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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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Propitiation occurs in the apostolic literature of the NT only four times: (1) Romans 3:25 as the rendering of ἱλαστήριον: ‘whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, by his blood, to shew his righteousness, because of the passing over of sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God’; (2) as the rendering of ἱλασμός, 1 John 2:2 : ‘and he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world’; (3) 1 John 4:10 : ‘Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins’; (4) in RV_ it is also used in Hebrews 2:17 as the translation of τὸ ἱλάσκεσθαι: ‘Wherefore it behoved him in all things to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people’; ἱλαστήριον also occurs in Hebrews 9:5, rendered ‘mercy-seat’ (RVm_ ‘Gr. the propitiatory’). These, with the verbal form ἱλάσθητι in the story of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:13, ‘God be merciful,’ RVm_ ‘be propitiated’), and the use of the adjective ἵλεως twice (Matthew 16:22, Hebrews 8:12) constitute all the guidance afforded by the NT in seeking the meaning of ‘propitiation,’ a term of much importance in apostolic thought. Consequently we are largely dependent for help in its interpretation upon what we know of the use of cognate terms in the LXX_, and upon the ideas associated with their Hebrew equivalents in the OT; for the classical use of the Greek terms from Homer downwards helps mostly by contrast, presenting a usage different from that found in the LXX_ and the NT. (For details and discussion of Heb. and Gr. usage see art._ ‘Propitiation’ by Driver in HDB_; also for Gr. usage B. F. Westcott, Epistles of St. John 3, p. 85 f., and an interesting discussion in T. V. Tymms, The Christian Idea of Atonement, p. 191 ff.; and for the opposite view, maintaining the classical and pagan use of the Gr. term in the apostolic literature, see G. Smeaton, The Apostles’ Doctrine of the Atonement, p. 455 ff.) H. Bushnell also maintains that the language of Scripture accords with the pagan idea of propitiation, but he rejects the idea itself on ethical grounds, suggesting that the apostolic writers did not really mean what their words mean-an evasion which creates an exegetical impasse (cf. The Vicarious Sacrifice, London, 1866, p. 447 ff.).

In classical Greek the verb ‘propitiate’ (ἱλάσκομαι) is common, but it is construed regularly with the accusative of the deity (or person) propitiated. This construction is never used by apostolic writers; it is very rarely found in the LXX_, even when used of a human subject (cf. Genesis 32:20, Zechariah 7:2, Proverbs 16:14). In the LXX_ it is commonly construed with περί (‘on behalf of’), followed by the person on whose behalf the propitiatory act is performed. This difference of construction marks a difference between pagan and biblical ideas; for although propitiating God may be indirectly involved in phrases used in the OT, it is not direct and prominent as in non-biblical writers. The restoration of God’s favour and the forgiveness of the worshipper are generally the aim of the propitiatory sacrifice (cf. Leviticus 4:20); but the idea of directly appeasing one who is angry with a personal resentment against the offender, which is implied when the deity is the direct object of the verb, is foreign to biblical usage. This distinction of usage corresponds with the fact that the higher biblical conception of God is more ethical and less anthropomorphic than the conception in heathen writers; it also accords with the fact that the Hebrew term represented in the LXX_ by ἰλάσκομαι and its derivatives early came to be used in a specialized rather than in a literal sense in its application to the acknowledged ethical relations between the God of Israel and His people. The root meaning of this term (kipper, ëÌÄôÌÈø) is probably ‘cover over’; so Arabic also; the Syriac (and probably the Assyrian) cognate = ‘wipe’ (cf. Proverbs 30:20), or ‘wipe away,’ e.g. tears or sins, and therefore ‘disperse’ or ‘abolish.’ W. R. Smith (The OT in the Jewish Church, Edinburgh, 1881, p. 438 f.) adopts the latter as the primary meaning-e.g., ‘to wipe clean the face blackened by displeasure’ (cf. Genesis 32:21). Obviously both ‘cover over’ and ‘wipe away’ are convenient metaphors for the common idea of rendering null and void; the OT supplies frequent examples of the use of each in regard to sin (cf. Psalms 32:1; Psalms 85:2, Isaiah 43:25; Isaiah 44:22, Jeremiah 18:23; see also HDB_ iv. 128; P. Haupt in JBL_ xix. [1900] 61, 80). But in OT theological terminology, kipper, which holds an important place, is used always in a figurative or moral sense with the collateral idea, which in time became the dominant if not the exclusive one, of conciliating an offended person or screening an offence or offender. Guilt is covered or withdrawn from the sight of the person propitiated, so that the way is clear for the guilty to approach him with confidence. G. F. Moore objects altogether to the use of etymological meanings, as a fault of method, and as fruitful of error. Plain facts of usage, which suggest no reference to ‘wiping out’ or ‘covering,’ are the sole guide for interpreting the term (cf. EBi_ iv. 4220). Several points in the OT usage should be carefully noted. (a) Its subject is usually either God or the priest; its means, when indicated, either a gift or a sacrifice. (b) Its use in the Levitical system is especially associated with the sin-offering, whose characteristic potence lies in the blood of the sacrifice, because ‘the blood is the life,’ and it is followed by ‘it shall be forgiven him’ in reference to sin; whether the fault is ritual or moral is not always clearly distinguished. (c) The idea of appeasing God in the heathen sense by offering Him an inducement to alter His disposition towards the offerer is absent, ‘nor is it ever implied that the offerer of such a sacrifice is outside God’s dispensation of grace, or the object of His wrath’ (Driver, HDB_ iv. 131); the propitiation is Divinely appointed; the motive as far as indicated is the grace of God. (d) The idea of the offender hiding or covering his sin is not tolerated; he is to confess and repent of it: ‘the object is never the sin, but the person (or thing) on whose behalf the offering is made’ (ib. iv. 130). (e) Propitiation was only for unintentional sins (except in four specified cases); for deliberate and wilful sin-sin ‘with a high hand’-propitiatory provision was not made.

With some such connotation as here suggested the Hebrew term for ‘propitiation’ passed on through the LXX_ from OT usage to that of the apostolic writers, possibly hardened also by the priestly and Rabbinical emphasis of their times. It became for them a naturally serviceable term in which to state and interpret into current forms of religious speech the new experience of God’s act of forgiveness of sins, which they unhesitatingly connected directly with the suffering death of Jesus Christ. But this transition was made in the light of the conviction that the transcendent and final character of the redemptive work of Christ raised a term connected chiefly with legal and ritual significance into a realm of ethical and spiritual realities of which its ancient use had been merely typical and tentative. Moreover, the apostles’ application of the term as interpretative of the meaning of Christ’s offering of His sinless life to do away with the power of sin to separate between God and man was marked by a certain personal freedom of usage. This freedom expresses itself in differences discernible in the use of the NT term. The Pauline usage may be distinguished from that of the writer of the Johannine Epistles and from that adopted by the writer to the Hebrews. These apostolic writers held in common the fundamental idea that it was by an offering in His blood which Christ made in His death that He fulfilled a function analogous to, but infinitely transcending, that to which the term ‘propitiation’ was applied in the OT. By this means the grace of God was expressed towards man, and became efficacious through the removal of the obstacle raised by the sin that hindered the freedom and confidence of his access to God. But the propitiation was always of God’s providing, as it was also His setting forth. St. Paul in his use of the term is specially concerned to make clear ‘the setting forth’ of the propitiation in relation to the law of God’s righteousness; the Johannine writer uses it to declare the source of an actual cleansing from the defilement of sin, whilst the writer to the Hebrews chooses it to express the resultant privilege of the propitiation revealed in direct access to God in the sanctuary of His holiness. But this illustrative use of the term by these three apostolic writers, whilst it contributes figuratively to a legal, ethical, and ceremonial interpretation of the one reality of a common spiritual experience of redemption in Christ’s blood, involves no essential divergence in their respective teaching. Each writer selected a particular phase of the import of propitiation. This he did rather to meet the exigencies of the occasion for his writing than to indicate a difference of view respecting the historical fact or the spiritual experience involved; these last were central to all apostolic teaching. Consequently the several applications of ‘propitiation’ exhibit a diversity in unity. It seems improbable that practically the same term was used within nearly the same period in the primitive apostolic community with any essential difference of meaning, especially when we consider the common stock of OT and later Jewish ideas from which the term was taken over by each separate writer. Moreover, sin, whether regarded with St. Paul as guilt, with the Johannine writer as moral defilement, or with the writer to the Hebrews as a religious hindrance in access to God, is the one reality which is the occasion of ‘propitiation.’

(1) The Pauline use.-The Pauline use (Romans 3:25) states the propitiation in relation to a Divine righteousness expressed in ‘a wrath of God revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold down the truth in unrighteousness’ (Romans 1:18); its purpose is to show God’s righteousness to be consistent with the fact of His forbearance ‘in the passing over of sins done aforetime’: for there has never been a time under any dispensation when God has not dealt graciously with sinful men; He is always God the Saviour, ‘whose property is always to have mercy.’ But lest the persistent exercise of Divine grace in the forgiveness of sins should be considered as a challenge of God’s righteous opposition to sin, He set forth Christ Jesus a propitiation by His blood that He ‘might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3:26). In this propitiation something is done by God in Christ which demonstrates the consistency and inviolability of His righteousness in the presence of His mercy. What that something is St. Paul does not further define; he simply asserts the efficiency of the propitiation for the ethical situation implied. His chosen word (ἱλαστήριον) has caused his commentators great trouble, but the great majority of all schools agree that the view here expressed is in substance St. Paul’s teaching. The opinion, formerly influentially supported (e.g. by Luther, Calvin, Ritschl, Cremer, Bruce), that ἱλαστήριον signifies ‘the mercy-seat,’ ‘the lid of the ark,’ as in Hebrews 9:5, is now generally rejected as fanciful and inadequate (for reasons see Deissmann, Bibelstudien, Marburg, 1895, p. 121 f., Eng. tr._, Bible Studies, Edinburgh, 1901, p. 124 ff.; Stevens, Christian Doctrine of Salvation, p. 61). Its interpretation as ‘a propitiatory offering’-a means of rendering God consistently favourable towards sinful men and the means of reconciliation between God and man-is the most natural, and is indeed the only meaning suitable to the context of Romans 3; other Pauline passages harmonize with it better than with any other meaning (cf. Romans 5:9, 1 Corinthians 6:20; 1 Corinthians 7:23, Galatians 3:13; Galatians 4:5).

It is evident that St. Paul regarded the propitiation as essential to the manifestation of the Divine nature in love and righteousness; it was not an arbitrary appointment dependent simply on God’s mere good pleasure; it implied a rational and ethical necessity in His being. Judging from the affinities of St. Paul’s thought generally, it is probable that he may have regarded propitiation less in the light of a Levitical sacrificial offering than in that of the prophetical ideal of vicarious suffering, or possibly even after the analogy of human sacrifice-one man dying for another (cf. Romans 5:7; see Bruce, St. Paul’s Conception of Christianity, p. 167 ff.). St. Paul certainly held that the propitiation was provided by God; he expounded it as exhibiting the love rather than the wrath of God. Although such phrases as ‘propitiating God’ or God ‘being propitiated’ are foreign to apostolic teaching, the Pauline view relates the propitiation to God as recipient. The propitiation being thus provided by God and received by Him, the question has arisen, Does St. Paul teach that it is also offered by God-that is, that God propitiates Himself? Probably the best answer is that St. Paul constantly conceives of the propitiation as the work of God in Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:18 f.); it is not something done outside God, but ‘God-in-Christ’ stands for St. Paul’s conception of God as Redeemer-that is, God united with human nature. It may, therefore, be the best approach to the sanctuary of the unfathomable mystery of God’s redeeming work to suggest that strictly He did not propitiate Himself. God requiring, providing, receiving the propitiation, it was offered by Christ, who was God-in-man, acting not as God, but as the Representative of man. God gave humanity in Christ the means of making propitiation (cf. H. Cremer, Bibl.-Theol. Lex.3, p. 91 ff.; HDB_ iv. 206). This suggestion is the more probable as it harmonizes with St. Paul’s great doctrine of the self-identification of Christ with the human race, and through Him of the race with God (cf. Romans 5, 6, 2 Corinthians 5:15 ff.).

(2) The Johannine use.-Although the Johannine writer uses for ‘propitiation’ a different Greek word (ἱλασμός, not ἱλαστήριον) there is no satisfactory ground for maintaining a meaning essentially different from that presented in the Pauline thought; characteristic words of a common religion cannot safely be applied in a different sense where it is obvious that the same great circle of ideas is acknowledged. Propitiation is part of an apostolic system of ideas of redemption, and is found in the writings of St. John associated with its correlatives of sin and righteousness, and with the blood of Christ as the means of putting away sin and establishing righteousness, ideas with which it is vitally associated in the Pauline Epistles (for the opposite view cf. Stevens, Christian Doctrine of Salvation, p. 108 ff.). The Johannine conception of propitiation is inseparably associated with ‘Jesus Christ the righteous,’ in whom ‘we have an Advocate with the Father’ (1 John 2:1), implying that the righteous nature of God involves a righteous order in the Divine method of dealing with sin. Moreover, the declaration is unmistakable that Christ is a propitiation ‘not for our sins only, but also for the whole world,’ implying an objective accomplishment, a finished work for the whole world as the basis on which the individual forgiveness and cleansing from sin proceed; for the virtue of the propitiation extends beyond the subjective experience of those who actually are made partakers of its grace. Whilst these points of contact with the Pauline view of propitiation appear, there are nevertheless lines of distinction in the use of the term which constitute a Johannine variety distinguishable from that found in the Pauline usage. For instance, the propitiation is more vividly personal: ‘He’ is our propitiation; the life of Christ as well as His death is involved-His Person as well as His work. Then its perpetual persistence as a process as well as its achievement as a fact is a dominant Johannine idea: ‘he is the propitiation,’ ‘his blood is cleansing us from all sin’ (1 John 1:7). It is more than a completed act; the propitiation abides as a living, present energy residing in the personality of Christ Himself (cf. J. McLeod Campbell, The Nature of the Atonement, London, 1895, p. 170 f.). Hence the Johannine emphasis falls naturally upon the issues of the propitiation set forth in terms of cleansing from sin rather than of justification in the sight of the Law. But the main Johannine distinction is probably found in the wealth of the Divine love, in which the writer makes explicit what is elsewhere implied in the teaching on propitiation, where it is associated more closely with the righteousness of the Law. Universally assumed in the apostolic teaching, the love of God in the propitiation suffuses the whole Johannine conception with radiant light. So far from being contrasts, love and propitiation become interchangeable realities-necessary to one another, explaining one another, even lost in one another. The writer defines love by propitiation, and propitiation by love: ‘in this have we come to know what love is, that he (ἐκεῖνος) for us (ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν) laid down his life’ (1 John 3:16). ‘Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins’ (4:10). This is the writer’s closer definition of what he means by ‘God is love’; he can convey no idea of love in God beyond that which shows itself in propitiation; for that is love’s last word; the ultimate meaning of propitiation is love’s ultimate meaning too; contrast between them is unthinkable.

‘If the propitiatory death of Jesus is eliminated from the love of God, it might be unfair to say that the love of God is robbed of all meaning, but it is certainly robbed of its apostolic meaning’ (Denney, Death of Christ, p. 276).

(3) Use in Hebrews.-Propitiation in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 2:17, ‘to make propitiation for sins,’ τὸ ἱλάσκεσθαι) is interpreted in terms of sacrifice and comes nearest in apostolic teaching to the OT usage. Christ is the High Priest who offers Himself; He is at once Victim and Priest in a propitiation that procures forgiveness of sins and thereby the privilege of direct access to and communion with God. The writer noticeably departs from the classical construction of the verb, and adopts the biblical, making its object ‘the sins of the people’; he thus avoids making God the object of the propitiation, producing in doing so a construction strange at the same time to Greek ears and to pagan ideas. What relation this propitiation bears to the nature of God this loose construction is too vague to indicate; clearly, however, it deals in some sacrificial way with the sin that separates from God. The writer assumes that propitiation is necessary for this end, and the only propitiation known to him is that made by a priest through sacrifice; but the necessity for it lies in a Divine fitness rather than in any definite legal obligation; the Pauline idea of the law of righteousness is absent. If a Pauline philosophy of redemption lies behind the use in this Epistle of a term common to apostolic thought generally-as seems probable-the meaning would be that the propitiation Christ offered so dealt with sin that there no longer remained in the Divine mind an obstacle to sin’s forgiveness (cf. Holtzmann, Neutest. Theol.2, Tübingen, 1911, ii. 300, favouring this view, and Stevens, Christian Doctrine of Salvation, p. 84, criticizing it). The particular contribution, however, made by the writer of Hebrews to the apostolic teaching on propitiation is the discussion of the conception that the propitiation offered by Christ is capable of dealing with all and every kind of sin as a barrier between God and man, and not with sins of ignorance and infirmity alone; the key to the discussion is that Christ’s is a ‘better sacrifice,’ which perfects the imperfect, abolishes the typical, and lifts the whole significance of propitiation from the circle of legal and ceremonial ideas into the realm of abiding ethical and spiritual realities; Jesus, ‘who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish unto God,’ thus becomes the author of eternal salvation-a salvation whose characteristic is finality; ‘through his own blood, (he) entered in once for all into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption’ (cf. Hebrews 9:11-15).

The Fathers of the Apostolic and the sub-Apostolic Ages adhered in their interpretation of propitiation to the sacrificial language of the OT and to the usage of NT terms by the apostles (cf. Polycarp, ad Phil. i. 8; Clement of Rome, ad Cor. i. 7, 32).

Literature.-H. Schultz, OT Theology2, Edinburgh, 1895, ii. 87 ff.; D. W. Simon, The Redemption of Prayer of Manasseh 1:2, London, 1906, p. 31 ff.; J. Denney, The Death of Christ, do., 1902; G. Smeaton, The Apostles’ Doctrine of Atonement, Edinburgh, 1870; J. J. Lias, The Atonement in the Light of Modern Difficulties, London, 1884; T. V. Tymms, The Christian Idea of the Atonement, do., 1904, pp. 191-251; F. R. M. Hitchcock, The Atonement and Modern Thought, do., 1911, p. 132 ff.; W. F. Lofthouse, Ethics and Atonement, do., 1906, p. 148 ff.; A. B. Bruce, St. Paul’s Conception of Christianity, Edinburgh, 1894, p. 167 ff.; G. B. Stevens, Christian Doctrine of Salvation, do., 1905, pp. 61 ff., 108 ff., NT Theology, London, 1899, pp. 412 ff., 589 f.; B. F. Westcott, Epistles of St. John 3, do., 1892, p. 85 f.; Sanday-Headlam, ICC_, ‘Romans’5, Edinburgh, 1902, p. 92 f.; H. Cremer, Bibl.-Theol. Lexicon3, do., 1880, p. 91 ff.; artt._ ‘Propitiation_’ in HDB_ and DCG_.

Frederic Platt.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Propitiation'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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