In Christ Alone

David French blogged about the Presbyterian Church USA removing the hymn “In Christ Alone” from its hymnal, because its authors refused a proposed change to the lyrics that did away with the notion of Christ’s death as satisfying God’s justice.

It isn’t often that I agree with French, but I do when he writes:

The importance of rejecting substitutionary atonement is tough to overstate, with ramifications across the full spectrum of spiritual, social, and cultural engagement.

Of course, he views this as a bad thing, while I think it is theologically a move in the right direction. He also suggests that penal substitution is orthodox rather than a relative novelty in the Christian tradition.

And of course, I find it amusing when theological conservatives suggest that theological liberalism is the cause of declining numbers in mainline churches – but then go on to emphasize that the truth is often unpopular, and the majority often wrong, when their own status as a minority viewpoint is under discussion.

Here’s the hymn in question, for those who may not have heard it:

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  • David Capes

    Interesting post, James. I have heard the song a few times in our church and generally like it. The writers should have the say on how it is published. If they choose to forgo whatever royalties or credit, that is up to them. I prefer the love of God is magnified line myself because I think the love of God is on full display at the cross. French seems to think there are only two theories of atonement: penal substitution and exemplary. Last I checked there were several others which all seem to have something going for them.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Very nicely put!

  • http://targuman.org/ Christian Brady

    James, on the growth/decline of churches, I do think it is a tension that is understandable, if counterintuitive. The more open and easy to accept something is, that is to say, the less investment that I have to have in it, then the less likely people are to be a part.

    On the other hand, the more challenging and difficult it is the more likely, once people are committed, they will stay committed. So while the majority of people surveyed might not believe in, say, the bodily resurrection, of those *who do* you will likely find a higher church attendance rate among them. So the conservatives can be at one and the same time both smaller in total number, yet higher in the number of those regularly attending and participating in worship, etc.

    Over the years, I have had more than one older member of our Episcopal congregations make an observation like this: If it doesn’t matter what I believe, if going to church makes no difference, and “all roads lead to salvation,” then why should I bother to go? Why would I not rather stay home and read my Sunday paper with my coffee?

    And many do.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Yes, when it is put that way there is a valid distinction to be made. But it isn’t always made in those terms.

      Putting it this way makes me wonder what would happen in a church which was theologically liberal but profoundly committed to justice, and which every Sunday met to feed the hungry or engage in other acts of kindness and justice. I wonder whether it is only commitment to ideas that has the effect of correspondingly high attendance, or commitment in general.

      I suppose there is only one way to find out… :-)

      • http://targuman.org/ Christian Brady

        It would be great to see that, unfortunately I know of only a few. It is interesting that there are UU churches as well as traditional mainline liberal churches that are very engaged socially and working to bring social justice and change, yet as active as they are still are relatively small in size. That is an interesting line of enquiry…honors thesis anyone?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I think we also need an honors thesis, and perhaps a whole book, on the history of church decline. I think we tend to focus all of our attention on what goes well, and much less on the inevitable point at which the church, having grown an spread, ceases to do so in the same way and to the same extent.

  • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com/ Hydroxonium

    N. T. Wright has suggested changing “the wrath of God was satisfied” to “the love of God was satisfied”.

  • http://irrco.wordpress.com/ Ian

    The reaction to this shows clearly the need (and danger) of evangelical efforts to control the meaning of language.

    Reactions include “It is important to remember God does anger, and thereby we can remember his grace.”, “Liberals who don’t believe in the atonement…” and so on.

    If you command orthodoxy, then it is trivial to cast any dissent in as broad terms as possible, and ridicule it.


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