The next several posts will address eleven effects that the blood of Christ has accomplished, that we celebrate at the table. The first of these effects is propitiation. The idea is a difficult one that has been debated for almost a century. C. H. Dodd raised the question whether propitiation is even a legitimately Christian concept. He referred to the use of the idea in Homer’s Iliad.
The Greeks at Troy were suffering under a plague sent by Apollo. Calchas, the “most excellent of augurs,” who received his power from Apollo, explained the cause of the disaster: “Neither by reason of a vow is he displeased, nor for any hecatomb, but for his priest’s sake to whom Agamemnon did despite, and set not his daughter free and accepted not the ransom; therefore hath the Far-darter brought woes upon us, yea, and will bring. Nor will he ever remove the loathly pestilence from the Danaans till we have given the bright-eyed damsel to her father, unbought, unransomed, and carried a holy hecatomb to Chryse; then might we propitiate him to our prayer,” (Iliad, 1:93-100, translated by W. Leaf, emphasis mine). The only way to “turn away” Apollo’s wrath was to “buy him off” with a sufficient sacrifice, a hecatomb, a sacrifice of one hundred oxen.
Such an idea is certainly sub-Christian. Would it not be better, Dodd thought, to rid ourselves of the low idea of God’s wrath and of buying it off? Would it not be better to render the Greek word as “expiation,” a term that means to “cleanse, purify … from guilt or pollution,” or “to pay the penalty for” sin (Oxford Classical Dictionary).
The one word, propitiation, focuses attention on God and His wrath. The other, expiation, focuses attention on human sin. A key response to Dodd’s objections came from Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. In two chapters of his book he dealt with the concept of propitiation, arguing, rightly, that Dodd had missed the most important point. In Homer, it is man who turns away God’s wrath. In the New Testament, by contrast, it is God who turns His own wrath away. By that much, at least, propitiation cannot be called a sub-Christian idea. Additionally, in Romans (3.25), where the Greek word appears for the first time in the NT, the wrath of God has already figured large in the book’s thought, controlling the passage 1.18-32 and the opening of chapter 2.
For most evangelicals, Morris has settled the question. While teaching theology a number of years ago, I set out to restudy the problem, not because I doubted Morris’s conclusions, but I felt that I needed to see all of the evidence for myself to speak with firsthand knowledge in my course on soteriology. The results of that study form the content of the next post.