Is the Cross a Propitiation? – Part 2: Leon Morris

Posted: September 2, 2015 by J in Bible, Book review, Linguistics, Theology
Tags: , , , , ,

confess(In the previous post we began our assessment of the work of Leon Morris on the word ‘propitiation’. Here’s the rest.)

Next Morris turns to hilasmos. He concludes once again that ‘whenever’ it means forgiveness the circumstances indicate the turning away of divine wrath.

One example should be enough to test the quality of this conclusion. In Psalm 130, we read ‘but there is forgiveness with you’. The context celebrates God’s loving orientation towards Israel. He does not mark their sins but will instead redeem them from them all. It would seem that God’s wrath is far from view in this Psalm. But no, Morris finds propitiation implied even here: “the word occurs in a context of trouble.” That’s it, that’s the proof. Did you catch it? The writer is facing troubles: a clear statement of God’s wrath(!) Apparently God has marked the psalmist’s sins after all. And not only is God’s wrath here: for Morris the turning away of wrath is a ‘necessary feature’ implied by this context of trouble.

It seems there is no context where Morris cannot find the idea of God’s wrath being turned away. I suppose he might say the whole Bible is such a context – in which case every word in it must necessarily speak of propitiation! In any case, Morris’s approach makes the business of considering individual examples of usage pretty pointless: we know what the outcome will always be.

Next is hileos. Morris’s comment on Deuteronomy 21:8 is revealing. The context is all about the removal of guilt in case of murder. Clearly expiation is in view. The elders are to sacrifice a heifer and say, “Do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain upon your people.” There is no mention here of wrath or punishment. In spite of this, Morris detects it: “It is difficult to interpret this other than as a propitiatory rite.” Why is that? Why could it not be, say, an expiatory rite? No reasons are given. In fact we already know that Morris has ruled out the category of simple expiation a priori. Actually one gets the feeling that this comment of Morris’s pretty much sums up his approach to studying the usage of the hilas– word-group: he finds it difficult to seriously consider interpretations other than propitiatory ones. If so, this tells us about Morris – but not about hileos.

The real test for Morris comes with exilaskomai.  For the word is mainly used in Leviticus, in a cultic context. But in Leviticus there is no mention, no suggestion of God’s wrath: the focus is always on the removal of sin or guilt. In fact the book is remarkable for omitting this common OT idea, the wrath of God. In this cultic sphere, the category is apparently absent.

You might think it would be difficult to find propitiatory ideas, then, in this Levitical term, exilaskomai. But I think by now you’ll have guessed that Morris finds them. Here’s how he does it: there are a handful of occurrences of exilaskomai outside this cultic context. He decides that this reflects the normal usage of the word, and that the huge number of cultic occurances are the exceptional usage. Ok…

He calls these few non-cultic occurrences “what the verb means in itself quite apart from the conventional use of the cultus.” He then demonstrates to his own satisfaction that these few occurrences allow of a propitiatory interpretation. The next step is to let these few non-cultic occurrences to control the meaning of the term when found in a cultic context: they ‘give us the key to the understanding of the cultic references.’ They become in effect the tail that wags the dog. They force a propitiatory meaning onto the Levitical usage.

This is Morris at his worst. As we have pointed out elsewhere, this idea of an intrinsic meaning in a word ‘in and of itself’ apart from context and usage, this has been thoroughly discredited by a century of lexical semantics by now. Usage and context are the keys to word meaning. For Morris to extract the word from its cultic setting in order to pin down its ‘real’ meaning apart from all the distractions of context, is naive. To then reimport this meaning into the cultic usage, is to commit the ‘illegitimate identity transfer’ which James Barr complained was such a common error among biblical scholars. A word’s meaning in one context cannot determine its meaning in a very different context.

In fact, words take on different meanings in different settings. Especially in a technical setting like the Levitical instructions, a word could easily have a special meaning. The legitimate way to discover that meaning is to look at Levitical usage. Simple. But that yields an ‘expiation’ result…

At the end of this chapter studying the OT usage of the hilas- word-group, Morris summarises his position beautifully: “When we reach the stage where we must say ‘When the LXX translators used “propitiation” they did not mean propitiation’, it is surely time to call a halt. No sensible man uses one word when he means another.” This would seem to be a conclusive argument – if the LXX was using ‘propitiation’. But that is precisely what Morris is attempting to prove. What this sums up so clearly is that Morris has all along been assuming the meaning of the word in order to prove that assumption. He might as well say, “It must mean propitiation, because that’s what it means.” We might remember that he began his discussion with this same argument. This silliness does nothing to advance our understanding of the hilas- group.

Such large-scale and persistent methodological flaws and follies as we have identified render Morris’s work of little value as a contribution to the study of the hilas word-group. The fact is that neither he, nor the ‘authorities’ he adduces, seem to understood how to employ the disciplines of modern lexical semantics (the science of studying words).

Sadly the evangelical constituency for which he was writing had even less understanding of these things than he did, and so were easily impressed by the appearance of scholarship. I for one grew up on this diet, being assured that “it has now been settled by the best scholars that this word means ‘propitiation’”. It is distressing to revisit this from a linguistic point of view, and find such poor quality work. I come away from this review feeling that the Christian community deserved better from a scholar they trusted so much.

In summary, pretty much everyone agrees that the idea of ‘expiation’ is central to in LXX usage of the hilas- word-group. Morris has argued that propitiatory ideas are also to the fore whenever this root is used. But he has not produced convincing evidence for this. The best we could say is, he has shown from the usage that ‘propitiation’ is sometimes in view in some of the terms studied. But in other hilas- words – in particular those connected with the Levitical sacrifices – there is no evidence of ‘propitiation’.

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