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!

Common Worship: From Revolution to Revelation

Re-blogged from the Presbyterian Hymnal Project Blog.

As a Presbyterian liturgical nerd and long-time fan of the Book of Common Worship, I find this exciting:

A guest post by David Gambrell from the Office of Theology and Worship:

Fifty years ago, something revolutionary happened in the world of Presbyterian worship.

In 1961, the UPCUSA (the former northern church) adopted a new Directory for Worship. For more than 300 years before that, the church had been relying on the Westminster Directory for Worship, written in 1645, making minor revisions here and there. The new Directory for Worship, written by Robert McAfee Brown, opened the door for radical, ecumenical liturgical reform and renewal in the Presbyterian Church—focusing on the centrality of the Word, a deeper understanding of Baptism, and more frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper. One church historian has suggested that this work might have had an influence on the groundbreaking Roman Catholic reforms of Vatican II, which took place a couple of years later.[1]

The PCUS (the former southern church) took a similar action in 1963, adopting their own new Directory for Worship. And then, as we know, twenty years later, in 1983, the northern and southern churches merged to form the current Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). One of the often-forgotten products of that new blended family was our current Directory for Worship, formed from the combination of the previous two… (Click here to continue reading)




Hymn for Earth Day

Image taken on Apollo 8 mission

This hymn can be found as # 556 in the Presbyterian Hymnal.  It was our closing hymn at worship this morning.

Lyrics by David G. Mehrtens

1. The world abounds with God’s free grace;
What wonders bless the land!
And on through boundless starry space, God’s matchless works expand.
Lord, teach us all an attitude that thanks You all our days,
A love that shows our gratitude through deeds that live our praise.

2. Give thanks for plains and valleys spaced
By mountains thrusting high;
Give thanks by fighting greed and waste
That drains their treasures dry.
Lord, teach us all an attitude that thanks You all our days,
A love that shows our gratitude through deeds that live our praise.

3. In full thanksgiving for God’s love,
From which earth’s blessings flow,
Protect the precious air above,
The waters spread below.
Lord, teach us all an attitude that thanks You all our days,
A love that shows our gratitude through deeds that live our praise.

4. Give thanks in hope, rejoice, repent,
And practice all you prayed;
True thanks can never be content
To foul the world God made.
Lord, teach us all an attitude that thanks You all our days,
A love that shows our gratitude through deeds that live our praise.

New Hymnal

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is in the process of publishing a new hymnal!  It’s due to be out in 2013.

OK, I realize that most of you just rolled your eyes at me, but I’m still excited about it.

Today, the contents of said hymnal have been made public for the first time.  Here is a link to the page:


I’ve only given the list a brief once-over, but here’s my initial “best and worst” (one of each):

Best: Gather Us In by Marty Haugen

Love this song.  Don’t know why it wasn’t in the last one.  Good tune, good lyrics, reaches across the theological divide.  Good pick, committee!

Worst: Kum Ba Yah

Seriously?  Who is still singing this?  If it’s you, then STOP.  Right now.  I mean it.  Maybe I watch too much Walking Dead, but I’m convinced that this song is an infected zombie who has risen up to feast upon the flesh of the living.

The only way to stop it is to shoot it…

in the head…

without mercy.

OK, I said I was only going to do one of each, but someone once told me that you should give two compliments for every criticism, and this hymnal deserves it:

Another Best: Glory to God, Whose Goodness Shines On Me

A great new Gloria Patri that Katie Boardman pulled out for us at a Presbytery meeting last year.  More rhythmic and energetic than our classic plodder, you might actually believe that the people who sing this are glad they’ve been redeemed.

That’s all for now!  Since the contents were released today, I’m sure the Presbyterian Internet (do we have one of those?) will be abuzz with everybody whining about what they don’t like.  With that in mind, say a prayer for the committee that put it together.  I’m guessing they might be feeling rather anxious, since all their hard work is going on display.

With that in mind, let me be among the first to thank and congratulate the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song for their hard work and the fine product they’ve given us!

For more on the theological rationale used by the committee, check out this document:

Theological Vision Statement & A Statement on Language