly the act of his inward man; exclusive of which the motions of his body were no more than the motions of any lifeless instrument. His sin consisted in wickedness of heart, fully sufficient for, and entirely amounting to, all that appeared in the act he committed” (p. 390). Edwards is simply saying that, although Adam’s sinful inclination preceded the overt act of rebellion, the two aspects are united in that the sin for which he is declared guilty cannot be conceived except in terms of both parts.

This “first existing of an evil disposition” to which Edwards refers must be distinguished from that confirmed and abiding principle that is decidedly penal in nature.  Depravity of nature is thus two-fold in Adam.  In like manner, says Edwards,

“Depravity of heart is to be considered two ways in Adam’s posterity.  The first existing of a corrupt disposition in their hearts is not be looked upon as sin belonging to them, distinct from their participation of Adam’s first sin: it is as it were extended pollution of that sin, through the whole tree, by virtue of the constituted union of the branches with the root” (p. 391).

In other words, that corruption of nature with which Adam’s posterity are born is not the consequence of imputation.  It is an essential element of the imputation itself.  By virtue of that ordained identity between Adam and posterity, the evil disposition that appeared in Adam first in the order of nature likewise appears first in his posterity. Says Murray:

“The solution rests in the distinction which Edwards has been careful to make, namely, the distinction between corruption of the heart as a ‘confirmed principle’ and a corrupt heart as ‘the first existing of depraved disposition’.  If we overlook that distinction and its significance in Edwards’ analysis, then we fail to apprehend what is indispensable to a proper understanding of Edwards’ position.  It is of the latter --- ‘the first existing of a depraved disposition’ --- and of that alone that he speaks when he insists that the first sin of Adam as imputed and the guilt arising from a corrupt heart are one and the same and not two distinct things” (Imputation, p. 57).

In Adam the indictment of the guilt followed, as only it could, the first existing of an evil disposition. So likewise in his posterity, guilt follows the first existing of their evil disposition.

This, then, is the context in which the problematic statement noted earlier is found. In that utterance Edwards affirmed that the evil disposition in the species is not consequent upon but prior to the guilt that is its penal effect.  It could not be otherwise once one realizes that because of the constituted identity between Adam and his posterity the sequence in the experience of the latter must be the same as the sequence in the experience of the former.

Adam’s posterity thus come into existence with an evil disposition in “consequence of the union” (p. 391) that God ordained between them. Such corruption, however, is not a consequence of the imputation of the guilt arising from his transgression. Rather, such corruption is antecedent to guilt, as it was in Adam himself.  “The first depravity of heart and the imputation of that sin [i.e., its guilt], are both consequences of that established union: but yet in such order, that the evil disposition is first, and the charge of guilt consequent; as it was in the case of Adam himself” (p. 391).

Contrary to what one might think, this is not the doctrine of mediate imputation. The latter asserts that the imputation of Adam’s sin is mediated through inherited corruption and that the corruption of nature is therefore first in the order of nature and the imputation of guilt the consequence. But this is not what Edwards is here teaching. John Murray explains:

“He says nothing of the guilt of Adam’s first sin as mediated through hereditary depravity.  And this is the all-important difference between Edwards’ analysis and that of mediate imputation. When Edwards says that the evil disposition is first and the charge of guilt consequent, he is not speaking of hereditary depravity and of its relation to the guilt of Adam’s first sin.  The evil disposition which he says is prior is that which he constantly insists is involved in the first sin of Adam and is really one with it; it is “the guilt of the original apostacy.”  “The guilt,” he says, “arising from the first existing of a depraved disposition in Adam’s posterity, I apprehend, is not distinct from their guilt of Adam’s first sin.”  This he could not say of hereditary depravity.  The latter must be identified with what Edwards calls a confirmed and established principle in the heart of posterity and which he says expressly is “a consequence and punishment of the first apostasy . . . and brings new guilt” (Imputation, p. 58).

The following summary by Edwards, though lengthy, is entirely sufficient to clear up any remaining ambiguities:

“Let us suppose, that Adam and all his posterity had coexisted, and that his posterity had been, through a law of nature established by the Creator, united to him, . . . so as to constitute as it were one complex person, or one moral whole: so that by law of union there should have been a communion and coexistence in acts and affections; all jointly participating, and all concurring, as one whole, in the disposition and action of the head: . . . Now, in this case, the hearts of all the branches of mankind, by the constitution of nature and the law of union, would have been affected just as the heart of Adam, their common root, was affected.  When the heart of the root, by a full disposition committed the first sin, the hearts of all the branches would have concurred; and when the root, in consequence of this, became guilt, so would all the branches; and when the heart of the root, as a punishment of the sin committed, was forsaken of God, in like manner would it have fared with all the branches; and when the heart of the root, in consequence of this, was confirmed in permanent depravity, the case would have been the same with all the branches; and as new guilt of the soil of Adam would have been consequent on this, so also would it have been with his moral branches.  And thus all things, with relation to the evil disposition, guilt, pollution and depravity, would exist, in the same order and dependence, in each branch, as in the root” (pp. 391-92).

Clearly, then, the crucial element in Edwards’ theory is that the sin which is imputed to the species must be understood as comprising “the same two aspects which apply to Adam’s own sin. This is to say that if we are to speak of the imputation of Adam’s first sin the imputation must include the evil disposition which gave rise to the act committed as well as the act itself” (Murray, Imputation, p. 59). This, it must be concluded, is what Edwards means when he speaks of the “first existing of a depraved disposition” in the hearts of Adam’s posterity. As William Shedd (Dogmatic Theology) has observed, Edwards “explicitly imputes the guilt of the first rising of evil desire as well as of the corruption resulting from it; and this rising of evil desire he says was the first sin, which was inseparable from its consequence, namely, corruption of nature. Had Edwards asserted that only the corruption as the effect, but not the rising of evil desire itself as the cause of the effect, is imputed, he would have been liable to the charge of holding mediate imputation” (2:171).

Thus “the first existing of the corrupt disposition,” says Murray, “is just as direct as the participation in Adam’s first sin, for the simple reason that it is involved in that participation. And the only antecedent of this participation is ‘the union that the wise author of the world has established between Adam and his posterity,’” (p. 59) on the basis of which God looked on the species as one with Adam.  This is why Edwards conceives of both depravity and guilt as coming upon the species just as it came upon Adam.

“So,” concludes Edwards, “root and ranches being one, according to God’s wise constitution, the case in fact is, that by virtue of this oneness, answerable changes of effects through all the branches coexist with the changes in the root: consequently an evil disposition exists in the hearts of Adam’s posterity, equivalent to that which was exerted in his own heart, when he eat [sic] the forbidden fruit” (p. 394).

That in all this Edwards is consistent with immediate imputation is seen in his declaration that the confirmed principle, not the “first existing” of an evil disposition, is a penal consequence or punishment of Adam’s first sin (for Adam as well as for his posterity).  This, of course, is precisely what the advocates of immediate imputation have always maintained, to wit, that hereditary corruption (read “confirmed principle”) is the penal consequence of the imputation of the guilt of Adam’s first sin.

John Murray, whose book The Imputation of Adam’s Sin is a spirited and scholarly defense of immediate imputation, concludes from a study of Rom 5:12-21 precisely what Edwards has espoused, namely, that depravity of nature, or what he calls the “first existing of an evil disposition,” is itself not a consequence of imputation but an essential ingredient of the imputation itself.  Thus he says:

“The representation usually made by those maintaining immediate imputation is that the inflicting of the race with depravity is the penal consequence of the imputation of Adam’s sin. It is not so certain, however, that this is the most accurate analysis or that it rests upon a biblical basis. On the foregoing construction the case would be that the infliction with depravity is involved in the imputation of Adam’s sin; our involvement in and identification with the sin of Adam carries with it as a necessary ingredient the depravity or perversity apart from which sin does not exist. In other words, the imputation of Adam’s sin carries with it, not merely as consequence but as implicate, the depravity with which all the members of the race begin their existence as distinct individuals.  The imputation is not thus conceived of as something causally antecedent to the depravity but as that which includes depravity as an element” (p. 92).

Such is the nature and mode of the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity in the Edwardsean system. The objection of John Taylor and others, however, is addressed more specifically to what he believes to be the moral and legal injustice, indeed irrationality, of that alleged “union” between Adam and the species upon which Edwards has predicated the imputation.