Validating the Concept of Federal Headship

Discussion in 'Covenant Theology' started by rjlynam, Feb 12, 2017.

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  1. rjlynam

    rjlynam Puritan Board Sophomore

    Can someone point me to or provide me with a working definition/model of what federal headship entails/requires?
  2. Ed Walsh

    Ed Walsh Puritan Board Sophomore

    This is a definition under Imputation starting where we should start -- with the federal headship of Adam. It gives brief mention of various sources you can look at for more in-depth information.


    A forensic term that denotes the reckoning or placing to a person’s account the merit or guilt that belongs to him on the basis of his personal performance or of that of his federal head. While impute is used in Scripture to express the idea of receiving the just reward of our deeds (Lev. 7:18; 17:4; 2 Sam. 19:19), imputation as a theological term normally carries one of two meanings:

    Imputation of Adam’s Sin

    First, it describes the transmission of the guilt of Adam’s first sin to his descendants. It is imputed, or reckoned, to them; i.e., it is laid to their account. Paul’s statement is unambiguous: “By one man’s disobedience many were made [constituted] sinners” (Rom. 5:19). Some Reformed theologians ground the imputation of Adam’s sin in the real involvement of all his posterity in his sin, because of the specific unity of the race in him (see Traducianism). Shedd strongly advocates this view in his Dogmatic Theology. Others—e.g., Charles and A. A. Hodge, and Louis Berkhof—refer all to the federal headship of Adam. The Westminster Standards emphasize that Adam is both the federal head and the root of all his posterity. Both parties accept that this is so. Thus, the dispute is not whether Adam’s federal headship is the ground of the imputation of his first sin to us, but whether that federal headship rests solely on a divine constitution—i.e., because God appointed it—or on the fact that God made him the actual root of the race and gave the race a real specific unity in him.

    The theory of mediate imputation* has never gained acceptance in orthodox expressions of the Reformed Faith.* It is subversive to the entire concept of the imputation of Adam’s sin upon which Paul grounds his exposition of justification by virtue of union with Christ our righteousness (Rom. 5:12–19; 1 Cor. 15:22).

    Paul’s statement of the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity is stark: “By [through] one man sin entered into the world, and death by [through] sin; so death passed upon all men, for all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12). In the AV the clause “for all have sinned” may give the impression that Paul’s argument is that all die like Adam because all, like him, have sinned. But this is not the case. His statement is, “Death passed upon all humanity inasmuch as all sinned.” He teaches that all participated in Adam’s sin and that both the guilt and the penally of that sin were transmitted to them. However we explain the mode of that participation—whether on purely federal or on traducianist-federal grounds—the fact of it stands as a fundamental of the Christian revelation. As the Shorter Catechism says, “The covenant [of works] being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity, all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression” (Question 16, emphasis added.)

    Imputation of our Sin to Christ and of His Righteousness to Us

    Second, imputation has a second major use in Scripture. It describes the act of God in visiting the guilt of believers on Christ and of conferring the righteousness of Christ upon believers. In this sense “imputation is an act of God as sovereign judge, at once judicial and sovereign, whereby He—(1). Makes the guilt, legal responsibility of our sins, really Christ’s, and punishes them in Him, Isa. 53:6; John 1:29; 2 Cor. 5:21; and (2). Makes the merit, legal rights of Christ’s righteousness, ours, and then treats us as persons legally invested with all those rights, Rom. 4:6; 10:4; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9. As Christ is not made a sinner by the imputation to Him of our sins, so we are not made holy by the imputation to us of His righteousness. The transfer is only of guilt from us to Him, and of merit from Him to us. He justly suffered the punishment due to our sins, and we justly receive the rewards due to His right-eousness, 1 John 1:8, 9” (A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, chap. 30, Q. 15).

    The fact of this imputation is inescapable: “By the obedience of one [Christ] shall many be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). The ground of it is the real, vital, personal, spiritual and federal union of Christ with His people. It is indispensable to the biblical doctrine of justification.* Without it, we fail to do justice to Paul’s teaching, and we cannot lead believers into the comfort that the gospel holds out to them. That comfort is of a perfect legal release from guilt and of a perfect legal righteousness that establishes a secure standing before God and His law on the basis of a perfect obedience outside of their own subjective experience.

    The double imputation of our sin to Christ and of His righteousness to us is clearly laid down in 2 Cor. 5:21: “He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Hugh Martin’s paraphrase catches the meaning precisely: “God made him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us, who knew no righteousness, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” That Paul means us to understand a judicial act of imputation is clear. God did not make Christ personally a sinner. The reference is not to Christ’s subjective experience. He was as personally sinless and impeccable when He was bearing our sins on the cross as He had ever been. What Paul is describing is God’s act of reckoning our sin to Christ so as to make Him legally liable for it and all its consequences. Similarly, while believers are not by any means righteous in their subjective experience, God reckons to them the full merit of Christ’s obedience in life and death (Rom. 5:18, 19). That righteousness, not any attained virtue, is the ground of a believer’s acceptance with God.

    Cairns, A. (2002). In Dictionary of Theological Terms (pp. 225–226). Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International.
  3. rjlynam

    rjlynam Puritan Board Sophomore

    Thanks so much, Ed. Very helpful. I want to add a qualification to the concept of Federal Headship. It is as follows:

    "One cannot be a Federal Head representative for another unless the headship responsibilities can be reasonably expected to be fulfilled by the one who is being represented."

    Anyone take issue with this?
  4. rjlynam

    rjlynam Puritan Board Sophomore

    I think I need to word this differently.

    "One cannot be a Federal Head representative for another unless the headship responsibilities can be reasonably expected to be required of the one who is being represented."

  5. BG

    BG Puritan Board Junior

    Where in scripture are you getting this from?
    Once Adam sinned no one was capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of the covenant.

    Only Adam pre fall fits your statement.
    Last edited: Feb 13, 2017
  6. rjlynam

    rjlynam Puritan Board Sophomore

    I'm trying to get concurrence on a working definition. I'm not getting my statement from scripture, per se. In the absence of an accurate definition, what would prevent me from saying that man could be the federal head of, say, the animal kingdom? If I disobey, then the animal kingdom suffers the consequence, or vice versa. I'm trying to refute such a proposition because it doesn't seem to be reasonable.
  7. rjlynam

    rjlynam Puritan Board Sophomore

    If I'm going to instruct my son as to what federal headship means, then I need to have a working definition. Ed's post above provided an excellent overview of what it entails. I guess a question I would have is "Can anyone be a federal head over anyone/anything else"? Why or why not? As it relates to scripture, I can't find it stated or even implied that Adam was to be considered the Federal Head over all of creation. There seem to be a lot of dysfunctional implications to considering such.
  8. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    Man was given dominion over creation, Gen.1:26. When you consider that everything, therefore, which is under some head or lord is a subsidiary party to his agreements, treaties, covenants, etc., it makes sense (at least for some purposes) for us to recognize there exists representative-headship over all that dominion.

    Rom.8:19-22 "For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now."

    This text seems to validate the proposition that creation suffers directly on account of man's sin. The inanimate creation (the ground) is cursed for Adam's sake, Gen.3:17. Why is that, if not because the punishment flows to Adam through the new resistance to his dominion compelled from the ground? In Gen.9:2 God puts the fear and dread of man on all living things, even as his dominion is reasserted.
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  9. rjlynam

    rjlynam Puritan Board Sophomore

    Very well said, Bruce ! Gives me a lot to think about. I have no problem with anything said. I am, however, trying to work through the ramification of universal death to everything in creation as result of Adam's federal headship failure and the implications that may present with regards to the imputation of sin.

    It seems to me that any pronouncement upon the creation was of a collateral cursing and not of a universal direct one-to-one relationship. Clearly, there are collateral blessings promised upon obedience and collateral cursings upon disobedience, but they are collateral in nature. It seems hard to me to understand how Adam could understand the full implications for disobedience if there did not exist experiential understanding of it. That there was death in the created order before the fall is not hard for me to envision. Adam was the one made as a special creation, in the image of God, signifying something very different than the created order.

    I am a literal 6 - 24 hour day young earth subscriber and I see nothing inconsistent with the concept of death existing in the created order. I am of the opinion that what was universally conveyed with regard to the punishment of "death" was moral death. Please don't misunderstand, physical death for man follows, but always as a consequence for his own sin, not some universal physical death pronouncement indirectly attributed to such a single federal headship failure.

    I'm not saying that death existed or didn't exist before the fall of man. I don't see if specifically identitied as such in the scriptures. I see curse, frustration, futility, and other terms, but I don't specifically see "death". I also see correlation, but not a universal direct one-to-one causality. It may have existed, it may not have existed. I don't know. But, with regard to formulating postulates, we must establish the "necessity" aspect of all derived interpretations (as consistent with WCF 1.6).

    Always open to instruction.....
  10. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    Headship entails representation. It indicates that there is one person who is to speak and act for the members of a body corporate in relation to other parties. What is said or done by the head is accounted as the speech or action of the whole body.

    Federal headship qualifies that this representation is the result of a covenant.
  11. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    Part of faith is "obeying, that I may understand" (Augustin). It is false--and pernicious--to say that unless I am fully cognizant of all the sorry implications of my disobedience, I am somehow not responsible for those consequences.

    A kid plays with matches, and burns the house down. He didn't know that would be the tragic result. He knows fire is hot, it burns and hurts; but he was being carful not to burn his fingers--and being the center of the universe, that's mom and dad's big concern, right? That he not hurt himself? He gets that, and he's got a handle on the concern (they don't have to worry, nor will he come crying to them if he singes himself); so now it's OK to play with the matches.

    As dispensers of justice, we look for ways to mitigate the child's fault. Dad left the matches where he could find them. Mom was busy on facebook, and forgot to check on junior every five minutes. Plus, the guilt of the whole ruin seems too much to set on junior's tiny shoulders. Will the insurance company pay out? Will they reduce the replacement award? Is the fire an accident, in the truest sense of the word?

    When the smoke clears, the simplest assessment is: the child broke the rules, and blame for the ashes falls on him. It's not the case that he was ignorant of the basic danger, and of the rule. It is not a case of him innocently doing something which he could not know was more than he could handle, or that went truly surprisingly in an unfortunate direction--could have happened to anybody.

    Those of us who did not play with the fire came by degrees, in respect of the rule and in expanded consciousness of the potential ills of unguarded flame, to greater appreciation of the wisdom of the law givers (parents). We don't have to be victims, or know them, to pass the lesson on to our own children.

    So, Adam doesn't have to be fully cognizant (but perhaps he was more than we credit him) of the suffering his selfish behavior will inflict on that which belongs to him (as a steward). As for death in the animal kingdom prior to the fall, I have yet to see convincing evidence for it; though I'm prepared to listen. Certain statements in the Bible such as Rom.8 seem to point in the opposite direction; though possibly God merely turned the beasts' groaning (which was always there?) into a sign. That seems improbable to me, at least for now.

    Is.65:25 (N.B. the full context) seems to envision as a consequence of Messiah's triumph a return to idylls, to an "Edenic" moment when the wolf and lamb are not in a food-chain, the lion is not a predator; cf. Is.11:6-9. It is fair to ask if the (rhetorical?) covenant, Hos.2:18, has a background in creation's original order. It certainly seems to have Gen.9 in view. After the flood, God gives the flesh of animals to man for food, but denies him "the life" of the creature, that is, its blood. Have the alpha-predators always (from "Let there be...") taken the life-blood of lesser beasts? If so, I find it incongruous that God should counsel mankind in this fashion. Scripture goes out of the way to tie sin and death together. I can't find any reason bound to special revelation for thinking that predator/prey relations are intrinsic to creation.

    For all we know, God killed an animal in front of Adam when he threatened him: "...You shall surely die," if you disobey. If Adam needed an illustration to help him understand, that would suffice and the means were available. Yet Scripture consistently emphasizes the value of words over visuals, so I don't know if we should assume he would have benefitted from such. Israel's visuals proved to be a glory-veil to them; and our NT visuals (the sacraments) are in mundane terms quite simple. Illustration might be better overall in verbal form, rather than in concrete.

    Adam's unfallen mind was working fine, so he was fully capable of making proper inferences from his created and acquired knowledge that would take him far along a proper path of reasoning. But all this is more than necessary. God spoke; and this was sufficient to induce obedience in an upright man.
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  12. Peairtach

    Peairtach Puritan Board Doctor

    Some Reformed theologians have "unpacked" that Adam was Prophet, Priest and King in relation to the Creation, and this has implications for why God cursed the creation.

    But, without going into these ramifications, if God had left the creation in its original condition would that have been a good lesson for the now fallen Mankind who needed to be encouraged to look for something better, and the Lord does use the troubles of this world, now under the Curse, to lead His elect by His Spirit to Himself.

    I think Adam, to be a mature man, who hadn't gone through all the actual years of growing up, had to have a lot of "instinctual" knowledge "built in" at his creation.

    Sent from my C6903 using Tapatalk
    Last edited: Feb 14, 2017
  13. rjlynam

    rjlynam Puritan Board Sophomore

    I tend to stay very close to WCF. As a rule of thumb for me, if a doctrine isn't expressly taught in Scripture, then a "necessary consequence" (WCF 1.6) ought to be very easy to identify and establish such doctrine, and not hard. Nuance theology can be fertile ground for producing heresy.
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