A letter to the English Churchman defending the term ‘atonement’ as being descriptive of Christ’s full work on the cross.


Sir,

     The News & Comment article on the atonement (No. 7686) needs etymological and theological correction. The assertions that ‘at-one-ment’ is a breaking up of ‘atonement’; is only ‘a result of atonement’ (not atonement itself); and this is merely a ‘marvellous coincidence’; are false. The word ‘atonement’ was intentionally coined from the three particles ‘at’, ‘one’ and ‘ment’. Thus the term ‘atonement’ is meaningless if made to stand outside of its individual parts and semantic content. The word was a Reformation neologism, used to translate the Hebrew and the Greek, there being no English word of exact equivalence at the time for at-one-ment.

     William Tyndale probably coined the word. In his A Pathway into the Holy Scriptures, he speaks of sinners through the work of Christ being, “loosed, justified, restored to life and saved, brought to liberty and reconciled unto the favour of God, and set at one with him again.” Fellow-martyr Philpot uses the term in his translation of Coelio Secundo Curio’s Defence of Christ’s Church where the author is arguing that there cannot be any unity between a false and true church. “What concord”, he says, “either what atonement (as very well speaketh Paul), is there betwixt light and darkness, betwixt Christ and Belial, betwixt the faithful and unfaithful?” Curione is saying that one cannot reconcile light with darkness. This meaning is echoed in the Homily for Good Friday which reads, “Without payment God the Father would never be at one with us’. An early A. V. example of this usage is Acts 5:26: “And the next day he showed himself unto them as they strove, and would have set them at one again, saying, Sirs, ye are brethren; why do ye wrong one to another?” This is also the meaning behind John 17:21-23. Tyndale and the early Reformers knew that to be reconciled to God and to be atoned (made at one) were the same thing. See Daniel 9:24, where Christ’s work is described as “to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sin, and to make reconciliation for iniquity and to bring in everlasting righteousness.”

     One does not limit the meaning of ‘atonement’ by reading ‘at-one-ment’ into the term. Understanding where the word comes from shows that the limitations are on the side of critics who view ‘at-one-ment’ as separate from justification, forgiveness of sins, redemption, adoption and sanctification. This was foreign to our Reformers faith. They saw Christ’s at-one-ment as bringing into being all that Christ has wrought out in salvation. Thus to be for penal substitution is also to be for at-one-ment.