Over the next several weeks, posts will examine the Biblical concept of atonement from several angles in an attempt to synthesize the teaching of the scriptures on this topic. Before delving into the teaching of particular portions of the scriptures it is important to have a working definition of what “atonement” is in the first place and how the terms in the original languages of scripture which are translated by this English word are used in a general sense. There also needs to be a certain amount of disambiguation regarding common popular uses of the term in Western theology and popular Christian discussion. Many of these usages import concepts and theological notions which postdate the scriptures by centuries. The “reading in” of these much later theological notions to the text of scripture serves in some cases to merely cause confusion, but in others to create a sort of feedback loop based on confirmation bias. A particular piece of later teaching is read into a text and then the text is used as a proof for that same teaching. This post will serve to clear the ground before the positive presentation of forthcoming posts.
The English word “atonement” is a word created for the purposes of Biblical translation and has no earlier etymological history. Wycliffe used the phrase “at onement” in his own translations in the 14th century to indicate reconciliation to unity. In the 16th century, this was combined into the word “atonement.” Because the word is a coinage, it offers very little insight into the concept as it is employed in the scriptures. Some modern English translations have moved to the translation “reconciliation” in many instances in order to parallel Wycliffe’s original translation. In contemporary scholarly sources, the translation “purification” has become widely popular, with “purgation” as another alternative.
The origin of the term is in the Hebrew word group ‘kfr’. Hebrew words have three letter roots which can then be used to form related verbs and nouns which carry similar meaning. A form of this word creates the name for the holy day Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The ‘kfr’ root appears to be derived from a parallel Akkadian word which formed the verb “to wipe.” In Hebrew, it is used to mean to wipe, to smear, or to cover. There is, in the Hebrew scriptures, deliberate wordplay in, for example, the description of the Day of Atonement ritual in Leviticus 16. Blood is wiped or smeared in the sanctuary which wipes away sin. Blood covers the objects in the tabernacle and sins are covered from the sight of God. Incense covers the appearance of God himself within the sanctuary on that die so that the high priest does not see him and die. This action is central to all of Israelite worship. The lid of the ark of the covenant is “the atonement cover” (though often translated “mercy seat” in English). The later temple is referred to as the “house of atonement” (eg. 1 Chron 28:20). Despite the centrality of the usage of the term in ritual contexts, it is also used throughout the Hebrew scriptures within the context of relationships between humans. It is used, for example, when Jacob is preparing to once again encounter his brother Esau after many years and he sends offerings ahead of himself in the hopes that they will “cover Esau’s face,” literally “atone his face” (Gen 32:20). The ‘kfr’ word group can then be seen to involve the restoration of relationships between persons and community in a general sense but also includes ritual elements aimed at removing or covering over the cause of estrangement.
In Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, the word “hilasmos” and other related words are used to translate the ‘kfr’ word group. This translation choice has some of the same difficulties found in the English “atonement” in providing additional information about the term’s meaning. Though similar concepts are discussed, there are no known pre-Christian, non-Jewish instances of the word “hilasmos” in Greek literature. For the first few centuries of its known usage, then, this term is simply a Greek substitute for ‘kfr’ words and carries only the meaning of the latter. The first known usages of the term in a pagan context come from the first century AD, parallel to the time of the composition of the New Testament, in Plutarch. In every case, Plutarch uses the term to refer to sacrificial offerings used to placate an angered or offended supernatural being, either a god or a deceased human’s spirit. This represents a narrower usage than ‘kfr’ words, though the translators of scripture and later Jewish authors such as Philo freely used “hilasmos” for cases involving both divine-human and human-human relationships. In Jewish and Christian thought, these are inseparable concepts.
In light of these general definitions based on usage, future posts in this series will describe in more detail the ways in which the concept of atonement is described in the scriptures. In light of these scriptural terms, the concept of the wrath of God, as described in scripture, will be further defined. The means by which the situation described by that wrath is ameliorated will then be discussed. Then, these understandings of atonement as it takes place within the context of sacrifice, in general, will be applied to the sacrifice of Christ in particular. Finally, the relationship between the atonement of Christ’s sacrifice and related concepts of redemption and salvation in their cosmic scope will be described.
Beyond the clarification of terminology, however, there are further preconceptions related to atonement, for the most part grounded in Western theology, which need to be cleared away. Much, if not all, of contemporary discussion regarding atonement in general, and Christ’s atoning sacrifice in particular, takes place surrounding various competing “theories of atonement.” These theories represent attempts which are to one degree or another systematic to explain how atonement, and specifically Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, works. Sometimes, rather than “theory” the term “model” is used. Within Western theology, a shift occurred in the seventh and eighth centuries in the pursuit of establishing how certain teachings and doctrines fit together and how certain mysteries of the church work. This set a trajectory for Eucharistic theology which continued through the Reformation and to this very day. In the context of atonement, it represented a turn from describing what Christ accomplished on the cross to attempting to explain how he accomplished it and why he accomplished it in the particular way which he did. The most famous example of this turn and benchmark on this inquiry’s historical path is, of course, Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo. “Why the God-Man?” still bore the tissue of earlier theology in connecting the understanding of Christ’s atoning death to the incarnation, but also followed the new trajectory of attempting to explain the how and why. In our own day, scholar Simon Gathercole has reasserted one of these theories or models, penal substitutionary atonement, as superior to all of the other models because it is the only one which provides a “mechanism” by which atonement takes place.
This entire discussion is based on a series of presuppositions which collapse under even a small amount of scrutiny. There is, for example, no reason to believe that the mysteries of God operate according to “mechanisms” intelligible to the human mind. There is no reason to believe that any of the various metaphorical descriptions used by scripture and the fathers to describe Christ’s atoning sacrifice at the cross is intended to be describing precisely what happened there in an exhaustive and exclusive sense such that these descriptions represent “theories” which can be argued against one another. There is no reason to believe that the problems manifest within creation by human sin necessitates some particular response from God as a remedy as if there are some overarching rules or concept of justice to which God himself is subject.
Rather, the scriptures and the fathers understand Christ’s atoning death as the revelation of his divine glory. Atonement as it took place in the old covenant, as described in the Hebrew scriptures, represents a partial and preliminary revelation of the glory of Christ which comes to its fullness in his death on the cross. The scriptures and the fathers meditate on what is revealed about Christ in these events and on what he has accomplished for the sake of his creation, including ourselves, in these mighty acts. The purpose of this series of posts is to return to see the way in which this revelation of Christ is described in scripture. It is not to promote one of these “theories” over against others. The only critique which will here be offered of various models for the atonement will be the implied critique of their absence from the testimony of scripture. Such theories, merely because they have been advanced or even become popular, do not need to be disproven. Rather those who would seek to advance them must prove their legitimacy. More importantly, they must demonstrate the validity of the presuppositions which produced them in the first place. These presuppositions are shared by neither the scriptures or the fathers.