Here is a paper I wrote recently regarding the parallels between the Atonement theology of De Incarnatione Verbum Dei by Athanasius and Reformed Double Imputation. Enjoy!!!

Imputation in an Unlikely Place

An old man sits in a room and watches a younger man sleep. The younger man is destined to live a life characterized by death, struggle, and strife. The older man look at the younger man, stands up and crosses the room, and literally pours his life into the young man. He walks away and shortly thereafter dies. When the young man wakes up he realizes that the life of the old man has been transferred to him, and he now is destined for a whole new existence because of the sacrifice of the older man. Although the 2011 dystopian film In Time[1] was originally written to explore the divergence between the wealthy and impoverished, it also, albeit unwittingly, explores the theological concept of imputation.

            In this futuristic reality, humans have developed a genetic technology that allows all human beings to be free of disease and to stop aging at the biological age of 25. However, on their 25th birthday a clock built into their forearm begins counting down 1 year. When the clock hits zero, the person dies. However, rather than trade in currency, humans trade in time. By working they are able to extend their lives, those who are extremely wealthy can extend it indefinitely.[2] In the film, Henry Hamilton is the wealthy old man previously referenced. He meets a young Will Salas and decides to give him the one hundred years left on his clock. However, as Salas soon finds out, this imputation of life does not change his social status or erase his past. Despite the fact that he has been given a positive balance, the negatives of his past life and standing cannot be ignored by the social elite. Another imputation, which unfortunately never comes for Salas, would be required in order to remove the stigma and stain of his former life.

A Case of Competing Narratives

            The idea of imputed righteousness is sometimes seen as a theological invention of the 16th century, particularly of Calvin and the Reformed system that followed after him. The argument is that prior to this novelty, the Satisfaction theology of Anselm, itself somewhat of a theological innovation, and the Christus Victor or Ransom views of the Patristic period were void of any actual Penal Substitution or Imputation theory. Even in cases where a commentator acknowledges that either of these were present, the concept of Double Imputation was absent entirely. The terminus of this argument is, then, that Double Imputation is a theological position ungrounded in any historical tradition, and therefore is suspect at best.

            However, a recent resurgence in Patristic interested by Protestants, and by Evangelicals particularly, seems to have brought an influx of questions regarding this narrative. Some writers have gone so far as to claim that the Early Church, like the Apostles, held to the same doctrines and positions as the Reformers only to see these doctrines lost in the Middle Ages. Many claim that although they do not specifically use the language of the so-called Five Solae or phrases like Total Depravity, that the theology of great figures like Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and Augustine are essentially Reformed.

            I do not find either narrative to be satisfying in my survey of both Reformation and Patristic literature. However, I also do not believe that either extreme is completely bereft of truth. In this essay I shall argue that a sort of via media exists between these two poles. The reality of the situation is that no theology develops in a vacuum, and the Forensic theology of the Reformers is no exception. Particularly in the Reformation era, scholars were looking back to more ancient sources in an attempt to bypass the Medieval Period and its doctrinal development. This results in a development that, although divergent from the Catholic and Orthodox development, finds its footing in the writings of the first five centuries of the Church. In this paper I wish to explore one such kind of development. Although I will not be tracing the development of Double Imputation, I intend to show that there is a fundamental compatibility between the Reformed theology of Double Imputation and the atonement theology of the Patristic period. In this treatise I will be specifically looking at On the Incarnation by St Athanasius. Before expounding the Atonement theology present in On the Incarnation I shall provide an explanation of the theology of Double Imputation theology as it takes form in Reformed theology.[3] Finally I shall demonstrate this compatibility by exploring the parallels present between the two views.

Apophatic Thesis

            Before I begin my exposition in earnest, I would like to take a moment to clarify what I am not arguing. As mentioned above, due to the compatibilities and linguistic overlaps I will be identifying presently, the argument is often made that Patristic writers were essentially Reformed. It usually takes form thusly: Augustine taught double-predestination, Calvin taught double-predestination, and therefore Augustine was a Calvinist. As such, I want to be explicit in what my thesis is not. I am in no way arguing that Athanasius was a Protestant, held Protestant convictions, or that he held a formal view of Double Imputation. If anything, it would be more accurate to describe Protestant convictions regarding double imputation as fundamentally Athanasian, although this is likely stretching the argument as well.

In addition due to the relatively brief length of this essay, I am proceeding with certain assumptions that I realize not all readers may agree with. For the sake of my treatment I am assuming that Double Imputation is a biblically grounded and logically sound theological position. As such I will not be providing a biblical argument, nor biblical references,[4] in the course of my treatment. With these disclaimers in mind, let us proceed to the meat of the argument.

Double Imputation – A Brief Overview

            Double Imputation is by far a monolithic position within the Reformed school of thought. Perspectives on what exactly is being imputed, when each imputation takes place, and if the imputation is entirely forensic or if there is an ontological component to it as well are all active discussions taking place within the Reformed community. However, for all the minor disagreements, the majority position is that Double Imputation consists of the negative imputation of our sins onto Christ and the positive imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul summarizes the doctrine this way:

There are two aspects of imputation which I will distinguish as being the negative and positive aspects. […] He receives in Himself the penalty due our sins. […] He lived in perfect fulfillment of the law, meriting by His righteousness the blessings promised in the old covenant.”[5]

            A way to think of this is that the negative imputation is what brings our account from negative to zero. That is to say, in our sins we owe God a debt or penalty and on the cross Christ resolves that debt bringing us out of the negative. However, the theology of Double Imputation would argue that this negative imputation only brings us to a neutral relationship with God. They cite biblical passages speaking of our relationship with God in remarkably positive terms. They point to the fact that we seem to take on the very son/father relationship that Christ has with his Father as evidence that our relationship is not only neutral, but that we enter into a positive relationship with God in which we are not only not in his debt, but we have been given the right of inheritance. John Webster summarizes the positive imputation when he says

[Christ] enacts the relation that creatures are to have to God who gives life and therefore gives the law. In him, therefore, creatures are accounted righteous – that is, the good order of creaturely being in fellowship with God is restored by a person and an action not the creature’s own.[6]

 The prolific John Stott aptly states the doctrine in the Cross of Christ. “On the one hand, God declines to ‘impute’ our sins to us, or ‘count’ them against us, with the implication that he imputed them to Christ instead. On the other, God has imputed Christ’s righteousness to us.”[7] We also see this doctrine of double imputation traced back to authors like Bucer[8] and Calvin.[9]

            A final point that must be remember that is distinct for Reformed theology is that the atonement is definite and concrete. This means that whatever Double Imputation is, it actually accomplishes something. Often called “Limited Atonement” in popular Calvinistic literature, this concept may more properly be termed “Definite Atonement” or “Particular Atonement.” The difficult aspect of this theology is that it means Christ’s death was only intended to redeem the Elect. The theological payout however is that Christ’s death actually redeemed the Elect rather than simply make the option of salvation available on the horizon of possibility of a given human life. Presbyterian theologian Michael Horton affirms this when he writes:

Among the arguments in favor of particular redemption are the following. First, this view maintains that Christ’s death actually saves. Scripture nowhere teaches that Christ came into the world to make salvation possible, much less that it becomes actual because of faith in Christ.[10]

The Two Forks – Theosis and Legislative Obligation

            Central to the atonement theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church as well as the Eastern Church of the Patristic era was the concept of theosis. This doctrine was prevalent throughout the writings of the Patristic era, and became especially pertinent as the Church began to wrestle with doctrinal formulation of the hypostatic union of Christ’s dual natures. Although one could point to many major figures, Cyril of Alexandria and the Cappadocians come to mind, I have chosen to focus my enquiry on Athanasius and his work De Incarnatione Verbum Dei or On the Incarnation of the Word of God. In this work Athanasius seeks to ground the doctrine of the Incarnation in its soteriological purposes of restoring corrupted humanity by means of its unification with the divine Logos in Christ.

            Athanasius argues that at creation humanity, being a contingent being, was created mortal and corruptible,[11] although not yet corrupt.[12] One author writes “at creation Adam possessed incorruption in an unstable way”[13] Because of their unique fellowship with God, they were blessed with immortality and incorruptibility.[14] It is only in relational participation in the Logos that humans are incorruptible and holy.[15] Upon the destruction of that fellowship through the betrayal of disobedience committed by Adam and Eve, the unique, but unstable, blessing was revoked and they immediately began to die and decay. Athanasius views this as a sort of drift toward non-existence, which is the natural consequence of being cut off from ones. However, in God’s wisdom and grace a plan was enacted. Athanasius notes that the estate of humanity cannot simply be reversed by repentance alone.[16] In this we see that Athanasius fall squarely in the camp of an objective atonement, for it is not just a change in our perspective but a concrete and actual change in the very nature of the relationship we have with God that restores us. To accomplish this objective atonement the Son himself must assume human nature. Thus, the corrupted human nature is joined to the incorruptible divine nature in the Incarnate Christ, and in that process human nature is restored to incorruptibility. This restoration of humanity to its source, the reconnection to that which sustains our very being as contingent entities, is what I am calling the “First Fork” of Athanasian atonement. Many in the East view this as the summation and totality of Athanasius’ atonement theology. Applying this to Christus Victor, it is in this unity then that the Devil is tricked into swallowing the hook of crucifying the Son of God, and in this trick, he and his kingdom is undone. However, this traditional Christus Victor or Ransom language is simply not present explicitly in On the Incarnation. Instead we see language that is much closer to what would become Satisfaction or Penal Substitution theory. Now, as I said before, I recognize that it is grossly inaccurate to say that this therefore means that Athanasius taught Penal Substitution. However, the question at hand is if Penal Substitution, and Double Imputation specifically, is a compatible theology with the insight provided by Athanasius.

            To begin to answer that question, let us explore the “Second Fork” of Athanasian Atonement. As explained above, Athanasius views the Incarnation as sufficient to restore the nature of humanity to its incorruptible and immortal state. However, Athanasius also recognizes that the transgression changed more than just the nature. While previously humanity was connected to its Creator in a loving fellowship, they now stand under divine condemnation. “But when humans despised and overturned the comprehension of God, devising and contriving evil for themselves, […] then they received the previously threatened condemnation of death.”[17] This is clear legal penalty language. Perhaps even more explicitly juridical, the Alexandrian bishop states that the Son must die in order that “God should appear true in his legislation concerning death.”[18] We see repeatedly that there is both the aspect of natural restoration, the First Fork, and the satisfaction of the juridical obligation to die, the Second Fork. We see this dual prong theology explicitly when Athanasius says “If then there were only offence and not the consequence of corruption, repentance would have been fine.”[19] Here Athanasius makes a clear distinction between the natural consequences of sin, and the reality of juridical guilt as a result of transgression. Thus death is both the natural outcome of disconnection from the source of life, as well as the criminal sentence proclaimed by God according to his prior legislation. Finally, Athanasius places the fulfillment of this obligation, and therefore the release of humanity’s liability to said obligation, in the substitutionary death of Christ. “[D]elivering [his body] over to death on behalf of all, he offered it to the Father, doing this in his love for human beings, so on the one hand, with him all dying in him the law concerning corruption in human beings might be undone.”[20]

Appropriating the Forks

Now, I turn to the task of demonstrating the compatibility of this theology with Double Imputation. As stated before, there are two aspects of Double Imputation. The first is concerned with the removal of sin by its destruction in Christ on the cross. The second is concerned with bringing us into a positive relationship with God. As the reader may have surmised, I believe the two imputations prominent in Reformed thought closely align with the two forks of Athanasian Atonement.

            In both Athanasius and Reformed thought we see that there is a punishment or obligation that is imposed upon all humans to die that is imposed upon us due to the transgression of Adam.[21] And likewise in both schools of thought, this obligation is fulfilled in the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross. We see in De Incarnatione clear language regarding the fact that this death occurs to fulfill the obligation to the law of death. Even more telling is the fact that his death is offered to the Father, language that is close to the center of Reformed Penal Substitution as well. Rather than assume the human flesh to be killed by the Devil, thereby frustrating and undoing his works, the Son offers his life in fulfillment to the juridical and penal obligations of humanity to the Father. Cyril of Alexandria picks up this theme as well through his theory of recapitulation in which we are redeemed in Christ by his death on the cross.[22] Although for Cyril, part of this recapitulation is accomplished by the Incarnation, the condemnation of our sin and the fulfillment of the sentence against it is accomplished on the cross.[23]

            Perhaps a bit less explicit, but strong none the less, are the parallels regarding Positive Imputation and Athanasian theosis. Patristic scholar Donald Fairbairn explains that a predominant theme in the Patristic era was that of Divine Sonship. That in taking on our flesh and reconciling us to God, the Son “causes us to become sons and daughters of God.”[24] It is in this adoption that we are restored to the unique place of blessing that was Adam and Eve’s in the Garden before the Fall, “sharing by grace in the fellowship the Son has with the Father by nature.”[25] In this we see something that would later be paralleled by the Second Imputation of Reformed thought. Karkkainen, although commenting on Lutheran thought, agrees with this association. Following after the New Finnish Interpretation of Luther originated by Tuomo Mannermaa, he writes “This view, traditionally called ‘justification,’ can also be called theosis according to the ancient doctrine of the fathers.”[26] “Faith is the basis for justification precisely because faith means the real presence of the person of Christ,” Mannermaa himself says, “The Christ who dwells in faith in Christians is the Christian righteousness that God imputes to them.”[27] [28] Although these are both theologians from a predominantly Lutheran position, the Reformed language of Union with Christ speaks to this reality as well. Michael Horton, summarizing Calvin,[29] writes “We are not only recipients of Christ’s gifts but of Christ himself with his gifts.”[30] Although it is clear that Calvin identifies Union with Christ as part of Sanctification we must always remember that for Calvin the doctrines of Justification and Sanctification are utterly inseparable.[31] It is clear that it is only in Christ that our positive relationship with God exists. Likewise, we see in Athanasius that it is in the reality that our human flesh has been assumed by the divine Logos that brings us into positive relationship with the Father. Fairbairn characterizes this reality by appealing to the writings of Cyril of Alexandria, who followed closely the thought of Athanasius,[32] who notes that although the Logos is a Son by nature that he grants us the gift of sonship by grace. As we have seen previously, this gracious gift of participation in the sonship of the Son is only made possible by our participation in the Logos, which only occurs after the Fall as a result of the Incarnation. It seems to me that the First Fork and the Second Imputation appear to be compatible. Just as the First Fork, theosis, assumes us into the identity of Christ and thereby sweeps us into the very relationship of the Son to the Father, so also the Second Imputation of Christ’s righteousness is that through which the Father looks upon us and sees the righteousness of Christ which justifies us. Although the two appear to happen in the reverse order, the parallels between Double Imputation and Athanasius’ two Forks are strong enough to support that they are fundamentally compatible.[33]

Concluding Thoughts

            In this essay I have demonstrated that the Double Imputation theology prevalent in Reformed theology is fundamentally compatible with the Two Forks of Athanasian Atonement theology. I have done this by providing detailed explanations of Double Imputation in both modern thought and Reformation era documents. I have also provided an exposition of the Atonement theology of Athanasius present in De Incarnatione. Finally I provided an explanation of the parallels present between the two systems. I believe that the implications of this compatibility are varied and far reaching, however that subject will have to wait until another day. I believe it is vital for Protestant theologians to recognize that our theology did not spring into existence on the door of a Wittenberg chapel. We have a much richer heritage than that. However we must also recognize that our theology places us in a common heritage with those whom we protest against and that the unity of this heritage should drive us in love to grace toward and dialog with our brothers and sisters in Rome and Constantinople.
[1] "In Time," IMDb, accessed May 03, 2013,

[2] See Manohla Dargis, "Die Young, Stay Pretty, and Watch Your Clock," The New York Times, October 27, 2011, accessed May 03, 2013, for a full synopsis and review of the film.

[3] Although my focus is Reformed theology proper, I will also be making reference to Lutheran thought throughout the paper. Although not identical, the theology shares enough in common that I believe it is justifiable to treat them as a unified loci.

[4] The primary dogmatic genesis of Double Imputation is found in 1 Corinthians 5:21. In addition, many of the sources present in my bibliography would serve as a good starting point for the reader who wishes to explore the topic further.

[5] R. C. Sproul, "Justification by Faith Alone: The Forensic Nature of Justification," in Justification by Faith Alone, ed. Don Kistler (Morgan: Solo Deo Gloria Publications, 1995), 36-37.

[6] John Webster, "Rector Et Iudex Super Omnia Genera Doctrinarum?," in What Is Justification About?, ed. Michael Weinrich and John P. Burgess (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 53.

[7] John R W Stott, The Cross of Christ, 20th Anniversary ed. (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2006), 148.

[8] Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, Second ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 221.

[9] Ibid, 224.

[10] Michael Horton, For Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 92. – Emphasis in Original

[11] It is important to note that here Athanasius is not speaking of moral corruption, but of physical corruption. Essentially he is saying that along with never dying the human state was also that of never suffering from physical malady or decay.

[12] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. John Behr, vol. 44A, Popular Patristics Series (Crestwood: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2011), 59.

[13] Donald Fairbairn, Grace and Christology, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 64-65.

[14] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 61.

[15] Fairbairn, Grace and Christology, 74.

[16] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 65.

[17] Ibid, 59. – Emphasis mine

[18] Ibid, 65.

[19] Ibid, 65.

[20] Ibid, 67.

[21] Athanasius and Reformed theology have very different views about how and why that obligation transmits from Adam to the rest of humanity, however the specifics of that divergence does not impact the argument presented in this paper.

[22] Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ, trans. John A. McGuckin, Popular Patristics Series (Crestwood: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995), 121.

[23] Norman Russell, Cyril of Alexandria (New York: Routledge, 2000), 18-19.

[24] Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 8.

[25] Ibid, 9.

[26] Veli-Matti Karkkainen, One with God (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2004), 46.

[27] Tuomo Mannermaa, Christ Present in Faith, ed. Kirsi Stjerna, First Fortress Press ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 57. – Emphasis mine

[28] See also Richard Lints, "Soteriology," in Mapping Modern Theology, ed. Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 283-284.

[29] Horton cites Institutes 3.1.1, 3.1.4, 3.2.24, and 4.17.11 as the location of this statement

[30] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 624.

[31] McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 224.

[32] Fairbairn, Grace and Christology, 78.

[33] Whether or not this represents a general trend within Patristic thought or if the Reformers utilized this thought in the development of their doctrine is the subject of another paper. Although similar double forked theologies seem to me to be present in Augustine’s On the Trinity as well as in Gregory of Nyssa’s The Great Catechism and Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ.


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