The word atonement is of special interest in the fields of philology, literature, theology, and Scripture. It is the only word of Anglo-Saxon origin that signifies a theological doctrine. It indicates a setting "at one" of two parties that were estranged.
History of the Word. The verb "atone" existed in Middle English prior to the substantive "atonement." "Atone" was coined from "at" and "one" and signifies to set at one, to reconcile. It originated in the phrase "to be at one," a translation of the Anglo-French phrase être à un, to agree. In Le Livre de reis we read of Henry II and St. Thomas Becket: "Ils ne peusent être à un"— They could not agree.
Wyclif already used the noun "onement" for reconciliation. From frequent use of the phrases "set at one" or "at onement," the combined atonement began to take the place of onement early in the 16th century. St. Thomas More is the earliest known author to use the word atonement, in his English work the History of King Richard III. William Rastell, More's nephew, edited a strictly correct text in 1557. Rastell claimed that More wrote this incomplete history in 1513. Referring to the discord of the nobles at the time of Richard's coronation, More observed their lack of regard for their new atonement. Atonement was used here to signify reconciliation.
The Anglican Bibles—Tyndale (1525 or 1526), Coverdale (1535), Matthew (1537), Taverner (1539), Geneva (1557). King James (1611)—made ample use of the word atonement in the sense of reconciliation and expiation. C. S. Lewis, an Oxford authority on Tudor English, observed that the use of this word of Anglo-Saxon origin was probably no more than a case of stylistic preference. The King James Version was substantially Tyndale corrected and improved by Coverdale, Geneva, Rheims, and Cranmer, almost in collaboration [C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (Oxford 1954) 214]. This was reflected in the use of the word atonement to translate καταλλαγή in Rom 5.11, as evidenced in the English Hexapla (Bodleian Library, Oxford MS Mason H H. 168, p. 88), which used later editions of the Tyndale and Geneva Bibles.
Theology. Since reconciliation is generally between one who has been offended and one who offends, atonement receives the ordinary meaning of satisfactory reparation or expiation for an offense. In the Old Testament, atonement is the reestablishment of Yahweh's communion with His people, who had offended Him by sin. It is a work of mercy on the part of God and on the part of man the fulfilling of certain things prescribed by God.
The Hebrew verb kippēr, pi’el of the root kpr, is translated as atone. It probably meant to cover, especially with a liquid. In the priestly documents it signifies mainly "to make atonement for sin by an expiatory rite" (Lv 4.31–35; 6.17–23). The LXX regularly translates kippēr by ἐξιλάσκομαι, which means to propitiate, also to atone. The highest spiritual sense of atonement in the Old Testament is found in Is 52.13–53.12. The placation concept of atonement seems to have disappeared, and the passage concentrates on expiation. Sin is atoned for with a life, the life of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh, as a guilt offering. The personal deeds of this innocent mediator take the place of sinners. He suffers for them and effects atonement with a personal God moved by pity for them. The ideas of reconciliation and vicarious expiation permeate the passage.
In the New Testament, atonement does not play a primary role. In Heb 2.17 Christ has "become a merciful and faithful high priest before God to expiate [ἱλάσκεσθαι] the sins of the people." Paul presents atonement as an act of divine love that effects a new state of things, the peaceful relationship between God and man. Man is reconciled to God (2 Cor 5.18–19; Eph 2.15–16). In the second phase man acts: "be reconciled to God" (2 Cor 5.20). Paul develops these ideas out of the Old Testament background: e.g., the Old Testament notion of sacrifice, when he speaks of the sacrifice of the cross, of which atonement is an effect. Thus atonement is effected through the blood of the cross (Rom 5.9; Eph 2.13–16). The Pauline concept of atonement is related to the idea of justification, which forms the basis of atonement. Man is placed in a new relation to God. We live with God in peace (Rom 5.1–2; Eph 2.17–18).
Among the Christian writers atonement in the sense of satisfaction for sin, as applied to Christ's work, is found in its early development in the works of SS. Irenaeus, Ambrose, and Peter Damien. It assumed greater importance in the Cur Deus Homo of St. Anselm of Canterbury. Anselm made the atonement the basis of his explanation of the incarnation and the redemption, in place of earlier notions of sacrifice and payment for sin. The great scholastic theologians of the 13th century, notably, St. Thomas Aquinas, perfected the Anselmian doctrine. In place of Anselm's teaching on the quasinecessity of the atonement, St. Thomas holds that it was a work of the free choice of God that vicarious satisfaction for sin was effected by the God-Man.
While the Council of Trent treats of the all-sufficient atonement of Our Lord, it also takes into account man's personal cooperation in the work of satisfaction for sin under the influence of Christ's grace. Trends in contemporary Lutheran theology of justification show remarkable agreement with this position. Excessive stress on man's personal cooperation in the work of atonement is evidenced in the long and arduous penances for remission of sin demanded by the Jansenists. In the present stance of Catholic and Protestant Biblical studies, there is a common stress on the atonement as a work of divine mercy rather than a juridical placation of divine wrath.
See Also: expiation (in theology); reparation; satisfaction of christ.
Bibliography: a. c. baugh, A History of the English Language (2d ed. New York 1957) 245. w. w. skeat, Principles of English Etymology (2d ed. Oxford 1892) 56. a. mÉdebielle, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928–) 3:1–262. g. kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935–) 1:252–260; 3:301–318; 4:330–337. h. f. davis, CDT 1:189–198. j. bonsirven, "Le Péché et son expiation selon la théologie du judaisme palestinien au temps de Jésus-Christ," Biblica 15 (1934) 213–236. s. lyonnet, De peccato et redemptione (Rome 1957–), 4 v. planned. j. dupont, La Réconciliation dans la théologie de St. Paul (Paris 1953).
[k. f. dougherty]
Tyndale (in 1526) to translate reconciliatio.
Although there have been no official Church definitions of the doctrine of the atonement, there have been many accounts of how the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus effect for others the forgiveness and reconciliation with God which he clearly mediated to many during his lifetime and ministry: in other words, these accounts attempt to answer the questions of what the death of Jesus adds to his life, or of how the ‘atonements’ effected in his life are still achieved after his death. In general, these accounts claim that the death of Jesus universalizes what would otherwise have been a local and restricted transaction. There are five major accounts falling into two groups, objective and subjective theories. Objective theories claim that something factual has been done for us which has dealt with the reality of sin, and which we could not have done for ourselves. The penal (or juridical) theory claims that Christ has borne the penalty instead of us, so that God can now forgive freely: sin, being an infinite offence against God, required a correspondingly infinite satisfaction which only God could make (see ANSELM). Literally interpreted, this may lead to claims that Christ is a substitute for each individual who deserves the penalty, hence substitutionary theories of atonement. Equally objective are sacrificial theories, which claim that Christ is the sinless offering who makes a universal expiation of the stain of sin—or, with less biblical and religious warrant, that he propitiates the deserved wrath of God; in neither of these cases is Christ a substitute: the New Testament seems to think more in terms of Christ as the representative of human beings. Again objectively, the atonement has been understood as a victory (perhaps by way of being a ransom or a ‘bait’) against evil and sin personified in the Devil: this is often called the classic or dramatic theory, also the Christus Victor theory (the title, in English, of G. Aulén's influential article, subsequently book, Den kristna forsonnigstanken, 1930/1). Subjective theories, also known as moral or exemplary theories, claim that the extent of God's love revealed in Christ and especially in his acceptance of a brutal and unjust death, move us to repentance. This theory is especially associated with Abelard. All these theories have an individualistic emphasis, as has the missionary appeal based on them. The advent of the sociology of religion has led in the 20th cent. to an increasing stress on the corporate nature of atonement, on the death and resurrection of Christ, recapitulated in baptism and the eucharist, constituting people as his body. This social understanding of atonement has been expressed especially through Liberation Theology.
ATONEMENT (Heb. כִּפִֻּרים, kippurim, from the verb כפר). The English word atonement ("at-one-ment") significantly conveys the underlying Judaic concept of atonement, i.e., reconciliation with God. Both the Bible and rabbinical theology reflect the belief that as God is holy, man must be pure in order to remain in communion with Him. Sin and defilement damage the relationship between creature and Creator, and the process of atonement – through *repentance and reparation – restores this relationship.
In the Bible
The basic means of atonement is the sacrificial rite, which functions to purify man from both sin and uncleanliness (e.g., Lev. 5; Pederson, pp. 358–64). In its most spiritualized aspect, however, the sacrificial rite is only the outward form of atonement, and in order for it to be effective, man must first purify himself. This was the constantly reiterated message of the prophets during periods when Israel came close to viewing the atoning efficacy of the rite as automatic (Isa. 1:11–17; see de Vaux, Anc Isr, 454 ff.). Fasting and prayer are also specified as means of atonement (Isa. 58:1–10; Jonah 3; see *Kipper).
In Rabbinic Literature
After the destruction of the Temple and the consequent cessation of sacrifices, the rabbis declared: "Prayer, repentance, and charity avert the evil decree" (tj, Ta'an. 2:1, 65b). Suffering is also regarded as a means of atonement and is considered more effective than sacrifice to win God's favor (Ber. 5a). Exile and the destruction of the Temple (Sanh. 37b, Ex. R. 31:10) were also reputed to bring about the same effect. Above all, death is the final atonement for sins (Mekh. Jethro 7); "May my death be an expiation for all my sins" is a formula recited when the end is near (Sanh. 6:2). Atonement for some sins is achieved immediately after the individual repents, while for others repentance alone does not suffice. If a person transgresses a positive commandment and repents, he is immediately forgiven (Yoma 85b). For a negative commandment, repentance suspends the punishment, and the Day of Atonement procures atonement: "For on this day shall atonement be made for you… from all your sins" (Lev. 16:30). For a graver sin, punishable by death or extirpation, repentance and the Day of Atonement suspend the punishment and suffering completes the atonement (cf. Ps. 89:33). If one has been guilty of profaning the Divine Name, however, penitence, the Day of Atonement, and suffering merely suspend punishment, and death procures the final atonement: "The Lord of hosts revealed Himself in my ears; surely this iniquity shall not be expiated by you till ye die" (Isa. 22:4; Yoma 86a).
Atonement is only efficacious in the above way if the sin concerned does not involve suffering or material injury to a second party. If it did, full restitution must be made to the wronged party and his pardon must be sought. This law was derived from the verse "… all your sins before the Lord…" (Lev. 16:30), i.e., the Day of Atonement is effective for transgressions between man and God, but for sins against a fellow man, restitution and forgiveness are also necessary (Yoma 8:9). The general rabbinic approach was to deritualize atonement and center it more on the personal religious life of the individual in his relationship to God: "Now that we have no prophet or priest or sacrifice, who shall atone for us? In our hands is left only – prayer" (Tanḥ. Va-Yishlaḥ. 10). A similar idea is found in the dictum that after the destruction of the Temple a man's table atones in place of the altar, i.e., his everyday behavior is all important. Although a rite analogous to that of sacrificial atonement is found in the post-talmudic custom of slaughtering a cock on the eve of the Day of Atonement, as a symbolic replacement for the sinner himself (*kapparot), this practice was not universally accepted (Sh. Ar., oh 605).
J. Pederson, Israel, 2 vols. (1940), index; G.F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, 1 (1927; repr. 1966), 445–546; S.R. Hirsch, Judaism Eternal, 1 (1956), 3–14, 142–52; S. Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1909), 293–343; A. Buechler, Studies in Sin and Atonement in the Rabbinic Literature of the First Century (1928); Faur, in: Sinai, 61 (1967), 259–66.
Atonement ★★★ 2007 (R)
In 1935 England, 13-year-old Briony (Ronan) sees her sister Cecilia (Knightley) and their cook's son Robbie (McAvoy) together (literally) and, out of jealousy, accuses Robbie of a crime he didn't commit. The once beloved Robbie is sent to jail and the family, who had been paying for him to attend college, rejects him. Only Cecilia believes he is innocent, and cannot forgive her sister. Five years later, the now grown Briony (Garai) and Cecilia are nurses in London and Robbie has been released from prison to fight in the war. Desperate for forgiveness for ruining Robbie's life, Briony tries to find a way to fix her mistake, but it may be too late. Knightley and McAvoy shine as the long-lost lovers, and Ronan's Briony is stellar. Beautifully shot period film is faithful to McEwan's novel, and to the tone and style of 1930s and '40s-era melodramas. 122m/C DVD . US GB James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Blethyn, Juno Temple, Patrick Kennedy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Harriet Walter, Gina McKee; D: Joe Wright; W: Christopher Hampton; C: Seamus McGarvey; M: Dario Marianelli. Oscars '07: Orig. Score; British Acad. '07: Film; Golden Globes '08: Film—Drama, Orig. Score.
a·tone·ment / əˈtōnmənt/ • n. reparation for a wrong or injury: she wanted to make atonement for her husband's behavior. ∎ Religion reparation or expiation for sin: the High Priest offered the sacrifice as atonement for all the sins of Israel. ∎ (the Atonement) Christian Theol. the reconciliation of God and humankind through Jesus Christ.
Day of Atonement another term for Yom Kippur.