“Do the work of an evangelist.” (2 Tim 4:5)One of the odd things about the English language is how many words it has. For example, English has about three times as many words as French. That doesn’t mean that the working vocabulary of the average English speaker is larger than the working vocabulary of the average French speaker, of course. Most competent speakers of any language use only a small part of the total vocabulary of the language in which they are speaking. Nevertheless the difference in size of the total vocabulary is curious. The primary reason for the difference in vocabulary size between English and French lies in the different ways in which the two languages were formed. In keeping with other romance languages, French has depended on Greek and Latin for much of its word formation (though of course it has “borrowed” plenty of words from other languages). By contrast, English arose out of not only Greek and Latin, but Anglo-Saxon, with side input from Norse and Celtic languages.
The result is that English has many synonyms that have sprung up from separate linguistic heritages. These synonyms rarely share exactly the same semantic range; usage introduces distortions. The subject is deep, we say; it is very profound. In this context, it is difficult to discern a substantive semantic difference between deep and profound. On the other hand, we happily affirm that the well in the farmyard is deep; we would not say it is profound. Why not? Simply because we do not use profound in that way. By contrast, a French speaker will have no difficulty averring that both the subject and the well are “profond,” and will render both English deep and English profound by the French “profond.” If a scholar were trying to translate a French document into English, however, and came across the French word “profond,” he or she would have to think carefully about whether to choose deep or profound.
This is a rather roundabout way of reflecting on the fact that both translational and theological pitfalls lurk in the underbrush when moving from one language to another. In modern English, we distinguish expiation and propitiation. The former is the sacrificial act by which sin is canceled: the object of the action is the sin. The latter is the sacrificial act by which God is made propitious: the object of the action is God. Granted who the God of the Bible is, it is difficult to see how you can have one without the other: the same sacrifice that cancels sin by the sacrifice that God has ordained also turns aside his own the judicial wrath. Nevertheless it is useful to distinguish between the two notions. French has only one word, “expiation,” and it can convey both the cancellation of sin and the setting aside of the wrath of God, depending on the context. Competent French speakers simply do not have a word equivalent to the English propitiation. That is not to say that French theologians know nothing about the concept of propitiation, of course, for the concept depends on much, much more than the meaning of a single word. But it is to say that they do not have one word that univocally means what English-speakers mean by propitiation. And that in turn means that the history of debate about what the cross achieves differs significantly in French and English scholarship. Keep reading