The Effects of the Christ-Event: Reconciliation

The Effects of the Christ-Event: Reconciliation April 20, 2006

Early last week a random John made a most interesting post that received no real response. Since I had been going to lead into a little series with precisely the point he made, I have taken the liberty of reproducing arJ’s comment here:

As Kevin Barney pointed out at BCC recently the at-one-ment thing really is the word origin in English. But it isn’t clear to me how this word was selected to represent Christ’s sacrifice. Do any other languages render it similarly?

Also odd is that the word only shows up once in the KJV NT. The OT usage (which is frequent) doesn’t seem to support the at-one-ment idea very well since it is often referring to the animal that was just sacrificed. I am guessing now that being at with an animal was the idea the original authors had in mind. What words at (sic) actually being used in the original languages of the OT and NT?

What arJ is probably getting at is that it is very odd that a word that shows up precisely once in the NT should hold such a prominent place in Christian discourse. Or to phrase it more positively, it appears that the authors of the NT can say quite a bit about Jesus without ever using the word “atonement.”

What’s up with that?

The word “atonement” is peculiar to English; it has no real counterpart in any of the modern European languages.

The word it translates in Rom 5:11 is katallagē:

11 And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement (katallagē).

The same noun, katallagē, also appears in Rom 11:15, and in 2 Cor 5:18, and 19. In these three places, the AV translates it as “reconciliation.” The cognate verb, katallasō, appears twice in Rom 5:10 (and elsewhere), translated as “to reconcile.”

In the earliest English NT, Wyclife’s 1384 edition, kattalagē is translated as recouncilyng” or “accordyng.” The first use of “atonement” for which we have a record comes from Sir Thomas More’s 1513 play, Richard III (OED, s.v. “atonement”). After this, “atonement” shows up in one or more of: Rom 5:11; 2 Cor 5:18; or 2 Cor 5:19 in most, but not all, of the NT editions translated between Tyndale (1526) and the AV (1611). It appears that Rom 11:15 is never translated with “atonement.”

In modern Bibles, the word “atonement” does not usually appear in the NT at all. When it does, it is most likely found in Rom 3:25 and Heb 2:17, translating hilasterion.

What do these words mean?

The major lexicons (Liddell-Scott, Lampe, and BDAG) all agree on “reconciliation” as a gloss for katallagē. This word never appears in the LXX, although the LXX does use diallassein in Judg 19:3, to describe the Levite’s attempt to restore a relationship with his concubine, that is, “to reconcile her to himself.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, at the time when Tyndale first used the word “atonement” it meant “the condition of being at one with others; unity of feeling, harmony, concord, agreement” (OED, s. v. “atonement,” emphasis in the original).

If, however, you look up “atonement” in a modern dictionary, you will find three entries listed as having religious significance: reconciliation, propitiation, and expiation.

How are propitiation, expiation, and reconciliation used in the OT/NT?

Propitiation is the easiest to deal with. This idea is very common in Greek usage, where angry gods are appeased, or propitiated, through sacrifices offered by humans, thus restoring the desired relationship. This usage never properly occurs in the Bible, but it found its way into theological discourse mostly via the eccentricities of the Vulgate.

Expiation is God’s pardon for sin or a ritual removal of cultic defilement that hinders communion with God. The OT imagery is one of smearing, or wiping away, the sin as one would a stain. God is no longer wrathful and the relationship is restored, not because God has been appeased, but because the sin that was the cause of his wrath has been removed.

I’d say this suggests how “atonement” picked up its cultic definitions. The act used to achieve reconciliation looks to be conflated with the state of reconciliation itself, so to speak.

In contrast to propitiation and expiation, reconciliation as used by Paul in Romans 5:11 is drawn from his Greco-Roman world of social interaction, not the OT, in which it never appears. It conveys the idea of a change in relationship between individual people or groups, a shift from a state of anger, hostility, or alienation, to love, friendship, or intimacy. When Paul uses this expression, the initiative invariably lies with God: God or Christ reconciles sinners to himself.

Uh, so what do we do now?

In the moggetverse, Paul’s use of katallagē is translated as “reconciliation,” while the cultic references in the OT are translated with “expiation” so that everybody keeps their metaphors straight. In modern Continental languages, this is precisely the case; for example, we read le Jour des Expiations (Day of Expiation) or le Jour du Grand Pardon (Day of the Great Pardon?) in French.

In the real English-speaking world, this highly reasonable state of affairs is unlikely. The shift away from “atonement” and to “reconciliation” in the NT is pretty much on track, but I think most OT versions still read “Day of Atonement.”

For even more fun, energetic readers might consult Jacob Milgrom’s Anchor Bible volume, Leviticus 1-16. Milgrom avoids both “atonement” and “expiation,” using instead “purgation,” based on his insight that purification offerings do not all involve a purification because of sin. There you have it: the Day of Purgation! (Lev 16:1-34). Sounds more like a biblically-mandated eating disorder to me.

So, here’s another question…

It used to be that we talked a great deal about Christ using the word “atonement,” which appeared only once in the NT. Now that “atonement” doesn’t appear at all in the NT, will all those budding speculative theologians over at New Cool Thang have to change their threads to reflect that they are really discussing Blake Ostler’s Compassionate Theory of A Word That is Not Found in the NT?

Eh, well, it’s up to them. We press on.

What role does “reconciliation” play in Romans?

In describing what Christ accomplished for humanity through his suffering, death, and resurrection, Paul uses nine or ten metaphors drawn from his dual backgrounds. Although there is occasionally some debate, these metaphors are normally listed as: justification, salvation, reconciliation, expiation, redemption, freedom, new creation, sanctification, glorification, and pardon.

Why so many? And why metaphors? Fitzmyer writes “[i]in a sense, Paul is trying to utter the ineffable, to describe what is really indescribable” (Fitzmyer, Romans, 116). Each metaphor has a different meaning, and each may or may not be related to the others in one or multiple ways. Each must be read for its own symbolic value and significance. In spite of their differences, however, they all express one reality: what Christ Jesus did for humanity.

In a nutshell, then, reconciliation is one of Paul’s ten metaphors. The death of Christ brought about reconciliation with God (Rom 5:10), which is another way of stating that sinners are at peace with God (5:1). The NT is not very interested in your Inner Sunbeam, so the idea of “peace” in Romans is not a state of mind, an easy conscience over past sins, or the absence of war. Instead it has the OT connotations of šālôm, the fullness of a right relationship with God.

So, um, if this idea is only one of Paul’s metaphors, why does everybody use it so much?

Ah yes. Well, there’s a couple of reasons, probably more than I’ve listed here. Nevertheless:

*Folks sometimes use these words casually, without being aware, or fully aware, of these lovely details we’ve been discussing. This group could be otherwise described as “normal people.”

*Folks sometimes use “atonement” or “reconciliation” as a metonymy for everything accomplished by Jesus. This group would be English professors who can also read Romans.

*Folks sometimes find “reconciliation” to be the most significant of the effects of the Christ-event. This type of thing is the province of theologians, and is ridiculous and naughty speculative.

Next time, we’ll pick up the metaphor of “new creation” so we can answer another question from the same thread about why Christ had to be the first one resurrected.


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