Why a Legal Fiction is not Pulp Fiction
*** By Jonathan Prejean ***
Recently, I’ve read several comments from Reformed Christians on the question of Catholics calling the Reformed doctrine of imputation a “legal fiction.” Based on my reading of those comments, some Reformed Christians see the description “legal fiction” as similar to saying that it is “made up” and not true. But that would only be relevant in the literary context, when one is trying to distinguish factual descriptions from fictitious ones.
In literary fiction, one makes up something that didn’t actually happen. The Reformed response is then essentially that the law can treat something as being the case for purposes of the law, even if it isn’t literally the case. But that’s just the definition of a legal fiction; indeed, that’s the entire purpose of a legal fiction.
“Legal fiction” isn’t itself a pejorative term. In adoption, for example, the adoptive parents are treated like the natural parents under the law, and the natural parents are no longer treated like parents under the law. That’s a perfectly reasonable legal fiction for the benefit of the adopted children. Adoption is therefore a legitimate legal fiction, and the Bible appeals to that specific legal fiction in describing our salvation.
A theological example of a legal fiction is non-imputation of sin, where God does not reckon a man’s sins against him even though the person did actually commit sins. Notably, the entire system of sacrifice and atonement under the Mosaic Law was a legal fiction; it allowed people to be treated as ritually pure under the law, even though they had committed sins. Sins were forgiven for purposes of the law, even though they were not, in an absolute sense, forgiven.
So the problem isn’t that the Reformed doctrine is a fiction, because there are plenty of perfectly legitimate legal fictions. The problem is that it’s a legal fiction. Legal fictions are fine for solving problems under the law, but when a legal fiction is applied to something outside of the law, then the results can be absurd. For example, although a corporation is treated as a natural person for many purposes by means of a legal fiction, it would be ridiculous to let a corporation get married.
At that point, a legal fiction becomes more like a literary fiction; it’s not dealing with reality anymore. And that is the Catholic objection to the Reformed doctrine: not that it is a legal fiction, but that it is applying a legal fiction where it has no business being applied. And that in turn is a question of substantive justice, right and wrong in reality, as opposed to procedural justice, right and wrong for purposes of the law. We let people be adopted as a matter of legal fiction because that serves substantive justice. Conversely, letting corporations get married would be ridiculous for the same reason.
From the Catholic perspective, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, and James are extended meditations on why the Pharisees were confusing a legal fiction, the system of ritual that allowed Israel to foreshadow the coming of the Messiah, with substantive justice, actual cleansing from sin. But St. Paul says we are not justified by works of the Law, and St. James says we wouldn’t have a chance if the Law were the standard of substantive justice, and the author of Hebrews says that the sacrifices had no power to actually make atonement. Paul explains the difference between overlooked sins under the Law and the substantive justice of the atonement in Romans 3:
For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.
That doesn’t mean that there was anything wrong with the Law, only that it shouldn’t be taken beyond its intended purpose so as to make it the standard of substantive divine justice. “Now we know that the law is good, if any one uses it lawfully.” (1 Tim. 1:8). So the Catholic critique is not simply that imputation relies on a legal fiction, which isn’t a bad thing, but that it takes a legal fiction beyond where it can possibly apply. Atonement is a matter of substantive justice, and it cannot be provided by a legal fiction.