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!

The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’

Leonard Cohen. Image by Rama. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Leonard Cohen. Image by Rama. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

“At a time when everything has fragmented so dramatically, it’s sort of heartening to see that this song can connect as universally as it did”

-Alan Light

Cohen labored over “Hallelujah,” filling a notebook with some 80 verses before recording. The song has Biblical references, but Cohen’s stated goal was to give a nonreligious context to hallelujah, an expression of praise. Some of those hallelujah moments are clearly sexual, given a lyric like “she tied you to a kitchen chair … and from your lips she drew the hallelujah.” The author’s droll humor is present throughout in lines like “you don’t really care for music, do you?”

Click here to read the full article at Huffington Post…

Click here to purchase Alan Light’s new book at Amazon.com