1 The biblical language of reconciliation
As a theological term, reconciliation comes from the Latin Bible, in which reconciliare, reconciliatio translate the Greek words katallassein and katallagē. In Rom 5:10–11, the apostle Paul describes how we were reconciled to God through the death of Christ and will be saved. In 2 Cor 5:18–20, Paul says that in Christ God reconciled the world to himself and entrusted the message of reconciliation to us. While these passages are theologically significant, the verb and the noun are relatively rare in the New Testament. Other Hebrew and Greek words are used in the Bible for sacrificial atonement or expiation, for instance, hilaskesthai, hilasterion in Luke 18:13 and Rom 3:25. In those places, as well as in their counterparts in the Hebrew Bible, the Vulgate employs words like propitiatio and expiatio. Current English Bibles (e.g. NRSV, NIV) follow the practice of translating katallassein and katallagē consistently with ‘reconcile’, ‘reconciliation’.
Another biblical source of katallassein/katallagē is 2 Maccabees, preserved in Greek in the Septuagint and in Latin translation in the Vulgate. 2 Macc 5:20 says that the temple was restored ‘when the Great Lord became reconciled’. Similarly, 2 Macc 7:33 holds that, after being angry, the Lord ‘will again be reconciled with his own servants’. Most importantly, 2 Maccabees speaks here of reconciliation between God and humans.
Apokatallassein is used in the sense of reconciliatory peacebuilding in Eph 2:16 and Col 1:20 (Vulgate reconciliare). The basic verb allassein, ‘to change’ (e.g. Acts 6:14; Gal 4:20) expresses alterity and transformation, that is, making something other than it is. The verb diallassein, translated with reconciliare in the Vulgate, appears in Matt 5:24. Used typically in non-religious contexts, this verb means reconciliation and transforming exchange between different people. The event of katallassein in 2 Cor 5:18–20 is also concerned with complex exchanges and representative relationships in which Christ acts for us (cf. 5:14) and we act as ambassadors of Christ. The transforming exchange is thus an important aspect of reconciliation. In particular, 2 Cor 5:18–20 spells out the idea of representation, or even substitution, taking place in this kind of alterity.
Given this evidence, New Testament scholars discuss critically the relative importance of reconciliation in biblical theology. For some, Rom 5:10–11 and 2 Cor 5:18–20 represent earlier liturgical tradition that is only sporadically taken over by Paul (Käsemann 1964). In their view, reconciliation cannot bear the great weight often attached to it in biblical theology. While this view may be exaggerated, scholars agree that the language of reconciliation can retain its importance only when connected with other soteriological concepts, such as justification, grace, and eschatological peace.
It is necessary to make a clear distinction between the Pauline concept of reconciliation and broader sacrificial views. Biblical scholars emphasize that Paul considers God as the subject of reconciliation. Thus humans are not practising reconciliation through prayers, works, or sacrifices. Instead, Paul treats humans and the world as the objects of God’s reconciling activity. This observation strengthens the need to distinguish the Pauline theology of reconciliation from human performances of propitiation (Marshall 1978).
In recent scholarship, katallassein and its cognates are often considered as a word group coming from the Hellenistic institution of ‘the elders’ or ‘ambassadors’ (presbeia, cf. presbeuein in 2 Cor 5:20) who practice diplomatic conflict solving or peacebuilding. While Rom 5:10–11 and 2 Cor 5:18–20 do not explicitly mention peace, the connection between reconciliation and peace is evident in Eph 2:15–16 and Col 1:20 (cf. Rom 5:1, 9). In his message of reconciliation, Paul thus employs the metaphor of Hellenistic ‘polis-diplomacy’ (Breytenbach 1989; 2010: 175). The verb diallassein can also be used in such contexts.
Some scholars consider that holistic biblical theology is nevertheless needed to maintain a sufficient relationship between atonement (hilasmos, German Sühne) and reconciliation (Hofius 1994; 2003). On the other hand, hilaskesthai can simply mean ‘to appease’ or ‘to conciliate’ so that the meaning of sacrificial atonement disappears. The adoption of diplomatic conflict solving as the Greek meaning of katallagē does not rule out Paul’s extended use of this word for soteriological purposes. At the same time, the difference between the semantic basis and the extended use of reconciliation remains important (Breytenbach 1989; 2010: 5–6).
In both Rom 5:10–11 and 2 Cor 5:18–20, reconciliation belongs to a larger discussion concerning justification, grace (Rom 5:1–2), and divine righteousness (2 Cor 5:21). Paul emphasizes the gift (Rom 5:5, 15) and God’s ‘not counting’ the trespasses in the event of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19). As reconciliation terminology employs the ideas of alterity and (ex)change, it is important to see that Paul’s wordings also create a conscious alternative to exchanges based on counting the worth. As an aspect of the larger reality of justification and grace, taking place in Christ’s death (Rom 5:10; 2 Cor 5:15), reconciliation manifests a unilateral and even incongruous exchange (Barclay 2015: 477–478).
Drawing on John Barclay (Paul and the Gift, 2015), this article understands the term ‘incongruous’ in a positive sense. An incongruous exchange surpasses the limits of economy and conventional give-and-take, expressing the Pauline idea of overwhelming grace or gift (charis). In this manner, reconciliatory peacebuilding does not take place in terms of rational counting or conventional hospitality, but rather as a series of gift-like, almost unilateral symbolic gestures. The mediator does not keep accounts but performs incongruous acts. These acts and gestures nevertheless manifest an idea of God’s righteousness, which is in some non-quantifiable manner ‘reckoned’ (Rom 4:22–5:1) for the sake of the faithful. The reconciled persons thus ‘become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor 5:21). The meaning of reconciliation needs to be seen in this context of extraordinary righteousness.
The complex overlapping between atonement and reconciliation in English-speaking theology is to some extent due to the translations of the Reformation era. Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526 employs mostly ‘atonement’ etc. in Rom 5:10–11 and 2 Cor 5:18–20. In addition, the King James Version uses ‘atonement’ in Rom 5:11. The word ‘atonement’ continues to be popular in English-speaking systematic theology and philosophy of religion, in which it aims to cover the rational procedure or model of the salvific work of Christ. While atonement mostly remains a theological concept, ‘reconciliation’ in current English often comprises all kinds of interhuman conflict solving. As the biblical roots of the concept are found in peacebuilding, current secular uses can also be discussed from a theological perspective.
In Luther’s German, Sühne (propitiation/atonement) and Versöhnung (reconciliation) are semantically related and tend to overlap (Wenz 1984–1986: 25–29). Following Luther, older Protestant Bible translations into different languages (including Tyndale’s English version) often connect propitiation/atonement with reconciliation more strongly than does the Latin Bible. The adoption of the Hebrew canon in the Reformation as well as the emphasis on the uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice may have contributed to this terminological shift.
2 From Augustine to Hegel
Augustine speaks of reconciliation regularly, though it is not one of his key concepts. One recurring feature is the connection between reconciliation and peace. For instance, when in his Expositio in epistulam ad Galatas he expounds Paul’s opening phrase ‘Grace to you and peace’ (Gal 1:3), he says that we are reconciled with God in peace. A similar remark is found, for instance, in Retractations 1.24.2.
In The Trinity 4.3.19 Augustine speaks of the sacrifice, in which Christ offers himself, being also the recipient and the beneficiary of this self-giving, so that ‘this true mediator, in reconciling us to God by his sacrifice of peace, would remain one with him to whom he offered it’ (Augustine of Hippo 1991). In this manner, peace and mediation characterize Christ’s work of reconciliation. At the same time, the reconciling gift is incongruent in the above-mentioned Pauline sense, as the mediator does not take the conventional social roles and debts into account but provides everything.
The connection between peace and reconciliation is remarkable. Like Paul, Augustine situates the event of reconciliation in the context of peacemaking. This connection is particularly strong in Enarrations on the Psalms 71/72:1, in which Augustine speaks of Christ as peacemaker. In this capacity, Christ first makes the peace of reconciliation and then provides the peace of immortality. Here (Enarrat. Ps. 71/72:5–7) Augustine also speaks of the connection between justice and peace. When it is said that mountains yield peace and hills justice (Enarrat. Ps. 71/72:3), it means that the mountains proclaim the message of reconciliation through Christ. Sometimes Augustine speaks of reconciliation in the context of penitence (e.g. City of God 20.9.73 and 21.25.86). The term also occurs when Augustine explains the work of Christ as mediator. Justification and peacemaking are mentioned in such contexts (e.g. Against Julian: Opus Imperfectum 2.170–172).
Given this evidence, the Graeco-Roman practice of peacemaking may still have some relevance for Augustine and his audience. While Augustine alludes to biblical verses, he also constructs some new vocabulary around reconciliation. However, this concept is for him neither an internalized, subjective experience nor an objective doctrinal rule. Rather, reconciliation is a relational process that assumes a mediator and a specific problem to be solved, such as enmity or injustice. The different roles of Christ in his reconciliatory mediation in The Trinity (giver, gift, recipient, beneficiary) have a systematic structure. Peace is the primary outcome of this mediation. Justice follows peace as obedience to the message of reconciliation. The gift of reconciliation does not follow the ordinary rule of justice or bookkeeping but creates a new order of peace and obedience.
Anselm of Canterbury uses reconciliatio regularly but much less frequently than many other soteriological concepts. In Cur deus homo (see Anselm of Canterbury 1903), the noun appears five times and the verb nine times. ‘Justice’ appears 50 times and ‘just’ 64 times in this work. Anselm is primarily interested in understanding God’s justice. The ideas of honour, debt and satisfaction, often mentioned in Cur deus homo, are connected with divine justice. While these ideas may, taken together, be interpreted as a theory of atonement, Anselm himself only sometimes engages with the Latin concept of reconciliatio in his overall argument.
Anselm can say that reconciliation is achieved through the death of the God-man, since this event restores the divine justice (Cur deus homo 2.21). In an important passage, Christ is called the one who reconciles (reconciliator, Cur deus homo 2.16). Christ’s act of redemption is compared to the invaluable service of an innocent person in a situation where all others have sinned against the king. This innocent person has such royal favour and such love for all others that the king can be reconciled (verb reconciliare) with all sinners on account of the service performed. This service of redemption is called reconciliatio (Cur deus homo 2.16). The English translation of 1903, widely available on the internet, translates redemptio here with ‘atonement’ and reconciliare with ‘pardon’, creating confusion.
For Anselm, the Latin words meaning reconciliation depict the outcome and end state rather than the mechanism of Christ’s redemptive work. In order to appease the Lord, only a perfect satisfaction, adequate to the Lord’s honour, can bring about reconciliation. As honour is without measure and value, no comparable amount between the service of the one and the sin of others is assumed. While such reconciliation saves from hell and alleviates earthly suffering, it does not end all temporal pain (De concordia 277–278). Unlike Augustine, Anselm does not describe reconciliation in terms of peace. Like Paul and Augustine, however, Anselm considers the gift of the innocent person to be incongruous in the sense that it does not have a calculated measure but operates as overwhelming symbolic gesture.
Finally, God’s eternal justice determines the nature of satisfaction and redemption as well as the reconciliation resulting from them. Justice is for Anselm ‘the rectitude of the will for its own sake’. Strictly speaking, ‘only that which God wills is just’. Such absolute and almost ineffable justice contains in itself mercy and the option of willing something good for the wicked (De veritate 12; Proslogion 9–11). Given this nature of divine justice and honour, it may be misleading to consider satisfaction as compensation. In Anselm’s medieval universe, divine justice is immeasurable and capable of grace.
Peter Lombard’s Sentences (Book III d19 c6; Lombard 1971–1981) outlines reconciliation with several quotes from Augustine. Lombard teaches that God in Christ reconciles us to himself, using the power of the entire Trinity. The obedience of the incarnated Son enables the justification of believers in the event of reconciliation.
Thomas Aquinas teaches that the passion of Christ is the cause of our reconciliation with God in two senses. First, it removes sin and thus enmity with God. Secondly, Christ’s sacrifice is pleasing to God, removing humankind’s offence against God. Reconciliation thus appeases God’s wrath. While sinful humans caused Christ’s passion, offending God also in this act, the death of Christ expresses such divine love that brings about reconciliation (Summa Theologiae III q49 a4). In the context of penance, Thomas holds that this sacrament brings about a reconciliation of friendship (reconciliatio amicitiae; Summa Theologiae III q90 a2r). Like Anselm, Thomas here considers reconciliation to be an outcome of the salvific process rather than its mechanism.
In his Commentary on the Sentences, Thomas speaks of reconciliation as related to the sacrament of penance (In IV Sent. d14–15). Thomas stresses that the purpose (finis) of penance is reconciliation with God. The mechanism for dealing with sin is in this context expressed by the verb ‘expiate’ (expiare). Basically, reconciliation is for Thomas ‘the reparation of friendship’ (amicitiae reparatio), achieved through penitential satisfaction (per satisfactionem; see In IV Sent. d15 q1 a5 qc1). While reconciliation also relates to the process or mechanism of penance, the emphasis is again on the outcome. Issues of peace and justice are relevant for Thomas but they do not shape his concept of reconciliation in the manner of Augustine.
John Duns Scotus treats reconciliation in the manner of Anselm, speaking of Christ as reconciliator (Lectura III, d3 q1, vol. 20: 124 and Ordinatio III, q1, vol. 9: 174). At least once, he describes justification and reconciliation as synonymous concepts (Ordinatio IV, d1, vol. 11: 129). Due to his late medieval distinction between the absolute and ordained power of God, Scotus teaches that God with his absolute power can remove the guilt of original sin and yet withhold his special grace. Analogically, it is possible for God to become reconciled with humankind and yet withhold the salvific acceptance through grace (Ordinatio IV, d1 pars 4 q1, vol. 11, 127). Here Scotus claims that reconciliation means the remission of sins, a description that can also pertain to the justification of the sinner. While Scotus’s reflection on God’s absolute power is innovative, it also continues the medieval understanding of reconciliation, depicting the appeasement of God without broader elaboration of Christ’s work and the effects of grace.
Martin Luther’s use of the Latin verb reconciliare follows earlier patterns. In order to understand the history of the concept, it is nevertheless very important that the German verb used for translating katallassein etc., versühnen (also versönen), is closely related to sühnen, a word often preferred in translating the Hebrew and Greek terms expressing expiation and propitiation. This practice leads to the gradual growth of the German term Versöhnung to express the entire soteriological process. It also contributes to the semantic overlapping of reconciliation and atonement in Protestant theology (Rolf 2017).
The matter is complex, as the German verb sühnen is not cultic or sacrificial as such. Historically, the word comes from legal language and often means the decision of the judge or the solution leading to peace between parties (Grimm and Grimm 1991: 1014 [vol. 20]). Luther is aware of this background and, therefore, the close connection between reconciliation and justification. For such reasons, the German verbs versühnen and sühnen resonate with Luther’s overall theology of justification by faith. They also continue the Anselmian line of connecting reconciliation with divine justice. Given this, Luther can use versühnen as pertaining to (1) peace with God, (2) peace among human beings and (3) in specific cases, the sense of propitiation.
The first sense is relevant when Luther says that the death of Christ reconciles us with God, Christ being a gift given for our sake (Fastenpostille 1525; WA vol. 17II: 206, 14; and Deutsche Bibel 1534; WADB10/1: 141, 16). In the second sense, Luther can say that spouses should be reconciled to one another, or that we should be reconciled with our neighbours (Predigten des Jahres 1531; WA 34/1: 63, 19; and Von der Beicht 1521; WA 8: 156, 20). In the third sense, Luther can say in expounding the Old Testament that a person’s sinful deeds need to be atoned for (missetat versunen, Dass Jesus Christus ein gebornere Jude sei 1523; WA 11: 331, 26 and 334,19). This evidence shows that Luther’s choice of German words does not imply a fusion of sacrifice and peacebuilding. Rather, the context of divine justice is preserved and both the Hebrew and the Pauline meanings are understood from this context.
The Humanist habit of creating vernacular translations with diverse new connections between words meant, however, a disruption of many long-term doctrinal lines based on Latin concepts. For instance, the main confessional text of the Lutheran church, the Augsburg Confession, alludes in its Latin text (section 21) to 1 Tim 2:5, speaking of Christ as the one who mediates and propitiates. The German translation speaks of the Versuhner. Similarly, the Apology to the Augsburg Confession (21.17) explains that Christ’s being ‘Mittler oder Versühner’ (Latin: propitiator) presupposes two things, namely, that God has promised to send Christ and that we can ask for Christ’s help (BSELK 2014). In this manner, the Lutheran confessional tradition integrates different concepts under the German verb versöhnen.
Later scholars in this tradition (Kähler 1937; Wenz 1984–1986 and 2015) thus consider with some good reason that one needs to pay attention to a variety of different concepts and themes in order to see why Versöhnung becomes an umbrella term of Protestant soteriology. The present article, however, follows the path given in the Latin and English term ‘reconciliation’. Since the Reformation, this term tends to overlap with some broader vernacular concepts or themes. While these broader themes cannot be fully covered, the meaning of reconciliation needs to be seen in their context.
Calvin treats reconciliation with the help of the concept of divine love. Quoting Augustine’s exposition of John, Calvin holds that God loved humans already before the world was created: ‘The fact that we were reconciled through Christ’s death must not be understood as if his Son reconciled us to him that he might now begin to love those whom he had hated. Rather, we have already been reconciled to him who loves us’ (Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.16.4; Calvin 2006; cf. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 110.6).
For Calvin, the sacrifices and legal rules of the Old Testament teach believers to seek salvation in the work of Christ. In Institutes 2.16.2, Calvin describes how various events of the Old Testament relate to the atonement (expiatio) that Christ alone carries out. Other concepts, like Christ as the redeemer (redemptor), used in the title of Institutes 2, express this view more prominently than reconciliation. In this manner, the Augustinian reconciliatio becomes connected with broader soteriological themes.
In the modern era, theologians discuss vividly the idea of representation or substitution that reconciliation (e.g. 2 Cor 5:18–20) assumes. While katallassein overcomes alterity through peacebuilding, it also produces alterity by changing the conflicting parties to something different. From the perspective of justice, this production of alterity is complicated, as forensic judgements pertain to the original parties of conflict. One can thus say that the Anselmian emphasis on justice, as adopted in Protestantism, evokes the problems of substitution. If no one else can be justly punished for my sins, then I cannot expect that Christ or God can be the agent of reconciliation in this substitutionary sense.
In addition, if divine justice is also capable of grace, as the Anselmian tradition teaches, then God could forgive sins without asking any compensation for them. Penal substitution would then be not only legally problematic but also unnecessary. The Socinian movement and later deistic and rationalist currents of the Enlightenment adopted this rationalistic line of thought. The writing of Hugo Grotius against Socinus, Defensio fidei catholicae de satisfactione (1617), is particularly fruitful for the concept of reconciliation. Grotius defends the orthodox doctrine, but as a prominent lawyer he also develops modern ways of understanding punishment and satisfaction in terms of general justice and educational improvement (Wenz 1984–1986: 128–131; Craig 2020: 137–142).
The seventh chapter of the Defensio is an extensive exegetical treatise in which Grotius investigates katallassein, hilasterion and other concepts depicting atonement, satisfaction, and reconciliation. He defends the position that the different Greek concepts used in the Gospels and Pauline epistles can depict a situation in which God’s wrath needs to be appeased. Regarding reconciliation, Grotius compares Paul’s katallassein with the same word used in Sophocles’ Ajax, concluding that it can have both God and humans as its subject as well as object (Grotius 1617: 102–103).
In order that humans can convert and their sins be forgiven, there needs to be some human agency in the event of reconciliation. Grotius emphasizes the process of peacebuilding as the central content of reconciliation. The concept of reconciliation does not exclude the idea of satisfaction. While Socinus holds that God’s forgiveness does not require satisfactory reconciliation, Grotius teaches that such reconciliation is needed to remit sins. He quotes Livy who speaks of a gift that reconciles the minds of the citizens (Hist. 2, 41). Analogically, Christ can be called our ‘reconciler’ as the biblical writings mention his blood in this context (Grotius 1617: 103–111). This theme is developed in the treatment of redemption and liberation (Grotius 1617: 111–125).
Grotius points out that the rule of law, or the Anselmian idea of God’s will as the measure of rectitude, concerns all parties. Therefore, both forgiveness and some compensation or satisfaction are needed. Grotius also considers that it is legally possible to punish a person for the sins of others in cases in which the parties are voluntarily connected to one another and thus share the responsibility. As Christ became man and the head of the Christian communion, he has voluntarily taken this responsibility. The death of Christ also moves humans to penitence. Given this, the indebted community performs some satisfaction and God shows both rectitude and forgiveness (Craig 2020: 137–142; Grotius 1617: 70–98). Such combination of justice and mercy can also educate and improve human community (Wenz 1984–1986: 140–141).
Grotius formulates many ideas that continue to be significant in modern views of reconciliation. The mediator contributes a gift, an annulment of debts, or some other concrete ‘aid package’ to heal the situation. At the same time, the guilty party needs to be committed to improvement and to accept its connection with the mediator’s contribution. In order to bring about peace, the laws of justice cannot be bypassed. At the same time, the concept of justice must also include mercy and forgiveness. While justice is also needed, it does not proceed in a calculating fashion.
Immanuel Kant develops the modern philosophy of law, thinking that human dignity goes together with the categorical laws of justice. Guilt and punishment cannot be transferred; such action would violate justice and human dignity. Kant is here closer to Socinus than to Grotius. Kant considers that reconciliation with God (Versöhnung mit Gott) employs the idea of substitutionary satisfaction, being thus in conflict with ethical religion. Punishment for the sake of others is incompatible with justice, but Christ’s work has a moral and practical meaning. The death of Christ can represent humanity so that the ‘old man’ receives punishment and death but the ‘new man’ can live and improve (Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft, ‘Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason’, in Kant 1968: 72–75, 115–116 [vol. 6]; Wenz 1984–1986: 228–231).
For Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christ shares his consciousness of God with believers, being a ‘redeemer’ (Erlöser) in this post-Kantian sense. While redemption becomes the most significant soteriological notion, the concept of reconciliation (Versöhnung) is in Schleiermacher’s dogmatics only briefly treated as an aspect of Christ’s priestly office. He treats the German concept in terms of propitiation, meaning that Christ gives himself as a sacrifice. This obedience of Christ can be called representative or substitutionary (stellvertretend) in the sense of exemplary value and the inclusion of all humans within his living community (Lebensgemeinschaft). Schleiermacher prefers to call this ‘redemptive activity’ (erlösende Thätigkeit; Schleiermacher 2008: 134–135, 146, section 104 [vol. 2]).
From the Reformation to the era of Schleiermacher, the German concept of Versöhnung means not only reconciliation but also propitiation. For this reason, the themes of substitutionary and sacrificial atonement appear prominently, whereas the theme of peacebuilding is not emphasized. Authors writing in Latin, like Grotius, can avoid the overlapping of the two themes and spell out the specific content of reconciliation more clearly. Some vernacular authors, like Schleiermacher, prefer to speak of redemption, as this term offers other options to deal with the work of Christ. In Protestant theology, however, the Greek katallassein and the Latin reconciliare often remain hidden under the broader German verbs versöhnen and erlösen.
Next to the apostle Paul, G. W. F. Hegel is the most influential thinker in the intellectual history of reconciliation. Hegel elaborates the theology of Versöhnung in his philosophy of religion, but he is particularly famous for his social-philosophical project of reconciliation. Hegel reflects on the death of God on the cross. He considers that the otherness of God is overcome in this event. ‘Through death, God has reconciled the world and reconciles himself eternally’ (Hegel 1929: 166; Wenz 1984–1986: 315). When Hegel treats the topic ‘God-man and reconciliation’ in his philosophy of religion, he aims to show how God is human and how the split between the eternal and the temporal can be overcome in the process of reconciliation.
While the progressive trend from Socinus to Kant regarded satisfaction as a premodern doctrine, Hegel reinterprets traditional teachings to suit his philosophical synthesis. The Trinitarian God can manifest the reconciliation that takes place in the unification of opposites. In Hegel’s modern reading, the event of God’s reconciliation with the world means that the human reason and spirit can conceive eternal and absolute truths. At the same time, Hegel does not simply abrogate traditional theological concepts but reinterprets them. Such rational reinterpretation renders these concepts current in the modern world.
Hegel’s view of reconciliation presupposes his famous Doppelsatz (double dictum), expressed in the Preface (section 12) of the Philosophy of Right as follows: ‘What is rational is actual, and what is actual is rational’ (Hegel 1970 [vol. 7]; Hardimon 1994: 52). Rationality evolves through the historical process and conquers earlier antagonisms. In this manner, the Doppelsatz declares that rational insights will also be realized in the historical world.
In the Preface (section 14), Hegel summarizes his social philosophy with a condensed statement: ‘To recognize reason as the rose in the cross of the present and thereby to delight in the present – this rational insight is the reconciliation with actuality which philosophy grants to those who have received the inner call to comprehend’ (translation from Hardimon 1994: 129). Hegel assumes that human beings are alienated from their social realities and have thus a ‘cross’ to bear. Reconciliation is a process and a state that overcomes alienation and makes people feel at home in their social world. Reason and rational insight make reconciliation possible for those who have the ability to comprehend. In this sense, philosophy enables people to be reconciled both in their thinking and in their actual reality, as the Doppelsatz assumes. This reconciliation finally occurs between people and modern social world (Hardimon 1994: 95, 133).
Hegel mentions Luther’s name in this context, and the Reformer’s personal seal contains a rose and a cross. The human condition is thus interpreted in a rational spirit that encompasses Lutheran theology and the cross as symbol of alienation and conflict. In his Phenomenology of the Spirit, Hegel speaks of ‘the reconciling yea’ (das versöhnende Ja; Hegel 1970: 494 [vol 3]), through which one can affirm the world in a positive sense. Reconciliation proceeds from tensions or conflicts. While Hegel teaches that such tensions can be overcome and that reconciliation provides unity, the conflicts are also preserved as prerequisites of this higher unity (Hardimon 1994: 87, 94). This also means, as Hegel formulates in the Phenomenology of the Spirit, ‘the reconciliation of consciousness with self-consciousness’ (Hegel 1970: 579).
Especially in the Preface (section 22) of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel argues that in the rational affirmation of actuality ‘the true reconciliation’ takes place in the affirmation of the modern state ‘as the image and reality of reason’. Such reconciliation is the opposite of alienation and means the endorsement of active citizenship. The modern human being is not merely a private person but also an active member of the state and society. This teaching has had a broad and ambivalent reception history. While some interpreters hold that Hegel here affirms a conservative and obedient attitude to the Prussian state of his time, others argue that Hegel’s social philosophy of reconciliation represents moderate liberalism and affirms an active civil society (Hardimon 1994: 225–227; Rozsa 2012; Loock 2001: 900).
Hegel is the first social philosopher to take the concept of reconciliation out of its Christian religious context, ascribing to it a fundamental role in the emergence of modern social and political community. At the same time, the religious roots of the concept are clearly visible in Hegel’s texts. In his attempt to see Hegel’s political and religious thinking as a coherent whole, Jürgen Habermas considers that the idea of reconciliation alleviates the antagonistic pluralities of society so that the emerging modern state can operate as a unity. In its intellectual roots, this modern secular state is based on and operates with the help of a confessionally neutral but religious idea. The loyalty of citizens to the state is thus supported by the religious idea of reconciling unity. This idea protects the state from splits and antagonisms. According to Habermas, the Prussian church law has preserved this idea until today (Habermas 2019: 540–542).
Hegel’s philosophy of reconciliation contributed significantly to the emergence of national identities and the production of the modern nation-state in the nineteenth century. A typical example of this kind is the seminal work of Finnish national awakening, Johan Vilhelm Snellman’s Läran Om Staten (‘Politics’, 1842). In the final chapter of this work, Snellman presents a Hegelian vision of reconciliation. An individual person may be unsuccessful in his private life and he may fail in trying to improve the conditions of his external life. However, the rational world of knowledge remains open for this person. Thus, one learns that world history and the nations inevitably progress towards improvement. This ‘reconciling power’ (försonande makt) enables Snellman to claim that historical human powers can reconcile (försona) all human failures. While this reconciliation employs human capabilities, it also includes a certain ‘religious awareness’ (Snellman 1842: 446–447). Snellman employs Hegel’s Doppelsatz in his claim that the rational world of knowledge and learning, or Hegel’s rose of reason, enables one to conceive how historical improvement is possible and finally inevitable in the present-day world.
3 Reconciliation as atonement: Baur, Ritschl, and Aulén
The post-Enlightenment prominence of reconciliation and atonement is largely due to Ferdinand Christian Baur’s seminal work Die Christliche Lehre von Der Versöhnung in Ihrer Geschichtlichen Entwicklung (‘The Historical Development of the Christian Doctrine of Reconciliation’, 1838). Following Schleiermacher and the philosopher F. W. J. Schelling, Baur establishes a historical approach to understanding Christian doctrine. Baur regards history as an unfolding of consistent lines of development. A programme of reconciliation between ‘nature religion’ and ‘spirit religion’ is already significant in his early philosophy of religion (Zachhuber 2013: 35). The concept of reconciliation connects Baur’s historical approach with the speculative philosophy of Hegel.
Reconciliation (Versöhnung) is for Baur not merely the centre of Christian theology, but the centre of every religion, as religions are concerned with the mediatory relationship between the human and the divine. Processes of reconciliation enable and sustain this mediation. Judaism can already conceive reconciliation as a free and personal process based on the law. However, only Christianity is able to produce the necessary mediation in a manner that is non-violent and consciously personal. Baur looks at the concept of redemption (Erlösung) as the outward manifestation of the internal and personal mediation taking place in reconciliation between God and human beings (Baur 1838: 1–6; Wenz 1984–1986: 16–17).
Given this framework, Baur distinguishes between three historical paradigms in the development of the doctrine of reconciliation. In the patristic and medieval eras, reconciliation was understood as objective truth. The first paradigm culminated in Anselm of Canterbury’s dogmatic theory of satisfaction. From the Reformation to the Enlightenment, the understanding of the subjective individual as the primary carrier of religious conviction grew gradually, replacing the first paradigm with an understanding of the internal nature of reconciliation and mediation. In the Enlightenment, the second paradigm of subjectivity reached its peak (Baur 1838: 23, 285; Wenz 1984–1986: 18).
Due to the philosophical work of Kant, Schleiermacher, and Hegel, it became possible to appreciate the objective nature of Christian doctrine in a new manner. This third paradigm approaches Christianity historically. It can detect both the historical uniqueness of Jesus of Nazareth and the complex plurality of later doctrinal interpretations. Instead of looking at religion from an individual perspective, the third paradigm can situate the whole of humanity within this historical framework. Reconciliation and mediation between God and humankind take place through Jesus who represents the idea of humanity and the mediated unity between God and humans. In the historical development of Christianity, the Christian consciousness progresses through the paradigms toward a clearer understanding of this event of reconciliation in Jesus Christ (Baur 1838: 565; Wenz 1984–1986: 18–19).
Baur thus conceives reconciliation as the Hegelian summary and umbrella concept of the whole of religious doctrine. Later theologians who defend different views regarding the course of history nevertheless tend to affirm Baur’s point of departure, that is, the view of Versöhnung (reconciliation, atonement) as the centre of Christian religion.
The most influential corrective to Baur’s position was Albrecht Ritschl’s three-volume work Die christliche Lehre von der Rechtfertigung und Versöhnung (1882, 1st edition 1870–1874). The English translation of this work, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation 1–3, was published in 1900. Both the German original and the English translation exercised considerable influence in the theological world. For Ritschl, reconciliation does not concern religions in general but only Christianity. In addition, the Greek fathers understand soteriology in terms of redemption from the devil’s power. Such understanding does not yet express the deeper ethical content of reconciliation.
Ritschl thus discards Baur’s universal approach and the Hegelian view of history. His own understanding follows a speculative Neo-Kantian philosophy in which the heart of the matter is expressed in moral and voluntarist terms. Within this tradition, it was considered that historical reconciliation can only take place when proper volitional love is practised (Zachhuber 2013: 147–150, 205–208). This had become possible in Latin Christianity since Anselm of Canterbury. Therefore, the proper history of the doctrine of Versöhnung (reconciliation, atonement) concerns Western theology. In addition, a proper historical approach must also deal with the doctrine of justification, since this doctrine is prominent in historical sources and connects the ethical core of reconciliation with the Pauline theology of righteousness and grace (Ritschl 1882: 3, 22, 31; Wenz 1984–1986: 19–22).
Ritschl can follow his view of reconciliation as an ethical and voluntarist phenomenon consistently when he integrates it with the doctrine of justification. The biblical view of divine righteousness employs concepts that resemble the Neo-Kantian ideas of morality and will. The twin perspective of justification and reconciliation offers extensive biblical and historical sources to work with. Although the historical evidence presented by Ritschl is, therefore, more convincing than the Hegelian view of Baur, Anselm’s role as the key figure in the history of reconciliation is common to both.
Gustav Aulén’s Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement (in Swedish 1930, in English 1931) has been enormously popular in the English-speaking world in the twentieth century. Reasons for its popularity are connected with Aulén’s visibility as a global ecumenical church leader. Christus victor, a short textbook, interpreted the results of Baur and Ritschl in a new manner, yet never impressed German theologians. While Aulén uses the Hegelian and Ritschlian term Versöhnung / försoning, the English translation uses ‘atonement’. His models continue to be discussed in the debates regarding ‘the theory of atonement’, whereas many similar views of Baur and Ritschl are ignored.
Aulén highlights Anselm’s ‘objective’ satisfaction theory in the manner of his German predecessors. He considers that the ‘subjective’ and ‘moral’ theory of atonement was already available in Peter Abelard’s medieval theology. Aulén rehabilitates the patristic Greek view of redemption, arguing that it is a classic idea that is also available in the New Testament and in Luther (Aulén 1931: 1–15). In this manner, Greek Orthodox theology and Lutheranism appear as ecumenical alternatives to the Latin, Anselmian and Roman Catholic view of reconciliation. While many of the building bricks of Aulén’s theories are taken from Baur and Ritschl, his actual position disregards the subjective, moral and idealistic leanings of German cultural Protestantism.
Together with his colleague Anders Nygren, Aulén represents the Swedish school of motif research, a theological method that aims at finding a seminal idea (‘motif’) behind complex historical developments. The ‘classic’ idea of försoning says that Christ overcomes sin, death and the devil in his incarnation, death and resurrection. This victory over the devil and recapitulation of human life is the biblical, patristic and Lutheran view of försoning (Aulén 1931: 16, 61, 101). As this seminal idea or motif can be expressed with a few catchwords, it is easily suited to theoretical refinement.
Aulén’s Christus victor is attractive to liberation theology, since it highlights the struggle with powers of oppression. Especially when this liberation is explained in terms of non-violence, the important connection with peacemaking can be established (Weaver 2001). Remarkably, Aulén’s view has also been positively received in post-apartheid South Africa, where theologians have employed it to outline the connections between classical theology and the contemporary social struggle for peace with justice (Conradie 2019).
Baur, Ritschl, and Aulén are model cases of the ‘fusion of horizons’ taking place between the documented history and the pre-understanding that shapes the very construction of this history. The historical results of these three scholars are largely outdated. Nevertheless, a ‘shadow’ of their pre-understanding remains in current theology. This shadow consists of three claims: (1) reconciliation/atonement is a theological concept which captures the essence of Christianity (Baur); (2) one can extract a rational core of this concept so that its overall morality and compatibility with human agency can be evaluated (Ritschl); (3) alternatively, one can extract a number of different ‘models’ which can be compared with one another and with different ecclesial and historical circumstances (Aulén).
The legacy of Hegel can be seen in the comprehensive rationality ascribed to the vertical reconciliation between God and humans, a project that complements Hegel’s horizontal view of social and political reconciliation. This aspect is evident in Baur, but it also continues to some extent within the framework of the ‘umbrella concept’ adopted by Ritschl and Aulén. In this manner, reconciliation aims at defining the rational core of Christianity in the modern era.
In sections 1 and 2 above, an evidence-based historical reading has presented the concept of reconciliation from primary sources. The claims (1), (2) and (3) nevertheless continue to shape current theology. In conscious contrast to them, this article understands reconciliation in terms of mediation and peacebuilding. This understanding offers a significant but by no means comprehensive perspective on the work of Christ. While this view of reconciliation is integrally connected with justice, it manifests concrete mediation rather than an abstract rationality or morality. As such, reconciliation cannot be adequately summarized with the help of systematic models. Therefore, reconciliation is here and in the following sections not understood in the sense of rational ‘atonement’ but rather as synonymous with katallagē/reconciliatio.
4 Reconciliation and the churches
4.1 Twentieth-century Protestant theology
Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (German: Kirchliche Dogmatik [KD], 1932) has decisively shaped the understanding of reconciliation in contemporary theology. The massive volume IV of this work, consisting of several large parts or sub-volumes, is entirely devoted to the doctrine of reconciliation (Versöhnung). The volume discusses Jesus Christ as the servant of God, the Lord of humanity and the true witness of God. Central soteriological themes, such as mediation, justification and sanctification are treated in this context. The fourth volume also includes discussions concerning vocation, the sending of Christian community, and the Christian life. This wealth of themes means that ‘reconciliation’ becomes an architectonic umbrella concept that covers both salvation and Christian ethics.
While the idea of an umbrella concept connects Barth with the German tradition of Baur and Ritschl, his treatment of reconciliation is highly original in its scope. The volume opens with a statement that the readers now enter the centre of the message received in the Christian community. While creation and eschatology are located around it, the covenant realized in the work of reconciliation is the centre of the Christian message or teaching (Botschaft: KD IV/1: 1–2).
It is highly significant that Barth understands reconciliation in terms of community or the church. The ecclesial meaning of the concept is not clearly visible in its earlier theological history, although one may claim that Hegel adds social and communal features to its philosophical concept, Barth calls the reconciling work of God in Jesus Christ the ‘vertical’ dimension. Its horizontal counterpart is the human being and human community. At the same time, the latter is also a matter of faith and confession. The subjective realization of reconciliation takes place in the horizontal way of endorsing a person and a community as Christian (KD IV/1: 718–719).
While Barth mentions peace several times in KD IV, the dimension of peacebuilding is not particularly highlighted in his discussion. When he deals with the sovereign character of Christian existence, peace is treated as one such character trait. Reconciliation brings salvation that has the power to mediate between the opposites. This power is operative as peace with God and at the same time as peace among human beings. A third dimension concerns peace within oneself. These three dimensions of peace are operative simultaneously as the peace-power (Friedenskraft) of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (KD IV/2: 350–352).
Wolfhart Pannenberg does not treat reconciliation as an architectonic umbrella concept. He pays detailed attention to the exegetical and historical foundations of this doctrine, concluding that justification, reconciliation and salvation constitute a holistic unity in the Pauline epistles. Pannenberg nevertheless considers that reconciliation has a key role in understanding the meaning of the death of Jesus. He discusses the relationship between atonement (Sühne) and reconciliation at length. The two concepts are semantically distinct, but Pannenberg teaches that the atoning death of Christ can be understood as the ‘point of departure’ from which believers can appropriate the event of reconciliation for themselves (Pannenberg 1991: 444, 447, 474).
With the help of this relationship, Pannenberg explains the idea of substitution (Stellvertretung) in the death of Christ. As this atoning death is oriented towards the reconciliation taking place in believers, it has an ‘anticipatory function’. Christ has died for us, but we are also called to disseminate the gospel and live a life of faith. In this sense, the death of Christ does not aim to be an ‘exclusive’ substitution but it manifests an inclusive paradigm in which all Christians are called to participate. Pannenberg also treats ‘the gospel’ as one part of the doctrine of reconciliation. In the inclusive ‘service of reconciliation’ (2 Cor 5:18), Christians proclaim the gospel and participate in the building of peace. Salvation includes the Old Testament concept of shalom, peace. While Pannenberg does not discuss ecclesiology in this context, he stresses the strong connection between gospel, the church and reconciliation (Pannenberg 1991: 474–476, 443, 501–502, 508–511).
In English-speaking theology, the pacifist John Howard Yoder has argued for the interconnection between reconciliation, peace and community. He considers that Paul understands justification ‘as a social phenomenon centering in the reconciliation of different kinds of people’. Christians are called to proclaim that God ‘reconciles classes of people’ (Yoder 1994: 224–225). Reconciliation is thus not an inner or individualist peace but a very concrete societal peace. Stanley Hauerwas develops this approach towards a communitarian social ethics according to which peacemaking is an essential virtue of the church. He emphasizes the practice rather than theory: ‘Our savior comes offering us the practice of reconciliation necessary for us to be a people able to live in the world without violence and envy’. Christians act in this communitarian vision as ‘agents in God’s history of reconciliation by transforming us into a community of the reconciled’ (Hauerwas 2001: 263, 265).
This sharper focus on the concrete social practices of reconciliation has similarities with the ecumenical movement, in which reconciliation is employed as a theological concept that can help in healing ecclesial conflicts. To understand ecumenism, the development of Roman Catholic theology of reconciliation needs first to be briefly outlined.
4.2 Roman Catholic theology
The tradition of Augustine, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas continues to be significant in Roman Catholicism. Due to the role of Latin as the model language for theology, the Roman Catholic concept of reconciliation does not overlap as easily with propitiation as it does in Protestant theology. The construction of an umbrella concept, similar to German Versöhnung, is not as smooth in Latin-based languages as in the writings of Baur and Ritschl. Some scholars argue that reconciliation has only played ‘a marginal role’ in Catholic theology until today (Werbick 2001: 725). Given the prominent role of Augustine and Anselm in Catholicism, this judgement may nevertheless be misleading.
For the standard Catholic understanding, the strong connection between reconciliation and the sacrament of penance is important. As shown above, this connection is already present in Augustine and Aquinas. The Council of Trent teaches that for the Catholic Church penance is a sacrament ‘instituted by Christ the Lord for the reconciliation of the faithful to God himself’ (Canon 1 of penance; Tanner 1990: 711).
In the modern era, Karl Rahner and other theologians emphasize the ecclesial character of penance (Sattler 1994: 850). In this spirit, Vatican II formulates in Lumen gentium (11) that those who approach the sacrament of penance not only obtain pardon for their offences but are at the same time ‘reconciled with the church which they wounded by their sin’ (Tanner 1990: 857). This emphasis on Christian community is in parallel with the developments in Protestant theology and the ecumenical movement.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) emphasizes reconciliation more forcefully than older magisterial documents. The relevant healing rite is now called ‘the sacrament of penance and reconciliation’ or simply ‘sacrament of reconciliation’, imparting to the sinner the love of God who reconciles. Reconciliation with the Church is now highlighted. Jesus reintegrated sinners into the community of the people of God. He also gave the apostles ‘the authority to reconcile sinners with the Church’. The Catechism holds that ‘reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God’ (Catholic Church 1994: 1422–1424, 1443–1445).
Apart from this sacrament, reconciliation is briefly mentioned in the context of salvation. Here the Catechism (1994) holds that justification ‘reconciles man with God’. Reconciliation is also given as one biblical meaning of justification in the Lutheran – Roman Catholic ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’ (2000: section 9). While reconciliation has thus increased its relative importance in current Roman Catholic theology, its theological content remains focused on the sacrament of penance. The connections with peace and justice, prominent in the Pauline and Latin traditions, have only recently been elaborated in Catholicism (Schreiter 1998; Appleby 2000).
While reconciliation with the Church has become an important aspect of penance, this expression is not used with regard to ecumenism. To describe cases in which two different communities approach one another, Vatican II uses the concepts restoration or renewal (Unitatis redintegratio 5–6) and, in particular, recognition or acknowledgment (Lumen gentium 9, 16; Unitatis redintegratio 3–4, 9–10, 16–17; Saarinen 2016; Tanner 1990, vol. 2). At the same time, individual Catholic theologians have elaborated the ecumenical role of the Church ‘as the one who reconciles for God’ (Tillard 1992: 244–247).
4.3 The ecumenical movement
The ecumenical movement of the twentieth century rediscovered and cultivated many old Christian concepts. At the same time, this movement was characterized by political ideologies and tensions. Especially after the Second World War, reconciliation was a necessary task and the churches devoted themselves to this work. The language used by the founding assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1948 in Amsterdam seeks a balance between theological and somewhat political understandings of reconciliation.
The Amsterdam report considers that the whole and the parts of individual churches are such that, even when the parts of the different churches resemble one another, they are found ‘irreconcilable with the whole context of the other’ (section 8; Vischer 1963: 77). Since ‘the Body of Christ is a unity’, it is ‘impossible’ to isolate parts of belief and leave ‘other parts unreconciled’. While the report admits that ‘it is not always easy to reconcile our confessional and ecumenical loyalties’, the final purpose of God is nevertheless ‘to reconcile all men to Himself and to one another in Jesus Christ’ (sections 23, 30, 32; Vischer 1963: 79–82). A horizontal reconciliation among churches is thus in the focus of the Amsterdam report. The Christological parts lend theological support to that end. The complex dialectic of the whole, the parts, the other and the over-arching unity gives the report a somewhat Hegelian spirit.
In a similar manner, the WCC New Delhi assembly report of 1961 speaks of ‘reconciling grace which breaks down every wall of race, colour, caste, tribe, sex, class, and nation’ (section 11; Vischer 1963: 148). The perspective of the report is now global and egalitarian, but also horizontal and political. This line of political reconciliation is continued in the ecumenical movement, culminating in the unity statement of the WCC Canberra assembly of 1991. This statement holds that ‘the calling of the church is to proclaim reconciliation and provide healing, to overcome divisions based on race, gender, age, culture, colour, and to bring all people into communion with God’. The ecumenical movement is defined as ‘a reconciling and renewing movement’ (1.2, 3.2; Gassmann 1993: 4–5).
In the Canberra statement, the church becomes an almost political agent and the subject of reconciliation. This feature continues the horizontal line of Amsterdam and New Delhi. The aim of overcoming divisions and implementing monoculture means an increasing distance from those theological traditions which underline the continuing difference and otherness between the parties seeking reconciliation. After 1991, new cultures and policies of appreciating difference have changed the evaluation of these ideals (cf. Marty 2004).
In this manner, the ecumenical movement employs the language of reconciliation to overcome antagonism and to create unity. This language continues to employ ideas which were first formulated by Hegel and then applied to the political situation in Europe and North America. For instance, The Fellowship of Reconciliation, founded in 1914, coordinated ecumenically motivated peace work in English-speaking countries (Wink 2000; Dekar 2005). While such movements were not philosophical as such, the continuing influence of Hegel’s political theory in European nation-states contributed to their use of the concept. Thus, the ecumenical language bears Hegelian traces, especially when it speaks about overcoming divisions.
There is also a somewhat different ecumenical use of the concept starting from New Delhi 1961. The assembly adopted a statement of ‘unity of all in each place’. This unity means a ‘committed fellowship’ and ‘corporate life’. During the 1970s, a new model of unity, so-called ‘reconciled diversity’ emerges in the ecumenical movements. Its architects consider that it builds on the New Delhi unity statement (Meyer 1996: 103–105). This model emerges in the context of doctrinal dialogues and does not aim at political or social reconciliation. Its use of the word ‘reconciled’ is predominantly theological.
Since the 1980s, the phrase ‘unity in reconciled diversity’ has become increasingly popular in ecumenism and is de facto adopted by both Protestants and Catholics in their various dialogues. According to this concept, ‘denominational traditions […] can have a continuing identifiable life within the one church, provided that in a process of dialogue, of living encounter and mutual correction, they have lost their denominational exclusiveness and divisive trenchancy and have thus been transformed into a “reconciled” diversity’ (Meyer 1991: 845).
In concrete ecumenical work, this model aims at building a basic or fundamental agreement or ‘differentiated consensus’ between the parties. After this, the parties can claim that the remaining differences can be tolerated and are in this sense ‘reconciled’ by means of the achieved agreement (Hietamäki 2010; Webster 2005) The steps of this ecumenical method bear some structural resemblance with Catholic penitential practice, as the method proceeds from the spirit of openness and metanoia. This feature is developed further in so-called ‘receptive ecumenism’ (Murray 2008). Another way this resembles the Catholic concept is that the quest for reconciliation continues by means of satisfactory doctrinal agreement, leading to the healing of conflicting differences and an improved life.
At the same time, the idea of ‘reconciled diversity’ bears some traces of the Hegelian tradition. While this ecumenical method overcomes antagonisms, it does not make differences disappear. The unity achieved by means of satisfactory agreement enables the participants to see each other in new light so that ‘God’s yes’ is complemented by ‘the church’s amen’ (Hietamäki 2010: 104–105). Such affirmation resembles ‘the reconciling yea’ of Hegel. In this manner, the ecumenical method combines aspects of both penitential and Hegelian tradition.
In addition, the ecumenical concept resembles the Pauline and Augustinian idea of peacebuilding and the practice of acting as ‘ambassadors’ in the service of reconciliation. In this usage, the concept develops a certain counterweight to the ecumenical idea of unity. As the biblical concept of reconciliation assumes alterity (allos, allassein) and peacebuilding between the parties, it claims that the dissolution of differences is not the only biblical option for coping with alterity. The concept of reconciled diversity thus does not aim to abolish the alterity and pluralism present especially in Protestant denominations. It is also compatible with recent exegetical findings that emphasize peacebuilding and representative agency as constituents of biblical reconciliation.
5 Societal and religious reconciliation
5.1 Interaction with political science
While reconciliation is both a tool of nation building and a prominent theological theme in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it does not have a similar reputation in international politics. In their diplomatic efforts, the European nation–states have been guided by national interest, the balance of power and, since the era of Bismarck, by realpolitik which does not seek support from philosophical principles (Kissinger 1994: 56–136). The Hegelian reconciliation is predominantly visible in the inner consolidation and unification of a nation-state.
In the twentieth century, totalitarian ambitions shaped the politics of countries like the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The rise of the United States to become a leading global actor after the First World War added an ambitious vision of rules-based global community to the diplomatic picture. This vision was to an extent realized in the League of Nations and, later, in the United Nations and the European Union. At the same time, national interest and realpolitik remained important. In the 1930s, conflicts with Nazi Germany were approached with the policy of ‘appeasement’. This approach was, however, a grave misjudgement. In the 1970s, the policies of detente alleviated some problems of the Cold War without leading to permanent results (Kissinger 1994: 306–314, 733–761).
Methods that resemble appeasement were not considered appropriate in the diplomacy of the Cold War period. This did not mean that reconciliation was totally absent. For instance, the German chancellor Konrad Adenauer (1967: 246) spoke programmatically of ‘Franco-German reconciliation’. Such talk nevertheless assumes a potentially shared social world to which both sides can relate. From Hegel to the end of the Cold War, the concept of reconciliation was employed to promote a fundamental unity that is deeper than the prevailing antagonisms. However, this concept could not aid in resolving fundamental differences.
Since the end of the Cold War period, a remarkable change has taken place. Reconciliation is now extensively discussed in many new cases of conflict resolution and in the global promotion of democracy. The South African National Unity and Reconciliation Act (1995) and the Final Report (1998) of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission have established a set of practices in which the documentation of past crimes, a variety of punishments and compensations, as well as acts of forgiveness and amnesty are combined so that societal reconciliation can take place (Tutu 1999; Lapsley 2012). Following the model of South Africa, different regional conflicts have been approached through a conscious politics of reconciliation (Appleby 2000; Schaap 2005; Radzik 2009).
In the extensive research literature dealing with these developments (for summaries and bibliographies, see Radzik and Murphy 2019 and Keyes 2019), references to earlier intellectual, political and diplomatic traditions are surprisingly rare. Radzik and Murphy (2019) consider that reconciliation can refer either to a process or to an outcome. As an outcome, reconciliation means an improvement in the relations among parties formerly at odds with one another. Processes of reconciliation are typically seen as legal and symbolic ventures for the promotion of justice. Radzik and Murphy (2019) list nine such processes, that is, apologies, memorials, truth telling, amnesties, trials and punishments, lustration, reparations, and forgiveness.
On the one hand, this recent turn follows the Hegelian pattern of overcoming alienation and adapting to modernity. A settlement between the citizens and the state or between antagonistic groups is regarded as a rational means to this end. On the other hand, a variety of symbolic ad hoc tools, such as the politics of memory and the practices of forgiveness are discussed as matters of international relations and foreign affairs. In South Africa and elsewhere, the influence of Christian theology is visible. The poor reputation of political appeasement has not been extended to the new processes of reconciliation. In this manner, an intellectual historian can speak of a ‘return’ of reconciliation to political science. In addition to the return of rational Versöhnung, one can also speak of the return of incongruous and charismatic acts of mediation.
For Keyes (2019), vertical reconciliation means redefining the relationships between individuals and the state, especially the reestablishment of trust, rights and accountability after human rights abuses. Horizontal reconciliation, on the other hand, means repairing relationships between individuals, communities and societies, including mechanisms for apology, forgiveness, reparation and reintegration of offenders. Keyes further considers that many current authors agree on the following features of reconciliation: (1) it is a means by which a society or community transitions from a divided past to a shared future, (2) it involves the rebuilding of trust and social relationships, (3) it is a long-term process, sometimes over generations, (4) it cannot be imposed, only chosen, (5) it operates across different social strata, such as political society, institutions, community, interpersonal and individual liaisons.
From the perspective of intellectual history, such characterizations reveal an affinity with the Hegelian tradition. Hegel’s view of reconciliation resonates with current views, especially if Hegel’s social philosophy is interpreted as being a relatively liberal and modern enterprise in which ‘citizens can collectively determine and pursue their common good and recognize one another as members of a politically organized community’ (so Hardimon 1994: 254). Two cultural matters remain different, namely, (1) Hegel assumes a hierarchical conception of politics and (2) he does not look beyond the European situation. Current global reconciliation ventures are democratic, multicultural and postcolonial in their general outlook. At the same time, they remain connected with the values of European modernity and thus also with Hegel’s philosophy.
While the current politics of reconciliation is not interested in intellectual history, it is well aware of the religious connections of this concept. The role of Desmond Tutu in South Africa and of the so-called peace churches, such as the Mennonites, in many other parts of the world, have contributed to this awareness (Appleby 2000). At the same time, it is evident that Christian theologies are sometimes a part of the conflict, for instance, in the case of Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. As the concept of reconciliation is derived from Graeco-Roman culture and the Latin Bible, its applicability to the conflicts beyond the Western world can also be debated. One can nevertheless argue that the view of social justice promoted in this concept can be seen at least in all three Abrahamic religions (de Gruchy 2002).
When the concept of reconciliation is stretched to meet all kinds of intercultural challenges, the threat of its becoming thin – or even empty – is quite real (Schaap 2005; 2008). Human rights issues, in particular, are not easily adapted to the processes of reconciliation. They are rather legal and rules-based issues which, philosophically speaking, need to be based on Kantian rather than Hegelian principles. While many recent developments, such as those in South Africa and Northern Ireland, are symbolic processes of reconciliation, they are also legal and juridical projects operating with a universal conception of human rights.
In one sense, this emphasis on justice is very traditional, as reconciliation discourses have since Paul and Anselm been accompanied by the consideration of justice and legal measures. Hegel likewise emphasizes the transformation of individual consciousness, situating reconciliation within the general framework of right. Unlike Hegel’s philosophy, however, the above-mentioned long lists of current reconciliation techniques do not constitute a rational system. They are rather contextual ad hoc initiatives suited to healing particular situations.
As such, these techniques show a certain affinity with the peacebuilding presented in The Knight’s Tale, the first story of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. In this tale, the good king Theseus and the god Saturn appear as charismatic peace mediators who perform a variety of odd and creative measures to reconcile the conflicting parties. Theseus and Saturn offer reparations and forgiveness without considering the moral failures of the antagonists. At the same time, they also follow the rules of fair play and act as judges when needed. Reconciliation thus appears to consist of a combination of justice with other, creative ad hoc techniques. The charismatic role of the peace mediator is underlined to make the techniques work.
While the comparison with The Knight’s Tale highlights the somewhat accidental and even non-rational techniques of peacemaking, it is not meant as theological criticism. On the contrary, the Pauline discussion of reconciliation focuses on the ruler’s initiative and the incongruous gifts related to it. In addition, the importance of charismatic mediators is highlighted in contemporary literature (e.g. Appleby 2000).
Finally, the current political concept of reconciliation remains ambivalent. On the one hand, reconciliation appears as a generic metaconcept of all conflict resolution. This feature resembles Hegel’s rational concept that overcomes different antagonisms and alienation, leading all parties towards comprehensive modernity. On the other hand, the actual techniques of political reconciliation consist of a variety of contextual tools, highlighting charismatic and incongruous agency rather than rationalized system.
5.2 Christian life: bottom-up and top-down meanings
For a theologian, the recent popularity of reconciliation discourses in matters of political peacebuilding and justice offers an opportunity to return to the Pauline roots of katallassein. As the historical background of the Pauline and Augustinian concept is linked with the institution of peacebuilding and as katallagē/reconciliatio receives its theological meaning from its close connection with justice or righteousness, one can argue that this meaning can be elaborated to suit current challenges. In the present article, such a specified meaning has been developed based on the Greek and Latin words. This meaning is narrower than both Hegelian Versöhnung and the atonement discourses of current philosophy of religion.
What can this, more narrowly specified concept offer Christian life today? Robert Schreiter (1992, 1998) attempts to combine exegetical findings with a theological interpretation of the political processes of reconciliation. He distinguishes between a Protestant view of comprehensive atonement and a Catholic view that promotes repentance, forgiveness and loving improvement. Schreiter follows the Catholic path and interprets biblical stories in terms of peacebuilding and healing the wounds. With the help of this approach, he can outline reconciliation as ‘spirituality’ and as a toolbox of ‘strategies’ which relate to concrete processes (Schreiter 1998). Instead of presenting a theory of atonement, this approach follows the exegetical path of seeing reconciliation as peacebuilding.
Schreiter’s brief and pragmatic approach evokes the broader hermeneutical issue of how a theological concept can be construed. The New Testament evidently uses worldly matters as illustrations of some theological reality. For instance, Jesus uses the practices of fishing, claiming to make his disciples ‘fish for people’ (Matt 4:18). Similarly, Paul uses the institution of ‘the elders’ or ‘ambassadors’ to describe how God’s reconciliatory work with humans resembles the peacebuilding work between human groups. Let us call such illustrations ‘bottom-up’ metaphors.
God’s justice or righteousness can also be elucidated with the help of a bottom-up metaphor. The judge operates in the law court, pronouncing justice in different cases. Similarly, God acts as a judge, making his righteousness known. At the same time, this illustration is complex, as it can be argued that continuing reflection on God’s righteousness based on biblical texts may transform our initial idea of worldly justice. In this manner, the righteousness of God can be claimed to work also in a ‘top-down’ manner. While the given text is initially approached with the help of a bottom-up metaphor, the theological text is also able to give us new ideas regarding righteousness, illuminating the reader top-down. The metaphor of fishing, on the other hand, seems only to be operative in a bottom-up manner. A theological understanding of fishermen does not change our understanding of ordinary fishing, but a theological understanding of God’s righteousness may transform our ways of conceiving justice among our neighbours.
Now, it can be asked whether Pauline reconciliation is a one-way metaphor like fishing, or a two-way metaphor like righteousness. The bottom-up character of reconciliation as peacebuilding is convincingly argued in biblical studies and strongly supported by the frequent use of peace language in the Augustinian tradition. In addition, a top-down character may also emerge. Our understanding of reconciliation may start with a bottom-up metaphor, but its broader meaning may become theological when the gospel message is adopted.
The history presented above demonstrates how this may happen. The Pauline and Anselmian connection with divine justice and grace, as well as the claim that reconciliation occurs ‘through’ Christ (Rom 5:10; 2 Cor 5:18), elucidate the concept from a theological perspective. In this theological understanding of reconciliation, the righteousness of God manifests a justice connected with mercy. God’s grace in Christ is an overwhelming gift that can reconcile humans without regard to their merits. This new theological understanding of reconciliation claims to bring about peace. At the same time, it does not bypass justice. It employs new and unconventional top-down means to reinstate the rule of justice.
Some current interpretations of atonement helpfully employ this top-down meaning of biblical reconciliation. Kathryn Tanner (2010) locates atonement in the event of Christ’s incarnation, thus giving reconciliation a distinct top-down theological character. For Tanner, the theological understanding of Christ’s incarnation rather than any rational model is the ‘key’ to understand atonement or reconciliation. Eleonore Stump (2018) pays detailed attention to justification and union with Christ, two themes related to the biblical basis of reconciliation. In Stump’s ‘Marian interpretation’ of atonement, Christ gives himself as gift to God in order that an intimate union between God and humans can emerge. As its top-down result, this reconciling love brings about personal improvement.
Complementing and revising these and other current interpretations (e.g. Kärkkäinen 2013), this article employs peace and justice as the two biblical characteristics that define reconciliation through Christ. Its distinctive top-down understanding, that is, reconciliation through Christ, highlights God’s overwhelming charis and the incongruous act of the mediator. In this sense, reconciliation is both a bottom-up metaphor of peacebuilding and a top-down metaphor of God’s unconditional and creative love. In both of these senses, the rule of justice and the alterity of the other are respected. At the same time, the distinctive righteousness of God transforms the human beings participating in this top-down event. Instead of personal improvement, the present article highlights societal peace as the outcome and fruit of reconciliation. In this respect one can speak of an added value in the theological concept.
When Christians act in society, it may be sufficient for practical purposes to employ only the bottom-up metaphor. Christianity approaches conflicts with the aim of enabling peace with justice. The biblical message of reconciliation offers a paradigm to work in this direction. In concrete aid programmes, Christians join other actors with the aim of bringing about a ‘normal’ peace with justice. This option can also be argued with the help of natural law or public reason available in worldly matters.
At the same time, the Pauline and Anselmian theology of reconciliation offers a top-down interpretation. God’s righteousness is justice with mercy, adding an overwhelming symbolic action to the process of reconciliation. With the help of this theological gift, the mediator and later ambassadors can speak of divine promises and forgiveness in a manner that is otherwise impossible. The Pauline reconciliation is a ‘bottom-up’ event insofar as it resembles the practices of Hellenistic polis-diplomacy. It is a ‘top-down’ event insofar as it manifests God’s salvific action.
This specified approach to reconciliation cannot claim the broad rationality of the Hegelian concept. It does not constitute the same kind of intellectual achievement as Barth’s dogmatics or the most sophisticated theories of atonement. Its strength lies in the precise understanding of peace and justice as the core of reconciliation procedures. The specified concept offers a corrective to the Hegelian umbrella view as well as to the ambivalent understanding of reconciliation in current peacebuilding practices. For the theological evaluation of such specified approach, Paul, Anselm and Grotius need to be reinterpreted to some extent.
5.3 Theological evaluation
A reader of theological literature encounters a variety of reconciliation discourses that seem to address very different matters. (1) Dogmatic theology often operates with an umbrella concept covering the entire work of Christ. (2) Philosophical theology employs a concept of atonement/reconciliation that attempts to explain the overall rationality of Christian faith. (3) Reconciliation procedures in peacebuilding work employ a pragmatic set of contextual measures. (4) The Roman Catholic sacrament of reconciliation provides an institutional forgiveness of personal sins. (5) The New Testament concept of reconciliation compares Christ’s work to Graeco-Roman diplomacy. While the present article has attempted to explain the historical roots of all these meanings, its theological focus has been on (3), (4) and (5).
The article proceeds from the Greek terms katallassein, katallagē and closely related words (apokatallassein, diallassein). In Christianity, these words are normally translated into Latin with reconciliare, reconciliatio, The English words ‘reconcile’, ‘reconciliation’ are understood as being related to these roots. This approach means that other overlapping concepts, such as ‘atonement’ and the German Versöhnung, have only been considered insofar as they express this Greek and Latin tradition. At the same time, the article has paid attention to the recent popularity of reconciliation discourses in political science and peacekeeping, considering that they express an autonomous continuation of this tradition.
This approach to reconciliation has been labelled as ‘specified’, as it does not claim to cover the entire salvific work of Christ. A careful distinction has been made between the specified concept and the broader ‘umbrella concept’ (1 and 2 above), which has often dominated Protestant theological discourse. From the Augsburg Confession to Karl Barth’s dogmatics, Protestant theology understands reconciliation (atonement, Versöhnung) repeatedly as an umbrella concept having much greater theological weight than the Pauline concept of katallassein can carry.
The umbrella concept has its roots in the Reformation and, in particular, in the nineteenth century. While the present article distances itself from the nineteenth-century Hegelian understanding of the umbrella concept, the Hegelian view has also certain advantages, especially the ability to interpret matters in terms of an overarching rationality. Modern discussions of the rationality and morality of atonement owe much to Hegelian insights. The reception history of Hegelian Versöhnung casts its spell on both politics and theology. In this history, social and political conflicts are seen as processes of alienation that can be understood and alleviated by the rational mechanisms of reconciliation. In theology, the tradition of Baur, Ritschl and Aulén considers that reconciliation/atonement provides the platform from which the rational and moral content of Christian message can be meaningfully approached. Thus, Hegel’s ‘rose of reason’ has often steered both the philosophical and the theological discussion.
This article, however, argues that the Pauline katallagē and the Latin reconciliatio need to be approached in a precise fashion. To capture the interconnections between Christ, peace and justice available in this concept, careful attention to Paul’s metaphorical uses of katallassein vocabulary is needed. In addition to Christ’s work and God’s justice, the Graeco-Roman institution of peacebuilding elucidates Pauline theology. Augustine’s views of Christ as peacemaker are of particular importance. In Augustine’s theology, the peace of reconciliation is accompanied by justice and followed with the peace of immortality. While Anselm remains important in the specified approach, his view of theological justice needs to be read carefully. Anselm allows God’s justice to involve grace and incongruous gifts. He is no rationalist in the modern sense of the term.
In early modern Protestantism, Hugo Grotius represents a position that connects Pauline theology with a precise understanding of justice and peace. In his Defensio fidei, Grotius stresses that peace and friendship with God are crucial for Paul in the discussion of reconciliation. When we are justified by faith, we have peace with God. While God’s wrath excludes peace, the death of Christ appeases God and brings about reconciliation (Grotius 1617: 107, 110–111).
Like some current theorists of political reconciliation, Grotius combines forgiveness and compensatory mechanisms. He defends the doctrine of satisfaction with the reasonable argument that, within the realm of justice, one person can represent a larger group. While satisfaction cannot abolish the original wrongdoing, the goodness of the example of Christ can nevertheless manifest justice, heal wounds, and educate the community (Grotius 1617: 77–79, 96–98). At the same time, grace and forgiveness are needed. Reconciliation is thus not an overarching intellectual theory but a set of legal practices that can alleviate conflicts and restore relations. Such reconciliation is not a logical necessity or an arithmetic settling of accounts, but a series of symbolic actions for the sake of restoring friendship. These actions can nevertheless proceed in the broader framework of justice.
The strength of Grotius lies in his ability to connect precise biblical interpretation with legally solid thinking. While Anselm’s idea of rectitude is not abandoned, Grotius argues that justice can take place through a complex set of symbolically interpreted actions. They can be employed together for achieving reconciliation and peace. The Roman Catholic sacrament of penance bears some similarity to this strategy. While the symbolic actions relevant to reconciliation manifest justice, they do not claim universal rationality in any Hegelian manner. Rather, they resemble overwhelming gifts.
The ‘peace with justice’ approach of Grotius can be theologically consolidated with a look at the two basic biblical texts, Rom 5:10–11 and 2 Cor 5:18–20. In Rom 5:1, peace with God emerges from justification by faith. Rom 5:9 recollects justification, and 5:10–11 performs a return to the peace mentioned in 5:1. Justification is thus the underlying broader concept and reconciliation a specific feature, namely, the peaceful settlement as its outcome (Breytenbach 2010: 184).
When Paul speaks of ‘us’ as Christ’s ambassadors of peace in 2 Cor 5:20, this verse also looks forward to 5:21, in which ‘we’ become the righteousness of God through Christ’s death (5:18 and 5:21). Here reconciliation serves the purpose of divine righteousness. While this righteousness is a ‘top-down’ concept in the sense that it represents something different from ordinary justice, it also depicts the overall situation of ‘us’ in the reconciled state. In this manner, the specified concept of reconciliation as the metaphor of peacemaking assumes and needs the bigger context of justification and righteousness through Christ. The greater theological weight is thus carried by the words dikaioun and dikaiosyne. The legal approach of Grotius pays attention to this division of labour.
The specified approach to reconciliation cannot offer the intellectual comprehensiveness of Hegelian tradition. It rather looks at peacebuilding as an incongruous exchange, transforming the participants through a series of symbolic gestures and overwhelming aid programmes. While such reconciliation cannot be calculated, it represents immeasurable divine justice capable of grace. The specified approach does not claim that reconciliation provides a full-scale rationale for Christian theology. It nevertheless appreciates this Pauline concept as an insight that leads us to understand the peace with God.
The specified concept needs at least three conditions to work properly. First, the conflicting parties cannot be completely distinct from one another. They are assumed to belong to the same community and, therefore, be capable of friendship and ideological unity. Reconciliation thus both assumes and produces unity. At the same time, reconciliation assumes and produces alterity. The reconciled party becomes transformed but is not liquidated.
Second, the conflicting parties are reconciled with regard to some specific conflict and problem, rather than universally. The role of the mediator is relevant for this specific purpose. While the actual mediation can take place in a charismatic and overwhelming manner, it is a targeted action, which aims at overcoming the particular conflict at stake. Third, reconciliation cannot bypass or replace the overall rule of justice. It may complement justice with forgiveness, additional gifts and symbolic action, but the fundamental rule of law cannot be ignored. For this reason, some grave conflicts, such as genocide, may not be capable of reconciliation. They are too broad and deep for this kind of healing.
These three requirements yield certain theological conclusions. For instance, it is entirely possible to speak of Christian-Muslim reconciliation with regard to some specific problem, for instance, the heritage of Western colonialism. However, it does not make much sense to speak of Christian-Muslim reconciliation in a universal sense, since this concerns two autonomous and distinct communities of faith. In such universal cases, other methods of encounter and peacebuilding, such as toleration or mutual recognition, are more appropriate than reconciliation. Recent surveys of reconciliation (Radzik and Murphy 2019; Keyes 2019) may also indicate a philosophical problem here, as reconciliation is today offered as solution to all kinds of universal issues between different communities. A politics of reconciliation may help countries like France and Germany with regard to some particular injustices of the past. In their universal relationship to one another, mutual recognition and the rule of international law is preferred.
As reconciliation occurs within the broader framework of justice, one can thus distinguish between at least three different peacebuilding strategies. First, the existence of distinct and different ideological communities does not call for reconciliation. Instead, such communities need to tolerate each other and, when appropriate, recognize each other as legitimate communities (cf. Saarinen 2016). Second, wrongdoings and conflicts between parties that nevertheless belong to some bigger shared community can sometimes be approached with mediation and reconciliation. Third, massive violations of human rights can only be treated with the instruments of universal justice. In political cases of this kind, an international court of law rather than a reconciliation process is appropriate.
The boundary between the second and the third strategy is not easily defined. Grave violations of rights, such as apartheid in South Africa, have been treated relatively successfully with the help of reconciliation policies. Christ’s salvific work reconciled the human race to God, overcoming the biggest imaginable conflict. On the other hand, modern democratic societies rely on the rule of law, rather than appeasement policies, in both lesser and greater matters of injustice. While the rule of law is universal, the need for reconciliation is contextual and related to particular issues and competent mediators. Reconciliation also seeks a deeper unity than can be required by law.
Theologically speaking, it may be possible to construct a concept of unity that covers everything from mere difference to the settlement of most radical conflicts. Hegel’s and Baur’s umbrella concept of Versöhnung comes close to such universal meaning. However, if reconciliation is seen in its Pauline context of justice and peace mediation, a properly specified concept can better manifest the biblical message of God’s salvific action in Christ. This concept leaves room for the theological processes of toleration and mutual recognition of plurality. It also embraces justice and human rights as the ultimate framework within which reconciliation and the quest for unity take place. Within this scheme, reconciliation is not conditioned by rationalism’s ‘rose of reason’. It can operate in an overwhelming, charismatic and incongruous fashion.