Atonement/ propitiation

The same question came in from a former student and a current one within about a week.  Here’s an edited version of the exchanges:

First student: I noticed that there is a difference in translation of the word hilasmos in I John 2:2; 4:10 and Romans 3:25.  The NIV renders it “atonement”  many other versions translate it “propitation.”   Why the discrepency?   If I understand correctly there is a difference in  meaning, with propitiation being a “wrath removing sacrifice” and  atonement being a “covering of sin”.   It would seem that would make a difference in the interpretation of the whole text; am I correct?

Does it have something to do with NIV’s fear of the concept of “wrath”? In Romans 5:11 the word katalage is translated “atonement.”   I guess my question is: is the NIV wrong and should that be translated  “propitation” or something of the sort????  And what word best fits with  the concept of the “mercy seat” ?  What does the LXX use??

Me: Interesting issue.  Louw and Nida distinguish between reconciliation and forgiveness.  Reconciliation means bringing two parties back into a friendly relationship, and the NT writers use the –αλάσσω word group  (including καταλλαγή) and a few others like “make peace/ peacemaker,”  “mediator,” and the like.  Forgiveness means releasing people from the  consequences of their sins, using words like ἀφίημι, ἀπολύω, χαρίζομαι,  and the ἱλασκ- word group (including ἱλασμός).

You may be on to something by suggesting the NIV avoids “wrath.”  Here’s what Louw and Nida say along those lines:  “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” (Greek-English Lexicon Based on Semantic Domains, 1st ed., 504; emphasis added).  And yet Rom 5:9 seems to weaken this claim, when Paul says that “we will be saved from the wrath [of God].”

Another student who read the exchange: Thanks! I agree with [the first student] concerning the NIV. Do you know if they have come out with a statement regarding 1 John 4:10 or the passages in Romans where propitation isn’t used?

Me: No, I don’t know of any such statement.  Interesting.Ω

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