A question was posed to me on twitter about propitiation in connection with last month’s pre-Easter posts (and good Friday). I got permission from Michael Hardin to use a large amount of text from his book A Jesus Driven Life. You can also listen to my interview with Hardin for more.
Here is Hardin (formatted for a blog):
Observe three critical areas where the early fathers missed important aspects of the non-sacrificial hermeneutic witnessed to in the Hebrew Bible and exploited in the New Testament.
- First, most of the early Christian leadership failed to understand the critique of propitiatory sacrifices in the Hebrew prophets.
That is, they missed the insight that there was a development away from all sacrifice, and that God neither wanted nor desired sacrifices (Psalm 40; Jer. 7; Amos 5; Psalm 51, etc).
Had they perceived this they would not have laid the framework for the later church to speak of God in almost schizophrenic terms. In what appears to become a tortured discussion in later Christian theology, the work of the Son somehow appeases the wrath and hatred of the father who loves (sic) humanity. God’s anger and mercy battle like mythological Titans. And this battle is still reflected in contemporary doctrines of the atonement.
- Second, many early Christian interpreters missed the significance of the founding murder in Genesis 4.
Only in I Clement and a century later in Irenaeus are Cain and Abel even mentioned. The crucial role of imitation in Genesis that issues in violence and sacrifice and the unmasking of the victim in Genesis 4 is muted when Augustine interprets Genesis 3 through his neo-Platonist glasses and blames humanity’s fall on sexual desire. The other significant person to pick up on this some 1500 years later also, namely Sigmund Freud, like Augustine, missed the founding murder. Sexual desire, like before, became the culprit.
- Finally, I would contend that early Christian thinkers tended to miss the selective use of the Hebrew Scriptures in the New Testament; a hermeneutic approach I believe can be traced back to Jesus’ exegesis of the Hebrew Bible.
There is no wholesale appropriation of the Hebrew Scriptures in the New Testament. In short, the church’s indulgence in dualistic categories set up conflict in all of its subsequent theological discussion.
The disastrous dualism that plagued early Christian controversies continues to do so to the present day.
Colin Gunton claims that what the doctrine of impassability (that God the Father cannot suffer) was to the church fathers, post-Kantian dualism is to modern theology (the split between what you know and what is really there). God is ‘beyond’ and there is no bridge between there and here; hence, there can be no suffering God. Indeed the patripassionist debate of the second and third centuries (could God suffer, did the Father also suffer or just the Son?) is, according to Jaroslav Pelikan, the same issue that faced Marcion and the Gnostics, viz., “the crucifixion and death of the one who was called God.”
It is no mistake that the very crisis of bringing together the two Testaments, and the two different understandings of God, was also the time when the church turned to the Platonic notion of the unchanging God.
Either God changes or God doesn’t change. Or we have got God wrong. And this last is tough to admit.
So tough in fact as to be unthinkable for those who were transforming Christianity from a persecuted movement into an institution of power.
The point of exploring this issue is to note that the troublesome problem of the violence of God in the Hebrew Bible played a key role in how the early church understood God. While it is true that the ethics they taught were nonviolent (as we saw in The Didache and the Gospel of Matthew), they could not see what Jesus also taught was the theology of a nonviolent God.
Their Platonism blinded them. (1)
On Romans 3
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement [hilasterion], through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
There are several key questions we must resolve in order to interpret this text.
- The first concerns the translation of hilasterion, which the NIV translates as “a sacrifice of atonement.”
The KJV translates this term as “propitiation” while the RSV uses “expiation.”
To propitiate a god is to make a sacrifice to appease wrath, anger or a curse. We are already familiar with this as the sacrificial principle.
On the other hand, to expiate sin is to remove it; it looks to the object causing sin rather than God as the object to be appeased.
There has been quite a bit of ink spilled over which translation best captures hilasterion. Those who reject an angry divinity prefer expiation while those like neo-Reformed thinkers John Piper and Thomas Schreiner believe that God’s wrath needs to be assuaged and justice satisfied prefer propitiation.
The way out of this dilemma is to follow the logic of Paul’s subversion of the sacrificial process. Robert Hamerton-Kelly points out that, “The major new element is that Paul inverts the traditional understanding of sacrifice so that God is the offerer, not the receiver, and the scapegoat goes into the sacred precinct rather than out of it. Christ is a divine offering to humankind, not a human offering to God. In the normal order of sacrifice, humans give and the god receives; here the god gives and humans receive. The usual explanation of this passage is that human sin deserved divine punishment, but in mercy God substituted a propitiatory offering to bear the divine wrath instead of humanity. We must insist on the fact that the recipients are human, otherwise we fall into the absurdity of God’s giving a propitiatory gift to God.
- The second point to note is that not only the order of giver and receiver is reversed but also the spatial order.
Normally the offerer goes from profane to sacred space to make the offering; here the offerer comes out of sacred space into profane, publically to set forth (proetheto) the propitiation (hilasterion) there. These inversions of the normal order of sacrifice mean that it is not God who needs to be propitiated, but humanity, and not in the recesses of the Sacred, but in the full light of day.”
The point of this is that if one insists on translating hilasterion as propitiation then one must also take into consideration the subversion of the sacrificial principle. There is therefore, in this passage no justification for arguing that God’s wrath must be propitiated. We humans are the ones who need to be appeased.
Whether we translate hilasterion as ‘propitiation’ or ‘expiation’, in neither case do we need speak of God’s wrath being appeased, it is not in the text itself, it can only come from prior assumptions regarding sacrifice in general. (2)
1: Hardin, Michael (2013-09-26). The Jesus Driven Life: Reconnecting Humanity With Jesus, 2nd Edition Revised and Expanded (Kindle Locations 3641-3683). JDL Press. Kindle Edition.
2: Locations 6240-6278.