Atonement by Redemption in Romans 3

Let's put a few nails in the coffin of Latin atonement, shall we?

We get ourselves into so much trouble because of a single word: hilasterion. "Expiation" vs. "propitiation" vs. "mercy seat" ... all of which are mistakes that cause us to lose sight of what Paul is actually doing. And so, to get at what is really going on in Romans 3:21-26 (Paul's key insight and the ground of Romans 5-8), it's going to take a deep, context- and syntax-attentive look at the Greek text -- not its Latin or Hebrew interpretations.

I'm inspired to do this because of James Dunn's translation of the relevant text, Romans 3:24-25, from The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 213:
They are justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God presented as an expiation (through faith) in his blood, to demonstrate his righteousness in passing over (paresin) the sins committed in former times, in the forbearance of God, to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, that he might be just and the one who justifies him who believes in Jesus.
And, for comparison, the translation in the NET Bible:
But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus' faithfulness.
We've taken the reasonably unique term, hilasterion, and made from it either an object reference -- the kapporeth or "mercy seat" as a component of the Temple sanctuary in a Priestly context -- or a function reference, whether expiatory or propitiatory, in explaining the doctrine of the atonement. Dunn does both, importing the entire Jerusalem Temple cultic apparatus in order to discuss sacrificial compensation for sin; the overwhelming majority of modern Protestantism merely does the latter. I propose that it's none of these things, though it is still an object reference rather than a function reference. But the only way to get to that is to go through the Greek of this passage in the context Paul establishes in Romans -- not the context common to 4 Maccabees and Hebrews in their usage of hilasterion as a LXX gloss for the Hebrew cultic term, or the context common to English reliance on the Vulgate's gloss, propitiatorium.

So let's start with how we get to 3:21-26. Paul has set the baited hook in 1:18-32, and his faithful Gentile audience has taken it and been corrected in chapter 2. The new definition of their Judean identity has been asserted: righteousness has its external basis in God, but its personal ground is interior, not exterior. Doing Torah means doing justice, but doing justice does not mean doing Torah, let alone being circumcised. Justice does not depend either on Abraham or Moses.

So we enter chapter 3 in explicit diatribe, with the audience wondering what good it is to become Judean, if identity doesn't confer an advantage in God's judgment. And so Paul walks his audience stepwise to the understanding of what Israel's value is -- what they have been entrusted with -- and the fact that it doesn't change the reality of sin and the function of Torah. And this reality is summed up in two ways: first poetically in terms of the reality of sin in 3:10-18, and then prosaically in terms of the value of Torah in 3:19-20.

Let's tackle the prose summary:
οἴδαμεν δὲ ὅτι ὅσα ὁ νόμος λέγει τοῖς ἐν τῷ νόμῳ λαλεῖ

"Now we know that whatever Torah says, it speaks to those who are in Torah,"

ἵνα πᾶν στόμα φραγῇ καὶ ὑπόδικος γένηται πᾶς ὁ κόσμος τῷ θεῷ·

"so that every mouth should be stopped, and the whole world should become liable to God."

διότι ἐξ ἔργων νόμου οὐ δικαιωθήσεται πᾶσα σὰρξ ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ,

"Wherefore nobody will be justified in God's sight by deeds of Torah,"

διὰ γὰρ νόμου ἐπίγνωσις ἁμαρτίας.

"for recognition of sin derives from Torah."
And indeed, this is what Torah does, and what systems like the Mishnah, built on Moses, also do. They are a way of life before God, consisting of instruction. At root, a system of things to do and things not to do, with commentary, extrapolation and interpretation built upon it. Torah is not the value of being Judean -- it is not the value of being the people of God. God is that value! Torah is rather the measuring and boundary-ruling of a particular path before God. And yet it is a path and a way of life before God of those who are already saved and justified by God. No one is made righteous before God by following rules -- one is only made peculiar before one's fellow people. One is made aware of sin defined by rules.

Consider monastic orders. "The Nun's Story" was on recently, and it always stirs conflict in my deeply Lutheran soul. I admire many aspects of the disciplined lives of the religious. And yet I do not admire or seek to emulate most aspects of their discipline! Consider: the order calls sin things that are not sin -- except for those who have sworn their lives to a rule of life before God. Talking during the Grand Silence, for an oft-repeated cinematic example. And as they say in the movie, "you can very easily cheat us, your sisters, but you cannot cheat yourself, or God." But whatever the order tells you, obedience to a Rule does not make you righteous before God. It makes you disciplined, it makes you peculiar, it defines the shape of your life -- but that shape is entirely voluntary and optional. A Rule defines a community, and you may be excluded from that community by your disobedience to it. A Rule might possibly make you more just with respect to your fellow creatures, though this is certainly not a necessary or even likely outcome of monastic discipline itself. (Prayer, in the best of cases, has more to do with it.) The religious are as prone to sin, if in different patterns of just and unjust behaviors, as every other way of life on earth. What the Rule of their common life does, is teach the recognition of sin, epignosis hamartias. It creates consciousness of liability to God in those subject to it. It does not justify -- only God does that.

So we get what Torah does, and what it is for as a rule of common life for a particular uncommon people. Now Paul departs from the discussion of Torah in order to explain the means of God's justice and justification, the dikaiosune theou:
Νυνὶ δὲ χωρὶς νόμου δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ πεφανέρωται,

"But now, separately from Torah, God has manifested God's justice," (divine passive)

μαρτυρουμένη ὑπὸ τοῦ νόμου καὶ τῶν προφητῶν,

"which is attested by Torah and the prophets;"

δικαιοσύνη δὲ θεοῦ διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, εἰς πάντας τοὺς πιστεύοντας·

"the justice of God wholly by means of the trust of Jesus Christ, to all of those who trust."
There's a lot here, and this is only the opening colon. First, Paul makes it clear to the audience that this is not a discussion connected to the prior discussion of the role of Torah. He does it in two ways. First, with the opening particles nuni de. Nun de introduces a disjunctive state of affairs from what precedes it. It marks a new topic, not precisely contradictory to the old, but more presently relevant. It's a "back on topic" marker. And second, Paul follows it immediately with chōris nomou, which signals the disconnect of the new topic, dikaiosune theou, from the prior topic, nomos. Chōris is a spatial word. It refers to separation, the distance between places. The chōra is the countryside surrounding a polis, the space in which that place is. It's the word you'd use to talk about the room in which you arranged furniture -- or even about the empty room itself. Now, we usually say "apart from law" here, which carries an unpleasant connotation of contradiction. (The Protestant Reformation might also have something to do with that.) But what is being revealed here is not God's justice anti nomou, opposed to Torah, but simply chōris nomou, separate from it. This adjacency doesn't imply conflict, even though Paul induces conflict for the sake of the confused audience, in order to clearly distinguish these two notions of rule and justice from one another. God's justice stands over every rule of life.

And we are talking now about God's justice as faneros: manifest, shown, apparent. As "having been manifested," in the divine passive, because God is the one who makes it appear. And that is the guiding verb of this entire colon, speaking about how God has made divine justice manifest. We don't always take it that way -- the second half frequently stands on its own, which leads to discussions of what kind of genitive the pistis Christou is, and the insertion of another verb like "coming to all those that trust" to fill out the second half. I don't happen to believe in the objective genitive anyways, but realizing that the governing verb here is still faneroō means I don't have to. God's justice is witnessed and attested by Torah and the prophets, but it is fully shown (using dia with the genitive to express means here) in the trust of Jesus Christ. And in Jesus' trust in the God who alone is just and alone justifies, God's justice appears to all those who trust in God.

And now that we have principles for understanding Torah as a rule of life and recognizing God's justice, Paul begins to explain why these are to be distinguished from each other:
οὐ γάρ ἐστιν διαστολή·

"For there is no distinguishing mark;"

πάντες γὰρ ἥμαρτον καὶ ὑστεροῦνται τῆς δόξης τοῦ θεοῦ,

"indeed, all sinned and are lacking the glory of God,"

δικαιούμενοι δωρεὰν τῇ αὐτοῦ χάριτι διὰ τῆς ἀπολυτρώσεως τῆς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ·

"being justified gratuitously by God's grace through redemption in Christ Jesus."
So Paul now places his entire audience -- native-born Judeans, faithful Gentiles, and the entire world of converts yet to be made -- into the same boat. There is no distinction to be made between them when it comes to God's perfectly equitable judgment, as we heard in chapter 2. No people or way of life is exempt -- they're not even distinguishable before God. Nothing sets one apart from the rest in judgment, since all have already sinned, and all presently lack God's glory. But nothing sets them apart from one another in the face of God's justice, either -- all are being justified as a pure gift, a pure act of God to which one can only respond. And the nature of that justifying act of God is "redemption" -- the release of captives on payment of a ransom. And the means of this ransom is Jesus Christ.

And finally, now that we understand the context, we come to the problem in the relative clause that describes this redemption in Jesus Christ.
ὃν προέθετο ὁ θεὸς ἱλαστήριον διὰ πίστεως ἐν τῷ αὐτοῦ αἵματι

"Which hilasterion God advanced through trust in his blood"

εἰς ἔνδειξιν τῆς δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ διὰ τὴν πάρεσιν τῶν προγεγονότων ἁμαρτημάτων ἐν τῇ ἀνοχῇ τοῦ θεοῦ,

"for a proof/demonstration of his justice through the release of pre-existing sins by divine relent,"

πρὸς τὴν ἔνδειξιν τῆς δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ νῦν καιρῷ,

"toward the proof/demonstration of his justice in the current season,"

εἰς τὸ εἶναι αὐτὸν δίκαιον καὶ δικαιοῦντα τὸν ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ.

"in order to be himself just, and the justifier of the one who shares Jesus' trust."
So now we come to that word: hilasterion. And before we get to lexical definitions, let's look at what the context suggests. First, we're in a relative clause beginning with the relative pronoun hon. That relative "which" depends back on an object -- in this case most likely "the redemption in Jesus Christ." And yet it's an ambiguous declension, because hon could be masculine singular accusative, neutral singular nominative, or neutral singular accusative. I think we can agree that in this context it isn't nominative. And it can't agree with "redemption," which is feminine, so we usually take it to agree with "Jesus Christ," which is masculine, making it masculine singular accusative. But then we also usually import words like "as" to deal with hilasterion, which makes us say that Jesus was offered as a something-or-other, making hilasterion an analogue to Christ. The problem with that is that the phrase does not read ὡς ἱλαστήριον.

But the relative pronoun doesn't have to agree backward. It only has to refer backward. In fact, since it's obviously accusative, we have a second accusative for it to agree with: that pesky word hilasterion itself. Here we have a match -- two neutral singular accusatives in apposition. And the audience is going to hear the rhyme of accusative on endings and associate this aurally. In this case, reference remains back to the whole object of the relative pronoun, the whole prepositional object of dia in the prior colon: "the redemption in Jesus Christ." But now hilasterion refers back to it descriptively through the relative pronoun. Hilasterion describes the redemption achieved in Jesus Christ, and the verb tells us that it is what God has set forth, proffered, or advanced -- an offering or a price. And this hilasterical redemption happens through trust in Jesus' blood.

What does the hilasterion do? We have three clauses that suggest purpose, and the thrust of them is that it demonstrates God's justice. The first is the immediate function: the indication of God's justice in the release of pre-existing sins. This is what happens in the death of Jesus. The second follows from it: the indication that God is just now, right now, in the season of time that follows from this inaugural event, because it has happened. And the third expresses God's goal with respect to these indications: that God should be seen and understood to be both properly just in Godself, and functionally just in the justifying of those who trust in God. In vindication, if we want another word for it because "justification" is overloaded. But we must understand here that the hilasterion is an object -- it indicates, it signifies, it points back to God's agentic action. It does nothing else in itself.

So: "expiation" -- is this a good word? What does it actually mean? Don't say "atone" as though it were an answer! "Atone" is a made-up English word that has no footing in the original context. It doesn't explain how. No; "expiate" comes from the Latin pio, which has the same goal as all piety in the classical world: appeasement. It may be celebratory, eucharistic, purifying, compensating, any number of things, but the basic reference is to a sacrifice that satisfies the deity. And expio gets specific: expiation is done to repair a breach between the worshiper and the deity. To avenge a wrong and avert evil. To not fall foul of the god's judgment and so receive the penalty for injustice.

How about "propitiate"? What does it mean? "Propitiate" comes from the Latin propitio, which means to make a person or situation propitious with respect to something -- to make favorable, or again, to appease as a means of doing so. To make the god pleasantly inclined toward you and yours. A happy deity is a gracious deity.

Ah, paganism. So we have here two Latin glosses that derive from the practice of appeasing a deity in order to secure a favorable result. Is this what's going on in Romans? Who is the agent of expiation or propitiation? The agent is a human acting to compensate a deity. Who is the agent of Romans 3:25-26? God. God is the subject of protithemi, and the hilasterion is the direct object of the verb. To whom is God offering sacrifice? To whom has God offered the blood of Jesus, in order to secure a favorable outcome from that higher authority?

You see we've run into incoherency here. Typically the English usage of "whom God put forth as as a hilasterion" attempts to escape into some sort of argument whereby God has set Jesus up as the means of our propitiation or expiation before God, or as the cultic place of our expiatory or propitiatory act before God. A replacement of the old sacrificial system with a new one in Christ, whereby we make God happy. Which is also frequently bound up in supersessionist nonsense that has no place in Paul -- as though the Temple system had failed, but we have a better such system in Christ, which will guarantee our acceptance. But even without such egregious violations of context, the base notions of propitiation and expiation involve human action in a passage in which only God is acting. And Dunn shows us how this notion is bound up into the Hebrew kapporeth as well, into the covering of the ark of the covenant, upon which the angels sit, on whom God is enthroned. This context drives us straight back into sacrificial cultus and human action before God.

That's not to say that we don't have Hebrew scriptural contexts in which God provides our means of sacrificial offering. The Joel portion for Ash Wednesday invokes priestly action before God in the hopes that God will relent, and leave behind such means of sustenance and life as can be properly offered back to God. And the easiest locus for me to recall is the ram God provided father Abraham in place of his son Isaac. These echo the normal context -- which is that we offer to God what God has given us, so that we may safely enjoy the remainder and ensure that provision continues. And therefore God is seen to set before us the means of sacrifice.

But is this a justifiable Christological idea? Surely we do have a traditional notion of Christ as a sacrifice -- but this context would suggest that God provided Jesus as the intentional means of our just sacrificial recompense. That the purpose of the incarnation was for us to have the ultimate sacrificial animal in order that we could make the ultimate sacrifice before God and receive the ultimate forgiveness of our sins. That we were in fact right to crucify Jesus, because that's what God made him for. And again, we're the ones making ourselves right with God -- God just gives us the acceptable way to do it.

The answer is no. The logic of God's justice here is that of judgment and punishment -- punishment that can be averted by sacrifice, but just punishment nonetheless. How could God's justice be shown in Christ apart from the judgment according to deeds, as Paul insists that it is, in a context in which God's justice is bound to judgment and punishment? How is the release of pre-existing sin just in such a context? If Jesus is the sacrifice that permits God to forgive our sins, that's one way of calling it justice -- that's Anselmian Latin atonement, with all the absurdity of God offering Godself to Godself as payment for sin and appeasement of wrath. It is not just that God pays off Godself and we do nothing. That doesn't answer the sacrificial penal system with anything but an aporia.

So if God put forward Jesus as a hilasterion, and therefore God is the agent of offering, we find ourselves in a context in which sacrifice is not a sensible context for this word. And perhaps we have a root problem in how we consider Jesus' death to be the subject here. We certainly have the noun haima, "blood," in the passage. We have six Pauline uses of this word: two in Romans, three in 1 Corinthians, and one in Galatians. In Galatians 1 it's a metaphor for human beings, "flesh and blood," but in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11 it is consistently a eucharistic reference to the blood of Christ as a sharing in and proclamation of Christ's death. In both Romans 3:25 and 5:9 we have the same basic dative phrase, en tō haimati autou, and it refers to the death of Jesus. Why should we import a Priestly, Temple cult context into our Pharisaic apostle's discourse with Gentile converts in a diaspora community in the heart of the pagan empire? Why import Temple cultus alien to both Rome and Paul's writings when we have a perfectly accessible Pauline referent to the blood of Christ in the eucharistic meal?

This provides a context in which our trust in Christ's death aligns with the trust in God by which Jesus was willing to follow the messianic path right through death and out the other side in the resurrection. And if Christ is the means of our redemption, as Paul affirms, the means by which we have been bought and paid for out of the service of sin and death, then our trust in his blood stands in for the price of redemption. It is our acceptance of a place in the service of God as people who have been bought and paid for. The death of Christ is not the accomplishment of the release of our sins, but the proof of it. It is not the justification of God, but the proof of God's existing justice. And it is this because the death of Christ is not an end in itself -- it is itself ended in the resurrection, the demonstration of our hope. We are ton ek pisteōs Iesou, those fathered by adoption in our baptism out of Jesus' trust in God, those who share in that trust in God and will receive its rewards.

So: hilasterion. What is its lexical meaning? The Latins weren't far wrong; it derives from hileōs, "propitious" or "gracious," and the locative suffix -terion. Just as a monastery is a place of solitude, and a baptistery is a place of bathing, the hilasterion is the location of grace. It is, in the God-given context, the place where one receives grace and favor -- in our case, with no appeasement required.