Posts Tagged Atonement
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.
“We know that the Atonement works; but how it works is not as clear.”
Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins (cf., 1 Cor. 15:3). In this way he fulfilled the old covenant sacrificial system, reconciled us to God, and changed our lives forever.
That is the doctrine of the Atonement. Its reality is not in dispute. However, many Christians struggle to understand this doctrine. We know that the Atonement works; but how it works is not as clear. Over the centuries many different theories have been suggested to explain how the Atonement works.
Many contemporary Western Latin Christians (Roman Catholics and Protestants) are unaware that there are other theories of the nature of Jesus Christ’s atonement. Most are only familiar with their own Roman Catholic Satisfaction Theory of atonement or the related Protestant Penal Substitution Theory. My guess is that few Catholics or Protestants are aware that both of their respective atonement theories are relatively new innovations theologically and neither reflects the theology of the ancient Christian church. Consequently, even fewer Western Christians are likely familiar with the predominant atonement view held by those in the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is commonly called The Recapitulation Theory, which does reflect ancient Christian tradition dating back to the late 2nd century.
First, a very general chronological overview of the four major Christian atonement theories
- Moral Influence Theory (2nd century)
- “Christus Victor”/Ransom/Recapitulation Theory (late 2nd century)
- These are different, but generally considered together as the “Patristic” or “Classical” understandings of the early Church Fathers
- Satisfaction Theory (11th century)
- Developed by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109).
- Penal Substitution Theory (16th century)
- A variation of Anselm’s satisfaction theory developed by the Protestant Reformers, especially John Calvin (1509-1564), and is often treated together with the satisfaction theory
“Anselm used the analogy of Medieval Feudal society to illustrate his theory.”
The Recapitulation Theory is another variation of the “Christus Victor” model and also dates to the very early Church. In the recapitulation view of the atonement, Christ is seen as the new Adam who succeeds where Adam failed. Christ undoes the wrong that Adam did and, because of his union with humanity, leads humankind on to union with God and eternal life. This theory is found throughout the writings of the early Church Fathers. Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–373), the hero of the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, wrote the classic treatise On The Incarnation of the Logos in AD 318 which explains the overall Recapitulation view very well.
The “Christus Victor” Theory and its variants dominated Christian theology for a thousand years until Anselm of Canterbury moved the Latin West toward the “Satisfaction” theory in the 11th century.
The third atonement theory, the Satisfaction Theory, was developed by the 11th century theologian Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). According to this theory, mankind owes a debt not to Satan, but to the sovereign God himself. Anselm used the analogy of Medieval Feudal society to illustrate his theory. A sovereign may well be able to forgive an insult or an injury in his private capacity, but because he is a sovereign, he cannot if the state has been dishonored. Anselm argued that the insult given to God is so great that only a perfect sacrifice could satisfy, and that Jesus, being both God and man, was this perfect sacrifice. Therefore, the doctrine would be that Jesus gave himself as a “ransom for many”, to God the Father himself.
The next atonement theory, which was a development by the Reformers (including Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Melanchthon) is based on Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory. It is the widely held Protestant Penal Substitution Theory which, instead of considering sin as an affront to God’s honor, sees sin as the breaking of God’s moral law. Placing a particular emphasis on Romans 6:23 (‘the wages of sin is death’), Penal Substitution sees sinful man as being subject to God’s wrath with the essence of Jesus’ saving work being his substitution in the sinner’s place, bearing the curse in the place of man (cf., Galatians 3:13).
“The Penal Substitution Theory sees Christ’s suffering and death as the price for man’s sin.”
The Penal Substitution Theory sees Christ’s suffering and death as the price for man’s sin. In many ways, the model for Penal Substitutionary Atonement is a courtroom. Due to his sin, man needed to be made right with a perfect and just God. Therefore, Christ came to suffer and pay the price in our place, i.e., He substituted Himself for us. Now, in the courtroom of God, those who accept Christ as their Lord and Savior are judged innocent. They have a forensic righteousness imputed upon them.
Clearly, Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Latin Christianity have significantly different theories of atonement as part of their respective soteriologies (doctrines of salvation). The contemporary Orthodox Recapitulation Theory agrees with Western Satisfaction and Penal Substitution theories in so far as God needed to deal with man’s sin. Man was separated from God as a result of the fall and, left to his own devices, was incapable of returning to God. However, the Orthodox see God’s model of dealing with man’s sin as a hospital rather than a courtroom. This stands in sharp contrast to the forensic, legalistic models of Roman Catholic Satisfaction and Protestant Penal Substitution.
Instead of viewing the atonement as Christ paying the price for sin in order to satisfy a wrathful God, Recapitulation teaches that Christ became human to heal mankind by perfectly uniting the human nature to the Divine Nature in His person. Through the Incarnation, Christ took on human nature, becoming the Second Adam, and entered into every stage of humanity, from infancy to adulthood, uniting it to God. He then suffered death to enter Hades and destroy it. After three days, He resurrected and completed His task by destroying death.
By entering each of these stages and remaining perfectly obedient to the Father, Christ recapitulated every aspect of human nature. He said “Yes” where Adam said “No” and healed what Adam’s actions had damaged. This enables all of those who are willing to say yes to God to be perfectly united with the Holy Trinity through Christ’s person, the Logos, the Son. In addition, by destroying death, Christ reversed the consequence of the fall. Now, all can be resurrected. Those who choose to live their life in Christ can be perfectly united to the Holy Trinity, receiving the full love of God’s grace. However, those who reject Christ and choose to live their lives chasing after their passions will perceive the love of God as torment, as hell.
“… the Recapitulation model places great importance on the teaching that Christ is both fully man and fully God.”
Because of its focus on unification between God and man in the person of Christ, the Recapitulation model places great importance on the teaching that Christ is both fully man and fully God. If Christ did not have both natures, He would have been incapable of uniting humanity to divinity, which was the entire purpose of the Incarnation. As Saint Gregory of Nazianzus said in the 4th century, “That which is not assumed is not healed, but that which is united to God is saved.” The doctrine of the dual nature of Christ was a major topic of the third Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in AD 431. During this council, the Church answered the Nestorian heresy and affirmed Christ’s humanity and divinity and upheld the title of Theotokos (Mother of God) for Mary. By giving Mary this title, the Church reinforced the teaching of the dual nature of Christ. If Mary is the Mother of God, then, by necessity, Christ truly is God. Additionally, since Mary is both human and Christ’s mother, Christ is also fully human.
The Greek word “hilasmos” is translated as both propitiation and expiation. In contrast to other forms of Christianity, the Orthodox tend to use the word “expiation” when describing what was accomplished in Christ’s sacrificial act. According to the Greek-English Lexicon (BDAG) “The unique feature relative to Gr-Rom. usage [of hilasterion] is the initiative taken by God to effect removal of impediments to a relationship with God’s self.” This gives “hilasmos” the meaning of “God’s initiative to remove all barriers and impediments between man and God”.
Thus, in the Orthodox understanding of “hilasmos”, Christ did not die to appease an angry and vindictive Father, or to avert the wrath of God, which is the sense in which the word “propitiation” is commonly used in Western Latin theology. Rather, the Orthodox use the word “expiation”, in order to convey the sense that Christ died to change people and remove impediments and barriers to God so that they might become divine, that is to say, that they may become “partakers of the divine nature” of God in his energies or operations. (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4)