Theology and Hymnology: PC(USA) and Singing About the Atonement

The PC(USA)’s Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song has been working on the publication of a new  hymnal for their denomination, Glory to God. The Committee decided not to include “In Christ Alone,” a contemporary hymn written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, because of its view of the atonement. Mary Louise Bringle, one of the Committee members, rehearses how the Committee made the decision in "Debating Hymns."

Even more sustained theological debate occurred after the conclusion of the committee’s three-and-a-half years of quarterly meetings in January 2012. We had voted for a song from the contemporary Christian canon, Keith Getty and Stuart Townend’s “In Christ Alone.” The text agreed upon was one we had found by studying materials in other recently published hymnals. Its second stanza contained the lines, “Till on that cross as Jesus died / the love of God was magnified.” In the process of clearing copyrights for the hymnal we discovered that this version of the text would not be approved by the authors, as it was considered too great a departure from their original words: “as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied.” We were faced, then, with a choice: to include the hymn with the authors’ original language or to remove it from our list.

Because we were no longer meeting as a committee, our discussions had to occur through e-mail; this may explain why the “In Christ Alone” example stands out in my mind—the final arguments for and against its inclusion are preserved in writing. People making a case to retain the text with the authors’ original lines spoke of the fact that the words expressed one view of God’s saving work in Christ that has been prevalent in Christian history: the view of Anselm and Calvin, among others, that God’s honor was violated by human sin and that God’s justice could only be satisfied by the atoning death of a sinless victim. While this might not be our personal view, it was argued, it is nonetheless a view held by some members of our family of faith; the hymnal is not a vehicle for one group’s perspective but rather a collection for use by a diverse body.

Arguments on the other side pointed out that 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, the argument ran, 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. The final vote was six in favor of inclusion and nine against, giving the requisite two-thirds majority (which we required of all our decisions) to the no votes. The song has been removed from our contents list, with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness.

As noted, the original hymn affirmed the penal substitutionary view of the atonement: “as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” The Committee wanted to use the hymn but changed the words to read “till on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified.” The authors of the hymn, Getty and Townend, would not deny that the cross reveals the love of God. But that was not the focus of this hymn, and to change the lyrics in this manner would be to depart from the intent of the hymn. According to the hymwriters, this song was intended to tell "the whole gospel." Furthermore, the Committee was not interested in affirming various views/truths of the atonement and by this edit emphasize the love of God rather than the wrath of God. By their final decision not to include the hymn as is, the Committee (six to include; nine to exclude) denied a penal substitutionary view of the atonement.

This denial is sad given the Presbyterian denomination’s subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith. In fact, it is a tragic move away from biblical truth confessed in the Confession regarding Christ's death on the cross. And yet, in light of where this denomination has moved theologically, it is not surprising.

Though the decision only has to do with one song, it speaks volumes about biblical truth, and about the task of doing theology in a contemporary context that faithfully serves the people of God.

Timothy George commented on this as well, “No Squishy Love,” and concluded with this biblically faithful statement about God:

God's love is not sentimental; it is holy. It is tender, but not squishy.  It involves not only compassion, kindness, and mercy beyond measure (what the New Testament calls grace) but also indignation against injustice and unremitting opposition to all that is evil.

In the EFCA, we affirm the following about God, sin and Christ's work on the cross, noted in these excerpts from our Statement of Faith:

Article 1, God: "We believe in one God, Creator of all things, holy, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in a loving unity of three equally divine Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."

Note, God is holy, infinitely perfect in His person and works, and loving.

Article 3, The Human Condition: "In union with Adam, human beings are sinners by nature and by choice, alienated from  God, and under His wrath. Only through God’s saving work in Jesus Christ can we be rescued, reconciled and renewed."

Note, because of our sin, we are alienated from God and under His wrath. Jesus is the one alone by and through whom we can be rescued from God's wrath, reconciled to the Father from our alienation and renewed into the likeness of the Son.

Article 5, The Work of Christ: "We believe that Jesus Christ, as our representative and substitute, shed His blood on the cross as the perfect, all-sufficient sacrifice for our sins. His atoning death and victorious resurrection constitute the only ground for salvation."

Note, Jesus is our representative and substitute, and his death on the cross is the perfect, all-sufficient sacrifice for our sins. Moreover, it is Jesus Christ's atoning death (Christus Vicarious) and victorious resurrection (Christus Victor) that are the only grounds for our salvation.

In the EFCA, because this is our theology, this is our hymnology! And we will joyfully live by and sing about these truths, all of these truths!, about God and the Lamb both now and into eternity (Rev. 22:3).

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