A Category Mistake

While chasing a category mistake, N.T. Wright falls into one of his own. In the course of his discussion on law courts and covenants, he says this:

“The result of all this should be obvious, but is enormously important for understanding Paul. If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom. For the judge to be righteous does not mean that the court has found in his favour. For the plaintiff or defendant to be righteous does not mean that he or she has tried the case properly or impartially. To imagine the defendent somehow receiving the judge’s righteousness is simply a category mistake. That is not how the language works” (What St. Paul Really Said, p. 98).

There are several problems here. First, for Wright to list “imputes” in a list of rough synonyms like “imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers” is to be guity of his own profound category mistake. It is like saying that he hates “all vegetables — whether peppers, carrots, beans, peas, or beef jerky.” The way Wright states this, it would appear that he is correcting the notion that imputation is some sort of substantive transfer like an impartation or infusion, when every definition of imputation I have ever heard in my life denies any such equation.

The second problem is that the New Testament gives us a multitude of images and pictures for what is going on under the theological heading of imputation, and a guilty defendant bracing himself to hear the jury’s verdict is only one of them. We must not allow one metaphor of what happens in imputation to displace other images from the New Testament. Take, for example, another legal setting that applies — that of marriage. When a man takes a wife, his name is imputed to her, and all that he owns becomes hers. This is a legal, covenantal reality, and it is accomplished with a word, a declaration. It is not accomplished by some magic transfer between them.

One more observation. For Wright to say that the judge does not give his own righteousness to the defendant misses a grand theme of the New Testament. Say I was on trial before Judge Smith, and someone was later going over the court documents, and in the court decision found multiple references to me being “in Smith,” “in Judge Smith,” a “joint heir with the other defendants of all Smith’s wisdom,” and so on. Perhaps the reader might be excused for thinking that something like this had happened? And it all began with a word of declaration (imputation), and was followed up by an actual transfer (infusion). In a human trial, this would be weird because a human judge cannot do this. But in our salvation, God gives Himself and all that He has.

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