Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Propitiation" in 1 John

Last time we looked at "propitiation" in Romans; the other New Testament writing that uses that word is 1 John, in the King James translation, where it is used in two places:
And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.(1 John 2:2)
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)
Why exactly do we care about the original meaning of the word? Well, it has been a key part of many peoples' understanding of God, and of Christ's work. And when people talk about what Christ has done, and how God sees us -- most of the words don't need much explanation, but "propitiation" does. In fact, when it came time for King James' translators to render it into English -- basically, they didn't render it in English. "Propitiation" is fairly close to the Latin word "propitiatio" that was used in the old Latin Bibles, which had been in common use for over a millenium. As far as helping us understand what the author meant, it might as well have still been Greek. So back to the Greek we go, just to see how they used that word, and trace it from there. 

The original Greek word in 1 John is used only in those two places -- there is nowhere else in the New Testament that uses the same original word. As for the same word in the Old Testament, it was used only once in the Septuagint (LXX) Greek translation, which is usually rendered into English something like this:
But there is forgiveness with you, therefore you are feared. (Psalm 130:4 according to KJV/AV chapters and verses; different chapter/verse numbers apply to this passage in the LXX)

So how do we trace its meaning and its usage back in that day? In the original writers' day, did "propitiation" have anything to do with our modern theological meaning of "appeasing wrath" or "satisfying justice"?

One way to build our understanding is by looking at related words in the same family of words. Here is the Greek word in English characters, along with some words in the same word family:

hilasmos - the word in question: wrath appeasement? satisfying justice? forgiveness?
hilasterion - the word we saw in the last post: mercy seat or atonement cover
hilaros - cheerful, willing, prompt to do something, joyous
For another perspective, we could look at how the early church translated it into Latin: that should reflect how the early church understood the original meaning. But here we come right back to our "English" word propitiation, or propitiatio in Latin. Does it seem like we're running in circles? King James' translators basically left that one in Latin, and later theologians have followed suit, and so going to the Latin translation didn't help us much. But here, when we check the word family, we have a related word that is nearly familiar:
propitius: (Latin) favorable, gracious
That one has a directly-derived English word:

propitious: (English) favorably disposed, benevolent; being of good omen, auspicious; tending to favor; advantageous.
The related words that I can find seem to be about goodwill and forgiveness.

Q. How does "propitious" mean "benevolent" and "propitiate" mean "to appease wrath"?
A. I'm not convinced that it does -- or that it did, when it was originally written.

Or as John was saying:
And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.(1 John 2:2)
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)
According to John, propitiation was something done out of love rather than wrath. (I am not here questioning whether God is angry with sin; I'm questioning whether that's what the word "propitiation" is talking about.) If the related words tend to be about benevolence and goodwill, and the context states it is an act of love, and two different ancient translations picked words related to forgiveness or benevolence for it -- then maybe it means something more along the lines of forgiveness, mercy, benevolence, and grace. If that proved more accurate, then we would get renderings more like: 
And he is the mercy for our sins, not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)

Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the grace for our sins. (1 John 4:10)
I know there is more study to be done -- and there may be better English words to use -- but I wonder very much if this is more in keeping with what the original word meant.

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)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

What would lead someone to focus on God's "wrath"?

In the Bible, "wrath" doesn't come up as often as "love" or "bless". So why, in some churches or denominations, does wrath have such a prominent place in preaching or theology? Why do some ministers feel as if they haven't presented the good news unless they have described God's wrath?

It turns out that talk of "wrath" is not evenly distributed in the writings of the Bible. The two books of Revelation and Romans account for roughly half of all the "wrath" talk in the New Testament. So the more that someone favors those books over the others, the more their version of the gospel will over-focus on wrath, compared to an understanding based on the New Testament as a whole. It follows that it's a risk of starting with the book of Romans: it easily leads to an over-emphasis on wrath, since that one book contains a focus on wrath that is out of proportion to the New Testament as a whole. The same could be said of Revelation.

What is the right emphasis to give it? We could take our lead from the New Testament as a whole, if the goal is to be consistent with the New Testament as a whole. Or some might contend that it is best to keep it in the same proportion as in the gospels. (That would be a small place.) But as for the extremes -- whether denying the existence of God's wrath or making it a constant major focus -- I don't see how either of those is consistent with the Bible. If we want to be thoroughly Biblical, it is not enough for a thought to be found in the Bible; we also need to gauge its relative importance in the same way.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Are there kinds of prayers that God never answers?

Lately I've been thinking about prayer, and specifically about the kind of prayer in which we ask God to help us with something specific. Are there kinds of requests that God never grants? I'm trying to think of a Biblical basis on which we would know the answer to that, and I think the main basis we have is the nature of God.

When two of Jesus' disciples suggested calling down fire from heaven on certain sinners, Jesus said no. It is similar to the time when Sarah, Abraham's wife, asked for God's judgment on Abraham. The ancients noted that Sarah died first, and saw that as a caution that whoever called down judgment would be judged first. (I wonder whether Jesus' first listeners would have thought of Abraham and Sarah that when Jesus taught, "Judge not, lest you be judged.")

I think most Christians do not pray to win the lottery, and maybe not for sports team victories, since that is seen nearly as an insult to the holiness of prayer. Back in my student days, I remember that there was a kind of prayer etiquette among Christian students about what we might pray for concerning tests: we would pray for calmness or focus, but not for an undeserved score.

Any thoughts on what kinds of requests God would not grant just on principle?