By Jeff Gissing (@JeffGissing)
Protestant churches—especially Evangelical ones—typically sing their theology. In the absence of a formal liturgy hymnody carries the weight of theological formation. Scripture shapes our beliefs about God more in the theory than in reality. The average Christian spends little time exploring how the confessions interpret Scripture. Instead, our sung worship songs shape our beliefs. Their influence comes by virtue of their memorable lyrical quality. It takes less effort to memorize a song (sung regularly) than a catechism that is ignored.
That’s why I was so disturbed by the recent decision of the committee compiling the forthcoming Presbyterian hymnal Glory to God to omit the song, “In Christ Alone.” You can read the story here. If hymnody is sung theology then what does this decision say about the Presbyterian Church (USA)?
This decision is troublesome for several reasons. First, the committee weighed two ways of conceptualizing what a hymnal is. They asked the question: Is it a collection of diverse hymns reflecting a variety of theological views present in the church? As such, any commitment to a unified theological vision would be downplayed in favor of representation of various views or styles. There should be no problem including this popular song.
They also asked: is a hymnal a “deliberately selective book” that emphasizes some views and excludes others on the basis of its “educational mission” (I prefer “catechetical mission”) for the church? This requires some degree of theological unanimity.
The prevailing view of the committee was that a hymnal has an educational message, which requires rejecting some theological viewpoints that no longer comport with the view of the church.
This is an important consideration. I agree with the decision of the committee to envision the hymnal as something that is consonant with and advances the theological vision of the church. The problem is that in making this decision the committee has emphatically set aside a theological vision that comports with my own. In the rush to be inclusive the committee has, in actuality, excluded a theological vision that has inspired many Christians over the centuries, not the least of whom is John Calvin.
How? The committee is not comfortable with a line in the song. It reads, “till on that cross as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied.” In that it made God appear to be angry at sin rather than lovingly indulgent, the committee petitioned the copyright holders to authorize an alteration to their original text: “Till on that cross as Jesus died / the love of God was magnified.” The request was denied and the committee consequently voted to exclude it.
The article outlines the committee’s reasoning: “a hymnal does not simply collect diverse views, but also selects to emphasize some over others as part of its mission to form the faith of coming generations; it would do a disservice to this educational mission…to perpetuate by way of a new (second) text the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger.”
I’m not sure that it’s fair to argue that the song envisions the cross as primarily about God’s anger. The lyrics refer to God’s love, to Christ’s atonement, and to God’s power. In some respects the song is Trinitarian in structure—each of the first three stanzas referring to an attribute or action inherent to a person of the Godhead. The last stanza is a statement of eschatological hope.
The song does speak of the purpose of the cross in terms of the penal-substitutionary view. This view holds that Christ died as a sinless sacrifice to satisfy the justice of God who is angered by humanity’s sin. Although popular to deride this view today, it’s theological pedigree is immaculate. It was formulated as a revision of Anselm’s (1034-1109) satisfaction theory, which held that Christ died to satisfy the offense against God’s honor and dignity caused by the Fall. Is this problematic?
It oughtn’t to be. The Westminster Confession—one of our confessional authorities—makes exclusive reference to this view when discussing the mediating work of Christ: “The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience, and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, has fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for those whom the Father has given unto Him” (WCF 8.5, emphasis mine).
Virtually all confessional documents that originate at the time of the reformation place their emphasis on the penal-substitutionary view of the atonement. That this view should be excluded from the Presbyterian hymnal is a startling departure from classical reformed theology that would suggest that the Presbyterian Church (USA) no longer considers the view of the Reformers significant enough to be taught to our congregants. This is shameful.
By advocating for the inclusion of “In Christ Alone” as written I am not arguing that the penal-substitutionary view is the only way to conceive of the work of Christ on the cross. The atonement, as one of my professors once put it, is like a finely cut diamond—each of the theories gives a partial glimpse of some facet of Christ’s reconciling work. The church at different times has favored different theories—that is, has used various words and images—to capture the reality of the atonement.
Clearly among them is the notion, originating with God’s covenant people in the Old Testament, that sin demands a sacrifice in order to provide restoration. Jesus, according to Paul, is that once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of his sheep and the fulfillment of the Covenant of Grace.
The New Testament, moreover, also affirms that God is indeed angry toward sin: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). Further, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his [Jesus’] blood, much more, shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Roman 5:9).
The wrath of God is a necessary corollary to His love. Were God not angry with our sin, He could not truly be said to love us. It is almost impossible to conceive of the absence of anger in any relationship marked by love. I deeply love my wife, when she is wronged by another I become angry at the injustice. I deeply love my children, but when one of them does something that places them in harm’s way—running into a road, for example—I become angry.
The analogy may not be perfect, but I believe we could all agree that were I to be unmoved by the injustice my wife suffered or the danger facing my children, it would be doubtful that my love for them was anything other than the most superficial of affections. Love occasionally produces anger, indifference never does. God is not indifferent to us and the result is his wrath at the sin that both violates his law and is so detrimental to our flourishing.
In choosing to remove this beautiful song from the hymnal, the committee suggests that this notion of God’s wrath is no longer compelling to the majority of PC(USA) congregants. I fear that this is yet another symptom of our loss of any sense of sin that is personal (rather than systemic) and of our cheapening and compromising of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.