This was an assignment I wrote in a Pauline Theology class. The class was specifically an introduction to the “New Perspective on Paul”. Unfortunately, I can’t find the syllabus now, so I don’t know what the parameters were for this paper. Reading it though, it obviously was some sort of response to the chapters concerning atonement in the textbooks that we used, James Dunn’s The Theology of Paul the Apostle and the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (The chapter on Atonement was written by James Green).
Dr. Terry Donaldson
14 November 2012
It would seem that whether or not Romans 3:25 can be seen as supporting a “penal substitutionary” view of Jesus Christ’s salvation hinges on whether you translate hilasterion as “propitiation” or “expiation”. According to Dunn, “expiation”, simply meaning the removal of sin, is the correct term while “propitiation”, which carries the connotation of appeasing God, is problematic (Dunn, 213-214). This would seem to place Dunn firmly against penal substitution as the view of salvation.
Dunn makes his argument based on the Septuagint’s use of the word hilasterion, as the lid of the ark (Ibid, 213). He takes this line of argument further by showing the usage of the Hebrew verb. He writes: “In Hebrew usage God is never the object of the key verb (kipper). Properly speaking, in the Israelite cult, God is never ‘propitiated’ or ‘appeased.’ The objective of the atoning act is rather the removal of sin” (Ibid, 214). As such, the issue at hand is whether God is the one acting for the purpose of our salvation or he is acted upon. To be sure, Dunn explains further: “Of course, the atoning act thus removes the sin which provoked God’s wrath, but it does so by acting on the sin rather than on God” (Ibid). Certainly, Dunn’s argument that sin was taken away (expiated) by the blood of Jesus Christ as the semantic meaning of Romans 3:25 is quite convincing. But as per his own admission in that previous quote (though not quite saying it outright), the effect of this taking away of sin is that God is appeased through this action (propitiated).
I believe this reason that Green writes in the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters that “Paul seems never to tire of adding new images to his interpretive vocabulary by way of explicating its significance” (DPL, 203). Most relevant to the argument at hand is that Green adds another category for the effect of Jesus Christ’s salvation, reconciliation, which he actually places against expiation and propitiation as a competing view, relating these terms of the ideas of satisfaction and doctrines of substitution (Ibid). Again, though, Green’s argument is relevant because it acknowledges the plurality with which Paul speaks about effects and benefits of the cross. As Green writes: “it is important that we come to terms with the more fundamental reality that Paul has no one way of explicating the meaning of the cross” (Ibid, 204).
Certainly, when we look at the many ways (several dozen, according to Green) which Paul uses to explain the significance and benefit of the death of Christ, this becomes the case. Dunn’s view of atoning sacrifice in the tradition of the Israelite cult is seen in passages such as Romans 8:3, 2 Corinthians 5:21, and passages that use the phrase “in/through his blood” in addition to Romans 3:25 (Dunn, 216-217). Colossians 2:13-14 gives a great middle point view, without even using the words propitiation or expiation, for the penal substitutionary model and Dunn’s sacrifice model, speaking about God’s work to cancel out the legal demands against us: “ God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” (NRSV)
In addition to these passages, Green examines two passages which contain layers of imagery used to explicate Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. In these two passages, 2 Corinthians 5:14-6:2 and Galatians 3:10-14, Green finds the categories of vicarious substitution, representation, sacrifice, justification, forgiveness and new creation (DPL, 204). Most appealing about Green’s argument is how he takes into account the context of the passage for explaining why Paul might have used this particular imagery for the cross. For example, while covering reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5, Green writes: “Paul’s choice of terminology and logic of argumentation is tailored to its context, for here Paul not only needs to counter the triumphalistic boasting of his opponents at Corinth but also to overcome the disharmony between himself and his ‘children’ at Corinth. Rooting the message of reconciliation fundamentally in the sacrificial death of Jesus and asserting that reconciliation entails living no longer for oneself but for Christ (and thus for others), he addresses his first aim” (Ibid). It is clear, then, that Paul not only had theological aims in his pursuit of explicating the significance of Christ’s death, but a very real pastoral concern in doing so. Indeed, this could very well be reason why Paul uses such a plurality of imagery, and why it is so difficult to settle on just one.
In conclusion, I believe that Dunn’s argument that Romans 3:25 supports a sacrificial view of the cross in the same tradition as Old Testament sacrifices is an accurate explanation of the passage. However, I don’t believe that it should be used as evidence that the sacrificial view is the only explanation for the cross. I prefer Green’s treatment of multiple passages in DPL, which allows for multiple views of the cross, as well it should because Paul used multiple images for explicating the cross. I think Paul did so in order to address the pastoral concerns of the congregations he was writing to, concerns which could most effectively addressed by a plurality of implications for Christ’s death on the cross.