Orthodoxy and In Christ Alone

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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…

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I acknowledge the fact that there are irate bloggers who have commented on this.  However there have also been valid criticisms and concerns regarding this decision.  Having an opinion and voicing a concern does not mean "flaunting our more-orthodox-than-thou attitude" nor does it have to be classified as hate speech.  Passionate disagreement can be a good thing and we would do well to have the debate without judging the attitudes and motives of those who voice their passionate points of view.  I wish we would spend more of our energies talking about the atonement and what the Bible says about it.  

A few thoughts.

1) IN CHRIST ALONE is definitely a newer staple in church music, but it definitely has long term staying power. Any hymnal being published these days would have a pretty big hole in it if they don't include it. And that's not because the theology isn't dealt with many other songs, but because it is deeply attached to people's hearts. For this reason alone, the PCUSA editorial committee made quite the misstep.

2) Wrath is an important emotion, especially in regards to punishment of sin. Anyone who has suffered a great injustice and deeply desires justice understands the wrath against the evil that caused the injustice (and how right that emotion is). Relatedly, it is also important as an emotion of God, especially given the Bible talks this way. If we give up on Biblical language, our theology will soon be given up too.

3) What does "The love of God was satisfied" mean? Really? Someone threw some nice sounding words in there, but theologically makes no sense (at least to me). When is God's love satisfied?

4) Artists have the rights to their work and deserve the respect to not have it changed by others (or at least without permission). Granted the PCUSA folks did ask, but changing lyrics is a pattern with hymnal editors. The results are generally less then spectacular. This would have been another example had the Gettys/Townend said ok.

Thanks for the thoughtful post, Greg! 

If emotional overtones disqualify the word "wrath", I guess we'll also have to be looking for a replacement for the word "love".  Besides the emphasis on satisfaction doesn't stand on its own (in the song, in the catechism, in the Bible) but to underline the costliness and depth of God's love.

Even though God's love is very important to the Christian, there are some who ignore the holiness, the justice, and the wrath of God. We can't just talk about God's love without also talking about his other atributes. The Bible never said that God was "Love, love, love", but it does say that He is, "Holy, holy, holy".

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both lines are biblical.  (MVL... the PCUSA suggestion is "the love of God was MAGNIFIED!")

Isn't the wrath line in agreement with Romans 5:9 (and other scriptures as well)?    and one of the most powerful and prevalent lines of scripture is His mercy/love/chesed endures forever...  the contexts of when this line is quoted in scripture is incredible

His anger is but a moment, and His mercy/lovingkindness is eternal...  He will not harbor anger forever....  but His love endures forever...

so whether we focus on His wrath or His love...   thank God,along with our brothers and sisters in the PCUSA that our eternal salvation is in Christ alone!  Worthy is the Lamb!

maybe for every one time we sing it with wrath, we should sing it 5 times with love, or just sing the verse 2x alternating this line

I might sing it the suggested PCUSA way next time =)

I fully expect to spend eternity with Greg Scheer.  And probably anyone who comments on this article.

I am going ahead and changing my chord sheets for this song to "love of God was magnified" as we speak