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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
I. Terms Employed
1. Hebrew and Greek Words
The root meanings of the Hebrew words, taking them in the order cited above, are, to "cover," hence expiate, condone, cancel, placate; to "offer," or "receive a sin offering," hence, make atonement, appease, propitiate; "effect reconciliation," i.e. by some conduct, or course of action. Of the Greek words the meanings, in order, are "to be," or "cause to be, friendly"; "to render other," hence to restore; "to leave" and with preposition to leave off, i.e. enmity, or evil, etc.; "to render holy," "to set apart for"; hence, of the Deity, to appropriate or accept for Himself.
2. The English Word
It is obvious that the English word "atonement" does not correspond etymologically with any Hebrew or Greek word which it translates. Furthermore, the Greek words in both Septuagint and New Testament do not correspond exactly to the Hebrew words; especially is it true that the root idea of the most frequently employed Hebrew word, " cover ," is not found in any of the Greek words employed. These remarks apply to both verbs and substantives The English word is derived from the phrase "at one," and signifies, etymologically, harmony of relationship or unity of life, etc. It is a rare instance of an AS theological term; and, like all purely English terms employed in theology, takes its meaning, not from its origin, but from theological content of the thinking of the Continental and Latin-speaking Schoolmen who employed such English terms as seemed most nearly to convey to the hearers and readers their ideas. Not only was no effort made to convey the original Hebrew and Greek meanings by means of English words, but no effort was made toward uniformity in translating of Hebrew and Greek words by their English equivalents.
3. Not to Be Settled by Lexicon Merely
It is at once clear that no mere word-study can determine the Bible teaching concerning atonement. Even when first employed for expressing Hebrew and Christian thought, these terms, like all other religious terms, already had a content that had grown up with their use, and it is by no means easy to tell how far heathen conceptions might be imported into our theology by a rigidly etymological study of terms employed. In any case such a study could only yield a dictionary of terms, whereas what we seek is a body of teaching, a circle of ideas, whatever words and phrases, or combinations of words and phrases, have been employed to express the teaching.
4. Not Chiefly a Study in Theology
There is even greater danger of making the study of the Atonement a study in dogmatic theology. The frequent employment of the expression " the Atonement" shows this tendency. The work of Christ in reconciling the world to God has occupied so central a place in Christian dogmatics that the very term atonement has come to have a theological rather than a practical atmosphere, and it is by no means easy for the student, or even for the seeker after the saving relation with God, to pass beyond the accumulated interpretation of the Atonement and learn of atonement.
5. Notes on Use of Terms
The history of the explanation of the Atonement and the terms of preaching atonement cannot, of course, be ignored. Nor can the original meaning of the terms employed and the manner of their use be neglected. There are significant features in the use of terms, and we have to take account of the history of interpretation. Only we must not bind ourselves nor the word of God in such forms.
(1) The most frequently employed Hebrew word,
(2) Of the Greek words employed
(3) In the English New Testament the word "atonement" is found only at Romans 5:11 and the American Standard Revised Version changes this to "reconciliation." While in strict etymology this word need signify only the active or conscious exercise of unity of life or harmony of relations, the causative idea probably belongs to the original use of the term, as it certainly is present in all current Christian use of the term. As employed in Christian theology, both practical and technical, the term includes with more or less distinctness: (a) The fact of union with God, and this always looked upon as (b) a broken union to be restored or an ideal union to be realized, (c) The procuring cause of atonement, variously defined, (d) the crucial act wherein the union is effected, the work of God and the response of the soul in which the union becomes actual. Inasmuch as the reconciliation between man and God is always conceived of as effected through Jesus Christ ( 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 ) the expression, "the Atonement of Christ," is one of the most frequent in Christian theology. Questions and controversies have turned mainly on the procuring cause of atonement, (c) above, and at this point have arisen the various "theories of the Atonement."
II. Bible Teaching Concerning Atonement in General
The Atonement of Christ must be interpreted in connection with the conception of atonement in general in the Scriptures. This idea of atonement is, moreover, part of the general circle of fundamental ideas of the religion of Yahweh and Jesus. Theories of the Atonement root themselves in conceptions of the nature and character of God, His holiness, love, grace, mercy, etc.; of man, his nature, disposition and capacities; of sin and guilt.
1. Primary Assumption of Unity of God and Man
The basal conception for the Bible doctrine of atonement is the assumption that God and man are ideally one in life and interests, so far as man's true life and interest may be conceived as corresponding with those of God. Hence, it is everywhere assumed that God and man should be in all respects in harmonious relations, "at-one." Such is the ideal picture of Adam and Eve in Eden. Such is the assumption in the parable of the Prodigal Son; man ought to be at home with God, at peace in the Father's house (Lk 15). Such also is the ideal of Jesus as seen especially in Jn 14 through 17; compare particularly John 17:21; compare also Ephesians 2:11-22; 1 Corinthians 15:28 . This is quite possibly the underlying idea of all those offerings in which the priests
In the claim of the first-fruits of all crops, of all flocks and of all increase, God emphasized the common life in production; asserted His claim to the total life of His people and their products. God claimed the lives of all as belonging essentially to Himself and a man must recognize this by paying a ransom price (Exodus 30:12 ). This did not purchase for the man a right to his own life in separation from God, for it was in no sense an equivalent in value to the man's time. It the rather committed the man to living the common life with God, without which recognition the man was not fit to live at all. And the use of this recognition-money by the priests in the temple was regarded as placing the man who paid his money in a sort of continuous worshipful service in the tabernacle (or temple) itself (Ech 30:11-16).
2. The Breach in the Unity
In both Old Testament and New Testament the assumption of unity between God and man stands over against the contrasted fact that there is a radical breach in this unity. This breach is recognized in all God's relations to men; and even when healed it is always subject to new failures which must be provided for, by the daily oblations in the Old Testament, by the continuous intercession of the Christ (Hebrews 7:25; Hebrews 9:24 ) in the New Testament. Even when there is no conscious breach, man is taught to recognize that it may exist and he must avail himself of the appointed means for its healing, e.g. daily sacrifices. This breach is universally attributed to some behavior on man's part. This may be moral or ceremonial uncleanness on man's part. He may have broken with God fundamentally in character or conduct and so by committing sin have incurred guilt; or he may have neglected the fitting recognition that his life is in common with God and so by his disregard have incurred uncleanness. After the first breach between God and man it is always necessary that man shall approach God on the assumption that this breach needs healing, and so always come with an offering. In human nature the sin breach is rooted and universal (Romans 3:9-19; Romans 5:12-14 ).
3. Means for Expressing, Restoring and Maintaining
Numerous and various means were employed for expressing this essential unity of life, for restoring it since it was broken off in sin, and for maintaining it. These means were primarily spiritual and ethical but made extensive use of material substances, physical acts and symbolical ceremonials; and these tended always to obscure and supplant the spiritual and ethical qualities which it was their function to exhibit. The prophet came to the rescue of the spiritual and ethical and reached his highest insight and function in the doctrine of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh through whom God was to be united with a redeemed race (compare among many passages, Isaiah 49:1-7; Isaiah 66:18; Y 22:27ff).
Atonement is conceived in both Old Testament and New Testament as partly personal and partly social, extending to the universal conception. The acts and attitudes by which it is procured, restored and maintained are partly those of the individual alone (Y 51), partly those in which the individual secures the assistance of the priest or the priestly body, and partly such as the priest performs for the whole people on his own account. This involves the distinction that in Israel atonement was both personal and social, as also were both sin and uncleanness. Atonement was made for the group by the priest without specific participation by the people although they were, originally at least, to take cognizance of the fact and at the time. At all the great feasts, especially upon the DAY OF ATONEMENT (which see) the whole group was receptively to take conscious part in the work of atonement (Numbers 29:7-11 ).
The various sacrifices and offerings by means of which atonement was effected in the life and worship of Israel will be found to be discussed under the proper words and are to be spoken of here only summarily. The series of offerings, guilt-offerings, burnt-offerings, sin-offerings, peace-offerings, reveal a sense of the breach with God, a conviction of the sin making the breach and an ethical appreciation of the holiness of God entirely unique among religions of ancient or modern times, and this fact must never be overlooked in interpreting the New Testament Christian doctrine of the Atonement. In the Old Testament there are sins and sinful circumstances for which no atonement is possible. Many passages, indeed, almost seem to provide against atonement for any voluntary wrongdoing (e.g. Leviticus 4:2 , Leviticus 4:13 , Leviticus 4:22 , Leviticus 4:27; Leviticus 5:14 ). This is, no doubt, an extreme interpretation, out of harmony with the general spirit of the Old Testament, but it does show how seriously sin ought to be taken under the Old Testament régime. No atonement for murder could make possible the residence of the murderer again in that section of the land where the murder was done (Numbers 35:33 ), although the land was not by the murder rendered unfit for occupation by others. When Israel sinned in making the golden calf, God refused to accept any atonement (Exodus 32:20 ) until there had been a great loss of life from among the sinners. No repentance could find atonement for the refusal to follow Yahweh's lead at Kadesh-barnea (Numbers 14:20-25 ), and complete atonement was effected only when all the unbelieving generation had died in the wilderness (Numbers 26:65; Numbers 32:10 ); i.e. no atonement was possible, but the people died in that sin, outside the Land of Promise, although the sin was not allowed to cut off finally from Yahweh (Numbers 14:29 f).
Permanent uncleanness or confirmed disease of an unclean sort caused permanent separation from the temple and the people of Yahweh (e.g. Leviticus 7:20 f), and every uncleanness must be properly removed ( Leviticus 5:2; Leviticus 17:15; Leviticus 22:2-8; Deuteronomy 23:10 f). A house in which an unclean disease was found must be cleansed - have atonement made for it ( Leviticus 14:53 ), and in extreme cases must be utterly destroyed (Leviticus 14:43 ).
After childbirth (Leviticus 12:7 f) and in all cases of hemorrhage (compare Leviticus 15:30 ) atonement must be effected by prescribed offerings, a loss, diminution, or pollution of blood, wherein is the life, having been suffered. All this elaborate application of the principle of atonement shows the comprehensiveness with which it was sought by the religious teachers to impress the people with the unity of all life in the perfectly holy and majestic God whom they were called upon to serve. Not only must the priests be clean who bear the vessels of the Lord (Isaiah 52:11 ), but all the people must be clean also from all defilement of flesh and spirit, seeking perfect holiness in the fear of their God (compare 2 Corinthians 7:1 ).
III. The Atonement of Jesus Christ
1. Preparation for New Testament Doctrine
All the symbols, doctrine and examples of atonement in the Old Testament among the Hebrews find their counterpart, fulfillment and complete explanation in the new covenant in the blood of Jesus Christ (Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 12:24 ). By interpreting the inner spirit of the sacrificial system, by insisting on the unity and holiness of God, by passionate pleas for purity in the people, and especially by teaching the principle of vicarious suffering for sin, the Prophets laid the foundation in thought-forms and in religious atmosphere for such a doctrine of atonement as is presented in the life and teaching of Jesus and as is unfolded in the teaching of His apostles.
The personal, parabolic sufferings of Hosea, the remarkable elaboration of the redemption of spiritual Israel through a Suffering Servant of Yahweh and the extension of that redemption to all mankind as presented in Isa 40 through 66, and the same element in such psalms as Ps 22, constitute a key to the understanding of the work of the Christ that unifies the entire revelation of God's righteousness in passing over human sins (Romans 3:24 f). Yet it is remarkable that such a conception of the way of atonement was as far as possible from the general and average Jewish mind when Jesus came. In no sense can the New Testament doctrine of the Atonement be said to be the product of the thought and spirit of the times.
2. The One Clear Fact
However much theologians may disagree as to the rationale of the Atonement, there is, as there can be, no question that Jesus and all His interpreters in the New Testament represent the Atonement between God and men as somehow accomplished through Jesus Christ. It is also an agreed fact in exegesis that Jesus and His apostles understood His death to be radically connected with this Atonement.
(1) Jesus Himself teaches that He has come to reveal the Father (John 14:9 ), to recover the lost (Luke 19:10 ), to give life to men (John 6:33; John 10:10 ), to disclose and establish the kingdom of heaven (or of God), gathering a few faithful followers through whom His work will be perpetuated (John 17:2; Matthew 16:13 ); that salvation, personal and social, is dependent upon His person (John 6:53; John 14:6 ). He cannot give full teaching concerning His death but He does clearly connect His sufferings with the salvation He seeks to give. He shows in Luke 4:16 and Luke 22:37 that He understands Isa 52 through 53 as realized in Himself; He is giving Himself (and His blood) a ransom for men ( Matthew 20:28; Matthew 26:26; compare 1 Corinthians 11:23 ). He was not a mere martyr but gave Himself up willingly, and voluntarily (John 10:17 f; Galatians 2:20 ), in accordance with the purpose of God (Acts 2:23 ), as the Redeemer of the world, and expected that by His lifting up all men would be drawn to Him (John 12:31-33 ). It is possible to explain the attention which the Evangelists give to the death of Jesus only by supposing that they are reflecting the importance which they recall Jesus Himself to have attached to His death.
(2) All the New Testament writers agree in making Jesus the center of their idea of the way of salvation and that His death is an essential element in His saving power. This they do by combining Old Testament teaching with the facts of the life and death of the Lord, confirming their conclusion by appeal to the Resurrection. Paul represents himself as holding the common doctrine of Christianity at the time, and from the beginning, when in 1 Corinthians 15:3 he sums up his teaching that salvation is secured through the death and resurrection of Jesus according to the Scriptures. Elsewhere ( Ephesians 2:16 , Ephesians 2:18; 1 Timothy 2:5; compare Acts 4:12 ) in all his writings he emfasizes his belief that Jesus Christ is the one Mediator between God and man, by the blood of His cross (Colossians 1:20; 1 Corinthians 2:2 ), removing the sin barrier between God and men. Peter, during the life of Jesus so full of the current Jewish notion that God accepted the Jews de facto , in his later ministry makes Jesus in His death the one way to God (Acts 4:12; 1 Peter 1:2 , 1 Peter 1:18 , 1 Peter 1:19; 1 Peter 2:21 , 1 Peter 2:24; 1 Peter 3:18 ).
John has this element so prominent in his Gospel that radical critical opinion questions its authorship partly on that account, while the epistles of John and the Revelation are, on the same ground, attributed to later Greek thought (compare 1 John 1:7; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 3:5; 1 John 4:10; Revelation 1:5; Revelation 5:9 ). The Epistle to the Hebrews finds in Jesus the fulfillment and extension of all the sacrificial system of Judaism and holds that the shedding of blood seems essential to the very idea of remission of sins (Hebrews 9:22; compare Hebrews 2:17; Hebrews 7:26 f; Hebrews 9:24-28 ).
3. How Shall We Understand the Atonement?
When we come to systematize the teaching concerning the Atonement we find, as in all doctrine, that definite system is not offered us in the New Testament, but all system, if it is to have any value for Christianity, must find its materials and principles in the New Testament. Proceeding in this way some features may be stated positively and finally, while others must be presented interrogatively, recognizing that interpretations may differ.
(1) An initial consideration is that the Atonement originates with God who "was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19 ), and whose love gave Jesus to redeem sinful men (John 3:16; Romans 5:8 , etc.). In all atonement in Old Testament and New Testament the initiative is of God who not only devises and reveals the way to reconciliation, but by means of angels, Prophets, priests and ultimately His only begotten Son applies the means of atonement and persuades men to accept the proffered reconciliation. Nothing in the speculation concerning the Atonement can be more false to its true nature than making a breach between God and His Christ in their attitude toward sinful men.
(2) It follows that atonement is fundamental in the nature of God in His relations to men, and that redemption is in the heart of God's dealing in history. The "Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:8 the King James Version and the English Revised Version; compare Revelation 5:5-7 ) is the interpreter of the seven-sealed book of God's providence in history. In Jesus we behold the Lamb of God taking away the sin of the world (John 1:29 ).
(3) The question will arise in the analysis of the doctrine: How does the death of Christ save us? No specific answer has ever been generally satisfactory. We have numerous theories of the Atonement. We have already intimated that the answer to this question will depend upon our idea of the nature of God, the nature of sin, the content of salvation, the nature of man, and our idea of Satan and evil spirits. We ought at once to dismiss all merely quantitative and commercial conceptions of exchange of merit. There is no longer any question that the doctrines of imputation, both of Adam's sin and of Christ's righteousness, were overwrought and applied by the early theologians with a fatal exclusiveness, without warrant in the Word of God. On the other hand no theory can hold much weight that presupposes that sin is a thing of light consequence in the nature of man and in the economy of God. Unless one is prepared to resist unto blood striving against sin (Hebrews 12:2-4 ), he cannot know the meaning of the Christ. Again, it may be said that the notion that the death of Christ is to be considered apart from His life, eternal and incarnate life, as the atoning work, is far too narrow to express the teaching of the Bible and far too shallow to meet the demands of an ethical conscience.
It would serve clearness if we reminded ourselves that the question of how in the Atonement may involve various elements. We may inquire: (a) for the ground on which God may righteously receive the sinner; (b) for the means by which God places the restoration within the reach of the sinner; (c) for the influence by which the sinner is persuaded to accept the reconciliation; (d) for the attitude or exercise of the sinner toward God in Christ wherein he actually enters the state of restored union with God. The various theories have seemed to be exclusive, or at least mutually antagonistic, largely because they have taken partial views of the whole subject and have emphasized some one feature of the whole content. All serious theories partly express the truth and all together are inadequate fully to declare how the Daystar from on high doth guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:79 ).
(4) Another question over which theologians have sorely vexed themselves and each other concerns the extent of the Atonement, whether it is available for all men or only for certain particular, elect ones. That controversy may now be passed by. It is no longer possible to read the Bible and suppose that God relates himself sympathetically with only a part of the race. All segregated passages of Scripture formerly employed in support of such a view have now taken their place in the progressive self-interpretation of God to men through Christ who is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2 ). No man cometh unto the Father but by Him (John 14:6 ): but whosoever does thus call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21 ). See also ATONEMENT ,
In the vast literature on this subject the following is suggested: Articles by Orr in
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Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Atonement'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/isb/a/atonement.html. 1915.