Depending on what Bible you read and which tradition you come from, you might or might not come across the word “propitiation.” And how often you come across it may vary. Some traditions use the word sometimes, and some traditions make the word central to their faith.
As a youth pastor, I have been thinking through how to explain the crucifixion of Christ to children in a way that is meaningful. I don’t want to just feed them platitudes, but present them with the underlying ideas in a coherent way. Usually I do this by trying to figure out a way to explain an idea without using any “Christianese” or technical terms that you have to be in the know to understand. If I can explain something in simple language, then I understand it well enough to teach it (usually).
What this forces me to do is think through what words really mean and what we are trying to communicate with words.
And lately I have been thinking through this word “propitiation.” In some circles it has become a shibboleth, meaning that what you think about propitiation and its appropriateness to describe Jesus’s work on the cross determines whether or not you are inside or outside the community.
My personal stance on the word is perhaps a little eclectic. I tend to think that there is something important that it can communicate that other words cannot. However, I also think that the word has potential to be misleading and deceptive, because to get at that important thing it has to communicate, you have to deconstruct almost everything else that the word normally means.
And it is actually the creeds of Nicaea and Chalcedon that deconstruct the word, i.e. orthodox theology of the doctrine of God (which means: what is God like), Trinity, and hypostatic union (which means: the understanding of how Jesus is both God and human at the same time).
Let’s start with the dictionary definition of propitiation. According to Merriam-Webster’s it is “to win or regain the favor of: appease.”
In its pagan context, the idea is of giving the gods sacrifices and offerings to make sure that they are happy with you and on your side. The gods can be a bit fickle, especially if you do not give them gifts and sacrifices, so you want to make sure you do your due diligence so as to not incur misfortune through their wrath.
In Christian theology, the word is used to refer to the self-offering of Christ. The basic idea is that humanity, through its sins, had incurred God’s wrath. In order to save some from punishment, Christ took God’s wrath upon himself and took the punishment that was due to the rest of humanity, so that that wrath could be appeased for those who accept Jesus as the offering for their sins.
There are better and worse explanations of how propitiation works in Christian thought. The caricature that is sometimes created through the use of the word propitiation is that the nice Jesus appeased the angry Father’s wrath by stepping between him and us and taking the beating for us.
However, if the word is to be used Christianly, it has to be retooled from its dictionary definition, and this retooling is necessary. If you do not retool it, it will actually express an unorthodox theology of the doctrine of God, Trinity, and/or the hypostatic union.
Doctrine of God
According to the traditional doctrine of God, God is unchanging, meaning God is not one way and then another, but rather he is always the exact same as he ever has been and will be. And furthermore, God is not made up of parts, meaning that everything God does comes from the wholeness of who God is. There is not an angry part of God and a loving part of God that are in competition. But whatever God is, God is entirely that.
“Propitiation” in its dictionary definition implies a change in the person who is being propitiated. A change from unpleased or wrathful to pleased. But God does not change. So in a Christian context, propitiation does not actually change God in any way. What it does change is our relationship to God. Somehow, by taking on the punishment that was the consequence of human sin, Jesus changed us, not God, from a state of experiencing God as wrath to a state of experiencing God as love.
This is supported by the other doctrine that God is not made up of parts. There is not a loving part of God and an angry part of God, a wrathful part and loving part. Whatever we mean by wrath, love, anger, justice, must all point to the one reality that God always is. What changes is how we relate to that reality.
According to the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, there is one divine mind, one rational conscious self, that exists in three “subsistences:” Father, Son, Spirit. One God, three Persons. However, many Christians, especially among Protestants, tend to think of Father, Son, and Spirit as each being their own mind and center of consciousness. (For example, William Lane Craig appears to believe this). So, each Person of the Trinity has his own mind and thoughts like three different people might.
The significance of the traditional doctrine is that the mind and consciousness of the Father and Son cannot be separated. What the Persons of the Trinity desire are one and the same. There can be no division in the desires of the Persons. What the Son desires, the Father desires.
Therefore, one cannot really say that the Son propitiates the Father’s wrath in a way that divides the desires and intentions of the Father and Son. Whatever one may mean when one says that the Son propitiates/appeases the Father’s wrath has to mean that God propitiates/appeases God’s own wrath. What sense can we even make of this idea? The intention and desire of the Son to appease the wrath of God is nothing else than the Father’s intention and desire to appease his wrath.
How can we make sense of this without making God sound like he has split personality disorder? Again, whatever propitiation means, it must have more to do without God getting us out of a sticky situation than with changing God’s mind, unless we want to abandon the traditional doctrine of the Trinity.
According to Chalcedonian theology, Jesus is fully God and fully human, and these two aspects exist together without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. Even though most Christians can repeat and affirm that Jesus is fully God and fully human, they still tend to think about him as either a divine man or some sort of mixture of divine and human. That’s because they accept these “definitions” as platitudes without understanding what they actually mean.
Where the rubber hits the road here is that the result of accepting the Chalcedonian formula means that Jesus’s propitiation – his offering of himself to be punished for our sins and to die as a sacrifice in our place to appease God’s wrath – must mean that in/as Jesus God is taking our sins upon himself and offering to be punished for our sins and die as a sacrifice to appease his own wrath. Yet again, unless we want a schizophrenic God, this must be more about getting us out of a bad situation than about changing God’s mind about us.
I do not think, in the end, that Christians should rid themselves of the word propitiation. At any rate, I do tend to also think that the strong distinction that some make between it and “expiation” is somewhat artificial. However, unless we understand the word and its meaning in the context of a robust and orthodox (i.e. Nicaean and Chalcedonian) doctrine of God, Trinity, and hypostatic union – then the word will lead us to almost completely misunderstand what God was doing on the cross. (For what it’s worth, I think many people who insist strongly on using the word do misunderstand.)
To me, the beauty of understanding Christ’s sacrifice within a proper context of the doctrine of God, the Trinity, and the hypostatic union is that, from the beginning, God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – sought to save and heal you from your sins. God himself took on the punishment for your evil. God did not have to be “assuaged,” but it was his very own intent and desire from the get go. Paul puts it well when he says that in Christ Jesus God was reconciling the world to himself.
One final thought: the idea of God’s propitiation of God’s own wrath should perhaps lead us to think more deeply about the relationship of God to the world and ask just what his wrath is.
2 thoughts on “Reflections on Propitiation”
Excellent article. I especially appreciate the application of creedal hypostases to the question. I will be pondering the closing question esp. in light of my own Origenist sympathies. Once again, you level great resources from the Patristic tradition to these questions that still stick in the gullet of the modern Church.
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Thanks for reading, commenting, and for the kind words, bro!
I’m coming to see that the Protestant tradition, in general, has a woefully inadequate understanding of the creeds and their significance. So we (speaking for myself as part of that tradition) often pay lip service to the creeds, but then create theological paradigms that contradict them. However, it seems like there might be a Nicaean and Chalcedonian renaissance on the horizon in the evangelical world.
Is it bad that my first thought after reading about your “Origenist sympathies” was “I wonder what the pre-existence of souls” has to do with this?