Monday, October 5, 2009

Westcott and 1 John 2.2

The following forms Appendix 3 to my essay 'The Craft of Dishonest Quotation'. The abbreviations in the titles of books are those used in the body of the essay.

On P. 234 of NABV Riplinger writes of Westcott:

“Commenting on I John 2:2 which reads, ‘[H]e is the propitiation for our sins,’ Westcott says this verse is ‘Foreign to the language of the New Testament.’”

The implication is that B.F. Westcott denied that 1 John 2.2 belongs in the New Testament. Since the book I facetiously refer to as The Big Book of Textual Variants (Philip Comfort's New Testament Text and Translation Commentary) lists no variant in this place, it follows that Riplinger is accusing Westcott of engaging in conjectural criticism of the text – a sort of New Testament version of the so-called ‘Higher Criticism’[1] of the Old Testament. If this were true it would indeed be a serious indication of unsoundness in Westcott, rejecting a verse that is in every manuscript that contains 1 John 2 for purely theological reasons. But there’s the rub, is it true?

At this point Riplinger has forgotten to give the reference to Westcott’s Epistles. As the specific quotation is not found in the body of the work on the text in question,[2] but in an additional note, this failure to give the reference actually gives the false impression that Riplinger has given a bad reference, when in fact she has given no reference at all. The context is:

“The Scriptural conception of hilaskesthai is not that of appeasing one who is angry, with a personal feeling, against the offender, but of altering the character of that which from without occasions a necessary alienation, and interposes an inevitable obstacle to fellowship. Such phrases as ‘propitiating God’ and God ‘being reconciled’ are foreign to the language of the N.T. Man is reconciled (2 Cor. V.18 ff.; Rom. V.10 f.). There is a ‘propitiation’ in the matter of the sin or of the sinner. The love of God is the same throughout; but He ‘cannot’. In virtue of His very Nature welcome the impenitent and sinful: and more than this, He ‘cannot’ treat sin as if it were not sin.
“This being so, the hilasmos, when it is applied to the sinner, so to speak, neutralises the sin. In this respect the idea of the efficacy of Christ’s propitiation corresponds with one aspect of the Pauline phrase ‘in Christ.’ The believer being united with Christ enjoys the quickening, purifying, action of Christ’s ‘Blood,’ of the virtue of His life and death.”[3]

Note first of all that it is not the verse that Westcott says is “Foreign to the language of the New Testament.” He is not engaging in the 'higher criticism' (or, as James Begg called it, "the lower scepticism"). At first reading the passage the evangelical reader is put on the defensive. Westcott appears to be trying to make the verse say something other than its plain meaning by quoting various extra-Biblical sources and Greek translations of Old Testament texts. Then, however, a second reading clears the air somewhat.

An Evangelical would not have used Westcott’s language, but in fact he is substantially correct. Westcott is right to say that the idea that Christ’s sacrifice changes something in God is unbiblical, and this is in fact the force of the passage. He is also quite right to say that the effect of Christ’s death is finally not in God, but in us. If Christ’s death affects the way God treats those who believe in Jesus, it is because the death has changed something about us, it has taken away our sins. And it is the false idea of Christ’s death changing God’s mind that Westcott, rightly understood, says is “foreign to the language of the N.T.” There has been, sadly, a school of Evangelical preaching that has given the impression of God the Father in a fearful rage being mollified by the self-sacrifice of a loving Son. The impression is given that, before the cross, the Father had no love for us, and that it was the cross that created the Father’s love. This is of course not what the Bible teaches at all, nor is it what the best Evangelical preachers have taught. Most of the time it is merely rhetoric, bad and false rhetoric, but still merely rhetoric and not the actual belief of the speaker. Still, Westcott is quite right to say that such a view of the cross is false, and ultimately dangerous, for it creates the idea of disharmony in the Trinity, the Son loving those the Father does not love. It also gives the impression that the Father’s wrath is ultimately unjust, wrong and merely emotional.

Thus, while I disagree with Westcott that “Such phrases as ‘propitiating God’ and God ‘being reconciled’ are foreign to the language of the N.T.” absolutely, I agree that, if understood as referring to a change produced in God, such phrases are. But, if they are understood as referring to a new relation which we, as Christians, now enjoy due to our position in Christ, the phrases are quite permissible.

The Footnotes Begin Here

[1] “Why ‘higher’? The word bewilders me always.” – B.F Westcott to Archbishop Benson, Life Vol. 2 P. 224
[2] Epistles P. 44
[3] Ibid. P. 87.

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