1. ORIGIN AND MEANING OF THE TERM
THE theological use of the term "imputation" is probably rooted ultimately in the employment of the verb imputo in the Vulgate to translate the Greek verb logizesthai in <193202>Psalm 32:2. This passage is quoted by Paul in <450408>Romans 4:8 and made one of the foundations of his argument that, in saving man, God sets to his credit a righteousness without works. It is only in these two passages, and in the two axiomatic statements of <450404>Romans 4:4 and 5:13 that the Vulgate uses imputo in this connection (cf., with special application, <550416>2 Timothy 4:16; <570118>Philemon 1:18). There are other passages, however, where it might just as well have been employed, but where we have instead reputo, under the influence of the mistaken rendering of the Hebrew hashabh in <011506>Genesis 15:6. In these passages the Authorized English Version improves on the Latin by rendering a number of them (<450411>Romans 4:11, 22, 23, 24; <470519>2 Corinthians 5:19; <590223>James 2:23) by "impute," and employing for the rest synonymous terms, all of which preserve the "metaphor from accounts" inherent in logizesthai (and ellogein) ill this usage (cf. W. Sanday and A. C. Headlam, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 4:3), such as "count" (<450403>Romans 4:3, 5), "account" (<480306>Galatians 3:6), and "reckon" (<450404>Romans 4:4, 9, 10); the last of which the Revised English Version makes its uniform rendering of logizesthai. Even the meager employment of imputo in the Latin version, however, supplied occasion enough for the adoption of that word in the precise language of theology as the technical term for that which is expressed by the Greek words in their so-called "commercial" sense, or what may, more correctly, be called their forensic or "judicial" sense, "that is, putting to one's account," or, in its twofold reference to the credit and debit sides, "setting to one's credit" or "laying to one's charge."
2. THREE ACTS OF IMPUTATION
From the time of Augustine (early fifth century), at least, the term "imputation" is found firmly fixed in theological terminology in this sense. But the applications and relations of the doctrine expressed by it were thoroughly worked out only in the discussions which accompanied and succeeded the Reformation. In the developed theology thus brought into the possession of the Church, three several acts of imputation were established and expounded. These are the imputation of Adam's sin to his posterity; the imputation of the sins of His people to the Redeemer; the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to His people. Though, of course, with more or less purity of conception and precision of application, these three great doctrines became the property of the whole Church, and found a place in the classical theology of the Roman, Lutheran, and Reformed alike. In the proper understanding of the conception, it is important to bear in mind that the divine act called "imputation" is in itself precisely the same in each of the three great transactions into which it enters as a constituent part. The grounds on which it proceeds may differ; the things imputed may be different; and the consequent treatment of the person or persons to which the imputation is made may and will differ as the things imputed to them differ. But in each and every case alike imputation itself is simply the act of setting to one's account; and the act of setting to one's account is in itself the same act whether the thing set to his account stands on the credit or debit side of the account, and whatever may be the ground in equity on which it is set to his account. That the sin of Adam was so set to the account of his descendants that they have actually shared in the penalty which was threatened to it; and that the sins of His people were so set to the account of our Lord that He bore them in His own body on the tree, and His merits are so set to their account that by His stripes they are healed, the entirety of historical orthodox Christianity unites in affirming.
3. PELAGIAN OPPOSITION TO THE DOCTRINE
Opposition to these doctrines has, of course, not been lacking in the history of Christian thought. The first instance of important contradiction of the fundamental principle involved is presented by the Pelagian movement (see "Pelagius, Pelagian Controversies"), which arose at the beginning of the fifth century. The Pelagians denied the equity and, therefore, under the government of God, the possibility of the involvement of one free agent in the acts of another; they utterly denied, therefore, that men either suffer harm from Adam's sin or profit by Christ's merits. By their examples only, they said, can either Adam or Christ affect us; and by free imitation of them alone can we share in their merits or demerits. It is not apparent why Pelagius permitted himself such extremity of denial. What he had at heart to assert was the inamissibility by the human subject of plenary ability of will to do all righteousness. To safeguard this he had necessarily to deny all subjective injury to men from Adam's sin (and from their own sins too, for that matter), and the need or actuality of subjective grace for their perfecting. But there was no reason growing out of this point of sight why he might not allow that the guilt of Adam's sin had been imputed to his posterity, and had supplied the ground for the infliction upon them of external penalties temporal or eternal; or that the merits of Christ might be imputed to His people as the meritorious ground of their relief from these penalties, as well as of the forgiveness of their own actual sins and of their reception into the favor of God and the heavenly blessedness. Later Pelagianizers found this out; and it became not uncommon (especially after Duns Scotus' strong assertion of the doctrine of "immediate imputation") for the imputation of Adam's sin to be exploited precisely in the interest of denial or weakening of the idea of the derivation of inherent corruption from Adam. A very good example of this tendency of thought is supplied by the Roman Catholic theologian Ambrosius Catharinus, whose admirable speech to this effect at the Council of Trent is reported by Father Paul ("History of the Council of Trent," E. T. London, 1676, p. 165). Even Zwingli was not unaffected by it. He was indeed free from the Pelagianizing attenuation of the corruption of nature which is the subjective effect on his posterity of Adam's sin. With him, "original sin" was both extensively and intensively a total depravity, the fertile source of all evil action. But he looked upon it rather as a misfortune than a fault, a disease than a sin; and he hung the whole weight of our ruin on our direct participation in Adam's guilt. As a slave can beget only a slave, says he, so all the progeny of man under the curse are born under the curse.
4. IMPORTANCE OF THE DOCTRINE
In sharp contradiction to the current tendency to reduce to the vanishing-point the subjective injury wrought by Adam's sin on his posterity, the churches gave themselves to emphasizing the depth of the injury and especially its sinfulness. Even the Council of Trent acknowledged the transfusion into the entire human race of "sin, which is the death of the soul." The Protestants, who, as convinced Augustinians, were free from the Pelagianizing bias of Rome, were naturally even more strenuous in asserting the evil and guilt of native depravity. Accordingly they constantly remark that men's native guilt in the sight of God rests not merely upon the imputation to them of Adam's first sin, but also upon the corruption which they derive from him — a mode of statement which meets us, indeed, as early as Peter Lombard ("Sentences," II. 30) and for the same reason. The polemic turn given to these statements has been the occasion of a remarkable misapprehension, as if it were intended to subordinate the imputation of Adam's transgression to the transmission of his corrupted nature as the source of human guilt. Precisely the contrary is the fact. The imputation of Adam's transgression was not in dispute; all parties to the great debate of the age fully recognized it; and it is treated therefore as a matter of course. What was important was to make it clear that native depravity was along with it the ground of our guilt before God. Thus it was sought to hold the balance true, and to do justice to both elements in a complete doctrine of original sin. Meanwhile the recovery of the great doctrine of justification by faith threw back its light upon the doctrine of the satisfaction of Christ which had been in the possession of the Church since Anselm; and the better understanding of this doctrine, thus induced, in turn illuminated the doctrine of sin, whose correlative it is. Thus it came about that in the hands of the great Protestant leaders of the sixteenth century, and of their successors, the Protestant systematizers of the seventeenth century, the threefold doctrine of imputation — of Adam's sin to his posterity, of the sins of His people to the Redeemer, and of the righteousness of Christ to His people — at last came to its rights as the core of the three constitutive doctrines of Christianity — the sinfulness of the human race, the satisfaction of Jesus Christ, and justification by faith. The importance of the doctrine of imputation is that it is the hinge on which these three great doctrines turn, and the guardian of their purity.