Was Christ’s atoning death an expiation or a propitiation? Ruminations on the cross.

One of the perennial questions about the meaning of Christ’s atoning death is “was it an expiation or a propitiation?”  In other words, was the atonement performed towards us, or towards God?  Both  “expiation” and “propitiation” are terms used of sacrifice, but expiation implies a sacrificial taking away of some sin or offence (i.e. “Christ died for our sins”), whereas propitiation implies assuaging the anger or injured honor, holiness, or some other attribute of God.

An expiation changes us, taking away our sin, whereas a propitiation changes God, satisfying whatever needed to be satisfied.  These are not mutually exclusive, obviously, but different atonement theories will stress one or the other.  For example,  in Abelard’s theory, nothing is offered to God, the atonement is a demonstration of God’s eternal love, whereas in Anselm’s theory the atonement is an offering to God, reconciling sinful humanity to God.   The former risks, among other things, falling into subjectivism and failing to take God’s anger, honor, or justice seriously enough.  The latter is criticized chiefly for turning the anger, honor or justice of God into a third thing beyond the Father and the Son, a necessity to which God is somehow obligated.

A further criticism of propitiation language is that it promotes views of atonement that have elements of punishment in them, thereby making its view of God morally objectionable.  There is always a danger when the justice or wrath of God is separated from God’s love.

But do we have to choose between expiation and propitiation?  Aren’t they both rightly part of a full-orbed understanding of the cross?  Theologian George Hunsinger seems to think so, and in his fine book on the Eucharist, offers this useful analysis:

“God’s wrath is the form taken by God’s love when God’s love is contradicted and opposed. God’s love will not tolerate anything contrary to itself. It does not compromise with evil, or ignore evil, or call evil good. It enters into the realm of evil and destroys it. The wrath of God is propitiated when the disorder of sin is expiated. It would be an error to suppose that “propitiation” and “expiation” must be pitted against each other as though they were mutually exclusive. The wrath of God is removed (propitiation) when the sin that provokes it is abolished (expiation). Moreover, the love of God that takes the form of wrath when provoked by sin is the very same love that provides the efficacious means of expiation (vicarious sacrifice) and therefore of propitiation.”  (George Hunsinger, The Eucharist and Ecumenism: Let us Keep the Feast. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008: 173-4.

It also keeps us from a careless separation of God’s love and wrath, and helps us realize that God’s love is not some avuncular tolerance, but holy love.  God doesn’t tolerate our sins, but takes them away.

(Some of the above is excerpted from my When I Survey the Wondrous Cross:  Reflections on the Atonement ,  Pickwick, 2000, Wipf and Stock, 2010)

(Picture:  Matthias Grunewald’s Crucifixion from the Isenheim Alterpiece)

George Hunsinger receives Barth Award


Congratulations to George Hunsinger, who has been awarded the 2010 Karl Barth Award conferred by the Protestant Church in Germany. It couldn’t have gone to a more deserving recipient. George is to my mind one of the outstanding “doctors of the church” in our time, and certainly one of the best teachers I have been privileged to have.  The Statement of the Jury cites his work as an interpreter of Karl Barth, his excellence as a theological teacher, his ecumenical commitments, and his political engagement, especially his campaign against torture.  The full text  is printed below:

Explanatory Statement of the Jury regarding the decision to confer the 2010 Karl Barth Award of the Union of Evangelical Churches (UEK) in the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) to Professor Dr. George Hunsinger, Princeton, USA

With George Hunsinger’s work we honor his interpretation of Karl Barth’s theology and the political testimony that resulted from it as well as his achievements as a teacher of theology.

George Hunsinger has dedicated decades of his theological work to the interpretation of Karl Barth’s theology in the American context. His introduction, published in 1991 “How to read Karl Barth: the shape of his theology“ (German translation 2009) has become standard literature in the US. As the director of the Center for Barth Studies in Princeton, from its foundation in 1997 until 2001, he produced a collection of studies on various political, theological and ecumenical aspects of Karl Barth’s theology (“Disruptive Grace”, 2000). In his illuminative explanation of the approach and logic of Barth’s thoughts Hunsinger reveals their relevance for present day issues. He proves to be not only a sophisticated interpreter but also a challenging partner in the theological and political debates of our times. Hunsinger reminds us with Karl Barth that: “The event of Jesus Christ is not only a past fact of history, but also an event that is happening in the present here and now, as well as an event that in its historical completeness and full contemporaneity is also truly future.” For Hunsinger, to learn from and with Karl Barth also means to be free from “Barthianism” and to engage in new ways, for example in ecumenical dialogue.

George Hunsinger’s theological achievements are linked to his critical view of the present and to his political engagement. For decades he has been active and most effective in the defense of Human Rights. He has always warned against the resolution of political conflicts through military means. In 2006 he initiated the National Religious Campaign against Torture (NRCAT). What then began as an appeal by 150 Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other people of conscience in Princeton became one of the most important NGO’s in Washington DC. Hunsinger refutes all attempts to legitimate torture as self defense in the context of the “War against terror”. His argument is that “torture is the ticking bomb!”. To accept torture would itself be the explosive that destroys democracy.

By awarding him the Karl Barth Award the Union of Evangelical Churches (UEK) also wants to honor George Hunsinger’s merits as a theological teacher in the full sense of the word. As an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church George Hunsinger not only taught the Bible in his congregation but he was also involved in creating the “Presbyterian Study Catechism” of 1998. This Catechism combines the explanation of the traditional elements of the Christian faith with comments on their social and political implications. Hunsinger thus overcomes the false alternative between “traditional faith” and “progressive politics” and thereby becomes a bridge builder between liberal and conservative Christians. He teaches that “the chief criterion of social witness is conformity to the enacted patterns of the divine compassion as revealed and embodied in Jesus Christ”.

The UEK thanks and honors George W. Hunsinger for his exemplary theological thinking, for his political testimony and his ecclesial teaching in the sense of a truly “generous orthodoxy”, a world-oriented interpretation and practice of Church Dogmatics.

Bishop Dr. Hans-Jürgen Abromeit, Greifswald Director

Dr. Hans-Anton Drewes, Basel Professor

Dr. Christiane Tietz, Mainz June 15, 2010

George Hunsinger: Answer to a Question About Baptism


Recently I was so impressed with George Hunsinger’s “Are The Gospels Reliable? A Letter to a Young Inquirer,” which I saw on Ben Myers’ site, that I asked him if he had other such helpful catechetical resources.

Dr. Hunsinger, who teaches systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, is not only a first rank academic theologian, but a faithful Christian concerned with the catechesis of the faith at every level, witnessed to by his guiding  involvement in the most recent (1998) Presbyterian Catechism.

Years ago, he was my first advisor for what became my A Course in Basic Christianity, a project subtitled “Remedial Catechesis for Adults.”  I often call it “Everything you should have learned in confirmation, but probably didn’t because you had other things on your mind.”

As always he keeps ecumenical concerns in view.  Here he addresses a thoughtful letter on Christian baptism with the same clear and careful thinking that he brought to the earlier letter on the scriptures, and also to his most recent book on The Eucharist and Ecumenism (Cambridge, 2008).

I quote both the letter and his response  in full with his permission:

“Dear Dr. Hunsinger,

I’ve recently been stymied as to how to understand baptism theologically.  As a “good” Lutheran I’ve always understood baptism as a means of grace, through which the spirit both quickens and awakens faith in the baptized, with the old Adam drowned and the New Creation raised to New Life in Christ.

However, I’m currently in a course on the Radical Reformation, in which we’ve been reading the anabaptist, Balthasar Hubmaier, who argues for a different, though biblically defensible understanding, with Baptism a human response to grace already received, a profession of one’s desire to live according to “the Rule of Christ.”

These conflicting notions of baptism demanded further reflection, and so I turned to Barth’s IV/4, with only greater confusion ensuing.

All this is to say, I’m unsure of how to locate baptism in terms of justification. If Christ is the one in whom we are elected, if he is our justification, and the one in whom we are crucified and raised to New Creation, where do we locate baptism?

Is it simply the awakening of the believer, through faith, to our already present justification? Can we be said to play a role in this, perhaps passively, but a kind of consent to what has already been accomplished for our sake? At any rate, the issue seems to be an incredibly confusing one, and I’m unsure how to think about this. Any guidance you might provide would be appreciated.”

“Dear N,

I agree that this is a difficult and confusing question.  Furthermore, I don’t find Barth’s views in IV/4 to be entirely convincing.  In the end, his position seems more nearly Anabaptist than Reformed.

You might want to read what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about baptism.  It at least takes adult baptism as the norm from which to understand infant baptism.  I think this is an advance over traditional Reformational views (e.g., Lutheran and Reformed).

Infant baptism complicates the matter enormously.  To make sense of it, I think we need a Christ-centered eschatology of participation.  On these grounds we can posit an objective participation in Christ that anticipates its fulfilment in subjective (conscious and active) participation at a later date.  We could then see the baptism of an infant as somehow being “proleptic.”  Baptism would be the means by which the infant is included, objectively, in Christ and his community by grace, but this grace would need to be fulfilled when the infant later responds to the Gospel with faith.  So there is an “already” here and a “not yet.”  In baptism the faith of the parents and the community would function vicariously for the infant until confirmation.

The grace of baptism would be the grace of participatio Christi.  This grace would precede conscious faith on the part of the baptized infant, and it would be fulfilled only when the infant affirms Christ by faith later in life.

This view would not quite amount to “baptismal regeneration.”  I don’t really know what to do with this idea.  I’d like to work something out that would not be church-dividing.  Perhaps we could use the same conceptual pattern that I have been suggesting here.  It would be a pattern of moving from precondition to fulfillment.  We could see baptism as an objective precondition for the justification and regeneration that will later be actualized, confirmed and fulfilled by faith.  What was once actual objectively becomes actual, in a new and essential form, subjectively.

Is baptism necessary for salvation?  Catholics think so.  Protestants often don’t.  I think we could probably resolve this one by asking, “necessary in what sense”?  “Absolutely” (simpliciter), or only “in a certain respect” (secundum quid)?  I think baptism could only be “necessary” in a certain respect.  It is always fitting and necessary unless certain obstacles intervene to prevent it (as sometimes happens).

I wrote an article about baptism about 10 years ago for the International Journal of Systematic Theology.  I would revise it along the above lines if I were to re-print it today.

With best regards,

Dr. Hunsinger”

Some really useful recent theology posts


It’s true, there is a lot of chaff in the various theology blogs I follow, and I am sure my own blog has its share, but there are also many engaging and useful posts.  So here are three of the recent ones in the “wheat” category from my blogroll:

At Australian Ben Myers substantive blog, Faith and Theology my former teacher and friend George Hunsinger has a guest post, a terrific letter which addresses the perennial question, “Are The Gospels Reliable? A Letter to a Young Inquirer.”

Speaking of reliable, on his reliably thoughtful blog, “What’s John Thinking,” my friend and fellow ruminating retired pastor, John McFadden  talks about the problem of well-meaning folks trying to help in tough situations like Haiti, and why it is always more complicated than we might think, in his post “Good Intentions are not Always Enough.”

And finally, Halden Doerge at Inhabitio Dei has put into words better than I could one of my biggest problems with the thought of the always intriguing and equally exasperating Stanley Hauerwas.  I have for a long time thought that Hauerwas’s hybrid Methodist/Catholic/Mennonite sensibility was essentially sectarian.   Halden lays it out in “Why Can’t Hauerwas just be a Witness?

So keep an eye on my blogroll.  There is often good stuff there.

George Hunsinger on the Immanent Trinity and the Economic Trinity

In a conversation with my daughter (who is in divinity school) I was trying to explain to her the distinction between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity, in the context of my letter about the baptismal formula.

Then on Saturday George Hunsinger commented on my funny post about Amazon selecting John Allegro’s The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross because I had bought George’s book The Eucharist and Ecumenism.

In browsing for recent stuff by George I came across a comment he had made on Per Crucem ad Lucem a couple of weeks ago.  Jason Goroncy had done one of his “Who Said It? polls, where he puts up a passage, and we guess (without benefit of Google) who the theologian is that said it.  The answer in this case turned out to be Richard Bauckham, with whom I studied in St Andrews, but I guessed W. Pannenberg.

Actually nobody got it right, but somebody guessed it was from George, so he posted a comment that it wasn’t something he would have said, and then went on to give such a clear and helpful brief exposition of the Trinity that I read it to my daughter over the phone today, and then I e-mailed George to ask if he would be willing to let me post it here. He was and so here it is:

“Oh dear! Someone in the original thread guessed that I might have said it. I wouldn’t have, though I might have said something like this:

There is only one Holy Trinity, now and for ever. One and the same Trinity exists in two different forms: the one is eternal and immanent; the other, temporal and economic. The former is essential and necessary; the latter, entirely contingent. God would be the Holy Trinity in and for himself — as a perfect communion of love and freedom, joy and peace — whether the world had been created or not.

God’s trinitarian history for us reveals — but does not make him — what he is in and for himself. The aseity, simplicity and perfection of God’s being means that God is what he is as the Holy Trinity independently of the world, and therefore of God’s temporal, worldly history. This history is indeed who God is, but only in a secondary and dependent form.

The eternal form of the Holy Trinity is logically and ontologically prior to its historical, worldly form. The relation of the two trinitarian forms — historical and eternal — is one of inseparable unity and abiding distinction, with an asymmetry in status between them that makes the relation irreversible. The temporal form of the Trinity depends entirely on the eternal form, but the eternal form of the Trinity in no way depends on the temporal form assumed in its historical revelation.

Therefore, we do not know the eternal form of the Trinity except through the temporal form, but through the temporal form we do know that the eternal form is perfect and independent –self-subsistent — in itself.”  (George Hunsinger,  Comment, Per Crucem ad Lucem. November 14)

My personal recommendations from Amazon.com get really weird

If you have ever bought something on-line from Amazon.com, and you werern’t quite on the ball enough to check the box indicating that you don’t want them sending you e-mails giving you their personal recommendations of other books (or whatever ) that you might like to buy, then like me your in-box is jammed with these recommendations.

I don’t know if it is a human being that makes these picks or a computer (I would guess that latter) but sometimes they are amusing. As you may know I am an atonement scholar and buy most of the significant books (and some insignificant ones) about the atonement that come out to keep up with the field. So I get lots of recommendations about the atonement. Which is fine. But I buy even the atonement books from the people I don’t agree with, and they write other books which I also don’t agree with, and so these other books are often picked for me too.

Also, the picker can’t seem to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction so Ian McEwan’s Booker Prize-winning novel Atonement is often one my picks.

I also have friends who are writers and I try to buy their books. So, for example, I bought Gretchen Legler’s engaging memoir of her time in Antartica On the Ice, and now my picks contain many polar explorer books, which are kind of fun to consider.

But the funniest pick ever came in my e-mail yesterday. This is going to be a bit of an inside joke for theologians and biblical scholars, but if the rest of you stay with me I think I can explain how weird it is.

I recently bought from Amazon.com my friend (and former teacher) George Hunsinger’s fine book from Cambridge Press The Eucharist and Ecumenism, a book I hope to say more about on this blog as I get deeper into it.

So Amazon.com, noticing my purchase, recommended that I might also like to buy John Allegro’s controversial 1970 book: The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, a book that argued, from Allegro’s Dead Sea Scroll research, that the origins of Christianity came out of the practices of fertility cults, one of these practices being the ingestion of hallucinatory mushrooms.

Now biblical scholars rarely have reached such universal agreement as they did on this book. The book pretty much finished Allegro’s career as a serious biblical scholar, although the book was a must-read among some of the mystical brothers and sisters in the counter-culture for obvious reasons (I started seminary the year after Allegro’s book came out and remember its various receptions well.)

So unless this was a joke, the picker having fun with me (if it is a person), I just can’t see any connection between Allegro and George Hunsinger. Hunsinger (pictured top left) is a highly-respected theologian, called by the late great Thomas Torrance the “best theologian in North America.” He teaches at Princeton and has written the standard Barth intoduction called How To Read Karl Barth.

Barth himself died just two years before Allegro’s book was published, but one can imagine what he would have made of it.  Hunsinger and Allegro?  Just weird!