Is the Cross a Propitiation?

Posted: September 1, 2015 by J in Bible, Linguistics, Theology

leonmorris_narrowweb__300x3670(This post started life as an appendix to our series on the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement. But it’s outgrown that place, so I’ve promoted it to the status of a series in its own right.)

We’re following up the word most often adduced to lend support to Satisfaction Theory: the hilas- word-group. The claim is that it means ‘propitiation’, which is an ST kind of term.

So what does ‘hilas-’ actually mean?

Let’s take a look this word-group: does it mean ‘propitiation’? The most famous exponent of the ‘hilas- means propitiation’ view is evangelical scholar Leon Morris. ST subscribers, when pushed, will tend to fall back on Morris’s authority. Let’s take a look at his work on this word.

Morris on Propitiation

Morris devotes two chapters to ‘propitiation’ in his book The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross: one on the OT and one on the NT. We will confine our critique to the first chapter, on ‘propitiation in the OT’.

Morris has titled his chapter Propitiation, but it’s actually structured as a study of the hilas- group: so we might be forgiven for thinking we’re dealing with a foregone conclusion about the meaning of ‘hilas-’. I think we’d have to call this a bad sign.

In his introduction Morris tells us he will exclude some occurrences of the word-group hilas- from his study, on the basis that they don’t refer to the cross! Apparently we are only studying occurrences that help describe the cross: i.e. we are trying to build a theological concept from this word. Morris tells us that though the word occurs few times in the NT, ‘We should not dismiss the concept as unimportant, for the idea is often present where this particular terminology is absent, e.g. in passages dealing with the wrath of God’ (p.144 my italics). Next Morris calls propitiation a ‘category’. It seems we have a concept in our sights, not a term.

After this introduction, Morris proceeds as though he’s doing a word study of the hilas- word group. So are we studying a theological concept, or a word? James Barr identified as a fundamental problem in word studies of the bible, this very confusion between studying terms and studying concepts. Morris ignores Barr’s warning, and never manages to clarify which one he’s studying. He builds this methodological confusion into his deep structure. Effectively we’re doing theology through word study. Which, as we saw last post, is a Bad Thing.

Morris begins with pagan/classical usage. The word-group means ‘to appease or placate’. “Hilasmos is the means of appeasing God or of averting his anger.” Morris concludes that ‘when a first century greek heard the words of this group, there would be aroused in his mind thoughts of propitiation.’ Morris doesn’t arrive at this conclusion by doing any actual word study: he simply relies on the opinions of ‘authorities’ such as Dodd and Moulton.

Next Morris cites Dodd’s opinion that the Scripture usage is different from the pagan usage: cleansing not propitiation is intended in both LXX and NT. Morris has two objections to this:

1. If the Scripture authors wanted to say ‘cleansing’ why did they use the word for ‘propitiation’?

This is of course a nonsense, assuming his conclusion in order to prove it. The question of what the word means has not yet been settled, Dr Morris: that’s why you’re studying it, remember!

Morris’s second objection is:

2. Dodd rejects the whole idea of the wrath of God, and thus prefers ‘cleansing’ for theological reasons. I.e. his view is biased by non-linguistic considerations. There follows an extended digression on the wrath of God in Scripture. Morris does not explain why this is here. One can only infer that by countering Dodd’s theology, Morris thinks he has countered his assertions about the word-group ‘hilas-’. Now we are doing word-study through theology! Once again the confusion of word-study and concept study muddies everything, producing this lengthy, confused digression.

Having done as much as possible to pre-judge the question of what these words mean, Morris now finally turns to looking at usage in Scripture.


Morris starts with hilaskomai. He acknowledges that “the Hebrew verb it translates conveys thoughts like ‘forgive’.” But he qualifies this: “if the particular forgiveness or purging of sin is one which involves as a necessary feature the putting away of the divine wrath” then propitiatory ideas can be seen still present in the term. Pay attention to that sentence: it’s going to get a work-out before long.

It turns out that Morris discovers ‘the putting away of God’s wrath’ as a necessary feature pretty often. On Psalm 65:3, where there is no mention of wrath in the entire psalm, Morris nevertheless concludes: “The context tells us that ‘words of lawless men have overpowered us’, and once more we see the kind of thing which would naturally be associated with divine wrath” . And apparently Morris can deduce from this that ‘putting away’ of that wrath is also in view here. Note that none of the terminology of wrath or putting away is present in Psalm 65. Yet Morris finds this is an example of the situation he posited, where putting away of wrath is a ‘necessary feature’ of the forgiveness in view. This is remarkable exegesis, to say the least.

How does Morris know that wrath is in view here? He tells us how: ‘lawless men’ would naturally be associated with divine wrath. In other words his criterion for discovering propitiation as a ‘necessary feature’ of a text, is that the text have some sort of evil in view. That’s all that’s needed. It turns out that for Morris, whenever anything to do with sin is in view, this is evidence that ‘putting away God’s wrath’ is implied.

Let’s get this straight. The question we’re pursuing is, does hilaskomai mean ‘cleanse’ (following Dodd) or ‘propitiate’? Both meanings are about sin. But ‘cleanse’ is about the sinner, while ‘propitiate’ is about the placating of God. However, Morris’s approach in Psalm 65 is that if sin is in view nearby, wrath is implied, and if wrath is implied, the turning away of God’s wrath is implied. And so if the word hilaskomai occurs in that context the meaning is necessarily propitiatory. Did you notice the trick here? For Morris, hilaskomai cannot possibly mean just ‘cleanse’. Because ‘cleanse’ always involves sin. In other words one of the two options is being ruled out a priori. In effect we are presented with a foregone conclusion. While maintaining the appearance of studying word usage, usage is not allowed to affect the result. Indeed Morris gets his result in spite of the apparent lack of propitiatory language in the context where hilaskomai occurs. Psalm 65 is an example of this, but he does it in case after case.

  1. Regarding Psalm 65, an objection might be that although that particular psalm does not mention the wrath of God in connection with sin, the broader context in which the psalm is placed would mean such a reading is viable. If we take, for example, the psalms directly attributed to David in Book II (found in Psalms 51-71) we find the wrath of God against sinners either directly mentioned or alluded to in 52:5, 53:5, 55:23, 56:7, 58:6-8, 59:5 & 9-13, 64:7-8, 65:1-2 & 21-23, and 69:22-28. None of this proves Morris’ exegesis is correct, but it does prove that the concepts of sin and divine wrath/retribution are connected in the context and thus Morris is not working without some foundation.

  2. J says:

    In general I like your way of reading the psalms, Luke. As a collection, that is.

    Morris himself does not use the wider psalter as his evidence. He tries to prove his case from within Psalm 65.

    However Morris has told us he accepts that hilaskomai means simple forgiveness, unless the context demands propitiation “as a necessary feature”.

    God’s wrath is certainly a feature of the broader context. But that doesn’t give us anything as specific as propitiation as a ‘necessary feature’ of the forgiveness mentioned in 65. Morris fails to meet his own standard of evidence.

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