This article is part of the Easter 2020 Trinity Magazine issue. You can view the entire issue here.
By the Rev. Dr. Kirsten Gardner
Studying a concept as broad as “reconciliation” can be overwhelming. After all, one may reasonably say that, after “the Fall” (Gen 3), the whole of Scripture witnesses to God’s continuing design toward reconciliation between God and humans, between individuals and their brothers/neighbors, and between humanity and the rest of creation. Themes of reconciliation, or failed attempts at it, permeate the whole of the Bible and infuse every relation‐ ship imaginable. Most of us will need practical strategies with which we can venture into this study. In this column, I will demonstrate how different approaches can shed light on a complex theological concept.
Word Study Approach
First, does the Bible itself use this word? And if it does, how and in what contexts? A quick word study, using a concordance or an online resource such as Biblegateway.com, reveals that the word “reconciliation” and its derivatives is found in only a few texts.
Understanding “reconciliation” in the original languages:
The Greek verbs katallassō and diallassō, and the Greek noun katallagē imply a meaning most closely related to “a change of relationship or situation.” In Greek writings these words appear most frequently when describing changes of circumstances, such as in the areas of politics, family, and business.
The term “reconciliation” appears first in the Apocrypha in 2 Maccabees. Notably, the language of 2 Maccabees is Koine Greek. Here the word takes on a religious notion when the writer prays, “May [God] hear your prayers and be reconciled [katallassō] to you, and may he not forsake you in the time of evil” (2 Macc. 1:5).
Understanding lexical meaning and textual context:
The word reconciliation, and its derivatives, is most often found in Paul’s writings. It is here that it takes on a Christian theological inflection. Paul uses the noun four times (Rom 5:11; 11:15; 2 Cor 5:18,19); and the verb eight times (Rom 5:10 [2x]; 2 Cor 5:18,19,20; with an emphatic prepositional prefix in Eph 2:16; and, Col 1:20,22). Only once does Paul employ the verb to denote the secular dimension of reconciliation between individuals, addressed to a wife contemplating a separation from her husband (1 Cor 7:11). These con‐ textual investigations allow for significant insights. In Paul’s writings, God is always the subject of the verb; in short, it is always God who reconciles “individuals” and/or “the world” (see Rom 5:10, 11; 11:15; 2 Cor 5:18, 19). And, God’s work of reconciliation is accomplished in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, independent of human effort (see Rom 5:10; 2 Cor 5:15, 21). Paul’s conception of reconciliation includes “people” (Rom 5:10-11:2; 2 Cor 5-18) and “the world” (Rom 11:15; 2 Cor 5:19); and, it contains an orientation that includes the past, the present and the future as it describes what God has already done (Rom 5:10; 2 Cor 5:19), what He is presently doing in believers’ lives (2 Cor 5:17), and what He intends to do (Rom 5:10-11; 8:19-25).
The believers’ appropriate response to this mighty act of God is missional in nature, having been reconciled themselves, they are entrusted with this “message of reconciliation” as “Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Cor 5:18,19,20).
Narrative approaches consider stories in light of the idea of reconciliation, or failed attempts at it, in order to understand how the Bible paints the concept. This contrasts with the earlier, lexical approach, in that the word “reconciliation” does not necessarily have to be mentioned for the text to be making a point about reconciliation.
What then is contained in the concept, and what are we looking for in these stories? Typing the word “reconciliation” into the Google search bar reveals “a process of restoring broken relations” and bringing them “back into right/harmonious relations”; it also describes an accounting practice of “making financial accounts consistent,” but this is less on point here. The Old Testament abounds in stories that involve broken relations, restoration attempts, and failed reconciliations. For the sake of this column, I will limit the investigation to the Book of Genesis.
Genesis 2 portrays a state in which things have no need of restoration. This creation account depicts a peaceful intimacy between the created environment, the first humans, and God. Adam is placed in the garden (v.15), and has his being and purpose within this setting. It is within the garden that the first couple enjoy relationship with each other and with God. In chapter 3, however, this picture shatters amid sin, shame, and blame, fracturing relations along all three dimensions: human to God (vv. 8,10,23,24); human to human (vv. 12,16); and human to created world (vv. 15,19). The fratricide of chapter 4 appears as a literary exclamation mark. In essence, chapter 4 presents a picture completely antithetical to the ideal of the garden: Cain kills Abel (v. 8), talks back to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (v.9) and is cursed to work a ground that will no longer yield its crops to him (v.12).
From this spread of sin and alienation between individuals (Gen 4) and peoples from God (Gen 6ff; Gen 11), to the seeming destruction of the family when Joseph’s brothers abandon him into slavery and deny their crime (Gen 37), the book of Genesis explores fractured relationships, and efforts to mend them (Gen 33; Gen 45). The account of Jacob and Esau (Gen25 ff.), their animosity and their restored relationship, are often presented as a positive example of a successful reconciliation. Yet, while the meeting in Gen 33 transpires peaceably, the two parties are depicted as going separate ways following the encounter. Thus, the text portrays the larger family as continuing in a fractured state. Notably, in the second text that also explores brotherly reconciliation (Gen 45 ff), Joseph attributes the events and the agreeable outcome to God (Gen 50:20). This text then most closely anticipates Paul’s writings, centuries later, as it attributes restoration to God.
Reading the stories in Genesis through the lens of reconciliation highlights a human propensity to make a mess of things. Yet, despite humanity’s repeated undoing, God’s mercy and saving activity is demonstrated in the birth, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: Restoring us into right relationship with Him, with our neighbors, and with our environment. May God’s gift of restoration and reconciliation be made manifest in our lives this Easter season.