1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Atonement and Day of Atonement

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ATONEMENT and DAY OF ATONEMENT. “Atone” (originally—see below—“at one”) and “atonement” terms ordinarily used as practically synonymous with satisfaction, reparation, compensation, with a view to reconciliation. As the English technical termsThe religious doctrine. representing a theological doctrine which plays an important part not only in Christianity but in most religions, the underlying ideas require more detailed analysis. A doctrine of atonement makes the following presuppositions. (a) There is a natural relation between God and man in which God looks favourably upon man. (b) This relation has been disturbed so that God regards man’s character and conduct with disapproval, and inflicts suffering upon him by way of punishment. In the higher religions the disturbance is due, as just implied, to unsatisfactory conduct on man’s part, i.e. sin. (c) The normal relation may be restored, i.e. sin may be forgiven; and this restoration is the atonement.

The problem of the atonement is the means or condition of the restoration of man to God’s favour; this has been variously found (a) in the endurance of punishment; (b) in the payment of compensation for the wrong done, the compensation consisting of sacrifices and other offerings; (c) in the performance of magical or other ritual, the efficacy of the ritual consisting in its being pleasing to or appointed by God, or even in its having a coercive power over the deity; (d) in repentance and amendment of life. Most theories of atonement would combine two or more of these, and would include repentance and amendment. Some or all of the conditions of atonement may be fulfilled, according to various views, either by the sinner or vicariously on his behalf by some kinsman; or by his family, clan or nation; or by some one else.

In the Old Testament, “atonement,” “make an atonement” represent the Hebrew kippur and its derivatives. It is doubtful whether this root meant originally to “cover” or “wipe out”; but probably it is used as a technical term without any consciousness of its etymology. Old Testament.The Old Testament presents very varied teaching on this subject without attempting to co-ordinate its doctrines in a harmonious system. In some cases there is no suggestion of any forgiveness; sinners are “cut off” from the chosen people; individuals and nations perish in their iniquity.[1] Some passages refer exclusively to the endurance of punishment as a condition of pardon;[2] others to the penitence and amendment of the sinner.[3] In Ezekiel xxxvi. 25-31, repentance is called forth by the divine forgiveness.

Sacrifice and other rites are also spoken of as conditions of the restoration of man to happy relations with God. The Priestly Code (Leviticus and allied passages) seems to confine the efficacy of sacrifice to ritual, venial and involuntary sins,[4] and requires that the sacrifices should be offered at Jerusalem by the Aaronic priests; but these limitations did not belong to the older religion; and even in later times popular faith ascribed a larger efficacy to sacrifice. On the other hand, other passages protest against the ascription of great importance to sacrifice; or regard the rite as a consequence rather than a cause of forgiveness.[5] The Old Testament has no theory of sacrifice; in connexion with sin the sacrifice was popularly regarded as payment of penalty or compensation. Lev. xvii. 11 suggests a mystic or symbolic explanation by its statement “the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your lives:[6] for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life.” The Old Testament nowhere explains why this importance is attached to the blood, but the passage is often held to mean that the life of the victim represented the forfeited life of the offerer.

The atoning ritual reached its climax on the Day of Atonement יוֹם הַכִּפֻּורים, ἡμέρα ἐξιλασμοῦ, in the Mishna simply “the Day,” (Yōmā), observed annually on the 10th day of the 7th month (Tisri), in the autumn, about October, Jewish
day of atonement.
shortly before the Feast of Tabernacles or vintage festival. At one time the year began in Tisri. The laws of the Day of Atonement belong to the Priestly Code.[7] There is no trace of this function before the exile; the earliest reference to any such special time of atonement being the proposal of Ezek. xlv. 18-20 to establish two days of atonement, in the first and seventh months.[8] No doubt, however, both the principles and ritual are partly derived from earlier times. The object of the observances was to cleanse the sanctuary, the priesthood and the people from all their sins, and to renew and maintain favourable relations between Yahweh and Israel. The ritual includes features found on other holy days, sacrifices, abstinence from work, &c.; and also certain unique acts. The Day of Atonement is the only fast provided in the Law; it is only on this occasion that (a) the Jews are required to “afflict their souls,” (b) the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies, (c) the High Priest offers incense before the mercy seat and sprinkles it with blood, and (d) the scapegoat or Azazel is sent away into the wilderness, bearing upon him all the iniquities of the people. In later Judaism, especially from about 100 B.C., great stress was laid on the Day of Atonement, and it is now the most important religious function of the Jews. On that day many attend the synagogues who are seldom or never seen in them at other times.

The idea of vicarious atonement appears in the Old Testament in different forms. The nation suffers for the sin of the individual;[9] and the individual for the sin of his kinsfolk[10] or of the nation.[11] Above all the Servant of Yahweh[12] appears as atoning for sinners by his sufferings and death. Again, the Old Testament speaks of the restoration of heathen nations, and of the salvation of the heathen;[13] but does not formulate any theory of atonement in this connexion. The Old Testament, however, only prepares the way for the Christian doctrine of the atonement; this is clear, inasmuch as its teaching is largely concerned with the nation, and hardly touches on the future life. Moreover, it could not define the relation of Christ to the atonement. Later Judaism emphasized the idea of vicarious atonement for Israel through the sufferings of the righteous, especially the martyrs; but it is very doubtful whether the idea of the atonement through the death of the Messiah is a pre-Christian Jewish doctrine.[14]

In the New Testament, the English version uses “atonement” once, Rom. v. 11, for καταλλαγή (R. V. here and elsewhere “reconciliation”). This Greek word corresponds to the idea suggested by the etymology of at-one-ment, New Testament. the re-uniting in amity of those at variance, a sense which the word had in the 17th century but has since lost. But the idea which is now usually expressed by “atonement” is rather represented in the New Testament by ἱλασμός and its cognates, e.g. 1 John ii. 2 R. V., “He (Jesus) is the propitiation (ἱλασμός) for our sins.” But these words are rare, and we read more often of “salvation” (σωτηρία) and “being saved,” which includes or involves that restoration to divine favour which is called atonement. The leading varieties of teaching, the Sayings of Jesus, Paul, the Johannine writings, the Epistle to the Hebrews, connect the atonement with Christ especially with His death, and associate it with faith in Him and with repentance and amendment of life.[15]

These ideas are also common to Christian teaching generally. The New Testament, however, does not indicate that its writers were agreed as to any formal dogma of the atonement, as regards the relation of the death of Christ to the sinner’s restoration to God’s favour; but various suggestions are made as to the solution of the problem. St Paul’s teaching connects with the Jewish doctrine of vicarious suffering, represented in the Old Testament by Is. liii., and probably, though not expressly, with the ritual sacrifices. Christ suffering on behalf of sinners satisfies the divine righteousness, which was outraged by their sin.[16] His work is an expression of God’s love to man;[17] the redeeming power of Christ’s death is also explained by his solidarity with humanity as the second Adam,[18]—the redeemed sinner has “died with Christ.”[19] Some atoning virtue seems also attributed to the Resurrection;[20] Christ’s sayings connect admission to the kingdom of God with susceptibility to the influence of His personality, faith in Himself and His mission, and the loyalty that springs from faith.[21] In John, Christ is a “propitiation” (ἱλασμός) provided by the love of God that man may be cleansed from sin; He is also their advocate (Παράκλητος) with God that they may be forgiven, for His name’s sake.[22] Hebrews speaks of Christ as transcending the rites and officials of the law; He accomplishes the realities which they could only foreshadow; in relation to the perfect, heavenly sacrifice which atones for sin, He is both priest and victim.[23]

The subsequent development of the Christian doctrine has chiefly shaped itself according to the Pauline formula of vicarious atonement; the sufferings of Christ were accepted as a substitute for the punishment which men deserved, Later interpretation. and so the divine righteousness was satisfied—a formula, however, which left much room for controversy. The creeds and confessions are usually vague. Thus the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins”; the Nicene Creed, “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ . . . who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven . . . I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins”; the Athanasian Creed, “Who (Christ) suffered for our salvation.” In the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England we have (ii.) “Christ suffered . . . to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men”; and (xxxi.) “The offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world.” The council of Trent declared that “Christus . . . nobis sua sanctissima passione ligno crucis justificationem meruit et pro nobis deo patri satisfecit,” “Christ earned our justification by His most holy passion and satisfied God the Father for us.” The Confession of Augsburg uses words equivalent to the Articles quoted above which were based upon it. The Westminster Confession declares: “The Lord Jesus Christ, by His perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the Eternal Spirit once offered up to God, hath fully satisfied the justice of His Father, and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him.”

Individual theologians have sought to define more exactly the points on which the standards are vague. For instance, how was justice satisfied by Christ? The early Fathers, from Irenaeus (d. c. 200) to Anselm (d. 1109),[24] held, inter alia, that Christ paid a ransom to Satan to induce him to release men from his power. Anselm and the scholastics regarded the atonement as an offering to God of such infinite value as to outweigh men’s sins, a view sometimes styled the “Commercial Theory.”[25] The leading reformers emphasized the idea that Christ bore the punishment of sin, sufferings equivalent to the punishments deserved by men, a view maintained later on by Jonathan Edwards junior. But the intellectual activity of the Reformation also developed other views; the Socinians, with their humanitarian theory of the Person of Christ, taught that He died only to assure men of God’s forgiving love and to afford them an example of obedience—“Forgiveness is granted upon the ground of repentance and obedience.”[26] Grotius put forward what has been called the Governmental Theory, viz. that the atonement took place not to satisfy the wrath of God, but in the practical interests of the divine government of the world, “The sufferings and death of the Son of God are an exemplary exhibition of God’s hatred of moral evil, in connexion with which it is safe and prudent to remit that penalty, which so far as God and the divine attributes are concerned, might have been remitted without it.”[27]

The formal legal view continued to be widely held, though it was modified in many ways by various theologians. For instance, it has been held that Christ atoned for mankind not by enduring the penalty of sin, but by identifying Modern views. Himself with the sinner in perfect sympathy, and feeling for him an “equivalent repentance” for his sin. Thus McLeod Campbell (q.v.) held that Christ atoned by offering up to God a perfect confession of the sins of mankind and an adequate repentance for them, with which divine justice is satisfied, and a full expiation is made for human guilt. A similar view was held by F. D. Maurice.[28] Others hold that the effect of the atoning death of Christ is not to propitiate God, but to reconcile man to God; it manifests righteousness, and thus reveals the heinousness of sin; it also reveals the love of God, and conveys the assurance of His willingness to forgive or receive the sinner; thus it moves men to repentance and faith, and effects their salvation; so substantially Ritschl.[29] In England much influence has been exerted by Dr R. W. Dale’s Atonement (1875), the special point of which is that the death of Christ is not required by the personal demand of God to be propitiated, but by the necessity of honouring an ideal law of righteousness; thus, “the death of Christ is the objective ground on which the sins of men are remitted, because it was an act of submission to the righteous authority of the law by which the human race was condemned ... and because in consequence of the relation between Him and us—His life being our own—His submission is the expression of ours, and carries ours with it ... (and) because in His submission to the awful penalty of sin ... there was a revelation of the righteousness of God, which must otherwise have been revealed in the infliction of the penalties of sin on the human race.”[30] This view, however, leads to a dilemma; if the law of righteousness is simply an expression of the divine will, satisfaction to law is equivalent to propitiation offered to God; if the law has an independent position, the view is inconsistent with pure monotheism.

The present position may be illustrated from a work representing the more liberal Anglican theology. Bishop Lyttelton in Lux Mundi[31] stated that the death of Christ is propitiatory towards God because it expressed His perfect obedience, it manifested God’s righteous wrath against sin, and in virtue of Christ’s human nature involved man’s recognition of the righteousness of God’s condemnation of sin; also because in some mysterious way death has a propitiatory value; and finally because Christ is the representative of the human race. Towards man, the death of Christ has atoning efficacy because it delivers from sin, bestows the divine gift of life and conveys the assurance of pardon. The benefits of the atonement are appropriated by “the acceptance of God’s forgiveness in Christ, our self-identification with Christ’s atoning attitude, and then working out, by the power of the life bestowed upon us, all the (moral and spiritual) consequence of forgiveness.”

At present the belief in an objective atonement is still widely held; whether in the form of penal theories—the old forensic view that the death of Christ atones by paying the penalty of man’s sin—or in the form of governmental theories; that the Passion fulfilled a necessity of divine government by expressing and vindicating God’s righteousness. But there is also a widespread inclination to minimize, ignore or deny the objective aspect of the atonement, the effect of the death of Christ on God’s attitude towards men; and to follow the moral theories in emphasizing the subjective aspect of the atonement, the influence of the Passion on man. There is a tendency to eclectic views embracing the more attractive features of the various theories; and attempts are made to adapt, interpret and qualify the imagery and language of older formulae, in order so to speak, to issue them afresh in new editions, compatible with modern natural science, psychology and historical criticism. Such attempts are necessary in a time of transition, but they involve a measure of obscurity and ambiguity.

Bibliography.—Atonement: H. Bushnell, Vicarious Sacrifice (1871); J. McLeod Campbell, Nature of the Atonement (1869); T. J. Crawford, Doctrine of the Holy Spirit respecting the Atonement (1871); R. W. Dale, Atonement (1875); J. Denney, Death of Christ, Atonement and the Modern Mind (1903); A. Lyttelton, Lux Mundi, pp. 201 ff. (Atonement), (1889); R. Moberly, Atonement and Personality; A. Ritschl, Die christliche Lehre van der Rechtfertigung und Versöhnung (1870–1874); G. B. Stevens, Christian Doctrine of Salvation (1905).

Day of Atonement: articles in Hastings’ Bible Dictionary, and in the Encyclopaedia Biblica.  (W. H. Be.) 

  1. Cf. Exodus xii. 15, &c.; Josh. vii. 24 (Achan); Jer. li. 62 (Babylon).
  2. 2 Sam. xii. 13, 14 (David); Isaiah xl. 2 (Jerusalem): in such cases, however, the context implies repentance.
  3. Ezek. xviii., Micah vi.
  4. Lev. iv. 2, “sin unwittingly,” bishegagā, c. 450 B.C., &c.
  5. Psalm l. 10, li. 16-19; Isaiah i. 11; Micah vi. 6-8.
  6. Heb. nephesh, also translated “soul.”
  7. Lev. xvi., xxiii. 27-32; Numb. xxix. 7-11.
  8. So Davidson, &c. with LXX. The A.V. with Hebrew text has “seventh day of the month.”
  9. e.g. Achan, Josh. vii. 10-15.
  10. 2 Sam. xxi. 1-9; Deut. v. 9, 10.
  11. Ezek. xxi. 3, 4.
  12. Isaiah liii.
  13. Isaiah xix. 25, xlix. 6.
  14. Köberle, Sünde und Gnade, pp. 592 ff.
  15. Mark x. 45; Matt. xxvi. 28; 1 Cor. xv. 3; John xi. 48-52; Heb. ii. 9.
  16. Rom. iii. 25.
  17. Rom. v. 8.
  18. Rom. v. 15-19.
  19. Rom. vi. 8.
  20. Rom. iv. 25.
  21. Matt. xxv. 34 f.; Mark viii. 34 ff., ix. 36 f., x. 21.
  22. 1 John ii. 1, 2, 12, iii. 5, 8, iv. 10.
  23. Heb. ii. 17, ix. 14.
  24. Stevens, Christian Doctrine of Salvation, p. 138.
  25. Ibid. p. 151.
  26. Shedd, Hist. of Christ. Doctr. ii. 385 ff.; cf. van Oosterzee, Christ. Dogmatics, 611.
  27. Shedd ii. 358 f.
  28. Crawford, Scripture Doctrine of the Atonement, pp. 327 ff.
  29. Orr, Ritschlian Theology, pp. 149 ff.
  30. Dale, Atonement, pp. 430 ff.
  31. Pp. 209, 212, 214, 216, 219, 221, 225.