Righteous indignation has flowed freely in response to the Presbyterian (PCUSA) church’s decision to exclude the song “In Christ Alone” from their new hymnal because of the phrase “the wrath of God was satisfied.” The hymnal committee requested to change the line to “the love of God was magnified,” but the authors—Keith Getty and Stuart Townend—refused. This has been declared “squishy love” by Timothy George and an abandonment of orthodoxy by David French. It seems the song is being held up as a litmus test for orthodoxy.
I’m not a theologian except in the sense that I spend many of my waking hours writing, choosing, or thinking about the songs of the Church. I suppose that makes me a musical theologian. In that capacity, I’ll make a few comments about this musical/theological controversy.
Keith Getty (and his writing partners Stuart Townend and wife Kristyn) has been championed in “new reformed” circles because his music is seen as deeper than the average praise song and more conservative than mainline hymnody. In short, he writes praise songs for right-leaning Christian intellectuals. Being a right-leaning Christian intellectual, I appreciate his work. He’s a fine songwriter, and I’m all for him and many other songwriters who are helping us to sing a more robust faith.
However, I’m increasingly concerned that “good theology” in some circles means “bloodier-than-thou” theology. In some minds, if the gore of the cross is not fully explored, then a song isn’t really orthodox or deep. They don’t want to sing anything less than a wrathful God who tortured Jesus on the cross for us worms. Certainly the cross stands at the center of our faith, but it is only—quite literally—the starting point. The full biblical witness is expansive. Singing of justice, for example, is not diminishing the church’s witness to the same plane as “Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Occupy Wall Street, or a subscription to Mother Jones” as David French implies; instead, justice is a key biblical motif that Christians take up because of the cross, rather than instead of it.
But the real question is whether the PCUSA hymnal committee broke with orthodoxy when it voted not to include “In Christ Alone” because of the line “the wrath of God was satisfied.” I believe their decision centers not on their atonement theology, but on the wording of the phrase “the wrath of God.”
Any attempt to attach a human emotion to God is doomed to fall short of who God really is. “Wrath” is no exception. The songwriters certainly intended to say that a holy God can’t abide sin, and only a sinless sacrifice could reconcile God and humans. But using the word “wrath” colors how we hear the theological message. Was God angry? Was God mad at Jesus? Of course, we know that the songwriters mean “righteous indignation” rather than something like heavenly road rage, but the choice of the word “wrath” carries subtext. Think of it this way: it would be valid to say that God hates sin, but if Townend and Getty had written the lyric, “Till on that cross as Jesus died/The hatred of God was satisfied,” it would communicate something unintended about the nature of God. A previous hymnal got approval to change the line in question to “The love of God was satisfied.” I like the way this focuses our attention on love as God’s motivating attribute, without diminishing the need for a sacrificial Lamb of God.
Still not convinced that this is a semantic rather than a theological question?
A quick look at the contents of the hymnal in question shows that the PCUSA’s Glory to God didn’t need Getty to complete their theology of the atonement. As they point out at their website the collection includes such hymns as “Rock of Ages,” “Judge Eternal,” and “Lamb of God.” It also includes sentiments such as “Forbid it Lord, that I should boast/save in the death of Christ my God,” “I’m saved because of his blood,” and “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Unorthodox, indeed!
This controversy has been good advertising for the Gettys. Links to their music have been included in every blog post that has discussed the PCUSA’s decision. NPR even ran a piece recently that seemed to promote the idea that the Gettys are single-handedly reviving modern church music: “In Christ Alone” is what theologically informed orthodox Christians sing, as opposed to vapid Praise & Worship or unorthodox liberal mainline hymns. In some circles, the PCUSA’s decision is cast as a direct attack on the Christian faith. They can’t even conceive of orthodox worship taking place without the song. Truth is, the Church has been singing the full faith for centuries before the Gettys came along.
Personally, I would have included the song in the hymnal. God’s wrath is not the primary topic I want to communicate to God’s people, but the song has enough to commend it that it seems a pity to exclude it. And certainly the larger Glory to God hymnal paints a broad enough picture of God that one mention of wrath will be interpreted in a larger context. But whether I, the PCUSA, or a hundred irate bloggers would or would not include the song in their hymnal is not as important as the way these conversations play out among brothers and sisters in Christ. There was a distinct glee that accompanied the pronouncements that the mainline church is now officially apostate because it doesn’t devote a page of its hymnal to a Keith Getty song. Not only is this a thin assessment of orthodoxy, but an ungracious assessment of fellow believers.
I fully expect to spend eternity with Keith Getty, Stuart Townend, and the entire editorial board of the PCUSA hymnal. I wish we would spend more of our energies now preparing for that reality rather than pointing fingers and flaunting our more-orthodox-than-thou attitudes. Our orthodoxy and our justification is found in Christ alone. And I don’t mean the song…