Question: How do we best convey hilasterion in Romans 3:25?
The question sounds straightforward enough at first. Let’s just look up the word in the standard lexica. But it doesn’t take long to see the problem. Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich give two meanings for the noun in general: “means of expiation” and “place of propitiation.” They then do something they very rarely do, listing in bold-face type this particular verse under both meanings as alternate possibilities. There must be quite an exegetical debate here, and those who have studied the issue already know there is. The other problem is that probably no more than 1 in 100 Americans have any clue as to the meaning of either “expiation” or “propitiation.”
Louw and Nida at first glance seem a bit more helpful, offering as their two options “the means of forgiveness” and “the place of forgiveness,” explaining the latter as “the mercy seat.” But what in the world is a mercy seat? Is it maybe related to a love seat? Louw and Nida list Romans 3:25 only under “the means of forgiveness,” but then make the very extraordinary comment that translating hilasterion as “propitiation” involves a wrong interpretation, because “propitiation is essentially a process by which one does a favor to a person in order to make him or her favorably disposed, but in the NT God is never the object of propitiation since he is already on the side of people” (vol. 2, p. 504). Really? Have they ever read Romans 1:18ff. about the wrath of God being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness? Or that while we were still enemies God sent his Son to deal with our sin problem (Rom. 5:8)?
One must go back at least a half a century to the debate between C. H. Dodd and Leon Morris to scrutinize the lexical evidence in detail, after which it should become clear that hilasterion as a word, even before moving to a specific context, very much does mean a sacrifice to appease God’s wrath, making “propitiation” a better translation than “expiation,” which refers merely to that which atones for sin without presupposing any interpersonal enmity. This is what took place, in part, at the mercy seat that covered the ark of the covenant in the Old Testament tabernacle and temple, hence that rendering, but one which is opaque to everyone but those well taught in OT backgrounds. This also accounts for the footnote in the updated NIV: “The Greek for sacrifice of atonement refers to the atonement cover on the ark of the covenant (see Lev. 16:15,16).”
So for those translations that actually try to communicate rather than just using “propitiation,” “expiation,” or “mercy seat,” what options in commonly understood twenty-first century English are there? The New International Readers’ Version used “sacrifice to pay for sin.” The New Century Version reworded the entire first clause to yield, “God sent him to die in our place to take away our sins.” The Amplified Bible puts in parentheses, “the cleansing and life-giving sacrifice of atonement and reconciliation.” The Contemporary English New Testament, just released, reads “the place of sacrifice where mercy is found.”
Yet not one of these renderings captures the sense of removing God’s wrath, crucial to a full understanding of the concept. In fact, if Louw and Nida are right in their definition of “propitiation,” even that word is too mild because it suggests merely that God is not yet adequately disposed toward sinners, not that he is actually hostile to them. The New Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus of the English Language would seem to support Louw’s and Nida’s definition when it renders “propitiate” as “to gain the favor of by appeasement or conciliation.” It appears we have no word in English that is an exact equivalent of hilasterion. The NIV’s “sacrifice of atonement” may be the best we can do, using words that are well understood and without replacing one Greek word with an entire clause in English. But I must admit I still have a soft spot in my heart for the old NIV footnote: “the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin.” It may be too long for the amount of formal equivalence that the NIV seeks, but in terms of meaning, I think it gets it exactly right, and in words that most everyone can understand.
Craig Blomberg is distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary in Littleton, Colorado. He has been a member of the Committee on Bible Translation since 2008.