Schnelle (again) on the Atonement in Pauline thought

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.
He writes,

           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).

Any thoughts?

Categories: Atonement, ἱλαστήριον, New Testament theology, Schnelle

3 replies

  1. Dan, I had a couple of thoughts, but here is one…

    “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”

    – It sounds like Schnelle is ignoring the fact that in Jesus Christ human beings come to God.


    “It is not necessary for human beings to make contact with the holy; in Jesus Christ, God comes to human beings…at the cross only God himself is involved.”

    – Schnelle is at best underplaying the significance of Christ as the second Adam (1 Cor 15; Rom 5).


    • I had to read this section several times. It is hard to find fault with the emphasis he places on God as primary actor as well as his correctly pointing out how rare this is in Paul’s teaching. I am still working through it:)

      • Yes, I love the soteriological ultimacy of God in that section too. And also in the former post on election. Refreshing for me out here in Methodist country!

        Looking back over my last comment, I’m not sure I was very clear though. Additionally, I should probably give Schnelle the benefit of the doubt since I haven’t read the book to get a proper context for his argument, but to be more clear I guess this section struck me as a bit reductionistic in regard to the person of Christ as God AND man…i.e. exclusively acknowledging the former while ignoring the latter. In other words, the incarnation must be accounted for when considering the saving action of God.

        If, on the other hand, Schnelle clearly articulated the doctrine of the God-man, Christ Jesus as fully God and also fully man acting in the stead of his people, it seems like it would strengthen and properly nuance his argument about God’s saving action and ultimacy. Humanity was involved in saving humanity. But it was the humanity of the God-man alone.

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