Willis Elliott on Atonement vs. Reconciliation


My friend and Confessing Christ co-conspirator Willis Elliot, who is a polymath, Biblical language scholar, churchman, provocateur, nonagenarian, and a long-time interlocutor, is the guest poster today.

I asked, somewhat rhetorically, in an earlier post why so many in the church like the word reconciliation, but do not like the word atonement, even though they translate the same Greek word (Katallage)?  My answer was that reconciliation is something that we need to do, and atonement is something only God does, and that we tend to prefer the things we have control over rather over the work of God in Christ, not that they are in any way unrelated.

Willis’ response (on the Confessing Christ Open Discussion), as per usual, was thick with insightful word study, and is not for the faint of heart.  But you atonement scholars and fans who visit this blog, and you know who you are, will find his insights useful.
Willis writes:

“ON TARGET, man!  “Reconciliation is something that we need to do, and atonement is something only God does.”

Katallage – the word you mention as for both – had, as its street-meaning, money-exchange. No matter how high & wide a plant grows, it never loses the reality of its SOIL: no matter how diversified the meanings of a word (its “semantic domain”) become, it never loses its contact with the STREET (by which I mean its origin in common, earthly life).

Now, Rick, I’m probably about to tell you nothing you (an “atonement” scholar) don’t know. I’ll call it “How to access [enter into] a word.”

Back to the plant metaphor: first, I want to know the ROOT(s) of the word. Kat[a]-all-ag-e is the action (ag) of interchange (kata) with another (all-os). Second, I want to know the STREET meaning(s): (1) money-exchange, commerce, business; (2) the change from enmity to friendship; reconciliation, restoration. Finally, I want to know the CHURCH meaning(s) – “church” in the broad sense of special, particular.

The Greek general & Christian lexicons note a special Christian meaning of katallage: reconciliation with God through Christ, at the divine initiative (“by God alone,” & therefore “received” [*lamban-*] as a gift by believers – believing receivers). / But I found none using “atonement”: that technical word seems limited to Greek theological dictionaries. The Eng. wd. (says Mer.-Web. Online) – earliest, 1513 – meant “reconciliation” (now obsolete); means “the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ”; & (3rd meaning), “reparation, satisfaction.”

Synonomies expand from verbal “semantic domains” to conceptual domains answering the question What word-group relates the word-meanings to what “central truth” (the phrase on p271 of R.C.Trench’s Synonyms of the NT (1854; my copy, 1906). In article lxxvii, he’s discussing apolytrosis/katallage/hilasmos– “three grand circles [or ‘families’] of images” of the Cross’ verbally “inestimable benefits.” “Scripture . . . approach(es) the central truth from different quarters,” which “supply the deficiences of one another.”

The article is six pages, assumes a reading knowledge of Latin, & uses extensively the Greek & Latin Fathers. Here, I’ll only mention the first word (redeeming from captivity through payment of a ransom; cessation of bondage from sin as slavery) & the last (Christ as both “priest and sacrifice” propitiation: it’s “richer” than katallage – which states only THAT we enemies have become God’s friends: hilasmos explains HOW this came about [“satisfaction, propitiation, the Daysman, the Mediator, the High Priest”]). / Now for the middle word, KATALLAGE – reconciliation (“the making up of a foregoing enmity”); “atonement” in its original sense (but it has come to have the full meaning of hilasmos: propitiation). (For the meaning-change, Trench refers to Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary of the English Language.)  Rick, I’ve hit the high spots of Trench’s article, which uses Greek/Latin/German. A classic widely-deeply researched & profoundly thought through, written while carrying on his day-work as an Anglican archbishop!

Trench’s article fights those who want so to translate these words as to delete “the wrath of God.” Today, we have to fight what you well call a “bloodless theology.” Not just “God is love,” but (as a Methodist pastor, a niece of mine, wrote me a few days ago), “God is only love” (her description of the theology of the BOM [Board of Ordained Ministry] on which she serves). Said she to me, “when [against that narrowness] I mentioned obedience, sacrifice, and accountability,” there was “only silence.” “Few speak on behalf of the Scriptures, . . . honoring the Lord, who has so graciously given them [the Scriptures] to us.” / If God is “only love,” he’s not fully personal, with the full moral sense & full range of emotions. Note how Trench (156 years ago!) insists that without God’s wrath, theology trivializes sin, which is no longer an enmity against God setting God in enmity against sinners.

In katallage, God “laid aside his holy anger against our sins, and received us into favour, a reconciliation effected for us once for all by Christ upon his cross” (p273; the “secondary” meaning is that we are “daily,” “under the operation of the Holy Spirit,” to dispose of “the enmity of the old man [within us] toward God”: “‘Be ye reconciled with God‘ [2Cor.5.20]”). The anti-wrath-of-God crowd make the secondary meaning primary “to get rid of the reality of God’s anger against the sinner,” & “sin as a state of enmity (echthra) with God (Ro.8.7; Eph.2.15; Jam.4.4), and sinners as enemies to Him and alienated from Him (Ro.5.10; Col.1.21; which sets forth Christ on the cross as the Peace, and the maker of peace between God and man (Eph.2.14; Col.1.20).” On pp275-6, Trench goes into detail (with a flood of texts!) on the NT deleting of blood sacrifice for the appeasement of deity: “priest and sacrifice,” previously divided, were “united in Him, the sin-offering by and through whom the just anger of God against our sins was appeased, and God, without compromising his righteousness, enabled to show Himself propitious to us once more. All this the word hilasmos, used of Christ, declares.” (Hilasmos is sacral, its context sacrificial; katallage is only reconciliation-restoration, without the later sacral meaning of “atonement.”)

(Thank you Willis. Used by his permission.)

3 thoughts on “Willis Elliott on Atonement vs. Reconciliation

  1. >Martin,Willis was responding to a post of mine “Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Cross: The Bloodless Theology of the Mainline Church.” posted in March, which you may have seen. If not it is linked above in the second paragraph. He was affirming my points with some heavy scholarship, but mine should be more accessible to the layman, although I think you could work your way through this one as well with profit. It may take a couple of readings.-Rick

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