The atonement

The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance

Leon Morris

Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, 1984. 219pp.

It’s likely you already know if you’re ever going to pick up The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance, just from reading the title. When you come across a word you don’t completely understand, such as atonement, you’re either intrigued or asking “Why on earth would I read an entire book about a word which I don’t know?” If the title put you off, a brief scan down the contents page probably won’t help. There’s no getting past it, The Atonement is a book about difficult words. The “great words” which author Leon Morris covers are: covenant, sacrifice, the Day of Atonement, the Passover, redemption, reconciliation, propitiation, and justification. The unifying concept behind these words—apart from having at least three syllables—is the significance of Jesus’ atoning work on the cross.

Yet don’t be confused, this book is not a dictionary. Rather than seeking a simple definition, The Atonement is concerned with a bigger goal—to show how these words establish the meaning of Jesus’ death. Every one of these terms is significant in its own way to atonement theology, but cannot stand alone:

Each of the great picture-words makes its own contribution to the whole story. None is the whole story. (p. 139)

Each of the eight chapters runs for around 25 pages, and is a study of a single word. The word is placed in its historical context and assessed for its unique contribution to the theology of the cross. Basically, Morris is answering the questions: What did this word mean to the original readers? Why was it applied to Jesus’ death? And why is it still essential to know this mean­ing today?

Now with the risk of putting even more people offside, I need to point out there is a distinct lack of illustrations, not only of the graphic variety, but there are also few comparative examples and stories.

Initially I was put off by this starkness, until I realized why the writing was so bare: The Atonement is teaching us how to use the Bible’s own illustrations. The biblical writers, in communicating the significance of the cross, utilized some vivid picture-words. Like all good teachers, they were providing illustrations for their message using the common words of the day.

So there are a number of barriers that Morris is helping the modern reader overcome. It’s not just about expanding our vocabulary with new words, but also knowing when we are using words in ways different to their intention. For example, “In a good deal of modern writing, redemption means much the same as deliverance” (p. 107). However, redemption originally specifically described the “buying of prisoners of war out of their captivity… of setting slaves free” (p. 108). Thus “In the New Testament redemption is deliverance on payment of a price and when men’s salvation is concerned that price is the death of the Son of God” (p. 124).

Seeing these words through first-century eyes is like watching a movie in 3D. It is a step towards overcoming the dullness we can feel by allowing us to feel the contours of the biblical account. As these words are peculiar to us, we don’t see them as illustrative, but to the original readers this was far from the case. Just as modern attempts at describing Jesus as a lifesaver take your mind on a journey to wet hair, sunny days, and sand in places it shouldn’t be, so speaking of Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice took original readers to the courts of the temple, with the smell of animals and the priests dressed in their robes. This was a deliberate method of teaching by the biblical authors.

Of course, the Bible is doing more than illustration. Jesus’ death on the cross was not just like a sacrifice for sins, his death was a sacrifice for sins. God was the one who provided these categories through which humans could understand Jesus’ ministry once he came, so there remains an eternal significance to this kind of work. The words God has chosen have meaning. Despite the protestations of postmodern thinkers who appeal to limitless ‘perspectives’, The Atonement simply asks “What do these words mean?”

Morris’ method is sound, but occasionally technical. The ghosts of academic debates past rear their head in almost every chapter. There is significant mention of Greek and Hebrew throughout the book. Whilst these important points are used for clarification and to be illustrative, they don’t always pique your interest.

Yet there is great benefit in stumbling through the fog. You don’t know it yet, but it is important to know the meaning of the Greek verb hilaskomai. And believe it or not, that meaning is found in knowing the difference between the terms propitiation, expiation and sacrifice of atonement. Morris argues that propitiation is the default translation to capture the aspect of turning aside anger in the Greek word, but that no-one knows what propitiation means. So some translations choose expiate, yet “to most of us the change does not seem to matter much, as we don’t understand ‘expiation’ very well either” (p. 151). Some translations, just to clear up any confusion, then go for ‘sacrifice of atonement’. Morris suggests these translation decisions are often driven by an aversion to speaking of God’s anger, rather than accurate portrayal of the original intention.

It’s not that Morris is against modern translations. The Atonement does not, in the end, argue for using particular words. Morris is wise enough to recognize that language changes over time. Instead, what is important is the concepts being communicated. He says about propitiation:

I do not find it an elegant word, nor one which is easily understood by most people today. By all means let us abandon it if we can find a better way of expressing what it stands for. (p. 169)

Similarly, the New Testament application of the Passover demonstrates that a concept can be present even when the word is not. Apart from Paul’s description of “Christ, our Passover lamb” in 1 Corinthians 5:7, the majority of New Testament links between Jesus’ death and the Passover are allusions. For example, each of the Gospels depict unremarked Jesus going to the cross during the Passover festival. And yet, Jesus “chose to die at just this time, with the Passover in everyone’s mind” (p. 101). And so, as the connection is not spelt out explicitly, it is only through knowledge of the origin and the contemporary practice of the Passover that the significance can be seen. Or again, further highlighting the careful work which typifies Morris’ approach, he notes references to Jesus as a lamb—often cited as referring to Passover—are not necessarily so, as “the Passover victim might as easily be a kid as a lamb” (p. 103). (And just to be clear, he’s talking about a young goat, not a human child.)

The importance of knowing words well is often demonstrated when people undermine their meaning. “Some have gone astray in their understanding of the New Testament teaching on justification because they have ignored the Old Testament and rabbinic background” (p. 192). Morris is suggesting it would be a dangerous thing to re-imagine some kind of unique new perspective on justification, which would be foreign to the people of Jesus’ time. On reconciliation, Morris notes the tendency of some scholars to “argue that because God is love nothing is required for our salvation other than that we turn from our sin” (p. 140). Yet the danger of misapplying God’s love to infer that somehow love wins is to neglect that “at the heart of the idea of reconciliation there is the thought that getting people together means dealing effectively with whatever it was that was keeping them apart” (p. 132).

In this way, The Atonement is a book about careful Bible reading. Morris teaches how to sweat the details and to think hard on what God communicates to us. So I hope that you aren’t put off by words of three or more syllables, or by the –tion words. Morris indirectly makes a good case that difficult yet significant words, such as propitiation and atonement, should be retained, because they force the considered reader to pause and dig deeper. The expedition is worthwhile, for the end point is a depth of understanding which treasures Jesus all the more.

The Atonement is certainly not a book for everyone. Some readers, especially those not especially fluent in Bible reading, will find the going too tough. But great benefit awaits those not put off by a book not only full of words, but about words.

We must not miss the truth the Bible writers are conveying to their readers because they use old-world imagery to convey it… When we take the trouble to find out what these ancient writings mean we find the cross speaks to twentieth-century people just as loudly and just as clearly and just as challengingly as it did to any previous generation. (p. 205)

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