Does Propitiation Atonement Contradict Divine Impassibility?

All Christian traditions, excepting open theism, hold to divine impassibility:  the idea that the Godhead does not  “emote” like humans do.  The Godhead is not subject to passion or change in the way humans are.   Scripture verses that say God repents et al are not to be interpreted in an absolute sense. (In a sense, this is why understanding the role of cataphatic theology and apophatic theology is essential:  our human concepts about God are never fully adequate to explain God.  Therefore, when we predicate something of God, we must realize it cannot be taken in an absolute sense.

Bible translation battles are usually fought along the lines of whether hilasmos (hilasterion) should be translated as “propitiation” or “expiation.”   Conservatives found themselves forced to translate it as propitiation, lest they seem liberal.  Liberals denied that God was angry with his lovable children; therefore, propitiation is unacceptable.  Expiation, then, points to a change in man, not God.

Liberals are wrong, but not entirely.   Here are the questions that need to be asked:

  • Who needs to be reconciled:  man or God?
  • With whom is the problem:  man or God?
  • Who needs to change?

Bishop Kallistos Ware in his lecture on Salvation in Christ mentioned that any model of the atonement had to answer a number of essential questions.  One of them was “Who is being changed?”

If we say God is being changed, it’s hard to see how this doesn’t contradict not only Divine Impassibility, but also Absolute Divine Simplicity (I don’t hold to the latter, but most Evangelicals do, so the point stands).   Presumably, the Evangelical could say, per the above reading on apophatic/cataphatic theology that “propitiation” is not being used in an absolute sense.  Unfortunately, that’s the entire point of propitiation! (Never mind that most proponents of the doctrine use it in a very absolute sense).   Try to stand in a conservative pulpit and announce you are going to preach a watered-down form of propitiatory atonement!   Now look for a new job.

Expiation, it seems, handles this better.  The atonement is not effecting a change in God. Like Scripture says (2 Corinthians 5), God is reconciling man and not the other way around.