Archive for category First Thoughts

hilastérion (ἱλαστήριον): Propitiation or Expiation?

The Greek word ἱλαστήριον, transliterated as hilastérion (hil-as-tay’-ree-on) is translated into English as both “propitiation” and “expiation”.  Hilastérion and it variants are found in the New Testament rarely, but there are three citings that are particularly important to the topic of atonement:  Rom 3:25; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10:

(1) Rom 3:25: “…whom God displayed publicly as a/an _____________ in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed”

(2) 1 John 2:2: “…and He Himself is the ______________ for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.

(3) 1 Jn 4:10: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an ______________ for our sins.

So what’s the difference between “propitiation” or “expiation”, the English translations of the Greek word hilastérion? A short passage from “Reconciliation,” in Colin Brown, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. III, p. 151 (hereafter referred to as DNTT) summarizes:

“In discussing reconciliation and atonement it has become customary to draw a distinction between propitiation and expiation. In propitiation the action is directed towards God, or some other offended person. The underlying purpose is to change God’s attitude from one of wrath to one of good will and favor. In the case of expiation, on the other hand, the action is directed towards that which has caused the breakdown in the relationship… In short, propitiation is directed towards the offended person, whereas expiation is concerned with nullifying the offensive act” (DNTT, Vol. III, p. 151).

Given the above, “propitiate,” would indicate that God is changed; whereas “expiate” would indicate that the repentant sinner is changed. But, this raises another serious theological question: Does God change?   On this question, we will take the traditional classical Christian position that “God does not change”.

Having introduced the question of change, we can now return to the original question at hand: In the New Testament, is the meaning of hilastérion more closely approximated by “propitiation” or “expiation”?

Summarizing the first 1,000 years of Christian patristic theology, Orthodox theologian and Bishop Kallistos Ware insists that Christ did not become incarnate to heal God the Father: He became incarnate to heal us. According to the Orthodox, the cross, resurrection, and ascension of Christ represent the “mercy seat” (Gk. hilastérion/ Heb. kippur) upon which our sins are “wiped away”/”expiated” by God, restoring us to His covenant love.  This “expiation”, or removal of sin as an obstacle between man and God, transforms repentant sinners into His divine likeness and nature (2 Cor 3:18; 2 Pet 1:4 etc.).  So, it is we who change rather than God.  Orthodoxy emphatically supports the divine attribute of constancy of God (Mal 3:6; Jas 1:17).

If we concede the classical Christian position that God never changes and remains ever constant, then we must conclude that divine “propitiation” – a change in attitude from one of wrath to one of good will and favor- cannot be attributed to God; for He is, by definition, changeless.  God cannot have been “propitiated” ontologically by having “a change of attitude” unless God Himself changed ontologically.

There is one final point to be made from the perspective of New Testament exegesis. In the case of “expiation”, “the action is directed towards that which has caused the breakdown in the relationship… In short, “propitiation” is directed towards the offended person, whereas “expiation” is concerned with nullifying the offensive act” (DNTT III, 173).

So, to what do the three New Testament passages using hilastérion and variants, cited above, refer to? Do they refer to God (as in God’s wrath being “propitiated”) or to the sins of man being wiped away and removed as an obstacle to union with God (“expiation”)?  Clearly, in all three of the passages in question, hilastérion is used directly in reference to humankind’s sins as an obstacle to our union with God.  They do not refer to God as an object of “propitiation”.   This is not a “propitiation” for the Father,” but rather “expiation” “for our sins.”

In referring to the patristic theology of the first Christian millennium we should emphasize this is not an exclusively patristic or Orthodox view.  Some leading academic scholars and some major Protestant scholars have held hilastérion is best understood as “expiation” – a change in man, wiping away his sin; rather than “propitiation” – a change of God, changing His disposition from anger to affection.  God is constant and changeless.  God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. It is humankind who must be transfigured by the changeless grace and mercy of God.

The Latin Western tradition, by contrast, has insisted since the Middle Ages on defining hilastérion in the sense of “propitiation”, including the traditional Calvinist interpretation. Historically the emphasis upon a change in God’s attitude rather than man’s condition arose from St. Augustine in the 5th century, but reached its zenith in the 11th century with Anselm of Canterbury.  According to Anselm, man had broken honor with his liege Lord (God).  And because his honor was slighted, “satisfaction” had to be made; in this case, by the death of his own son, (Jesus Christ).

The Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition bypassed this particular Western interpretation entirely.  They never adopted a soteriology of merit/satisfaction (ala Anselm).  To the Orthodox, the atonement is purely grace/gifting from God rather than a merit/earning system imposed on humankind.

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Image and Likeness of God in Genesis 1:26

Genesis 1:26: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

Every human being is created in the image of God and it is the purpose of each of us to attain to His likeness, that we may be “partakers of the divine nature” (cf. 2 Peter 1:4).

Bishop Kallistos (Ware), in his classic book “The Orthodox Church”, tells us, “According to most of the Greek Fathers, the terms image and likeness do not mean exactly the same thing. ‘The expression according to the image,’ wrote John of Damascus, ‘indicates rationality and freedom, while the expression according to the likeness indicates assimilation to God through virtue’ (On the Orthodox Faith, 2, 12 (P.G. 94, 920B)). The image, or to use the Greek term the icon, of God signifies man’s free will, his reason, his sense of moral responsibility — everything, in short, which marks man out from the animal creation and makes him a person. But the image means more than that. It means that we are God’s ‘offspring’ (Acts 27:28), His kin; it means that between us and Him there is a point of contact, an essential similarity. The gulf between creature and Creator is not impassable, for because we are in God’s image we can know God and have communion with Him. And if a man makes proper use of this faculty for communion with God, then he will become ‘like’ God, he will acquire the divine likeness; in the words of John Damascene, he will be ‘assimilated to God through virtue.’”

This “optimistic anthropology” of the Eastern Orthodox with its “original blessing” in the creation of Adam and, by extension, of all humankind, differs markedly from the “pessimistic anthropology” of the Western church with its emphasis on “Original Sin” and its logical extensions.  Bishop Kallistos observes, “This picture of Adam before the fall is somewhat different from that presented by Saint Augustine and generally accepted in the west since his time.”

It is not surprising, then, that Western theologians consider the Hebrew words for image (tselem) and likeness (demuth) to be synonyms; and their use in Gen. 1:26 to be a simple example of Hebrew synonymous parallelism.  Eastern Orthodox theologians disagree, citing a distinction in meaning between tselem and demuth.

The words, “image and likeness” are used to indicate two different factors concerning the “image” of God.

  1. Image is the word, tselem, צֶ֫לֶם, and always indicates a “physical” or structural image of some kind.
  2. Likeness is the word, demuth, דְּמוּת usually refers to some kind of “functional” image, likeness or expression.

There seems to be a clear distinction between the two words tselem and demuth as used in the Hebrew Bible.

  •  tselem indicates a “physical” image or structure and would refer to the “structural” image of the Godhead
  • demuth indicates a “functional” likeness, similitude – the idea of “acts like.”

What do the Greek translations of tselem and demuth in the Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Hebrew Bible (ca. 300 BC) tell us about image and likeness in the light of the use of these Greek words later in the New Testament?

In the Septuagint, at Genesis 1:26, the LXX translates tselem as εἰκόνα, eikona

In the 23 New Testament occurrences of eikōna and its derivatives, it appears that there is no clear distinction in what eikōna references regarding the two aspects of God’s image.

At Gen. 1:26, the LXX translates demuth as ὁμοίωσιν, homoiōsin.

Used one time in the New Testament at James 3:9, “men, who have been made in the likeness (homoiōsin) of God.” Indicates the present status of mankind. They were created originally and all men are presently “in” the image of God.

Since homoiōsis is only used one time, we should probably interpret James as focusing on the fact that men have all been created in the “functional” image of God, that is with the purpose of bringing glory to Him.

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dikaiosúne (δικαιοσύνη): Human and Divine Justice and Righteousness

The English words “justice” and “righteousness” are translations of a single Greek word, δικαιοσύνη, transliterated as dikaiosúne (dik-ah-yos-oo’-nay).  I always thought this strange, as the concept of legal justice and righteousness seemed so different to me than the idea of spiritual justice and righteousness.  Well, guess what?  They are!

It appears that the word dikaiosúne can convey both a sense of forensic human justice/righteousness (as a legal declaration) and divine justice/righteousness, depending on context.

The basis for understanding justice/righteousness from a legal, forensic standpoint rests on the concept of justice as understood in the pagan Greek culture of the time – dikaiosis. The ancient, pagan Greeks, Thucydides for one, adhered to a juridical understanding of this concept as punishment.

So, the translation of the Greek word dikaiosúne, as a word of the pagan, humanistic, Greek civilization, carried with it human notions of equal distribution. This is why Justice is represented by a balance scale. The good are rewarded and the bad are punished by human society in a fair way. But, this is human justice.

Does this human concept of justice/righteousness correlate to the divine justice/righteousness that God revealed to us in Holy Scripture? Do they have the same meaning in the Old and New Testaments?

Let’s look at the question from the context of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

Dr. Alexandre Kalomiros, in The River of Fire, proposes that the traditional Eastern Christian and patristic view of justification is more compatible with the nature of the Christian God in both the Old and New Testaments. He explains:

“The word dikaiosúne, ‘justice,’ is a translation [in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Hebrew Bible, ca. 300 BC] of the Hebraic word tsedaka. This Hebrew word means ‘the divine energy which accomplishes man’s salvation.’ It is often translated as ‘charity’. It is parallel and almost synonymous to the other Hebraic word, hesed, which means ‘mercy,’ ‘compassion,’ ‘love,’ and to the word emeth which means ‘fidelity,’ ‘truth.’ This gives a completely different dimension to what we usually conceive as justice. This is how the [early] Church understood God’s justice. This is what the Fathers of the Church taught of it – God is not just, with the human meaning of this word, but we see that His justice means His goodness and love, which are given in an unjust manner, that is, God always gives without taking anything in return, and He gives to persons like us who are not worthy of receiving. “How can you call God just”, writes Saint Isaac the Syrian [7th century Bishop and Theologian], “when you read the passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong; I will give unto this last even as unto thee who worked for me from the first hour. Is thine eye evil, because I am good?'” “How can a man call God just”, continues Saint Isaac, “when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son, who wasted his wealth in riotous living, and yet only for the contrition which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck, and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him lest we doubt it, and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for “whilst we were sinners, Christ died for us!”

The approach employed by many Western Roman Catholic/Protestant scholars (inherited from the likes of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Calvin) uses the human interpretation of dikaiosúne as justice in a form resembling Imperial Roman juridical “Iustitia”, or Roman Law. This is at odds with Eastern Christian interpretation of dikaiosúne as the divine justice of Old Testament tsedaka and as God’s justice exemplified in the New Testament parables of the Workers in the Vineyard and the Prodigal Son. The traditional Orthodox mind is immediately suspicious of biblical interpretations that have little or no root in the early life and theology of the Church; this is true in spades particularly of the Western Latin forensic notion of justice/righteousness, and of its consequent bifurcation of faith and works.

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The Enlightenment Myth of “The Pursuit of Happiness”

“Is the “pursuit of happiness” not, according to the myth created by the founding fathers of the American Republic, an “inalienable right?” That concept has, in fact, entered so deeply into the thought and conscience of generations of North Americans that it is difficult to question it without being suspected of being, if not actually some kind of foreign agent, at least “un-American.” The concept of “the pursuit of happiness” itself is, however, diametrically opposed to Orthodox Christianity’s view of the Christian’s fundamentally sacrificial and intercessory role in the cosmos, to say nothing of Christianity’s most basic tenant: the sacrifice of Christ is absolutely essential within the divine economy of His Incarnation.

“The pursuit of happiness” actually opposes, moreover, man’s intimate relationship with God and that total submission to God the holy fathers of Orthodoxy teach us is basic to the spiritual life. The true lover of Christ, in fact, can never take the concept of the “pursuit of happiness” seriously as something that might ever be incorporated into his own life in Christ.

The “pursuit of happiness” inevitably fosters a totally self-centered view of life, ignoring completely all cosmic sense of man’s place in the universe. It further ignores the inevitable, perennial and very basic dimension of sacrifice demanded of man at every level of his human existence. Whether in pursuing the bonds of love with a future spouse, or in bringing forth and rearing children, or in caring for those one loves, or in maintaining the well-being of one’s own family, sacrifice and suffering are far more basic necessities to human well-being than is the “pursuit of happiness.””

Excerpt from The Heart of Orthodox Mystery, by William Bush

I have been thinking a lot recently about happiness. It does not seem to me a foundational tenet of Christianity but, as discussed above, a construct of Enlightenment thinking. In its place, I think it might be better to use the concept of St. Paul’s “contentment” (αὐτάρκεια; autárkeia), best expressed in Philippians 4:11-13:

“Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content [αὐτάρκης; autárkes] with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Perhaps we should be pursuing “contentment”, which is a state achievable regardless of circumstance, instead of “happiness” which is inherently emotional, self-centered, illusory, and transitory.

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Apocatastasis – The Ancient Christian Idea That Won’t Die

I was reading a meditation by Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, a noted contemporary Christian mystic. One line caught my particular attention. He said, “God is calling everyone and everything to God’s self (Gen. 8:16-17, Eph. 1:9-10, Col. 1:15-20, Acts 3:21, 1 Tim. 2:4, John 3:17).”

Rohr’s quote above holds within it the possibility of a form of universal restoration or return of the entire created universe to God.  This is an ancient idea in Christianity, albeit a controversial one.  We can summarize the whole controversy in one Greek word:  ἀποκατάστᾰσις , [transliterated as apocatastasis] meaning restoration, re-establishment.

The concept of “restore” or “re-establish” is found in the Old Testament in the Hebrew verb שׁוּב (shuwb/shuv) and is used when referring to “restoring” of the fortunes of Job.  It is also used in the sense of “rescue” or “return” of captives, and in the “restoration” of Jerusalem.  In terms of shuwb as apocatastasis, Malachi 4:6 is the only use of the verb form of apocatastasis in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament, ca. 250 – 100 BC; also abbreviated “LXX”). It reads:

“He will turn (restore –apokatastesei) the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” (NRSV and LXX)

The word apocatastasis only appears once in the New Testament, in Acts 3:21. After healing a beggar, Peter speaks to the astonished onlookers. In his sermon, Peter places Jesus in a very Jewish context as the fulfilment of the Old Covenant, saying:

“[Jesus] whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring (apokatastaseos) all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.”

The idea of apocatastasis is supported further in the New Testament by the writer of 1 Timothy who declares that it is God’s will that all men should be saved (cf., 1 Timothy 2:4).

The concept of apocatastasis is also found in many writings of the early Church Fathers.  In early Christian theological usage, apocatastasis meant the ultimate restoration of all things to their original state, which early exponents believed would still entail a purgatorial or cathartic, cleansing state.  The meaning of the word was still very flexible during that time.  For example, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215) generally uses the term apocatastasis to refer to the “restoration” of the mature, or “gnostic”, Christians, rather than that of the universe or of all Christians, but with universal implications.  The position of Origen (186–284) is disputed, with works as recent as the New Westminster Dictionary of Church History presenting him as speculating that the apocatastasis would involve universal salvation.  Most historians today would recognize a distinction between Origen’s own teachings (or at least those that have survived) and the theological positions of later “Origenists” (a later school of theological thought based on his teachings). A form of apocatastasis is also attributed to two sainted Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century; both Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus discussed it without reaching a decision.

Theological discourse continued until by the mid-6th century apocatastasis had virtually become a technical term referring, as it usually does today, to a specifically Origenistic doctrine of universal salvation.  An Anathema (a formal curse by an ecumenical council of the Church, excommunicating a person or denouncing a doctrine) against apocatastasis, or more accurately, against the belief that hell is not eternal, was formally submitted to the Fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (AD 553). Despite support from the Roman Emperor, the Anathema against apocatastasis is not one of the Anathemas spoken against Origen by the fifth council.

As late as the 7th century, Maximus the Confessor (580-662) outlined God’s plan for “universal” salvation alongside warnings of everlasting punishment for the wicked. Maximus was very clear that the “telos”, the ultimate end, was a mystery.

So, why does the concept of Apocatastasis persist down to this day, in men like Roman Catholic Fr. Richard Rohr and Orthodox Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, in spite of the Western institutional church’s absolute obsession with the concept and threat of eternal hell, damnation, and torment? To me, it’s quite simple. The idea of apocatastasis persists because it appeals to an enlightened heart.

The universe was created “good”.  It is God’s will that all men should be saved.  God is love.  Love is patient, kind, is not irritable or resentful, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things; Love never ends.  Greater is He (the Son, the Logos, the Word) that is immanent in the spirit of all created beings, than he (Satan, evil) who is in the world.   Deep in my heart, I believe that ultimately, in some future age, in the end (telos), God (Love) wins. (Gen. 1:31, 1 Tim. 2:4, 1 John 4:8, 1 Cor. 13, 1 John 4:4).

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The Jesus Prayer – The Gospel in a Sentence

“Κύριε Ιησού Χριστέ, Υιέ του Θεού, ελέησόν με τον αμαρτωλόν.”

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”

The “Jesus Prayer”, quoted above, is a central part of the Eastern Orthodox contemplative prayer tradition known as hesychasm (Greek: silence or quietude). This contemplative prayer tradition has an uninterrupted history dating back to the 4th-century Desert Fathers and Mothers. A key part of that tradition, the “Jesus Prayer”, in its various forms, is used as a continuously repeated prayer, to quiet and still the soul while invoking the name of the living God.

When I was first introduced the Orthodox “Jesus Prayer”, I was a bit put-off and skeptical. My problem was in saying over and over again, “me, the sinner” … “me, the sinner” … “me, the sinner”.  Regardless of how true it might be, I thought, “Oh great, another “church” prayer designed to plunge me into an endless cycle of guilt and self-condemnation, putting me in bondage”.

Not long after my first introduction to the “Jesus Prayer”, I read then-Bishop Kallistos Ware’s book, The Orthodox Way. Bishop Kallistos described the “Jesus Prayer” as consisting of two poles. The first pole is the glory of God as expressed in the words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God”. The second pole is our post-Fall condition summarized in the words “me, a sinner”.  Bishop Kallistos explained that it is the revelation of God in the incarnate Christ who reconciles these poles and announces the “mercy” of God for “me, the sinner”.  In other words, I only address myself as “the sinner” in the context of the Son of God already having shown his “mercy” and grace to me.  So being “the sinner” is not a problem I have to solve, but something I look back on after the problem has already been solved for me by Jesus.

Calling myself (repeatedly) “the sinner” then, is not so much guilt-ridden, self-flagellation over my sinful state as it is a proclamation of my deliverance and salvation. It is no coincidence that this is the same point that Jesus made in the story of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14), the parable on which the “Jesus Prayer” is based. The Publican called out for mercy in his recognized condition of sin, a problem that had already been solved through the free gift of grace, and he “went home justified before God”.  So, the “Jesus Prayer” is really the Gospel message condensed into one short line.  The Lord of the universe, Jesus of Nazareth, Christ (Messiah), Anointed (Christos) with the Holy Spirit, Son of the living God, has already provided us mercy (“love in action”) and salvation from our problems (sin and diseased nature) before we ask him.  All we have to do is cry out, like the Publican, and receive the unmerited grace already provided for us. That is the heart of the Gospel. That is the life in Christ.

I don’t have a problem praying the “Jesus Prayer” anymore.

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Jesus’s “Ekklesia” is not man’s “Church”

Most English bible translators have interpreted the Greek word “ekklesia” as “church”, but “ekklesia” has nothing to do with the word “church”!  Every word study and reference available agree that the word “church” does not come from the original Koine Greek word “ekklesia”, but comes from a different, late Greek word, which has a totally different meaning!

Ekklesia” means an assembly of the “called out”, or “gathered apart”. In Scripture, it refers to a “convocation, assembly, or congregation”. “Ekklesia” clearly refers to people.
However, the word “church” is defined as a place (physical building and its associated infrastructure), and not as a people. That is the difference.  Now, a group of people may go to a “church” building to worship God, but the “church” building itself is not the people; the “church” building itself is not the “called out” ones. The people in the “church” may be the “called out” ones, but they are not the physical building and infrastructure itself.

The English word “church” is derived from the Greek word “kyrios”, meaning ruler or lord. Specifically, it comes into English in the context of, “kyriake oikia” “Lord’s house”, which by the 4th century was shortened to the adjective “kyriakon”, “of the Lord”, and was used to denote houses of Christian worship.  Neither “kyriake oikia” nor “kyriakon” ever appear in the Greek New Testament referring to a congregation of worshippers or as a place of worship.  This usage did not appear until about AD 300, 270 years after Jesus died on the Cross.  Regardless, this is the late Greek word that was first translated into Old English as “cirice”. It was then translated into Middle English as “chirche”, from which we get the modern English word “church”.

The Wycliffe Bible (1385), the first in vernacular English,  was a translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible and used the Middle English words “chirche”, “chirches”, and “chirchis” some 111 times in the New Testament. On the other hand, if you look at William Tyndale’s Bible (1526), which was the first English Bible translated directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, he correctly translated “ekklesia” as “congregation”.

The first recorded use of the Modern English word “church” in a Bible was in 1556 by a Presbyterian follower of John Calvin, Theodore Beza.  The following year the New Testament of the Geneva Bible (the Bible of the America’s Pilgrims) was published by Beza’s friend, William Wittingham, and he also used the word “church”.   And of course, the King James Bible of 1611 uses the term “church”. The word “ekklesia” appears 115 times in the Greek New Testament and, in most English bibles, it is always incorrectly translated as “church” with the exception of three instances (Acts 19:32,39,41) where it is properly translated as “assembly”.

By the Reformation, after 1,200 years of cathedrals, clergy, liturgy, ritual, doctrine and dogma, Jesus’s New Testament concept of “ekklesia” had become so obscured that Protestant translators considered the Greek word “ekklesia” to be synonymous with “church”!   And we mindlessly perpetuate the error today.

Church” as we know it is not found in the New Testament in either word or concept. It is an afterthought of man.

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