EVEN MORE WORDS
Anadiplosis (Devices V)
Paronomasia et al
Symploce et al.
Legal Words I
Legal Words II
Legal Words III
Bill Long 4/16/05
I have to confess that even though I am beginning to work through the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (11th Ed.) for the upcoming National Senior Spelling Bee, I couldn't resist running my eyes over the OED's corresponding pages, thus leading to endless distractions as I find words that are simply too good to pass up. Such is the word for today.
Well, the word acceptilation is easy enough to understand. It is a term from Roman law, though it seems to have had its origin in ancient bookkeeping. The OED defines it as follows:
"A technical term in Roman law, ‘importing the remission of a debt by an acquittance from the creditor testifying the receipt of money which has never been paid.’ J. Also fig. in a theological sense, free remission."
Well, this makes sense, since the Latin term for receipt is and "acceptus" and the word "latus" is the fourth principle part of the verb to "carry away," so that literally this is the "carrying away" or "accounting" of a thing as received. Bouvier's 1856 Law Dictionary, the standard before Black's took over the market in the 20th century, defines it as follows:
"In the civil law, is a release made by a creditor to his debtor of his debt, without receiving any consideration." Or, after quoting some passages from the Digest and the Institutes, the dictionary goes on to say: "a certain arrangement of words by which on the question of the debtor, the creditor, wishing to dissolve the obligation, answers that he admits as received, what in fact, he has not received. The acceptilation is an imaginary payment."
Thus, there is a fairly clear meaning to the term--an "acceptance" of payment when none, in fact, has been made. Acceptilation is an imaginary payment. The debt is cancelled as if it was paid, even though it was not. A really nice gesture by the creditor, to be sure.
Well, things appeared to be real clear on its meaning until the theologians entered. Then, as usual, things became very cloudy, especially since the word became associated with one of the theories of the atonement, as they are called. First, a word about theories of the atonement, then the confusion. Almost no one anymore is worried about "theories of the atonement"--i.e., the precise mechanism by which the death of Christ forgave sin. I suppose that philosophically-oriented seminarians might want to know something about it, but I think that if you charged $.25 admission to a lecture on the subject today, you might not raise a dollar through the lecture, even in Cambridge, MA.
But contemporary insouciance is no reason for me not to lay out the issue. The two major theories of the atonement coming out of the Middle Ages and early Modern period were the "penal" or "substitutionary" theory of Anselm of Canterbury and the "governmental" theory of the great jurist Hugo Grotius in the 17th century. The theories centered on the nature of the punishment or suffering that Christ endured. Anselm advanced the idea that because our sin was so terrible, we were liable to go to hell unless someone actually paid the price to redeem us from our sins. If the sins added up to a debit of a million X, so to speak, we needed someone who would enter a credit of a million X to redeem us. Christ's death, according to Anselm, then, was a "penal sacrifice"--an exact payment of the payment demanded by God's justice because of human sin. Duns Scotus, writing a few centuries later, seemingly introduced the word acceptilatio into the debate to try to differentiate his theory from that of Anselm, but his use of the term seemed to be anything but understandable.
Hugo Grotius argued that Christ's sacrifice for sin was not one which was calculated to be exactly in proportion to what the "justice of God" demanded--an "equal sacrifice" for sin committed but was offered as an act to maintain God's moral government over the world. God, as moral ruler or governor, has a need to keep order in his kingdom, but he need not require a precise penal substitution in order for sin to be cancelled. God, as a merciful God and governor, can remit some of the penalty. And so he does. He accepts Christ's sacrifice as a genuine sacrifice "for sin," but there is no notion that Christ's death is meant to correspond precisely to the extent of sin committed by humans. Then, Grotius, who is very knowledgeable in things Roman, used the word acceptilatio to describe the theory that he was supporting. This word was then taken over by the great English Puritan divine, John Owen, a younger contemporary of Grotius, and Owen emphasized the nature of justification by faith as "an esteeming, an accounting, an accepting" of us as perfect because of the death of Christ.
Thus the Puritans, who were Calvinist to the core (and Calvinisits on the Continent had by and large accepted the Anselmian view of the atonement), began to use language of cancellation of debt and accounting righteous which were indebted directly to the Roman notion of acceptilation but were rather far removed from the Anselmian emphasis on the direct correspondence between pain suffered (by Christ) and sin committed (by humans). Even though Grotius might use the word acceptilation to describe aspects of his theory, it literally would not have anything to do with payment made. The creditor completely remits the penalty/payment.
So, Christians are left in a major muddle today in trying to understand the nature of the atonement. Most just say the word "Jesus" passionately, as if the mere statement of the name eliminates the need for all thought. And, indeed, it usually does for most people. But for those who want to think about the atonement, they can torture themselves with the three basic theories: penal substitution, moral government and pure acceptilation. But, as you think about "atonement" more and more, in my book, it makes less and less sense. It is nice, however, to have three theories of it, none of which has a lot to say for it, just to convince yourself of this fact.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long