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Encyclopaedia Britannica (1842) On The Made Sin Issue

Posted by Curt Wildy on April 30, 2012

Please see the correction statement pertaining to my incorrect use of the word modern below. The use of the word implies that men did not take a legal fiction stance in times past when in fact they did. The linked page provides more detail on the matter.

Encyclopaedia Britannica (1842)
On The Made Sin Issue

By Curt Wildy


Languages change as does the word usage within them. No living language is stagnant and we must labour to be sure that we understand the meaning of pertinent words as they were used in the specific times and eras at issue. This holds true with the highly controversial word impute. Many want to make the word impute a strictly legal or accounting word in light of its current, modern use. They want to make it a reckoning without a basis in actual or literal fact.

In this post, I want to explore how the 1842 edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica, or Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and General Literature treats this word. Although the Encyclopaedia Britannica is by no means an authority on right Christian doctrine, it is (and even more so, was) a highly respected source of information. Given that the following is from the 1842 edition, and addresses the theological use of this term, it should give us a better and more reliable understanding as to how the people of that time, and perhaps earlier, used the word imputation.

The Britannica Weighs-In

The following is from page 226 of the Theology section of Volume 21, Issue 1, of the scanned 1842 Encyclopedia Britannica ebook copy available on books.google.com (bold and underline emphasis added, italics found in the original).

That Christ died for the benefit of the human race, is a truth so apparent from Scripture, that no man professing Christianity has hitherto called it in question; though very different opinions have been formed, even by pious men, concerning the nature and extent of that benefit, and the means by which it is applied. Of these opinions we shall endeavour to give an impartial account, and as fully as our limits will permit.

The strictest adherents to the theological system of Calvin, interpreting literally such texts of Scripture as speak of Christ’s being made sin for us, of his bearing our sin in his own body on the tree, and of the Lord’s laying on him the iniquity of us all, contend, that the sins of the elect were lifted off from them and laid on Christ by imputation, much in the same way as they think the sin of Adam is imputed to his posterity. “By bearing the sins of his people,” says Dr. Gill, (Body of Divinity, vol. ii. book iii. chap. v. § 4), ” he took them off from them, and took them upon himself, bearing or carrying them, as a man bears or carries a burden on his shoulders. There was no sin in him inherently, for if there had, he would not have been a fit person to make satisfaction for it; but sin was put upon him by his Divine Father, as the sins of the Israelites were put upon the scape-goat by Aaron. No creature could have done this; but the Lord hath laid on him, or made to meet on him, the iniquity of us all, not a single iniquity, but a whole mass and lump of sins collected together, and laid as a common burden upon him, even the sins of all the elect of God. This phrase of laying sin on Christ is expressive of the imputation of it to him; for it was the will of God not to impute the transgressions of his elect to themselves, but to Christ, which was done by an act of his own; for he hath made him to be sin for us; that is, by imputation, in which way we are made the righteousness of God in him; that being imputed to us by him as our sins were to Christ. The sense is, a charge of sin was brought against him as the surety of his people. He was numbered with the transgressors; for bearing the sins of many, he was reckoned as if he had been a sinner himself, sin being imputed to him; and he was dealt with as such. Sin being found upon him by imputaton, a demand of satisfaction for sin was made, and he answered it to the full. All this was with his own consent. He agreed to have sin laid upon him, and imputed to him,and a charge of it brought against him, to which he engaged to be responsible; yea, he himself took the sins of his people upon him; so the evangelist Matthew has it, ” He himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses,” (chap. viii. 17). As he took the nature of men, so he took their sins, which made his flesh to have the likeness of sinful flesh, though it really was not sinful. What Christ bore being laid upon him, and imputed to him, were sins of all sorts, original and actual; sins of every kind, open and secret, of heart, lip, and life; all acts of sin committed by his people, for he has redeemed them from all their iniquities; and God, for Christ’s sake, forgives all trespasses, his blood cleanses from all sin, and his righteousness justifies from all; all being imputed to him as that is to them. Bearing sin supposes it to be a burden; and indeed it is a burden too heavy to bear by a sensible sinner. When sin is charged home upon the conscience, and a saint groans, being burdened with it, what must that burden be, and how heavy the load which Christ bore, consisting of all the sins of all the elect from the beginning of the world to the end of it; and yet he sunk not; but stood up under it; failed not, nor was he discouraged, being the mighty God, and the Man of God’s right hand, made strong for himself.”

I will stop for a second to make a key point; it should be obvious from (1) Gill’s own words and (2) the Brittanica’s interpretation of it, that theological imputation then (in 1842) does not have the same meaning as how we use it now — at least not as it was used by Tobias Crisp, John Gill, a whole host of other Particular and Strict Baptists, and what the Britannica called “The strictest adherents to the theological system of Calvin.”  

The bolded and underlined text evidences Gill’s three-fold view of the matter. He stated that Christ “agreed to (1) have sin laid upon him, and (2) imputed to him, and (3) a charge of it brought against him. Hence Gill’s view, as with many who held to imputation back then was that imputation was based upon an actual transfer or laying upon Him of sin. In other words (to use the Britannica’s language), imputation requires interpreting literally the verses at issue; it requires a literal laying down or transfer of sin before the imputation can take place. Notice that I stated literally, not legally. Neither Gill, nor Crisp, nor the Britannica is speaking of a perceived legal construct or fiction — they clearly speak of interpreting literally 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 2:24, etc. They are clearly stating that imputation is to be understood in light of a literal transfer or bearing. 

The reason why these men constantly used the term imputation was not because they deemed it merely legal, but it was to stress, stress, and stress again that the sin Christ literally bore in His own body was not his own, not of his own commission, but put there (transferred, laid upon Him) by the Father via imputation.

The Britannica’s Arminian Rebuttal Weighs-In

Moreover, if you doubt that the Britannica saw the “Calvinist” stance as a literal transfer of sin, simply read the rest of the section where they start going into the counter-arguments of theArminians or Remonstrants.

Consider just this very brief, but clear, rebuttal that evidences how a literal transfer was in view — as the Britannica speaks as “The Arminian” on page 227:

To talk of lifting masses of sin, or transferring them like burdens from the guilty to the innocent, is utter jargon, says [the Arminian], which has no meaning; and we might with as much propriety speak of lifting a scarlet colour from a piece of cloth and laying it on the sound of a trumpet, as of literally lifting the sins of the elect from them and laying them on Christ….

The Parkerites/Wimerites are the New Arminians On This Matter

If you continue reading in the section at issue in the Britannica, you will see that the same types of counter-arguments used by the Arminians are the very same types of arguments the legal fictionists use against true, biblical substitution (also the same arguments used against William Rushton). Again, do not just take my word for it… read the entirety of page 227 here. I have no doubt that you will see that the Wimerites and the Parkerites have eagerly picked up the Arminian banner against true substitution.

The Curious Case of Henry Law 

We now have the amazing reality that many of the very historic (Baptist, Calvinist, Predestinarian, and related) “proof-texts” used by the legal fictionists to evidence imputation only may well be proving all the more the biblical doctrine of absolute substitution (or literal transfer).

Consider this example; I will leave it up to you to research further (along with me). Henry Law wrote the following concerning Psalm 69:5:

4-5. “Those who hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head; those who would destroy me, being my enemies wrongfully, are mighty; then I restored that which I took not away. O God, You know my foolishness; and my sins are not hidden from You.”

Jesus appeals to God that all this enmity, proceeding from such a host of mighty foes, was utterly without a cause. The persecution was wrongful malice. He did no wrong. His work was to render good for evil. He here allows that, though guiltless in Himself, He stood before God as laden with all the follies and all the sins of His people. He received the burden transferred by God to Him, and acknowledged His imputed guilt.

Does imputed guilt here mean what the legal fictionists make it out to mean? Or does it mean what the Britannica states it means in light of what men like Tobias Crisp, J.C. Philpot,  John Gill, Joseph Irons, John Kerhsaw, Alexander Whyte, Gilbert Beebe, Beebe again, Thomas Goodwin, William Rushton, various Strict Baptists; and William Cathcart (The Baptist Encyclopedia, 1881)) taught (a literal transfer)?

I do not have an immediate answer concerning Mr. Law, but it should be clear to you that simply seeing the word imputed cannot be taken at face value to mean what those who hold to artificial construction try to make it mean. It may very well mean what the men of the 1800’s and prior meant by it (again, a literal transfer). Given that Mr. Law lived in the 1800’s, his view may indeed be closer to the Britannica’s description, if not the same. Maybe, maybe not… I do not know yet… but it is worth looking into, and it’s worth being all the more careful when it comes to conclusions about the meaning of words as used by those who lived over a hundred years ago.

I will leave you with one more quote from Mr. Law, who may or may not agree with the absolute substitution position. This quote comes from the Test All Things site in a post titled “Christ Made Sin – By Imputation!” (the owner of the site can tell you whether he is using the historic, Britannica definition for imputation or the modern, legal fiction definition):

To redeem poor sinners, Jesus came down from heaven, put on the rags of our mortality, agonized, bled, and died. Jesus is made His people’s substitute, burden-bearer, sin-remover, and guilt-sustainer.

Their debt is placed to His account. His riches pay the full amount.

Sin is removed from the sinner, and placed on the Sinless!

Their curse is rolled on Him, and He endures it, until no more remains!

God deals with Jesus as the guilty one!

He, as spotless Deity, receives imputed sins, and fully expiates them all.

In the vicarious victim, God’s justice is satisfied, and wrath expires!

Jesus, in His life, in the garden, on the cross, suffers their sufferings, dies their death, and so becomes their uttermost salvation!

His pains are their pardon!

His stripes are their healing!   His agony is their recovery!

To God be the glory!

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