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Winter 2009 | Volume 32, Number 1 | Features

Biblical Reconciliation

What the Scriptures say about loving “the Other”

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” John 15:12

What’s Christian About Reconciliation

All the talk about reconciliation these days may lead one to wonder just how seriously the concept should be taken. Like so many other crucially important terms in the Christian lexicon — words such as love and justice, for instance — the expression is now applied widely as a catch-word in support of so many different agendas that it is at risk of losing any distinctively Christian meaning.

But the misuse of a term rarely warrants its abandonment by the believing community. Indeed, though the Greek word translated “reconciliation” does not come up all that often in the New Testament, its usage in context tells us just how irreplaceable the word is for Christian theology.

Our English word derives from the Latin verb reconciliare, literally “to meet, or unite, again.” A context of estrangement is assumed; people living in a broken relationship come to meet or unite again and are thus considered reconciled. But the original language of the New Testament is Greek, not Latin, and an analysis of the word in Greek reveals an even deeper, more overtly Christian, nuance.

At its core is the root word for “other,” -all. Give it a verb ending, -allassö, and you have something like “to make other” or “to exchange with the other.” Add the intensifying prefix kata- and the word becomes katallassō, “to make thoroughly other.” When it is used in the context of human relationships, it might be rendered “to thoroughly exchange with an estranged other.”

Locate the word within the narrative world of Christian faith, and you have a shorthand expression for the unimaginable exchange God accomplished for us in the person and work of Jesus: “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:8–11)

Prior to Paul, the word was used to describe the required action of the guilty party in a broken relationship; if the situation was to be redeemed, the offender had to do something to make amends by “exchanging” with the offended party. As far as we can tell, Paul is the first writer in antiquity to use the word to describe an instance where the offended party took the initiative to restore the relationship.

We would all agree that it is a wonderful event when the guilty party in a conflict steps forward to make things right, but we consider it a marvelous, transformative event when a victim is able to initiate reconciliation with a recalcitrant perpetrator. When the offended agent of reconciliation is God, the creator of the universe, the resulting transformation makes everything so “thoroughly other” that it can only be described as creation made new. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:16–18)

There are two mutually correcting bits of information in the previous passage that must remain in tension if reconciliation is to be genuinely Christian. On the one hand, all this is from God. Reconciliation is a miracle that the God of love actively wills to accomplish in our world. We need not nervously strive to make reconciliation occur by our own strength, for it is something God has already established in Christ (Colossians1:20) and is currently making a reality by the power of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16–26). At the same time, however, we are reminded that God has given us the ministry of reconciliation. The New Testament repeatedly warns against the hazardous hypocrisy of proclaiming the good news of divine reconciliation by word alone without allowing that transformation to permeate all aspects of our lives (e.g., James 2:14–26; 1 John 3:16–18).

The way of reconciliation is now written into the order of the universe; it is the deep logic of the new creation and the divinely appointed political structure of the redeemed community. In Christ, everything has been made thoroughly other, and the Christian vocation is to live lives of loving exchange as witness to this fact.

Professor NienhuisDavid Nienhuis ’91 was captivated by the doctrine and practice of Christian reconciliation while studying the work of Martin Luther King Jr. as an undergraduate at SPU. He now regularly teaches the topic in his classes and in churches around the Seattle area. Nienhuis is the author of Not by Paul Alone: The Formation of the Catholic Epistle Collection and the Christian Canon (Baylor University Press, 2007). The book traces the historical development of the collection of non-Pauline letters.

Exclusive: Nienhuis Essay

Read Professor David Nienhuis’ essay “Is Reconciliation Synonymous With Diversity? Understanding Our Differences at the Table of the Lord.”

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