The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Commentary on NT usage of "atone"/"reconcile" (JRP)

Over in another thread, the topic of the meaning of ‘atonement’ has come up again, this time including the meaning of the term ‘propitiation’ (along with variations of each term, of course.)

After writing up an analysis on how authors in the canonical New Testament use the terms, I decided it might be best to post each example that I’ve found so far as discreet entries in a new topical thread, with a summary consideration of the material (so far) at the end. Although if further examples are found, they can be added easily to the analytical list this way with new entries.

This seemed the best forum for putting the commentary, as it isn’t primarily about universalism per se (though the relation to that topic will be discussed along the way), and is a little more focused than “biblical theology” (though this is certainly a scriptural analysis, not a metaphysical one.) “Christology” would have been appropriate, too, since this is certainly about “the person and work of Christ”, but this is about Christ’s person and work in salvation.

So, “soteriology” it is. :wink:

I’ve already done the entries for analyzing NT uses of the term we translate “propitiation”, as far as I can find; that thread can be reached from this link.

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The Greek term {katallaso_}, and its cognates, is typically translated in English as ‘atone’, ‘atonement’, ‘atoning’, ‘reconciliation’, ‘reconcile’, and similar variations: words rather more familiar-sounding to English audiences than ‘propitiate’.

They refer to the same word (with grammatic suffixes and prefixes) in Greek, though; so for convenience, and since English audiences today don’t read “atonement” as ‘at-one-ment’ anymore (which is what the English translators who coined the term were trying to say) but as ‘a-tone-ment’ (which means nothing obvious), I will usually translate the term as ‘reconcile’ afterward.

So, how do NT authors use the term {katallaso_} and cognates? Fortunately, this is somewhat easier to go through than how they use the Greek term translated “propitiate”, because not as many cultural contexts have to be kept in mind. This analysis, consequently, works very well as a sequel to that analysis, for reasons which will (hopefully) become obvious if that thread is read first.

Jew and Gentile are reconciled to God in one body – Eph 2:16 (plus surrounding contexts).

God is doing the reconciling (through Christ); the sinners, Jew and Gentile both, are the primary object of the action. (The sinners are reconciled by God to God and, in God, are also thereby reconciled to each other.) In this example, no action of the sinners themselves is in view (St. Paul’s focus being that this is God’s gracious gift and mighty achievement in Christ, which did not require any works of theirs to merit.)

This is an unusually emphatic form of the word, in Greek.

In Christ, the whole fulness (of deity) delights to dwell and to reconcile all into Him, through Him, making peace through the blood of His cross – Col 1:20.

God is doing the reconciling and the peacemaking; the object and receiver of the reconciliation are, corporately, everything else, whether things in the heavens or things on the earth.

(The same unusually emphatic form of the word is used as in the previous example; the following verse uses the same form, too.)

St. Paul’s congregation, being once estranged and enemies in comprehension by evil acts, are now being reconciled [a verb form of ongoing process, by the way] by Christ’s body of flesh, through His death, to present them holy and flawless and unimpeachable in His sight – Col 1:21.

God is, by implication (especially in context with the previous verse), doing the reconciling; sinners are the object and receivers of the reconciliation (thus probably sinners in the heavens or on the earth are implied back in the previous verse, too).

The congregation is exhorted to keep persisting in the faith later, though, and not to be seduced away; an exhortation that would make no sense unless they had a choice about this and unless choosing wrongly (to submit to the seduction) would return them again to being “estranged and enemies in comprehension by wicked acts”. Consequently, while God is the primary actor of the reconciliation, some secondary and responsive action from the audience is implied to have occurred and to keep on occuring, not only in order to maintain the peace (and thus the reconciliation) between them and God but to have achieved that peace in some sense, too.

Christ, through partaking of the same death of blood and flesh as the little children (of God), is reconciling those whoever, in fear of death, were through their whole life liable to slavery – Heb 2:15.

This is an unusual variant of the word in Greek; in some texts it is amended by copyists to match the more usual form. Christ is the doer of the reconciliation; sinners are the object and receiver of Christ’s action.

Most subsequent examples of the term, use the most usual form of the word found in the NT, by the way.

If, being enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, how much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved in His life! And not only this, but we are also glorying in God, through our Lord, Jesus Christ, through Whom we have now obtained the conciliation – Rom 5:10-11.

Christ is the doer of the reconciliation; sinners are the object and the receiver of the reconciliation. The reconciliation is presented both as an accomplished fact and as something still occuring. This time, St. Paul doesn’t mention or imply any action by the sinner, only by Christ.

If the casting away of the Jews is the reconciliation of the world, what will their taking back be if not life from the dead? – Rom 11:15.

By context, it is the Jews who are casting away Christ which, by their contribution in doing so, leads to the reconciliation of the world; by context again, they are the ones going back to Christ again.

The larger contexts of this chapter, of course, indicate that God is the one doing the reconciling of both Jews and Gentiles, to each other and to Himself (including the One Who is authoritatively and dynamically grafting people, whether Jews or Gentiles, into, out of, and back into the promises to Israel.) But here, the choices of the sinners are focused on. And again, it is sinners who are the object and receiver of atonement/reconciliation. Not God. (Nor is God the receiver and object of the atonement in the larger context, although as noted He is the one reconciling sinners.)

A wife is not to be separated from her husband. Yet if she should be separated, let her also remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to leave his wife. – 1 Cor 7:11.

This is the only use of the term in the NT which does not have a relationship with God in immediate view; nor does St. Paul here specifically identify which of the persons is the one sinning against the other person.

If the principle behind what Paul calls a command from the Lord has analogies to God’s relationship with His chosen but adulterous beloved, though, the analogy would be that God never abandons His bride, even if His bride abandons Him; and that there is no legitimate marriage (as religious analogy) to a ‘husband’ other than God; and the sinner is thus, once again, the object and receiver of the action of reconciliation: let the sinner (adulterous wife) be reconciled to God (the ever-faithful husband).

But to be fair, as this analogy is not explicitly invited, it may not be intended either.

This next example is important for several reasons, not least because it’s the only time the term is used by Jesus Himself in dialogue!

“First be reconciled toward your brother, and then, coming, be offering your approach-present.” – Mt 5:24.

This use of the term is a little different than usual in the NT, as it features the prefix ‘through’ instead of ‘down-from’. But it is still the sinful man, who has sinned against his brother (as well as God), who is exhorted to be reconciled. Indeed the gist of Jesus’ warning here is that God will not accept the offering of the man who will not be reconciled toward his brother (by God, is the grammatic implication–the man is not the one primarily doing the reconciliation). God is doing the reconciling of the brothers; the sinner is receiving the reconciliation; and he has a choice to receive that reconciliation from God or not. (Otherwise the exhortation to be reconciled would be pointless.)

The responsibility of the sinner to contribute to this result, is emphasized in the immediately following pericope (5:25-26), which expresses the very same idea and basic situation using an analogy of going with one’s opponent to court (instead of to Temple to sacrifice an offering). The verb here is “You be making happy”, (“Be humoring * your opponent quickly while you are on the way!”–lest the judge throw you into jail and torment.) The parallel re-statement of this warning, in a different scene of GosLuke later (12:58-59), even more strongly emphasizes the personal responsibility of the sinner with the simple verb “Take action!” (“As you are going away with your opponent to the judge, take action on the way to be cleared from him!”–lest the judge rule against you and you be sent by the judge into jail and torment.)

The judge is still the one with highest authority, of course–that’s part of the whole point–but in this Matt/Luke parable, the sinner’s responsibility in making peace and reconciling with the one he has sinned against is totally emphasized; the judge’s action in making peace between them is not in view.*

I’ve saved this scriptural quote as the grand finale:

“Now, the all is out of God, Who reconciles us to Himself through Christ, and is giving us the dispensation of the reconciliation: how that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not reckoning their offenses to them, and placing in us the word of the reconciliation. For Christ, then, we are ambassadors, as of God exhorting through us. We are pleading, for Christ’s sake: ‘Be reconciled to God!!’” – 2 Cor 5:18-20.

God is the one doing the reconciliation; the sinner is the object and receiver of the reconciliation; the sinner has some personal responsibility, too, in being reconciled to God, even though God is the primary doer of the reconciliation; which is why we are being sent out as ambassadors, not only with with news that God is reconciling all the world to Himself, but to join God in pleading and exhorting sinners to receive the grace of God (and not to receive this grace of God for nothing, 6:1.)

These are all the uses of the term and its close cognates that I can find so far in the NT. (I don’t have good sources yet for easily finding uses of the term in the Greek OT nor the Hebrew term(s) which it is translating.) If there are other uses, I will be certainly glad to account them in.

In most cases, God is the one in view as primarily doing the reconciliation. (Sometimes ‘Christ’, but usually God and usually through Christ.) God (and/or Christ) is always the one in view as primarily doing the reconciliation, when the topic is reconciliation of sinners with God. In at least one case, God is not in view when the topic is reconciliation of sinners with human victims of sin, but usually God is in view as the primary doer of the reconciliation between human opponents, too. Sometimes the scriptures recognize that sinners have a secondary but important responsibility in accepting the reconciliation, without which the reconciliation will in some way not be complete. The reconciliation is sometimes presented as having already been completed, sometime presented as still going on, and sometimes presented as a hope or certainty to happen in the future.

The object and receiver of the reconciliation (I will emphasize) is always the sinner. The object and receiver of the reconciliation is never God. God is never presented as being reconciled to us, by the action of Christ or anyone else. God is always presented as the doer of the reconciliation, with sinners being reconciled to God: never (I repeat) God being reconciled to sinners.

Again, if anyone can find other uses of {katallasso_} or cognates in the NT ({diallasso_} and {apokatallasso_} are the two variations I’ve found so far, reported above), I’ll be glad to include them in the tally. I’m curious about how the term (and its underlying Hebrew) is used in the OT, too.

I think I can safely say, however, that most of the time (at least) in the NT, the term is used in the way I’ve summarized.

Reconciliation is, by definition, a two-way street. If not, it’s a power play. It’s the only aspect of the atonement that our reaction comes into play - assuming we understand it. Christ died, only sinners die. Christ is God. What kind of God would do that? Now, wrap your mind around that - and you have OUR reconciliation.

Who came up with this ‘UR’ (universal reconciliation) term anyway? It’s weak, but easy on the ego.

The last thing the ego wants to hear is “You didn’t add jack to the atonement of God, except for your sin.”

Obviously I agree, or I wouldn’t routinely stress the importance of repentance, too. :slight_smile: Similarly, as I noted, the scriptures quoted above do also sometimes mention the importance of the sinner’s personal contribution to the completion of the reconciliation.

Nevertheless: what I wrote, to which you were replying there, is also strictly true regarding the scriptural data. Insofar as that term is used in the New Testament, the object and receiver of the reconciliation (also known as “at-onement”, an English term coined for translation purposes) is always the sinner. The object and receiver of the atonement is never God. God is never once in the NT presented as being atoned to us, by the action of Christ or anyone else. God (including as Christ) is always presented as the doer of the atonement, with sinners being atoned to God (and to and with each other, too) by God.

The responsibility of the sinner in atoning with the one sinned against, is mentioned too; but the term is never used as an operative verb or description concerning the one who was sinned against receiving the action. (Not so far as I’ve been able to find with my sources yet, anyway.)

You have God reconciling / atoning us thereby, yes. I agree; as do the scriptures. Not Christ atoning / reconciling God. You may have (should have) noticed a distinct lack of this in how the authors (mostly Paul) use the term. :wink:

You did read the refs I bothered to hunt up and list, right? I would hate to think I spent all that time for nothing. :slight_smile:

I never use the term myself, incidentally. But I notice that it fits well enough with the scriptural usage of the term, as found and reported: God reconciles sinners to Himself.

Let me add, to be fair, that a consideration of how NT authors use this term (and the term we translate ‘propitiate’), need not necessarily be exhaustive in establishing (from the standpoint of exegetical theology) how the concept should be treated in our theology (whether in principle and in practice). The notion that God needed atoning and propitiating instead of us (whether primarily so or exclusively so), and that ‘Christ’ was the one who atoned and propitiated ‘God’ for us, might perhaps be read out of other scriptural testimony and thence back into these scriptures.

I do want to point out, though, that this would still involve reading these scriptures very much bass-ackward from the way which they are constantly written; which, while perhaps not clinching against the doctrine’s truth, can only be a strong exegetical difficulty. If possible, a systematic theology that doesn’t require reading these verses completely backward from their compositional logic, would be preferable. :slight_smile:

And I think it’s possible to have such a systematic (as well as metaphysical) theology–one that doesn’t have to read the meaning of all these scriptures completely backward; one that recognizes the importance of repentance by sinners (as the scriptures do) while also emphasizing the utter authoritative and hierarchical primacy of God’s action in atoning with sinners (as, again, the scriptures also do); and one that recognizes and emphasizes the unity of the intentions of the Father and the Son, personally, in God’s action to save sinners from sin, without tacitly or explicitly requiring some kind of schism between the Father and the Son: a schism that would have catastrophic theological implications, not only against orthodox trinitarian theology, but against pretty much every other Christological variant, too (as I recently noted back in the thread which this analytical series derived from.)