Friday, January 20, 2012

A Single Word

Last night's Christian Believer class was on the doctrine of atonement. A great benefit for me was a deeper appreciation for this particular teaching, and the way various "theories" - ransom, substitution, moral example, Christus Victor - all work together to illumine the depth of the confession this one word contains. Along with discussing the Scripture and historical readings for the week, each week there is a video presentation of a Christian scholar discussing some aspect of the topic for the week. This lesson, it was Leander Keck, New Testament scholar and former Dean of the Divinity School at Yale. In the course of Keck's discussion, he notes the links between the Hebrew "kippur", as in Yom Kippur, "kapporeth", the word used in Leviticus to describe the lid or covering of the Ark of the Covenant, and the word the rabbis used in the Septuagint - hilasterion. Interestingly enough, a couple centuries before the LXX, St. Paul uses this very word in Romans 3:25. Here, from the NRSV, is Romans 3:21-26:
21 But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. (italics added)
I was unaware not only of the word itself, but of the long history of scholarly dispute over its use by St. Paul, and what, precisely, he means by it in this context.

This morning, I typed "hilasterion" in to Google (a lesson here for those who aren't sure how to work this whole Internet thingy), and found, among the 27,600 hits available in the first three-tenths of a second, these three articles that make clear just how unclear the meaning of this word is.

For the moment, I want to set to one side the debate itself. As a total novice, a newcomer to it, recognizing just from the reality of such an extensive debate, I have no opinion beyond accepting that such a thing as a debate over the meaning of this word exists. The main point in highlighting this is two-fold. First, it is a constant source of amazement how much of our understanding of our faith can hinge upon words the meaning of which is just not clear. In this case, much of our understanding of St. Paul's teaching on the meaning of Christ's death hinges on just how, exactly, we understand this particular word.

Second, I bring this up as further testimony in an on-going discussion on the reality that I am constantly learning new things, reminded of my own ignorance. Which is why, while I would defend to the fullest extent my understanding of the faith at any given time, I would never under any circumstances presume to claim that understanding as final.

Most definitely, I would never assume to claim clarity concerning the Biblical witness, which is why life-long study and the surprise that accompanies it, is part of my life.

Virtual Tin Cup

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