Hilasterion and My Atonement Theory

Since my last post detailing my atonement theology, I got a lot of positive feedback (a lot by the standards of this blog). Thank you for that. I also got two variations on the same question: how do I deal with Paul seemingly supporting the penal substitution view, including with the use of the word hilasterion which is often rendered in English as propitiation, which means something like “an appeasing gift” and has a Latin root?

I haven’t read any particularly deep studies on it so you can take anything I read with a grain of salt. I have just had short encounters with the word and what it means, like in my Greek class when I had to translate it working through 1 John. In that case, the dictionary I was using did say propitiation, although didn’t get into what that means or any implications of it. It was also an older dictionary, mid 20th century I think, so probably came from a context where there was less debate about atonement theories and the author very well could have read a bias into the text. So I did some brief research which gave me a general idea again and seems to fit with what I do vaguely remember.

The Strict Meaning of Hilasterion

What I think I can comfortably say is this: Jesus as “propitiation”, or whatever it means, filled the same role as ritual sacrifices in the OT Law. In particular, the same word is used for the seat on top of the Ark where God is said to sit, usually translated there as “mercy seat.” Hebrews’ use of the word also typically translates that way. In other words, it is at the very least the place at which God meets us and forgives us. This simply reinforces the doctrine of the Incarnation that the fullness of God dwells in Jesus but in itself is a significant statement: a doctrine is not the place of salvation, nor is anything else typically associated as “religion.” Instead, a person is the ultimate revelation of God and the place of our forgiveness.

From there it gets more touchy. It is at the very least a place of atonement, but many also want to make it a means of atonement and/or infer the object of atonement and these are much more debatable from the Greek word. The scholarship I’ve seen (not a huge sample) does seem to lean toward the idea that hilasterion does also mean something like “a gift of appeasement,” although that is not a unanimous opinion by any means. I vaguely remember my Greek prof, a liberal Anglican and a great New Testament scholar, saying that it probably did mean something like that so I’m going to continue as if that’s true.

The Object of Hilasterion

Most important in my opinion, even if it is an appeasing gift, who was it an appeasing gift to? Yes, Jesus died to save us, but save us from who/what? This is how Gustav Aulen divided up atonement theories in the early 20th century and it is still helpful. We could look at Romans 3:25, which says that God offered Jesus as propitiation, so we know that God is the subject but there is no object stated. We could also reference Jesus’ statement that he would pay the ransom for humanity, but who was the ransom being paid to? It is again left unstated.

The satisfaction motif, including PSA, would say God is the object; Classical Christus Victor would say Satan; Abelard’s moral influence theory would say humanity, as would some others in a different way like Girard’s scapegoat theory. One of the smaller reasons I consider PSA to be flawed is because in it God presents Jesus as propitiation to himself, which then requires some mental gymnastics to explain how God needed to appease himself but couldn’t simply forgive.

The Purpose of Using Hilasterion

The last major question I wonder isn’t to do with the strict meaning of the word, but with how exactly Paul meant to use the word. Let’s suppose for a minute that Paul did mean “an appeasing sacrifice that God made to himself.” Was this meant to be a literal statement detailing the nature of the atonement but nobody figured it out for 1500 years (1200 for Anselm’s similar theory)? Or was it meant to be conveying something else? Paul’s audience, in Romans as in many letters, was to Jews, and his primary mission was to expand the message of Jesus to Gentiles. I know some enter Romans presupposing that it is a theological defense of PSA, and if you do, you’ll definitely find that, but it just didn’t have anything to do with how the original writer and the original reader would have understood it.

My suggestion, then, is that Paul was essentially answering the question: how do Gentiles get included in this new Kingdom even though it is Jews who have the Ark of the Covenant, including its cover the “propitiation”? Paul’s answer is that Jesus is the new propitiation, which makes all of those other things necessary. I would argue that God didn’t think they were necessary in the first place but stooped to our level, as he did again in Jesus. Even if he was the one behind the OT sacrifices, though, it is still saying that Jesus has done away with the need for sacrifices. PSA would say that he has done away with the sacrificial system precisely by one final act of the sacrificial system, which may not necessarily be incoherent but there is an obvious tension there. God got rid of the sacrificial system precisely because his greatest demand was sacrifice?

Hilasterion and Me

To sum that all up then, I really do think that Paul’s use of hilasterion supports my atonement theology. Even accepting that it means an appeasement gift, my theory is, in part, stating that Jesus served as an appeasement to humanity and our perpetual eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in order to show and give us the power to live in a better way. While God is clearly the subject of this gift – amazing grace, for sure – I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that God is also the object because the text doesn’t suggest it and it is logically implausible. Even when that kind of language seems to be used, it is within the context of expanding the Kingdom beyond the Jewish people rather than as a defense of a systematic theology concept not yet invented.

****The best of the sources I looked at in my most research refresher on the question: http://theogeek.blogspot.ca/2007/07/hilasterion-in-romans-325.html

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Adam Dickison

    I’m just about to finish up a really interesting book that, among other things, lays out a theory of atonement that I have not heard before called Reflective Atonement. It’s based on Mimetic theory (which I fear is faddish at the moment, but still…) and it offers a really fresh perspective that incorporates parts of Christus Victor and parts of Moral Influence. Unlike Christus Victor it doesn’t have the problem of Satan having to be paid off and unlike Moral Influence it doesn’t neglect the importance of the death and resurrection of Christ. It also seems to present a vision of God that is very much inline with what was revealed in Christ, namely a God that is always with us and suffers the pain of our sin along with us when we choose to turn away, which is in stark contrast to the vision of God in PSA who turns away from us and suffers our sin in anger and resentment.

    Anyway, I know this is an old post and you’ve probably moved onto new rabbit trails and thought explorations, but it may be something that interests you. The book is called Desire Found Me by Andre Rabe.

    • Hmmm, sounds interesting. It is true that I haven’t spend too much in a while wrestling with atonement, although it has always been an interesting one for me.

      Side notes:
      – Yes, mimetic is a bit faddish at the moment, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It isn’t a complete answer in and of itself, but definitely adds some important things to the discussion.
      – I wouldn’t say CV has a problem of having to pay off Satan. Ransom arguably does, which is one subcategory of CV, but not the CV motif in general. It simply means that God defeats Satan, so there are other explanations for how God defeated Satan on the cross beyond the classic ransom fish hook.