I mentioned in my previous post that I am reading Udo Schnelle’s Theology of the New Testament published by Baker. Schnelle has an interesting section dealing with Paul’s handling of the atonement in Romans 3:25-26a, specifically dealing with the difficulty of both translating and understanding the term ἱλαστήριον. He writes, “The breath of meaning of the word ἱλαστήριον and the problems of deriving its meaning from a unilinear understanding of its tradition history show that it is appropriate to understand ἱλαστήριον in Rom. 3:25 in the broad sense of ‘means of atonement’” (252). There is not anything new here, but it gives the framework for what follows. He goes on to discuss the major difference between the OT sacrificial system and that found in Christ on the cross. He then asks a question and answers it. It is his way of discussing the issue that I found so interesting.
Is the atonement model capable of adequately expressing the theological intentions of the tradition and the apostle? In particular, is the image of sacrifice an appropriate way of grasping the saving effect of the death of Jesus? These questions have arisen not only within the modern horizon but above all from the fundamental differences between Old Testament atonement theology and Rom. 3:25-26a. For the atonement ritual, the laying on of hands (performed by the one making the offering) and the blood ritual (enacted by the priest) are constitutive (Lev. 16:21-22). Moreover, a ritual transfer of identity follows, in which the animal is identified with the one offering the sacrifice, and only so does the killing of the animal become a sacrifice. Nothing in the crucifixion of Jesus really corresponds to these fundamental elements of the sacrificial ritual. The cross has God as its exclusive acting subject throughout; God acts on his own initiative at the cross and incorporates humanity into this event without any activity or previous achievement from the human side. It is not necessary for human beings to make contact with the holy; in Jesus Christ, God comes to human beings. Sacrifice stands for something different, pointing to something that mediates between two parties, whereas at the cross only God himself is involved. The Philippians hymn (Phil. 2:6-11) shows that—in the categories of sacrificial offering—we must speak of God’s offering himself. But Paul does not speak of the cross in these terms because the cross has abolished the soteriological relevance of every sacrificial cult. The concept of sacrificial offering is thus structurally inappropriate for the Pauline thought world, and it can hardly be an accident that only in the tradition found in Rom. 3:25-26 does Paul take up a text that thinks in the categories of atonement and sacrifice (253).