Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Propitiation" in Romans (You keep using that word ...)

"Propitiation" is a word that we see only in theological writings. In the King James Bible (AV), it occurs only three times: twice in 1 John, and once in Romans. Those rarely-used words can be a challenge for translators and dictionaries alike. The low use creates a risk that we will misunderstand: there isn't much basis for comparison to see how the word is generally used. Our dictionaries reflect meanings based on the common use: the theological use of "propitiation" works out to "appeasing wrath". But is that what Paul was talking about?

Let's take the case of the one passage in Romans translated with "propitiation" in the AV:
For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God, being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth [to be] a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past ... (Romans 3:23-25)
Another widely-used translation, the NIV, has that "propitiation" part as:
God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood
There is also a footnote in the NIV with an alternate reading of:
the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin
It's an interesting footnote, once you consider that the word "wrath" doesn't actually appear anywhere in the received text of that passage; neither does "turning aside wrath". That's a theological theory being read into the text based on assumptions about what "propitiation" is. The footnote may be trying to bring light to an obscure word in the text, but did they bring light to it, or further obscure it?

So if there are three places that the New Testament uses the word "propitiation", why look at that one passage in particular? Because it uses a different word than the other two in the original Greek. The passage in Romans uses a Greek word that is only used twice in the New Testament: there, and in Hebrews 9:5:
And over it, the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercyseat (AV)
Or in another translation:
Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. (NIV)
That's quite a difference in translation: a propitiation, a sacrifice of atonement, one who would turn aside wrath taking away sin ... or the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant.

So what does that word typically mean? Although the New Testament only uses the word twice, we do have more than just those two uses for reference. The Hebrews had translated the Old Testament into Greek. We still have the text of the Septuagint, or the LXX, translation. And the Greek word that Paul used in Romans 3 is the normal word for the "mercy seat" or "atonement cover" of the Ark of the Covenant. You can check that by reading the Yom Kippur section of Leviticus in Greek, where the Greek word in question (hilasterion) is the word used for the mercy seat, or the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. In the Jewish usage of that day, that was the word in use for that specific place and object.

So Paul uses a word that is about Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. He links Christ to the Ark of the Covenant, to the one time a year that the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies and the presence of God. He links Christ to the one place on earth where someone could encounter the direct presence of God in the full glory of holiness. And specifically he links Christ to the "mercy seat" or "atonement cover".

And yet the Day of Atonement -- to read the ancient statutes of the Torah -- was focused on repentance and purification. And again, to read the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, the idea of the mercy seat is cleansing and purification. "Appeasing wrath" wasn't the purpose of the Day of Atonement, and it wasn't the idea in mind when they talked about the mercy seat. So it's really doubtful that Paul had appeasing wrath in mind when he used that word. With the Day of Atonement passages in mind, it seems more likely that he was alluding to the cleansing and purification that were the goal during the one time a year when the high priest approached the mercy seat.
For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the LORD. (Leviticus 16:30)


Martin LaBar said...

Good work. I learned something.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

This is my favorite of all your posts I have ever read. Excellent! Wish I had written it myself.

Jason Pratt said...


A few years ago I wrote a fairly extensive exegetical analysis of the term and its NT occurrences (which can be found here, by the way ;) ), and I agree it has nothing to do with appeasing God's wrath per se.

From my conclusion: while there is one place (in Romans) where the grammar is unclear about who is doing the action of propitiation and who is receiving the action, the other places (even 1 John, in its own way) clearly indicate that God Most High (as the Father and as the Son) is the one doing the action of propitiation toward us; with us (or secondarily our sins) as the object and receivers of the propitiation.

Neither the Father nor the Son receive propitiation about anything; and even when the Son is standing with us as our propitiation (and not only propitiation about our sins but about everyone else’s, too) He is certainly not acting to change the Father’s mind regarding us. He doesn’t have to: the Father already loves all sinners as much as the Son does, and already seeks the salvation and restoration of all sinners, which is why God sends His only-begotton Son.

Anyway, I thought you'd like to see some independent confirmation.


Weekend Fisher said...

Hi all

Martin: Thank you for the encouragement.

Anastasia: Wow, that's high praise. Thank you. If you like this one you may enjoy the follow-up also: notice that I left the other 2 uses of 'propitiation' out of the current post. They're up soon. :) Again, as Inigo M once said, "You keep using that word ... ". Inconceivable that people might have misunderstood?

Jason: Long time no see. Thanks for commenting. Once I get some free time to give it a proper read, I'll check out the link.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Jason Pratt said...


I was thinking about posting a combined version of that article and the one on atone/reconcile, plus one on "wage", over at the Cadre, since the topic ought to be (but often isn't) coherent with trinitarian theology. So don't be too surprised if a multi-part article series shows up there. {g}


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