Blood 1So what does hilas- actually mean? Morris didn’t have the linguistic chops to do the word-study. What would it look like if he had?

We are going to employ some of the basic tools of lexical semantics, nothing too technical, and see what we can learn about this term. (For a brief Dummies Guide to the tools we’ll be using, see here.)

Getting set up

First, we need to keep in mind that we are doing a word-study not a theological study. So at the end we are not going to be ready to answer the question in the title. Sorry. But hopefully we will be able to say what hilas- means in the NT.

Second, we are studying a Greek term, not an English one: hilas- not ‘propitiation’. So we don’t know what it means yet. And there’s no one we can ask. The only authority on NT Greek alive today is Jesus of Nazareth, and he is not currently taking questions. There is no authoritative book of definitions we can fall back on. We just have to figure out what it means from the way it’s used. Just like the guys who write the lexicons. So it’s all about usage, folks.

Third, there is probably more than one meaning for this term. There usually is. This is called a word’s semantic range. And when we look at the hilas- word group, there certainly seems to be a range of meanings. So we’re not going to end up with a tidy one-word answer that will make a nice chapter-title. Again, sorry.

sacred texts

sacred texts

Fourthly, we need to choose our territory. We are particularly interested in what hilas- means in the New Testament. But Morris was right to start his study in the LXX – because this is the literary context in which the NT documents were written. These are their sacred texts: they are massively influential. Simply put, the apostles’ writings are saturated with the language and imagery of the LXX. The NT documents are Jewish writings through and through. If you think in terms of concentric circles of context, the LXX is a close-in circle of context. Other domains, such as pagan/classical usage, are much further out and less influential. So we are going straight to the LXX to find our meanings there.

In the Old Testament LXX

Scholars agree that in the LXX hilas- very often conveys the sense of ‘cleansing’ or ‘expiation’. Here’s why: because it often has ‘sin’ as its object. In the usage, generally hilas- acts upon sin to make it better in some way. In other words, we’re talking cleansing, forgiveness, purification, purging – something of that sort is demanded by the usage.

However in some contexts a propitiatory sense seems to be in view, and at times perhaps both meanings are present. We will return to this.


a network of buddy-words

Nearly half of all the occurrences of hilas- in the LXX version of the OT are concentrated in two books: Leviticus and Numbers (76 out of 166 occurrences). The most frequent form of the word in the OT is exilaskomai (96 occurrences). So we will start with this term as it is used in Leviticus and Numbers.

In this context exilaskomai hangs out with buddy words like ‘sin’, ‘offering’, ‘release of sins’, ‘priest’, ‘blood’, ‘slaughter’, ‘altar’, ‘clean’, ‘purify’. These words create a field of meaning: they become a context for each other that influences the meaning of each word in the field. In these books, exilaskomai has a specific Levitical meaning, a strongly sacrificial flavour. It is practically a technical term for priestly operations.

One piece of grammar is very revealing here: in this priestly setting exilaskomai never has a personal direct object: i.e. there is no offended party in view being acted on. Rather it is the sins of the people which are acted upon: exilaskomai is what happens to their guilt. The categories at work are clean and unclean, not wrath and peace. Here exilaskomai means ‘cleansing from sin’ or ‘expiation’.

The other main forms of hilas- that occur in this Levitical context also relate to sacrifice. The hilasterion is a part of the ark: the ‘mercy seat’ or ‘atonement cover’ where blood offerings are sprinkled once a year on the day of atonement. And that day itself is called the day of hilasmos: ’the day of cleansing/atonement.’ This was a special day for acknowledgement of sin and sacrifices of cleansing. On this day offerings taken into the hilasterion achieve exilaskomai. So the three terms are closely linked, centred around the Levitical system of sacrifices and especially the day of atonement.

So we can say that in these sacrificial contexts in the LXX, hilas- nearly always refers to cleansing not propitiation: the removal of sin, not the turning away of wrath. This reflects the role the Levitical sacrifices have in the life of Israel. Leviticus/Numbers makes it very clear that the sacrificial system is established for the cleansing of unintentional sins:

When anyone sins unintentionally in any of the LORD’S commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them: … he shall offer for the sin that he has committed            (Leviticus 4:1-3 – see also the comment on this in Hebrews 9:7).

In the Torah, these sins in ignorance are never said to arouse God’s wrath. God’s wrath is only ever aroused through Israel’s deliberate unfaithfulness. But dealing with rebellion like this goes well beyond the paygrade of the sons of Aaron. Sacrifice is not adequate to propitiate an angry God. It was never intended for this purpose.

Elsewhere in the OT, on occasions when God’s wrath is aroused, hilas- terms can be used to mean ‘propitiation’. Compare the very different use of hilaskomai in Exodus 32:14. Moses is on the mountain pleading for the people: a non-sacrificial context. The people have deliberately sinned with the golden calf, and Yahweh plans to destroy them. But then we read:

And Yahweh was hilasthe concerning the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Note the differences here: there is a direct personal object: Yahweh. The verb affects him: God is turned away from the evil he had planned for Israel. Here it is not cleansing which is in view: it is all about God’s anger. This purely propitiatory usage is fairly rare.


circles of context

We have seen two outer limits of the usage of hilas-: simple cleansing and simple propitiation. In most other occurrences of this wordgroup in the OT, things are not so simple. Sin, not God, is usually the object, the thing acted on. This suggests a widespread expiatory meaning. However it is often possible to argue (as Morris does) that ideas of wrath are hovering about in the wider context, flavouring hilas- with a ‘background’ propitiatory sense.

How strong is that flavouring? In terms of our concentric circles of context, the strength of the influence will depend on proximity: propitiatory ideas nearby (say in the same verse or chapter) will influence the sense of hilas- more, while those in the wider context (say, elsewhere in the same bible book) would be in an outer circle, and so flavour hilas- only slightly. In other words, even when the term means ‘cleansing’, the sense of propitiation can be overlaid on this to varying degrees.


This brief survey of hilas- in the LXX has yielded some helpful results. It has identified the ‘home ground’ of the group: Leviticus/Numbers, and its most common semantic territory – Levitical cleansing. It has also given us two outer limits of the word-group’s meanings: simple ‘cleansing’ and simple ‘propitiation’. We have also seen how these meanings can be combined and sit together in a single occurrence.

That’s our OT survey. Now we are ready for the main event: how is hilas- used in the NT?

Tomorrow: hilas- in the New Testament

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’.

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.

judgment_by_fullofeyes-d4zg5o1There is one word in Scripture which evangelicals have pointed to as evidence for Satisfaction Theory: the hilas- word group which is sometimes translated ‘Atoning sacrifice.’ Evangelicals often claim that it really means ‘propitiation.’

This word-group deserves treatment as a kind of appendix to our series on ST. For if the claim is true that hilas- means propitiation, then that might be evidence of ST in Scripture – since propitiation is a similar idea to satisfaction.

The story of propitiation goes like this: the god is angry with us. We will suffer the consequences of his wrath unless we can placate or propitiate him in some way. This concept is common in pagan religions the world over. Most Christians (including many evangelical scholars) agree that this view of god is horrendous and incompatible with the God of Israel. However some have gone for a modified take on propitiation.

How is this modified view different from the pagan one? It’s not easy to articulate this, but one distinctive is in the role played by God. In the Christian take on propitiation there is nothing we can do to turn aside God’s wrath. But God makes a way of atonement – a propitiation. His wrath is turned aside elsewhere (onto Christ) and so we escape.  This is necessary for our salvation, for his wrath must go somewhere: God cannot simply switch it off.

You can see that this has the same thought-structure as Satisfaction Theory. Propitiation is really a variant of satisfaction. This is why the hilas word group tends to be prominent in evangelical accounts of ST.

So does hilas- mean ‘propitiation’? And if so, can this word swing the debate in favour of Satisfaction Theory? We’ll take these questions in reverse order.

Firstly, can this word swing the debate in favour of ST? 

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that hilas- did mean ‘propitiation’. Would that establish the popular evangelical idea that the Cross of Christ atones by rendering satisfaction?

The reliance on ‘hilas-’ to establish this doctrine is an example of one of our evangelical besetting sins: doing our theology through word studies. We like the idea that a whole lot of meaning (= theology) can be stored in a single word. We can extract it from the word, and ‘hey presto!’ – instant theology.

Actually words don’t work in this way. And neither does theology. Modern linguistics tells us that meaning (i.e. theology) does not reside so much in individual words as it does in sentences, paragraphs, stories, books –  i.e. in larger units of language. To do our theology well, we need to exegete texts, not individual words. Ultimately the whole bible story is the unit that encodes the meaning we need. In other words biblical theology is the discipline to work with for building our theology – not word studies. To jump straight from word study to theology is to short circuit the whole process of actually reading the text.

So we should be wary of any argument that proceeds on the basis of word-studies. The hilas word-group (or any other word-group) can never be a strong argument for ST, or for any other doctrine.

For more on the problem of word-study theologising, see here.

Tomorrow: Does hilas- mean ‘propitiation’?

The-Return-of-the-King-Smeagols-BirthdayIt’s time to ask the question, why have evangelicals been so attached to this medieval theory for so long? It’s not exactly leaping off the page of Scripture demanding to be noticed. Why do we give such airtime to an idea that has so little exegetical backing?

Here we are into the realm of opinion. I can only offer my impressions. I used to hold to this satisfaction stuff. Why did I?

1. ST has become an identity marker

As liberal Christians rejected the idea of the wrath of God and everything that went with it, this area became more important for evangelicals’ sense of identity. We have long defined ourselves over against liberals. We have wanted clear ways to signal who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’. God’s wrath has become a handy identity marker for us. This being so, it is appealing to have an account of God’s wrath that is as hard-core as possible. Satisfaction theory absolutises the demands of wrath. It helps us maintain our polar opposition to liberal compromise. At the political level, it works well for us.

In other words, ST has become so closely identified with our movement, that it’s hard for us to imagine letting it go. If we stopped teaching ST, who would we be then? It’s a scary thought.

2. ST provides a simple explanation

The cross is fundamentally mysterious. But the church in the West has always had a leaning towards processes, laws and mechanics. It comes out of Roman culture. We want things analysed and explained. They aren’t like that in the Eastern church: they’re more comfortable with mystery. But we want clarity.

So we want a clear simple account of the mechanics of the cross. We want to know how it works. ST offers a very simple explanation that claims the be complete and adequate: the cross is a satisfaction. We feel like we really need this. It needs to be logical so we can explain it to people.

We want something you can draw as a diagram, put in a pamphlet and train people to recite. It needs to be reducible to a few boxes. It needs to be simple and clear!

We don’t want to be saying ‘The cross is a mystery that saves you’. We want to be able to say ‘Here’s what it’s all about.’ Scripture doesn’t say much about the mechanics of the cross, but the logic of ST covers the gaps and gives us the simple explanation we require. That’s hard to resist, and hard to give up even though we might have doubts about Scripture backing.

3. ST is a powerful and compelling idea.

Necessity. Implacable wrath. Unstoppable justice. Terrible danger. God’s grace wrestling against his anger. A great escape.

It’s hot stuff. It’s a high energy story. Luther more than anyone sensed the dramatic potential of the story and brought it out.

Satisfaction Theory makes the gospel seem urgent and important. We are ‘sinners in the hands of an angry God’, dangling over the pit, liable at any moment to be dropped into the fire. For anyone who buys this picture, it provides a strong motive for turning to Christ.

We have a kind of feeling that without this the gospel would lose its cutting edge, its forcefulness and immediacy.

4. ST is less personally confronting than other atonement theories.

Because Satisfaction Theory locates the main problem outside of us, it can leave our sense of self intact.  ST’s focus on our legal status takes the spotlight off our moral condition, our heart-trouble.

It works like this. I can acknowledge that I have sinned, fallen short of perfection, and yet maintain my sense of superiority and pride towards others. I might be guilty, but I’m basically a decent person. I’ll admit I’ve infringed God’s law (who hasn’t!), but I don’t have to admit that I’m greedy or blind or full of hatred. I’m willing to say I’m a sinner, but this is more a comment on my record than on my character. I have sinned in the past, but that doesn’t mean that sin defines me. In any given situation I can take it or leave it. This is much less confronting than the idea of sin as slavery or a kind of heart-disease characterised by stubborn rejection of God, which we’ve seen pervades the Bible story.

ST gives us, in fact, a comfortable middle-class version of sin that does little to challenge our lifestyles or the godless structures of our self-centred consumerist society.


Well that’s how it looks from where I’m standing anyway. Seems to me those are the main reasons evangelicals are attached to this medieval theory, in spite of its weak attestation in Scripture. The very suggestion that ST may not be biblical feels like a threat, an assault on Who We Are, an undermining of our simple certainty. That’s why even after being shown the exegetical problems (see previous posts), many evangelicals will still cling to ST with a kind of reverent loyalty.

What do you reckon? Have I missed anything? There may be other reasons I haven’t noticed.

Good-Friday-Cross-JesusWe uncovered some pretty serious objections to Satisfaction Theory from the point of view of salvation history. Now let’s think about how it runs in terms of theology more generally. What contribution does ST make to our understanding of God and of ourselves?

ST captures the Scripture emphases that sin is costly and that God’s wrath is serious. It helps us to see that the Cross was necessary. We needed what Jesus did. Without it there would be no salvation. ST foregrounds these realities. This is good. But there are theological drawbacks too:

1. ST casts God’s justice in a negative light.

“God says you…need to be rescued from his judgement”. This quote from a NSW Anglican School Scripture teaching resource was recently used by atheists in a campaign to shut down Scripture. At least they quoted us accurately. For this statement typifies evangelical evangelism, where I come from. It comes straight out of Satisfaction Theory. God’s judgement, according to ST, is the obstacle to our salvation. God’s justice is the problem. Our only hope is to escape it. Sure, we are to blame for our predicament: we sinned and so we deserve it. But now, no matter what we do now, the judgement is irreversible and implacable. Unless someone can rescue us from it, we are lost.

This of course is to cast God’s judgement in a very negative light. It is the raging monster that has been let out of its cage, and won’t go back in. It is the machine that has been started and now no one knows how to switch it off. Pandora’s box which, once opened, cannot be closed again.

The trouble is, in Scripture God’s judgement (the same idea as his justice) is a good thing. It is the solution, not the problem. Justice is what God’s oppressed people long for:

The LORD works vindication

and justice for all who are oppressed.       Psalm 103:6

His justice is what his people love about Yahweh: they boast of it with joy:

Let Mount Zion be glad,

let the towns of Judah rejoice

because of your judgments.  Psalm 48:11

When Messiah comes he will establish God’s justice:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations. 

…he will faithfully bring forth justice

He will not grow faint or be crushed

until he has established justice in the earth;

and the coastlands wait for his teaching.      Isaiah 42

This justice/judgement is very much like salvation, the way the prophets see it:

your judgements are like the great deep;

you save humans and animals alike, O LORD.    Psalm 36:6

But Satisfaction Theory, of course, cannot accept this view of things. God’s judgement/justice must be cast in the role of ‘problem’, otherwise no satisfaction is needed, and ST doesn’t work at all.

ST, then hedges us in to a view of God’s justice which is a far cry from what we find in Scripture. Instead of teaching us to embrace God’s justice, ST warns us to escape it. It perverts this central soteriological idea and in doing so distorts the whole shape of salvation.

2. ST tends to make God’s will subordinate to a higher power.  God is placed under a necessity, either by the demands of honour or by the demands of justice or wrath. He cannot do what he would like (be reconciled to us) until he has fulfilled the requirements of this standard. We say “Not even God can deny the demands of justice.” Anselm said “Not even God can deny the demands of honour.” Why not? Because it would not be fitting. One can imagine God throwing up his hands and saying, ‘What can I do? I can’t go against justice. I’ll have to punish you, I have no choice.’

In this view the standard is absolutised, so that it becomes more absolute than God himself. It is a rigid governing authority which cannot be resisted, not even by God.

Now it doesn’t matter whether you locate the standard inside or outside of God himself: either way we are setting up an immovable obstacle in the path of God’s will, which he must negotiate before he can proceed with his purposes.

The problem with this story is that the God it describes is not free in his own actions. He cannot carry out his will freely. He must submit to the demands of the higher power. That power, whether we call it justice or wrath or honour – that power is then the real god, the highest authority lying behind God’s authority. And it subjects Him to necessity.

This may not sound so bad to you. But any theologian will tell you that necessity is not compatible with the Christian view of God. For in Scripture, God’s freedom is absolutely essential to his identity: “I am who I am!” By now we have arrived at a serious distortion of the faith. But this perversion of an unfree God is buried inside the satisfaction concept.

3. ST doesn’t leave much room for the resurrection

Satisfaction Theory is in effect an explanation of what happened in Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s about punishment, suffering, the exacting of a penalty. But it is not at all clear what ST has to say about Jesus’ resurrection. For once Jesus has died, satisfaction is complete. There is no more to be done.

Jesus’ resurrection then becomes a kind of add-on, a bonus if you like, but not integral or essential to the story. Resurrection doesn’t really have anything to do with satisfaction of justice, does it? In fact Jesus doesn’t need to be alive any more for the theory to function. Once satisfaction has been rendered by a sacrifice, it doesn’t matter what happens to the victim. We don’t need a continuing living Saviour: it’s all been done already. ST pretty much leaves Jesus on the cross.

So ST gives us a fat doctrine of the cross and a very slender doctrine of the resurrection or of Jesus’ resurrection life now.

To put it another way, there’s not much of a role for the Spirit in Satisfaction Theory. The atonement becomes basically a transaction between Father and Son – not a trinitarian event. For what part does the Spirit play in Jesus’ death? Not much. The Spirit comes in in the resurrection – but we’ve seen that ST doesn’t have much to say about that. So the Spirit gets pretty-much left out of the atonement.

I think if I were going to buy into a theory of the atonement, I’d want it to be one that included the resurrection, and the Trinity – wouldn’t you?



The Satisfaction Theory of the atonement does a certain amount of work for us, but it comes at a considerable cost, theologically speaking. For my money, its decentring of the resurrection and its distorting effect on God’s freedom and justice in salvation, disqualify it as a truly Christian doctrine. The price is too high to pay, if we can possibly avoid it.

And I’m pretty sure we can avoid it. I reckon there are other ways of talking about the atonement that do the same good job as ST without the drawbacks.

20-parable-vineyardWe’ve seen that the demand for legal satisfaction is not at all prominent in story of the OT, at least not the way the prophets saw it. What about the New Testament? Does a concern for satisfaction come to the fore in Jesus and the apostles?

In John 8 there is a revealing argument about Israel’s history. Jesus tells the Jews, “If you continue in my word…the truth will set you free.” They respond, “We are Abraham’s children and have never been slaves of anyone!” Here are two rival views of the nation and the challenges it faces. These Jews see themselves as fundamentally free people. But for Jesus their great problem is slavery to sin: “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” And this situation of enslavement jeopardises Israel’s place in God’s kingdom: “the slave does not have a permanent place in the household.”

By setting up this slavery-freedom paradigm, Jesus is basically reaffirming the point of view of the prophets: Israel’s main threat is her own corrupt heart and refusal to turn. But notice what is downplayed in this model: issues of guilt and wrath are not the presenting problem. There is no justice-imperative in view here, or demand of offended honour. There is a suggestion of the wrath of God, but indirectly. Nowhere in John’s gospel does Jesus set up a guilt-wrath paradigm for understanding Israel’s predicament. Rather, judgement will be the final result only if Israel persists in rejecting the one God has sent. In other words the obstacle is not on God’s side, but on theirs. Eventually they are going to reap what they are sowing, and miss out on their place in the kingdom. Jesus tells this same story throughout John’s gospel: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” (3:19)

In the synoptics, when Jesus tells the story of Israel, God’s wrath is more prominent. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down!” Once again Jesus connects with the viewpoint of the prophets: he is retelling the story Isaiah tells in song, in Isaiah 5:

My beloved had a vineyard

on a very fertile hill… 

he expected it to yield grapes,

but it yielded wild grapes.

For Jesus, as for Isaiah, the problem here is the long-term failure of Israel to respond to God. There is no satisfaction-demand in view. In fact Jesus makes the point that God’s judgement is not at all inevitable. The tree is not to be chopped down now, but given one last chance. Judgement will only fall if the nation fails to turn.

In fact, in the synoptics the story is never ‘Israel’s guilt has made it liable to God’s inescapable wrath’ – as it so often is in our evangelism. No, the message is always ‘Israel’s stubborn rejection will lead finally to judgement’. Guilt or even sin as such is not the problem highlighted in any of the gospels: the problem is always people rejecting Messiah.

Once again we are seeing that in his discussion of the meta-narrative of salvation history, Jesus locates the problem firmly in man, not in God or in an abstract universal principle such as ‘justice’ or ‘honour’. The sticking point, the thing that needs to be dealt with, is us. “Jerusalem! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34)

In Romans 2, when Paul reflects on the story of Israel, he is even more explicit about God’s wrath than the gospels are. But once again we find no idea of a demand for satisfaction. Rather Paul has the same emphasis we have seen before on the problem of ongoing wickedness: “You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Israel has possessed the law but has never been faithful to it. What is it that activates God’s judgement? Is it the smallest infringement of the absolute requirements of the law? Is it a failure to achieve perfection? No, “By your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath” (Romans 2). The decisive factor that is going to make or break the nation is their own hearts, their ongoing godless behaviour.

Paul also insists that if only those hearts could change, God would be very happy to come to the party. “ Circumcision indeed is of value if you keep the law…if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? … for real circumcision is a matter of the heart… Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.”

When we turn to the evangelism of Acts, do we find the apostles telling a story of the Satisfaction-type? “All have sinned at least once, no one measures up to God’s standard of perfection. Therefore justice demands that we be punished.” That sort of thing? The answer is nope. That is not the picture the apostles paint of the human predicament – not anywhere. Think about how Paul explains to the Athenians their own story (Acts 17):

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 

Paul tells them, You Greeks have been idolators since forever. God has overlooked this, treated it as ignorance. But now times have changed. God is fixing the world through the man Jesus. He’s calling you to turn back to him. 

What about their past sin of idolatry? What needs to happen about that? Satisfaction? Someone has to pay? Paul could have said, “you guys are in big trouble. Do you realise the weight of wrath that is stored up to your account? Now, how do you think you’re going to deal with that?” But he doesn’t go there at all. He says the opposite: God has overlooked your sins in the past – now you need to sort out the future. 

“You guys need to change”. It’s the same story as the prophets, as Jesus, as Paul in Romans 2. The story has the same central themes we’ve seen all along, even though the audience is now Gentile not Jewish. The issues to be sorted are not in God but in man.


That’s the story. It’s pretty consistent isn’t it. The meta-story from the OT prophets is continued through the NT. The same meta-issues are foregrounded throughout. God is very willing to forgive and be reconciled. The problem has always been our unwillingness and foolish idolatry. The obstacle is in us, not in God.

Now if we turn once again to Satisfaction Theory – the idea of the cross as a legal satisfaction, a rendering of the demands of offended honour, or as the exhausting of the fullness of God’s wrath – the thing that stands out is how little this theory connects with the story Jesus, Paul and Luke were telling. ST fails to answer the main questions the meta-narrative of Scripture raises. It provides an answer for a question that was never on centre stage.

We earlier made the point that when you look at how Anselm, Calvin and others developed their ideas about Satisfaction, you can see that they weren’t starting from the Bible story. And now when we look at that story, Satisfaction Theory doesn’t seem to be a good fit with it. It is not actually a very helpful concept from the point of view of biblical theology.

That’s a pretty serious flaw for any idea wanting to be accepted as a Christian doctrine.

court-gavelI have realised over the years that Satisfaction Theory jars for me. I’m ready to make my confession: when I sing those songs (see previous post), I feel my heart cringe inside me for a moment. I find the whole idea more of a hindrance than a help.

Why is that? Is it because I’m a closet liberal and want to secretly undermine the idea of God’s wrath? Hard to say, but meanwhile, I’d like to re-examine the Satisfaction Theory of the atonement (ST), take a critical look at it, and see if I can crystalise my concerns.

There are many ways we could come at critiquing ST. One is to ask, why is this theory of the atonement popular among evangelicals? I think in fairness we should come back to this sociological issue at the end.

So let’s start with biblical concerns, then move on to theological ones. And finally address sociological/political issues.


The most obvious objection to satisfaction theory from a biblical standpoint is that it’s very difficult to find it taught in any particular place in Scripture. The bible frequently asserts the more general truth that Christ died for our sins, but rarely does it get more specific. In particular, it never uses a term meaning ‘satisfaction’ in relation to the Cross. I hear it taught so often, but never with convincing textual support.

In fact there is no place in the Bible where God’s wrath or justice is said to be ‘satisfied’ or requiring satisfaction (in spite of the NRSV’s dodgy translations in Ezekiel, it’s not there in the Hebrew or the LXX).

Lack of satisfaction terminology is not a knock-down argument against ST. But it should definitely give us pause.

A much more serious objection relates to biblical theology. Put simply, ST does not seem to have arisen through reflection on the story of salvation history. Rather, it developed in a more abstract theological setting. Reading Anselm or Calvin, they are simply not starting from this place: the questions they are asking are worked out in a much more logical, systematic environment. “How might this atonement thing work? How can we make sense of it? Let’s collect some texts that address this. Let’s reason it out from first principles. How does it fit with other doctrines we believe?” That sort of approach.

What is notably lacking is biblical theology. I.e. there is little or no attempt to approach the atonement from the point of view of the narrative of God’s works as recorded in Scripture. And this is a real concern. All kinds of theories can be made to sound plausible, biblical – but without this discipline of biblical theology, the potential for introducing foreign ideas and distortions is great. It’s so easy to set up questions using imported categories foreign to Scripture, and deduce answers that make sense in those same categories, all with apparent Scripture backing from proof texts – but without ever connecting with the themes or narrative of Scripture.

And in fact this concept of ‘satisfaction’ would seem to fall down at this very point: it’s not easy to see how it is congruent with the bible’s meta-story.

Think about this: in ST, the great obstacle to be overcome is one located in God himself, or in an abstract universal standard like ‘honour’ or ‘justice’ – rather than a problem down here on the ground. Once we had sinned in Adam, the problem was entrenched, and nothing we did would have made any difference to it. Though (hypothetically speaking) every human from then on had been repentant and obedient, the great obstacle would have remained. Once Israel had sinned and turned away from God, his wrath would have been invoked, the justice of the law would have laid down its demand for punishment, and nothing Israel did after that would have made the slightest difference. After all, “What satisfies the law? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

In this view, the problem from the Fall onwards has always been God’s justice. For God to establish his kingdom and salvation a way must be found to avoid his justice: we must escape from the judgement of God. We evangelicals often find ourselves talking like this.

ST and the Old Testament 

If we compare this with the Old Testament, ST would lead us to expect laments in the prophets of this sort:

When I would restore the fortunes of my people, 

when I would heal Israel,

the guilt of Ephraim is revealed,

and the righteous demands of my justice which cannot be silenced.


I want to redeem them,

but my wrath will not be turned back.


How can I pardon you?

Your children have neglected my honour,

and it must be satisfied.

But in fact we never do find such sayings in the prophets. No, the story they tell goes like this:

When I would restore the fortunes of my people,

when I would heal Israel,

the corruption of Ephraim is revealed,

and the wicked deeds of Samaria;

for they deal falsely,

the thief breaks in,

and the bandits raid outside…

Now their deeds surround them,

they are before my face.          Hosea 6:11-7:2

I want to redeem them,

but they speak lies against me.     Hosea 7:13

It’s a pretty consistent story throughout the prophets:

How can I pardon you?

Your children have forsaken me,

and have sworn by those who are no gods.     Jeremiah 5:7

Here the problem is located firmly on earth. The barrier that hinders God’s blessing and salvation is in man, not in God or in an abstract sphere. God is willing: his people are unwilling. God is offended and angry, yes. Yet Yahweh is ready to forgive: but his people are not ready to repent.

Moreover, this is the way the prophets always talkThis is the story they consistently tell, the story of Israel, the story of mankind. “All we like sheep had gone astray”. The name Israel means ‘struggled with God’, and that correctly describes the nation. They are the ones who always turn away:

You shall say to them, “Thus says the LORD:

‘When people fall, do they not get up again?

If they go astray, do they not turn back? 

Why then has this people turned away

in perpetual backsliding?

They have held fast to deceit,

they have refused to return

I have given heed and listened,

but they do not speak honestly;

no one repents of wickedness,

saying, “What have I done!” ‘”          Jeremiah 8:4-6

That’s the story. That’s the meta-problem of the OT narrative: stubborn, persistent rebellion. That’s what needs to be overcome in order to bring salvation and the fruition of God’s purposes.

ST suggests that once we have sinned there is nothing we could do that could possibly fix things. Judgement must be enacted. But the prophets insist that if Israel turns, there really is forgiveness and healing:

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another,  if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt,  then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.   Jeremiah 7:5-7

Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts…Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. Malachi 3: 7-10

There is something Israel could do: she could renew her relationship with Yahweh if she would turn. But she will not.

It is true that for reconciliation and at-one-ment to take place, there must be forgiveness on God’s side also. He is the rightly offended party. But in the prophets this is not identified as the sticking point. In fact, the God of justice is already overflowing with mercy. From the beginning He identified himself by this quality.

The LORD, the LORD,

a God merciful and gracious,

slow to anger,

and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.          Exodus 34:6

God is sovereign in his mercy: he forgives when and where he likes. This is fundamental to his lordship. More than once, Moses finds that Yahweh the just can be successfully persuaded to forgive.  The problem then that creates the drama of the OT narrative is not the intransigence of God’s judgement. The prophets never long to dodge God’s justice. The change they long for lies elsewhere, in the hearts of men.

Can you see the problem with Satisfaction Theory?

When we come to the gospel story and ask, ‘How does God save us at the Cross of Jesus?’, surely the answer must be in the same categories that the prophets used? If the OT functions like a great question, with the gospel as the answer, then must not the answer relate pretty closely to the question? If the NT gospel provides the final and climactic chapter of the long Scripture narrative, we could be forgiven for expecting that it might resolve the main dilemmas in that story.

If the problem has centred around the abiding presence and power of sin in mankind, then it is reasonable to look for a solution, a salvation, that also centres on this problem. To put it simply, we are looking first and foremost for a way of release from our sin problem, a means of escape from our slavery. We need God’s forgiveness, yes, but the sticking point is our sinful hearts and lives.

But ST turns up an answer which pushes these issues to the periphery, and centres instead on acquital. However, as we have seen, acquital was never the main issue in the story. ST switches the discourse to a different category – the legal one. It gives an answer to a different question, not the one the OT centred on. The solution it offers does not meet the problem. Put simply, ST derails the narrative of redemption, distracting attention from its big issues. It tells a story, but not the Bible’s story. It dislocates the gospel from salvation-history. In particular it makes the whole history of Israel an irrelevance. (You can see this in many ‘gospel presentations’ based on ST: they routinely omit Israel, and don’t even miss it!).

It seems that ST doesn’t sit very comfortably with God’s revelation of himself in the OT prophets. In my book that’s a pretty serious objection to the theory.

Tomorrow: ST and the New Testament

death-of-Jesus-on-the-crossThere are many theories of the atonement, explaining how Jesus’ death (and possibly resurrection) achieves salvation. Of all of them, the one I find perhaps the most problematic is the one I keep encountering in my own evangelical tradition: the idea of satisfaction.

It’s in so many of our songs:

In our place He pays our ransom
Satisfies the law – Rob Smith

What satisfies the law
Nothing but the blood of Jesus – Lowry/Morrow

Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied          – Stuart Townend.

Your justice has been met
And holy wrath is satisfied
Through one atoning death – Bob Kauflin

‘Satisfaction’ theory goes like this: our sin creates a demand, which must be met. Until it is met there can be no salvation. The atonement is then the story of how God meets the demand, and thus makes our salvation possible. He meets it through the death of Jesus his son. Jesus’ death satisfies the demand on our behalf so that there is no longer any claim on us.

An unspoken addition or assumption within this theory is often: not even God can save us until satisfaction has been made.

So what is the demand which must be met or satisfied? There are a few different versions of satisfaction theory, which give different answers to that question:

1. Honour:

Satisfaction theory was first developed by Anselm in the 10th century. For a thousand years before him, the church did not teach this idea: the dominant view of the atonement was of a ransom.

Anselm saw sin as dishonouring to God, robbing him of the honour he was due. Christ’s death however is the ultimate act of obedience, and so honours God greatly. In fact, by going beyond the call of duty, it renders more honour than was needed! So Christ’s death is a work of supererogation: it has virtue to spare which can be shared with us. His death renders to God the honour we owed him but withheld.

Why was this so important? Because God could not forgive sinners until his honour was satisfied:

So then, if it be not fitting for God to do anything unjustly, or out of course, then it does not belong to his liberty or compassion or will to let the sinner go unpunished who makes no return to God of what the sinner has defrauded him. Cur Deus Homo I.12

This statement is important: God has no liberty to release sinners until the demand of honour has been met. God himself must satisfy honour before he can achieve his goal of salvation for man.

From this unpromising start, the doctrine went on to be developed further by the c.16th Reformers.

2. Justice

Calvin (the lawyer) transferred this theory into legal categories. He taught that it is God’s justice that must be satisfied.  For God to forgive sin would be unjust, and so he is restricted in his action. He must find a way to save sinners that at the same time satisfies the demands of justice. And what justice demands, is punishment. Jesus was “made a substitute and a surety in the place of transgressors and even submitted as a criminal, to sustain and suffer all the punishment which would have been inflicted on them.” (Institutes 2.16.10)

This is often expressed in terms of God’s law, which is generally identified as the law of Moses. Since the law prescribes punishment for sin, it must be enforced. The law, then, makes demands – and even God is obliged to satisfy them.

In this model God’s justice or law functions as the real problem. Let man be repentant, let God be willing to forgive: no matter. Nothing can be done until justice has been appeased through a full punishment. For justice is an absolute.

The cross of Christ then is explained as an act of punishment: the Father inflicts the punishment and the Son endures it. It must be enough punishment to cover the sins of the whole world (or if you’re a five point Calvinist, the sins of the elect). The quantity of the suffering is vital here to make the model work. Jesus in some way suffers enough, and so justice is done. Mankind can be released.

From this idea of implacable justice, flows all the talk about escaping God’s judgement, which we hear so often in our evangelical tradition. You don’t hear, say, Greek Orthodox theologians speaking like this. It developed in the West.

3. Wrath

Luther emphasised the closely related idea that demands are made by God’s wrath. Wrath is an angry force which must be reckoned with – even by God himself. It must be appeased or propitiated. It literally cannot stop until it is satisfied. Not even God can stop it – the most He can do is to turn it aside and exhaust it in some way. If it can do enough damage, eventually it will be spent – kind of ‘burnt out’.

Thus there is an actual conflict within God’s person, between wrath and mercy. This conflict is focussed at the cross where Jesus becomes the sponge who absorbs God’s wrath until there is none left – notice that quantity is important again here. He does it by his death at the cross: “And on that cross where Jesus died/ the wrath of God is satisfied”. In Jesus God overcomes wrath with mercy.

On this account we are implicitly invited to side with God’s mercy and against his wrath: wrath is to be avoided and mercy embraced. Wrath is bad and mercy good. Since God has turned on himself in this way, we inevitably do also.

Satisfaction theory: I don’t know how you feel about it. Some people love it, others hate it. Personally my concerns are biblical and theological. From those points of view I find it extremely problematic.

Tomorrow we will try to understand why this theory has become so popular in the West, and how it relates to the teaching of the NT.

The problem with Tim Keller – part 2

Posted: August 5, 2015 by J in General

keller2-761312Such an interesting sermon on Acts 17 from Keller, about taking the gospel into the marketplace.

Paul could see under the surface of things, he could see that the city was driven and enslaved by idols. When Paul saw the idols, the word for ‘see’ really means more than just seeing. The word is ‘theoreo’ – from which we get the word ‘theorise’. It means to get inside something, see underneath the exterior, understand what’s at its base. Paul doesn’t just see the idols, he understands how society is dominated and controlled by them.

And that’s what we need to do too – see beneath the surface and understand the idolatry that rules peoples’ lives.

Brilliant, challenging, insightful.

THE ONLY PROBLEM is, that’s not what Luke says, and it’s not what Paul says. Not in Acts 17. The word ‘theoreo’ is the bog-standard word for ‘see’ in Luke/Acts. He uses it 21 times. In Luke 23 when the crowds stand by, looking at (theoreo) Jesus on the cross, I don’t think they were seeing beneath the surface of the event.  In Acts 8 when Simon the magician ‘saw (theoreo) the signs and great miracles’ that Philip was doing, we are not supposed to think he understood their inner nature: he just witnessed them, that’s all.

So where did Keller get the idea that theoreo means so much more than just ‘to see’? Not from the lexicons. Not from a study of usage in Luke-Acts. Probably from his own fertile imagination, I’m guessing.

And this was not just a passing detail in his sermon: it was a major point which he dwelt on at length.

This kind of bogus appeal to the Greek may facilitate Keller in making his interesting points about faith meeting culture and society. And I like the stuff Keller says about this. But it does little to enhance our understanding of what Luke was trying to say. And it tends to bring the whole exercise into disrepute.