A Realist’s Review of J.V. Fesko’s ‘Death in Adam, Life in Christ,’ Part 1

By Ken Hamrick

As a proponent of the Realistic view, I was interested in this book by J. V. Fesko, Death in Adam, Life in Christ: The Doctrine of Imputation,[1] because it seeks to explain how Covenant Theology deals with imputation on both sides of the Adam-Christ parallel, as well as engaging other views, among which is Augustinian realism. The Realistic or Augustinian view of humanity’s union in Adam is now held only by a minority of Reformed and Evangelicals. But it was the majority view, in its implicit form,[2] up through the 17th century. Simply put, are we held responsible for Adam’s sin merely because God made him our representative, or, is it also because we were all in some mysterious way present and participating in Adam’s sin?

Augustine held that the whole of human nature, including not only the physical but also the moral nature and the will itself, is propagated from parent to child. The whole nature of every human being originated in Adam; and in this sense, Augustine saw the whole of humanity, as pertains to our moral will and nature, as singularly present within Adam when he sinned.[3] In Augustine, sin cannot be abstracted from moral agency–not even in original sin, where that agency is found in the generic existence of the moral nature of mankind in Adam. This idea of the willful self-corruption of all men in Adam–of the singularity of the moral agency of all men in Adam and propagation of that same agency to all men–is fundamental to Augustine’s theory.[4] If one has an evil will, then the efficient cause of the evil of that will, in Augustine’s reasoning, must have been the original evil act of that will while yet in Adam, prior to being propagated through generations to that one. The fact that Augustine sees this original evil act in Adam as “self-motion” that justifies the condemnation of all “on the ground of the ancient obligation,” establishes that Augustine saw the existence of the self-identity of every man in its generic form in Adam.[5] His moral choice was our moral choice, as his moral nature was passed down to us. We are like branches of a tree, with Adam as “the root of mankind” (as many creeds and confessions affirm). That this continuity of nature implicates us in Adam’s sin and justifies the imputation characterized the Reformed view in the main for the first two centuries after the Reformation. Adam’s sin was to us a sin of participation and not at all an alien sin. This Realistic view was explicitly held by such theologians as W. G. T. Shedd and A. H. Strong, and more recently, by Millard Erickson, Anthony Hoekema and Robert Culver.

Dr. Fesko is Academic Dean and Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary in California, and has written many books. I found this book to be substantive and thought provoking. It is well worth the reading—and I think it demands a response.

Fesko writes in the preface, “[…T]here are few, if any, books that treat both imputed guilt and righteousness. When it came to the history of the doctrine of imputation, there are hardly any monographs that treat the doctrine.” Fesko is a proponent of the modern Reformed view of Covenant (or, Federal) Theology, and defends that view against the main alternatives, historical and contemporary—including the Realistic view. While it is not his main purpose to engage the Realistic view, it is my main purpose in this article to address his engagement of that view, which I have found to be lacking.

Unfortunately, Fesko fails to set out the Realistic view of Adamic headship in anything approaching its best form. He quotes from various eminent authors who are themselves outstanding sources of what the Realistic view entails, and yet, inexplicably, Fesko explains Realism in ways that no Realist would, and sets out not the strongest form of that view but a weak caricature of it.

Before we proceed, some definitions need addressing. Fesko gives this “basic definition” of the verb, to impute: “to assign something to another…”[6] This fits well with his view, but it is inadequate. The NT word is λογίζομαι (logizomai)[7] and I contend that it primarily means to reckon or account a thing as it is, and only secondarily means to reckon or account a thing as if it is, just as the figurative meaning of a word is always subordinate to its literal meaning. One may argue that imputation is literal in either case; but when Romans 5:12 says, “…because all sinned,” that sinning of all was either literal or figurative. If the sin that is imputed is only figuratively committed by those to whom it is imputed, then the usage is secondary. Fesko continues his definition:

In accounting, someone can impute or assign a credit or debit to an account. In social interaction, someone can impute or assign false motives to someone’s actions. In theological terms, to impute has historically been a term employed to explain how God assigns guilt, for example. In Leviticus 17:4, we read of the Lord imputing bloodguilt to the man who does not bring the required sacrifice to the tabernacle…[8]

The OT word is חשׁב (châshab)[9] and has the same primary and secondary distinction of meaning as the NT word: it is used primarily in the case of what is reckoned or accounted as is and only secondarily in the case of what is reckoned or accounted as if. Notice that here in Leviticus 17:4, the bloodguilt is imputed to the man only because he has rightly incurred that guilt by his actions. The guilt is assigned to him—as is—and not to another as if. Fesko cites another of these, not realizing that they do not fit with his basic definition of imputation as assigning to another:

Another instance of ‘impute’ appears when Paul appeals to David’s prayer of repentance: ‘Just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts [λογιζεται] righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count [οὐ μή λογισηται] his sin”‘ (Rom. 4:6-8). Through David’s statement Paul makes the point that the forgiveness of sins is the non-imputation of sin…[10]

The very imputation that David counts himself blessed to have escaped is an assignment (accounting, reckoning or imputing) of his sin to his account as it is and not as if it were his. Of course, a secondary meaning is still a valid meaning, but the primary ought not to be discarded from definition. The difference between these two uses is the difference, in a nutshell, between the Realistic view and the modern Federal view of Adamic imputation. Thus, to discard the primary meaning of, to impute, is to undercut the legitimacy of the Realist view.

Next, we must address the definition of the Realistic view. Biblical Realism is the recognition of a shared personal identity, effected by immaterial (spiritual) union or singularity of immaterial origin. Simply put, it is the idea that more of human nature is passed from parent to child (and from Adam to us) than merely the physical. It is the idea that even that part of our nature that chooses right from wrong was propagated from Adam to all; so that our moral nature was not corrupted by “someone else,” but rather, the moral will within each of us acted with one will within Adam to choose sin, and was afterward passed down to us in its fallen state. Further, it is the idea that God imputes Adam’s sin to the race as is, in the literal sense because it was not only Adam but the whole race that literally sinned when, as Augustine said, “we all were that one man.”

Fesko has real problems understanding how the ontological in realism relates to the legal/forensic, and he continually holds the latter category over and against the former—as if realism had only to do with ontology and nothing to do with legality.[11] He seems to fail to comprehend that the ontological substance that is key to realistic reasoning is not material (the physical body/ “biological,” as he often portrays it) but is rather the immaterial (the soul/spirit/immaterial nature). What Fesko really seems to miss is that theological realism is not about biology or physical descent or physical ontology. How a theologian writing on these issues could study these different authors and still miss this is beyond me (—or is he purposely presenting a caricature?). Having been ontologically present and participating in the crime makes us guilty of that crime—in a way that is far more just than for God to merely decide to view us as if we had participated (as if it were really just to do so). This is true Realism, and this view of how ontology justly incurs legal condemnation makes it no less forensic than the Federal/Covenant view. While the Federal theory artificially abstracts the ontological from the legal, Realism recognizes their rightful unity.

Fesko also says that Realism sees original sin as a contagion that is physically transmitted.[12] But Realism sees the contagion as only a metaphor. The moral (immaterial) nature of the child is transmitted from parent to child—but immaterially so. As the body propagates the body, so the soul propagates the soul. The two are correlated, but neither is the mode of the other.

Fesko states:

Augustine’s realistic understanding of sin impacted his understanding of the nature of justification. If natural descent transmits original sin, then grace, and particularly righteousness, has a similar manner of transmission. In baptism God infuses grace into the sinner to counteract the effects of original sin. The water physically carries God’s grace, that which extinguishes original sin and brings about a person’s spiritual rebirth. Upon their baptism, even infants are infused with the grace of the Holy Spirit and cleansed from original sin. Given his realistic presuppositions, the ideological framework for the concept of imputed righteousness does not exist. Sin and righteousness are primarily, though not exclusively, ontological categories. Their legal dimension comes about as an effect of their presence or absence in a person.[13]

Labeling as Realism the idea that grace is a substance in the baptism water that is infused into the body is patent nonsense. Such are only pagan superstitions that view anything spiritual as a physical substance, or view anything physical as being spiritually charged in a good or evil way. I’m not saying that Augustine wasn’t affected by some of the superstitions of his day, but his realism did not consist in these things, and it is wildly inaccurate to attribute such superstitions  to “realistic presuppositions.” Using such a superstitious view of baptismal water to reinforce an incorrectly materialistic interpretation of Augustine’s realistic anthropology ought to raise an alarm for all readers for whom reason and objectivity are serious concerns–and prompt the question: Is Fesko focusing on the primitive realism of Augustine, burdened as he might have been (to some degree) with the superstitions of his day, in order to twist it into an easily-dismissed caricature–and use that to justify dismissing all subsequent realists? If this is not true, then why does he never get around to actually engaging William Shedd (or any other modern realist) in any substantive way–men who gleaned truth from Augustine, keeping the wheat and discarding the chaff? Fesko is blind to the wheat and discards it all as chaff.

As I read through Fesko’s book, trying to discover the cause for his faulty understanding of the realistic view as merely about physical ontology–his strange failure to see that realistic transmission of sin and guilt are due to immaterial transmission of the moral nature–I was struck by his pivotal error in thinking that Augustine held to creationism:

The hereditary transmission of sin was inherently connected to the dominant view of the origin of the human soul. Some, such as Tertullian, believed that the father generated the soul in the act of procreation. This view is known as traducianism. Others, such as Augustine and Jerome (ca. 347-420), believed that God created new souls every time a person was conceived, at which point God infuses the soul into the body, which has been called creationism.[14]

It is my guess that because of this error, Fesko was unable to see that side of Augustine’s realism that involved immaterial union of being and the resultant guilt and corruption that passed upon all men NOT “by virtue of their birth” (as Fesko asserts), but by virtue of their immaterial participation in Adam’s sin. That participation incurred a forensic guilt and penalty that was imputed at the time of the sin to the human nature that perpetrated it. That participation answers all of Fesko’s objections, and is completely missed by his superficial engagement of the realistic view. Augustine was reticent to officially adopt traducianism, but he neither adopted creationism nor provided any substantive defense for creationism such as he provided for traducianism. However, even without an explicit adoption of traducianism, his whole doctrine of original sin was built upon many strong arguments for a race that mysteriously existed in Adam, culpably participated in his sin, fell into condemnation, mortality and the depravity of sin while in Adam, and is propagated with the condemnation and effects of the fall justly inhering. While he did not explicitly adopt traducianism, claims that he adopted creationism are glaring blunders.

Fesko builds new errors upon old:

Nominalism, the idea that universals do not have real existence but are merely names applied to qualities found in certain objects, created the intellectual space to consider sin and justification as something other than ontological. This new philosophical development combined with renaissance humanism and the impulse to exegete the Scriptures from the original biblical languages prompted the reorientation of sin and righteousness around legal-forensic categories.[15]

Nominalism denied what Realism affirmed: that there was a real union of mankind within the man, Adam. Nominalism said that all such unions were mere names (“nominal”) for ideas of union within the observing mind and not real within substantial reality. Thus, nominalism rendered justice a mere named idea within the observing mind–a sovereign choice to view as just that which was not grounded in substantial reality, to corelate to the sovereign choice to view as a union that which was not a union in substantial reality. Again, Realism was not lacking in legal-forensic categories, as Fesko claims. But rather, he assumes that unless the legal-forensic is abstracted from the ontological–“parceled up” and given to those who had no ontological participation in the moral act–then it is not properly “legal” or “forensic.” It is an attempt to leverage his view by using terms according to his assumed (and as yet, undefended) definitions. Rather than Nominalism “creat[ing] the intellectual space to consider sin and justification as something other than ontological,” it created the intellectual space to abstract the legal-forensic from the ontological–and in the process, to abstract justice from reality and condemnation from actual commission of sin. And Fesko simply begs the question with his audacious claim that “the impulse to exegete the Scriptures from the original biblical languages prompted the reorientation of sin and righteousness around legal-forensic categories.”

Fesko’s portrayal of history is slanted. He states (bold mine):

Given the majority consensus in the seventeenth century for covenantally imputed guilt and righteousness, one might think that debates over these issues would dissipate. Nevertheless, controversy in the modern period intensified especially in the nineteenth-century Presbyterian Church. In many respects virtually every view advocated in the previous seventeen hundred years of the church re-surfaced: Pelagian imitation, immediate imputation, realistic imputation, and some, such as Robert L. Dabney (1820-98), claimed informed agnosticism on the matter.[16]

Fesko seems oblivious to the fact that when the Federal/Covenant system first became popular, it was combined with the older Augustinian realistic view, so that realistic imputation and covenantal imputation were seen as the two sides of the same coin, rather than exclusive of one another. He offers that “covenantally imputed guilt” was “the majority consensus in the seventeenth century” as if the majority consensus did not also include realistic union as the ground in reality by which covenantal imputation could justly occur–hence, making the covenantal imputation to also be a realistic imputation. His slant aids his view but distorts the historical reality. George P. Hutchinson states:

[… I]t is important to recognize certain salient facts about the Federal theology. In the first place, the covenant theologians, unlike the Nominalist Catharinus who denied the Augustinian solution, added their conception of a covenant solidarity with Adam to the Augustinian conception of natural solidarity as it had been sanctioned by Calvin and his immediate followers. They simply added the concept of federal headship to that of natural headship. In the second place, in that the covenant theologians considered themselves, in general, the heirs of Augustine and Calvin, they saw no contradiction between covenant theology and the Augustine tradition. Third, there is the fact that the Federal theology did not arise full-blown, but was progressively restated during well over a century of development. This naturally means that there was to be development in the discussion of such questions as the nature of the covenant of works and its relationship to the natural union with Adam. For instance, there is little emphasis on the concept of a representative union in the earlier Reformed theology whereas this notion is a predominate one in the full-blown covenant theology of the latter half of the seventeenth century.[17]

Hutchinson concludes: “It is simply a plain fact that classical Reformed Theology is ambiguous at this specific point [the precise relationship between natural and legal solidarity]. There never was any consensus as to how one should conceive of the relationship between the two components of our twofold union with Adam.”[18] George P. Fisher states (bold mine):

The fundamental idea of the Augustinian theory is that of a participation on the part of the descendants of Adam in his first sin; in consequence of which they are born both guilty and morally depraved. The fundamental idea of the federal theory is that of a vicarious representation on the part of Adam, in virtue of a covenant between God and him, whereby the legal responsibility for his first sinful act is entailed upon all his descendants; participation being excluded, but the propriety of his appointment to this vicarious office being founded on our relation to him as the common father of men. The Augustino-federal or semi-federal theory is a combination of the two, the covenant relation of Adam being prominent, but participation being also, with more or less emphasis, asserted […]
[…]The federal doctrine is the offspring of the seventeenth century. In fact it may also be said of it, in the form in which it is now held, that it is the offspring of the eighteenth century; since, in the preceding age, the great majority of the theologians who adopted the theory of a covenant coupled with it the Augustinian principle. That is to say, they maintained the Augustino-federal or semi-federal doctrine as above defined.[19]

Fisher understands the mistake of modern defenders of imputation, like Fesko (ALLCAPS author’s):

The mistake of the modern defenders of imputation is in ignoring and denying the capital fact of a TRUE AND REAL PARTICIPATION IN ADAM’S SIN, which still formed the groundwork of the doctrine of original sin long after the federal theory came into vogue. They mistake history likewise, by ascribing their own purely federal view to the great body of Calvinistic theologians in the seventeenth century, who were Augustinians as well as federalists, holding to the second type of doctrine which we mentioned in the beginning–the Augustino-federal.[20]

Fesko may ignore this capital fact, but the “majority consensus in the seventeenth century” was that mankind had participated in the Augustinian realistic sense in Adam’s sin. Fisher states:

The proposition which we are concerned to maintain, is that in the prevailing theology of the seventeenth, as well as the sixteenth century, even after the covenant theory was adopted, the doctrine of participation in the first sin–the old groundwork of Augustinism–was still cherished.[21]

[…]For it was still the prevailing view, throughout the seventeenth century, among adherents of the covenant theology, with the exception of supralapsarians, that in the first sin there was a true and proper participation. It seems to have been long felt by theologians that the covenant would not answer of itself, without the doctrine of real participation, in confronting objections to imputation and native depravity; and yet the two props were hardly congruous with one another. When the justice of imputation on the ground of a federal relation was called in question, they fell back on the theory of participation; but when asked why all the actions of Adam are not imputed to us, they pleaded the covenant.[22]

This review will be continued in Part 2.

[1] J. V. Fesko, Death in Adam, Life in Christ: The Doctrine of Imputation, (Ross-shire: Mentor/Christian Focus, 2016), series: Reformed, Exegetical and Doctrinal Studies (series ed. J.V. Fesko & Matthew Barrett). Ryan Hedrich, of The Sanctified Mind and Unapologetica, introduced me to this author in discussions about covenant theology, for which I am grateful. 

[2] George P. Fisher, “The Augustinian and the Federal Theories of Original Sin Compared,” Discussions in History and Theology, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1880), pp. 359-360, states:

[3] Phillip Shaff, Augustine, “A Treatise on the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants 1. 8-11:

Chapter 11 [X.]-Distinction Between Actual and Original Sin.

Again, in the clause which follows, “In which all sinned,” how cautiously, rightly, and unambiguously is the statement expressed! For if you understand that sin to be meant which by one man entered into the world, “In which [sin] all have sinned,” it is surely clear enough, that the sins which are peculiar to every man, which they themselves commit and which belong simply to them, mean one thing; and that the one sin, in and by which all have sinned, means another thing; since all were that one man. If, however, it be not the sin, but that one man that is understood, “In which [one man] all have sinned,” what again can be plainer than even this clear statement? We read, indeed, of those being justified in Christ who believe in Him, by reason of the secret communion and inspiration of that spiritual grace which makes every one who cleaves to the Lord “one spirit” with Him, although His saints also imitate His example; can I find, however, any similar statement made of those who have imitated His saints? Can any man be said to be justified in Paul or in Peter, or in any one whatever of those excellent men whose authority stands high among the people of God…

[4] Shedd, History of Christian Doctrine (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897), Vol. 2, pp. 76-81:

We have seen that Augustine refused to declare for either Creation or Traducianism, when the question came up before him as a purely speculative and philosophical one. When, however, he is defending his view of the doctrine of Original Sin, he makes statements that are irreconcilable with any theory of the origin of the human soul, but that of creation by species, and the propagation of both soul and body. When endeavoring to justify his position that all men are guilty of the Adamic transgression, or “Adam’s sin,” he distinctly teaches that all mankind were created in Adam. “God the author of nature, but not of sin (vitium), created man upright, but he having through his own will become depraved and condemned, propagated depraved and condemned offspring. For we were all in that one man, since we were all that one man who lapsed into sin through that woman who was made from him, previous to transgression. The particular form in which we were to live as individuals had not been created and assigned to us man by man, but that seminal nature was in existence from which we were to be propagated.” “All men at that time sinned in Adam, since in his nature all men were as yet that one man.” “Adam was the one in whom all sinned.” “The infant who is lost is punished because he belongs to the mass of perdition, and as a child of Adam is justly condemned on the ground of the ancient obligation.” [Augustinus: De civitate Dei, XIII. xiv.; De peccatorum meritism III. vii. 14; De peccatorum meritis, 1. xv.; De peccato originali c. xxxvi. Compare also: Contra duas epistolas Pelagianorum, IV. iii. 7; De nuptiis et concupiscentia, II. v. 15.] 

These passages, which might be multiplied indefinitely, are sufficient to indicate Augustine’s theory of generic existence, generic transgression, and generic condemnation. The substance of this theory was afterwards expressed in the scholastic dictum, “natura corrumpit personam,”–human nature apostatized, and the consequences appear in the human individual. In the order of nature, mankind exists before the generations of mankind; the nature is prior to the individuals produced out of it. But this human nature, it must be carefully noticed, possesses all the attributes of the human individual; for the individual is only a portion and specimen of the nature. Considered as an essence, human nature is an intelligent, rational, and voluntary essence; and accordingly its agency in Adam partakes of the corresponding qualities. Hence, according to Augustine, generic or original sin is truly and properly sin, because it is moral agency. The Latin anthropology extended the doctrine of the Adamic connection to the whole man, instead of confining it, as the Greek did, to a part only… The rational and voluntary principle, equally with the physical and animal, existed in Adam.

[5] Shedd continues, pp. 85-86:

…Holiness is thus always from the creator; and sin always from the creature. Hence, says Augustine, the efficient cause of sin cannot be found back of the will of the creature, and must not be sought for at any point more ultimate than this. The caption of the seventh chapter of the twelfth book of the De Civitate Dei runs as follows: “The efficient cause of an evil will is not to be sought for.” By this Augustine means, as his argument goes on to show, that it contradicts the idea of sin to ask for an originating cause of sin other than the sinner himself. To seek an efficient cause of an evil will, is to ask for the efficient cause of an efficient cause. The whole argument in the sixth chapter of the twelfth book of the De Civitate Dei aims to prove that moral evil is the purest possible self-motion, and consequently cannot be referred to anything, or an being, but the self. “Let no one,” Augustine says, “seek an efficient cause for the evil will; there is no efficient cause, only a deficient one.” [Augustinus: De civitate Dei XII. vii.]

[6] Fesko, p. 18.

[7] Thayers Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament:

[8] Fesko, p. 18.

[9] The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon:

[10] Fesko, p. 201.

[11] Ibid., pp. 38-39: 

…Augustine’s view has been designated as the realistic view of imputation. Augustine’s view, however, should instead be called the realistic view of the transmission of original sin, as his understanding does not involve a forensic-juridical imposition of guilt. We inherit Adam’s guilt, not by a legal relationship, that is, a representative or federal one, but by our ontological connection to him. We genetically inherit his sin and thus guilt and punishment. The act of procreation transmits guilt.

[12] Ibid., p. 34.

[13] Ibid., pp. 39-40.

[14] Ibid., pp. 33-34.

[15] Ibid., pp. 49-50.

[16] Ibid., p.25.

[17] George P. Hutchinson, The Problem of Original Sin, (Toccoa: Sola Fide, 2014), second ed., p. 110.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Fisher, pp. 356-357.

[20]Ibid., p. 379.

[21] Ibid., p.380.

[22] Ibid., p.395.



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