propitiation, reconciliation, expiation, atonement

In the grand scheme of things, it is probably without too much hyperbole to say that theology would be just as well off as an academic discipline if nothing had ever been written after Paul mailed his Letter to the Hebrews.  It is his magnum opus, the best work of one of the brightest minds and profoundest practitioners of the life of faith in the first generation after Jesus.  Just reading the five verses from chapter two appointed for The Feast of the Presentation would be enough to keep a seminary class embroiled in debate for half a semester.  Heck, you could spend weeks dealing with one word:

atonementWhich is defined by Barclay-Newman as a verb meaning “to bring about forgiveness for, take away, deal mercifully with; pass. be merciful, have mercy” and translated variously as:

  • Propitiation (Young’s Literal Translation) – to make (someone) pleased or less angry by giving or saying something desired
  • Reconciliation (King James Version) – the act of causing two people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement
  • Expiation (Revised Standard Version) – to do something as a way to show that you are sorry about doing something bad
  • Atonement (New Revised Standard Version & New International Version) -1. obsolete :  reconciliation, 2. the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, 3. reparation for an offense or injury (all four definitions are thanks to http://www.m-w.com)

There is perhaps no other topic in the history of theology about which more ink and blood have been spilled than the questions surrounding how it is that Jesus Christ reconciles us to God.  There is a time and a place for deep conversation on the salvific work of Christ, but it isn’t this blog and it certainly isn’t the pulpit on Sunday morning.  What I will say, however, is that this passage from Hebrews invites us to think about how the language we use effects our theological understandings.  Nobody uses the words “propitiation” or “expiation” any more, but they shape the current conversation and we should know them.  Atonement, when read in the NIV probably carries a slightly different meaning than when read in the NRSV because Evangelicals tend to use the NIV and focus on Anselm’s theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement while [former] Mainliners using the NRSV are more likely to be looking for new metaphors for God’s saving work (for more on this topic, see Tony Jones’ mini-e-book A Better Atonement).

The wise preacher who chooses to preach from Hebrews will think carefully about how her words impact the hearer and the baggage associated with the various theories of atonement, reconciliation, expiation, and propitiation.  For the record, I’m all for the obsolete understanding of Atonement, which is to say, I’m big on God’s reconciling work through Christ over and above Jesus’ death appeasing a wrathful God.

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