The Wrath of God and the Presbyterian Hymnal

The number one rule of the internet is: “Don’t feed the trolls.”

Hopefully, I’m not about to violate it, but we’ll see.

I came across an article this morning that got my kettle boiling (more than it usually is).  It came from an online publication called The Blaze.  I’m not familiar with this one, but they seem to have an affinity for conservative ideas, so far as I can tell from a cursory scan of their website.

The article is titled: Why Is a Major Church Denomination Banning Famed Hymn ‘In Christ Alone’ From Its New Song Book?  It’s about the denomination I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and our new hymnal that comes out this fall.  I have several bones to pick with this article: some technical, some theological.  Hold onto your hats, because here we go… (takes a deep breath):

First of all, the song wasn’t “banned” from our hymnal, it was voted out.  The Committee on Congregational Song, after much discussion and discernment, democratically decided (9 to 6) not to include it.  Such was the case with many other suggested songs.  In Christ Alone is not prohibited from being sung in PC(USA) congregations.  I have done so on several occasions.  The choir even sang it as a special anthem at my ordination service.  Songs that mention God’s wrath were not targeted for exclusion by the committee.  They included Awesome God by Rich Mullins, which sings about “the judgment and wrath He poured out on Sodom”.

Second, the PC(USA) is not “liberal” or “leftist”.  I should know: I am liberal.  I sometimes wish the PC(USA) were more so, but it isn’t.

In reality, our church is extremely diverse in its theology and politics.  We have evangelicals and progressives, Democrats and Republicans, folks who like traditional liturgy and folks who like contemporary worship.  We’re a mixed bag of people who dare to believe that our differences can make us stronger and more faithful to Christ, if we let them.  If anything, our leaders for the past half-century or so have been largely influenced by the Neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Niebuhr brothers.  You can see this in several of our more recently added confessional statements: the Barmen Declaration, the Confession of 1967, and the Brief Statement of Faith.  These statements reflect a theological middle ground between fundamentalist and liberal perspectives.  You can call us equal opportunity offenders.  Purists, fanatics, and extremists of all stripes tend to be equally frustrated with the Presbyterian Church (USA).  We are what we are… deal with it.

Third, the problem with the original wording of In Christ Alone has nothing to do with liberalism or squeamishness at the idea of God’s wrath.  The controversial line in the song goes like this:

“Till on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”

I have big problems with that line and I agree with the committee’s decision to axe the hymn based on the authors’ refusal to allow them to change the words to “the love of God was magnified.”  I reject outright the idea that God’s wrath put Jesus on the cross or kept him there.  It was the all-too-human selfishness and violence of religious and political powers-that-be that put Jesus on the cross.  It was Jesus’ commitment to nonviolence and his tremendous love that kept him there.

The original wording in the song is based on the theory of atonement called penal substitution, famously developed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century.  Anselm’s delineation of the theory depends greatly on its assumption of feudal notions of justice which we no longer hold.  In that society, the severity of a crime was measured by the relative social positions of perpetrator and victim.  Crimes against the nobility were punished more harshly than crimes against the peasantry.  In Anselm’s mind, any crime against an infinitely holy God must necessarily be punished eternally.  Drawing upon priestly and sacrificial language from the New Testament, Anselm presented Jesus as the perfect solution to the problem of justice: fully divine, fully human, morally stainless.  His voluntary substitution of himself resolves the problem presented by the feudal theory of justice.  Anselm’s use of this model was more apologetic than ontological.  He was simply trying to make the gospel recognizable to people in his own place and time, just as we are called to do.  However, we who no longer accept the feudal theory of justice are likewise not bound to accept penal substitution as the one and only interpretation of the significance of Calvary.

Here are my problems with penal substitution as a viable atonement theory:

First, penal substitution sets up a scenario where Jesus saves humanity from the rage (not the wrath) of an out-of-control, abusive parent.  When all is said and done, the church gathers around a crucifix and hears, “This is your fault.  Look at what you made God do.  You are so bad and dirty that God had to torture and kill this beautiful, innocent person so that he wouldn’t do the same thing to you.  Therefore, you’d better shape up and be thankful or else God will change his mind and torture you for all eternity.  And don’t forget: this is Good News and God loves you.”  If any human parent did that, he or she would be rightly incarcerated, even if the innocent victim was willing.  If that’s what Christianity is, then you can count me out.

Second, penal substitution renders both the life and the resurrection of Christ unnecessary.  If Jesus simply “came to die”, then we can conveniently ignore all those pesky red letters in our Bibles.  We also might as well sleep in on Easter Sunday because the real work was done on Good Friday.  God just tacked on the resurrection so that the story would have a happy ending.  It’s little more than icing on the cake of atonement.

The atonement theory toward which I gravitate bears more resemblance to the Christus Victor model.  According to Christus Victor, the powers of evil threw everything they had at Jesus to oppose and silence him.  They did their worst, as they always do: dealing death to anything that challenges their power.  To paraphrase biblical scholar Marcus Borg: the crucifixion was the world’s “No” to Jesus, but the resurrection is God’s “Yes”.

And God’s Yes trumps the world’s No every single time.  God rejects the world’s rejection of God.

The miracle of the atonement wasn’t in Jesus’ blood shed on the cross.  That’s just the world doing what the world does best: Killing.  The miracle of the atonement is in the resurrection of Christ: the triumph and vindication of a Love, stronger than death, that endured the very worst that the world had to offer and kept on loving anyway.

This, my friends, is the love that wilt not let us go.

This is the Good News of salvation in Christ that I am called to preach.

There, on that cross, as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified. 

I believe those words with all my heart.

I respect the authors’ decision not to have their lyrics altered, but I also respect the committee’s decision to set this hymn aside because of its deficient atonement theology.

Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal comes out this fall.
Click here for ordering information.

If you want some actual information on the committee’s theology and use of language, visit the Committee Statements page on their website.

In closing, here are the words of Chelsea Stern, one of the committee members, about what they know, pray, and hope in relation to the new hymnal (taken from the Hymnal Sampler, p.5-6):

This we know:
We know this hymnal will change lives.
We know this hymnal will inspire the church.
We know these songs will enliven worship in powerful ways.
We know the familiar songs will sing anew.
We know the new songs will speak truth.

This we pray:
We pray that as we sing together from this hymnal we will come to have a deeper sense of unity in the body of Christ.
We pray that the Holy Spirit will bring surprises and breathe new life into our churches through this hymnal.

This we hope:
We hope the cover imprint fades from greasy fingers.
We hope the pages become wrinkled and torn from constant use.
We hope our kids will sing from this hymnal – we hope our grandkids will too.

We praise!
We praise God for this collection of song and give God the glory!

25 thoughts on “The Wrath of God and the Presbyterian Hymnal

  1. Brother, I love your thinking. I’m a PCUSA music/worship director and use this hymnal, among many others, in my ministry. Anselm, for other great work attributed to him, erred in promoting such a hang-man option for understanding the atonement. We’re often guilty of making God a bigger ass hole than we Presbyterians already believe ourselves to be! God asks a great forgiveness than he himself is willing to give. Seems rather disingenuous at best, philosophically ridiculous at worst.

  2. Reza Zadeh

    Hello there, I do not consider myself a “troll” when it comes to internet postings. I am someone that likes to study and discern the Word of God most effectively. I personally would push back on your perspective on this song. it is one of my absolute favorite devotionals because of the magnitude of the lyrics. I really am not here to argue, but to gain perspective from another point of view, so even though I may come from a different Theological bent, I want to preface the question with the realization that we are not enemies but brothers in the Lord.

    Could you share with me your perspective on 1 John 2:2, Romans 3:24 and Hebrews 9:11-14. When I read these verses I am convinced that the death of Christ did satisfy the wrath of God towards the sin of humanity.

    Would love your thoughts…

    1. You’re not trolling at all, Reza. Yours is an honest and polite question to which I am happy to respond. I rather like the song myself and I would have been delighted to see it in the new hymnal (with the altered lyric).

      To fully answer your question about the 3 scripture passages, I would need to produce a 20 page exegesis paper for each! However, since that is hardly possible in the space allotted here, I’ll do the best I can in a general and concise manner.

      The most pertinent words in the above mentioned verses seem to be “atoning sacrifice”, “justified by his grace”, “redemption”, “high priest”, and “blood” (FYI: the translation I am using is the NRSV).

      The images in theses verse center around interpreting the significance of the crucifixion through the lens of sacrificial worship in Second Temple Judaism. The use of such a schema made total sense as an apologetic strategy in that time and place (much like Anselm’s strategy made sense in feudal Britain).

      Jesus, of course, is presented as the priest and the sacrifice that supersede the Temple cult. The temple authorities claimed exclusive access to God through their rituals and institution. The early Christians, on the other hand, used this priest/sacrifice imagery to legitimate their own Christocentric practice while demonstrating its continuity with traditional Judaism. The language of temple, priest, and sacrifice would have helped the gospel make sense to a first century Jewish mind. Obviously, the strategy worked: Christians and Pharisees were the only forms of Judaism to survive the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. This interpretive schema gave Christians the framework they needed to survive without a standing Temple.

      The Pharisees, for their part, had the Torah, the synagogue, and the family home as centers for their faith-practice. They went on to complete the Talmuds and form the basis for modern rabbinic Judaism as we know it today. The Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots all pretty much died out as movements by the end of the second century.

      Substitutionary atonement, understood within the cultural context of Second Temple Judaism, makes total sense as a first century apologetic strategy. It’s actually rather brilliant and obviously effective, given the lasting impact it’s had on the development of Christian atonement theory. The scholastic Anselm further developed the idea susbstitutionary atonement in the 11th century as part of his own brilliant and timely apologetic effort.

      My only problem with it is when it is used as the primary or only legitimate atonement theory in our day. Such a narrow focus ignores the multiple other models for salvation presented by scripture and tradition. I fear that a one-sided emphasis on individual guilt and forgiveness through substitutionary atonement is unnecessarily handcuffing our evangelistic efforts by ignoring the many ways in which the gospel might be interpreted, preached, understood, and received by people today.

      In addition to priest and purifying sacrifice, Christ can also be embraced as a physician for the sick, a liberator for the oppressed, a light in the darkness, food and drink for hungry souls, or a friend for the lonely. My hope is that Christians today might let these many images take root in our imaginations so that we might be inspired to become more faithful and effective witnesses of Christ in word and deed.

  3. I’ve never liked that view of atonement. It has made me feel like I have one relationship with God and another with Jesus (who is also God). The father is the bad cop and Jesus is the good cop. And everything is about justice. Isn’t everything supposed to be about love?

  4. The Episcopal Church went through a similar tempest in 1982, with our “new” hymnal. And that after three years of whole parishes leaving because we released the 1979 Prayer Book. It seems the mainline denominations (not churches, I believe we are still all one Church) are constantly shedding objectors. I remember my mother (a staunch Anglican) reminded me that the Episcopal Church was an offshoot of Anglicanism, as was Methodism. And then my father (a Methodist preacher) added, “And you Anglicans, Lutherans and Presbyterians are just stubborn Catholics!” I continue to wonder how we constantly draw circles that exclude others.

  5. revrick

    As a fellow PCUSA pastor I appreciated the recent article in Presbyterians Today about that issue. There are many ways/metaphor to view the mystery of the “atonement”, each having some truth, none containing it all. Conservatives just can’t seem to let go of penal substitution and all the baggage that has come with it over the last 500 years.

  6. The song was inspired by the Holy Spirit and given to the composers of the music and lyrics. They did not want the changes because it deeply affected the theology of the original song. In effect, the Committee wanted to make changes to suit the theology of the committee members. They did indeed reject the song when the composers rightfully refused to change the lyrics. I am also a PCUSA pastor and the congregation I serve loves to sing this song because the words are deeply profound and beautifully spiritual.

  7. Anonymous

    I am a PCUSA pastor and a mental health counselor
    I love hymns for the words, and for the music
    some hymns make me want to dance
    some make me cringe

    but not all hymns can be included

    My experience as a counselor tells me people need to hear more about God’s love
    and less about human deficit….
    to focus on the wrath of God, and how we don’t deserve God
    than on the fact that God loves us, and there is nothing we can do about it….
    well, doesn’t work for me

    Rohr has a lot to say about this

    I imagine there are hymns i love that aren’t in the new hymnal
    I imagine there are hymns I hate that are…

    but to get all theologically arrogant
    and huffy
    seems to say more about those who have their stoles in a bunch
    than it does about the people who did a great job of putting together a very inclusive hymnal

  8. HWE

    Has it not occurred to anyone that any atonement/substitution theory implies that God is not omnipotent? If he “had to” make a sacrifice or otherwise compensate for humanity’s failings (rather than simply forgive/erase them) then God is apparently limited in choice of action. We should reserve our worship for whatever greater structure imposes these limits. I personally suspect that the crucifixion was more a demonstration of love and of power over death, not any sort of compensation. Guess I’m a heretic . . . Oh, well.

    1. Christopher

      HWE: No, you’re not a heretic at all. I did not participate in the life of the church until I was 17 years old, when I fell in with an ultra-conservative Baptist congregation. I was taught back then that God was perfectly holy, and therefore could not even be in contact with us until we covered our sins in the blood of Jesus. And I remember thinking the same thought that you express: can’t the omnipotent God deal with any human being he wants to? I don’t think I broached the issue with my preacher. I do remember suggesting that maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on Judas, because after all, he was carrying out God’s will. The preacher just looked at me as if I had three heads.

  9. Michael J.

    “In that society, the severity of a crime was measured by the relative social positions of perpetrator and victim.”

    Our theology may have changed, but the malady lingers on…

  10. The very Evangelical/Fundamentalist youth director my middle road-to-left-leaning Presbyterian church shares with 3 other congregations in town sent me the link to this article today asking for my comments. I will post my own response to him as a blog post on my long-neglected blog. I too rarely feed the trolls, but since someone I know (and supervise in some sense) asked I wrote my answer to this. I also had a REAL hard time staying off the comment section of the article. I didn’t read many, but was unable to resist the urge to make my own. It’s not long. It doesn’t engage an argument. It points out a major failure of the article to consider just for a second that one hymn in (or out of) a hymnal does not a theology make. There are PLENTY of substitutionary atonement hymns in the old and new hymnal, not all of them, but enough for that theory to be represented in our signing tradition. Even without “In Christ Alone” that take of the doctrine of atonement is present. This is just one song of MANY MANY that ended up on the “cutting room floor.” The writer of the article is reading way too much into this (not surprisingly) in order to make a broad sweeping point that doesn’t exist. For better or for worse, substitutionary atonement theories are alive and well in the PC(USA).

  11. Went to the Blaze to find the original article and all I found was: “Video: Fan Stuns WWE Star With Punch to the Groin During Live Event”, “Michelle Malkin’s Must-See Takedown of ‘Race Charlatan’ Al Sharpton: He ‘Has Blood on His Hands’”, and “Pro-Creationism Textbook Reportedly Axes Controversial Claims About the Loch Ness Monster’s Existence.” I am not sure that journalism like this really needs a response, but I thank you for taking their concerns seriously and for addressing them with truth in love. I wonder if the author of “Why Is a Major Church Denomination Banning Famed Hymn ‘In Christ Alone’ From Its New Song Book?” will take up the Loch Ness Monster being removed from textbooks with as much vigor. If so, let me handle that one.

  12. Keith

    This article would be much, much stronger if you engaged with the Scriptures directly. Anselm built his theory based on Scripture. If you’re going to tear it down, it would be wise to do so with evidence from Scripture rather than just how it makes you feel.

    1. Keith, I make a beginning of what you suggest in my extended reply to Reza Zadeh’s comment above. At some point I would like to further develop just where and how I see a Christus Victor model of atonement at work in the New Testament. The first text I would point to is Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts. I think a separate blog post might be needed for that…

  13. Pingback: The Old Rugged Cross: Rene Girard and the Resurrection of Substitutionary Atonement | The Theological Wanderings of a Street Pastor

  14. Lance Douglas

    I recommend anyone who is uncomfortable with the “wrath” of God to read the Old Testament. Then read the New. It’s amazing how God’s word will speak directly to you, and how many of your questions disappear. In my personal journey, I learned about a very wrathful God. I admit that I found myself questioning his selfishness, unfair judgement, and harsh punishment which extended to innocent future generations long after the offenders were dead. You also learn all about how atonement was made, and the cruel, gory, gruesome process associated with innocent animal sacrifices. It’s pretty ugly. When you REALLY read this stuff (pick a translation that’s easy for you to read) and if you believe it, keep on reading. Let the Holy Spirit speak to you—keep reading. You will most likely come to the right conclusion about the cross, the resurrection, and what atonement is. It’s not fragmented. God’s perfect plan, was simply JESUS. He lived, taught, healed, delivered, died, and rose again. Everyone who encounters Him changes. No one is ever the same as they were before they meet Him. And those of us who believe he lived, died, and rose again, get “special protection” from the wrath of God. But He’s still the same God, and is still capable of loosening his wrath and anger as a “terrible, swift sword”. No re-interpretation of scripture (even trying to explain the “cultural trends” in relation to scripture) or re-wording a hymn will change that. All of this debate is really confusing to the new believers, and I fear that it does more harm than good. So I close with this warning from Romans 1:18 “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness..” There is no question that it is because of the shed blood of my precious Lord and Savior and his triumph over death (not one-or-the-other) that I am saved. I believe this with all of my heart, and won’t perish, but will have everlasting life. Please consider your own position, and if you are a theologian, minister, or other authority, be certain that you are not causing anyone to stumble by what you say and teach. Encourage people to read God’s word for themselves. I love you all, and thank God for your ministry.

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