Agnus Dei: Presbyterian hymnal fight makes news

Before we look at a news story from The Tennessean, a little background. Last week I read a fascinating piece in First Things about a particular kerfuffle in one denomination’s hymnal development. It began:

In his 1934 book, The Kingdom of God in America, H. Richard Niebuhr depicted the creed of liberal Protestant theology, which was called “modernism” in those days, in these famous words: “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Niebuhr was no fundamentalist, but he knew what he was talking about. So did Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he named the kind of mainline religion he encountered in 1930s America: Protestantismus ohne Reformation, “Protestantism without the Reformation.”

Sin, judgment, cross, even Christ have become problematic terms in much contemporary theological discourse, but nothing so irritates and confounds as the idea of divine wrath. Recently, the wrath of God became a point of controversy in the decision of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song to exclude from its new hymnal the much-loved song “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend.  The Committee wanted to include this song because it is being sung in many churches, Presbyterian and otherwise, but they could not abide this line from the third stanza: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.” For this they wanted to substitute: “…as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.” The authors of the hymn insisted on the original wording, and the Committee voted nine to six that “In Christ Alone” would not be among the eight hundred or so items in their new hymnal.

What followed was a fascinating discussion of atonement theories and God’s love, featuring Protestants, Pope Benedict XVI and church fathers alike.

You could also read about this hymnal debate in Christianity Today and throughout the Christian press and blogosphere. It was huge news and a major point of discussion.

Everywhere, that is, except for in the mainstream media.

The thing is, as anyone who regularly worships God with the aid of a hymnal can tell you, liturgy and song are major issues. They define our relationship to God and our understanding of hymn. They convey the doctrine of the church with amazing efficacy. Martin Luther called music theology’s handmaiden. One of the most exciting stories of my church body’s recent history was the assembly, production and widespread acceptance of our latest hymnal, Lutheran Service Book “proclaiming the Good News of forgiveness, life, and salvation; celebrating Christ and all His benefits; giving voice to the people’s thanksgiving and praise”). Even if my church body’s worship wars aren’t quite as dramatic as other denominations, developing a hymnal used by millions is no small feat. I know a little bit about that story and it involved some hard-fought battles over theology and practice.

Some readers had noted the lack of mainstream media discussion about an interesting story from the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s hymnal development project. And it is interesting that 100% of all stories related to anything involving same-sex attraction are greenlighted for the front page of metro dailies (or so it seems) while a really interesting theological debate isn’t even covered.

So major props to The Tennessean for not just reporting the story but adding some helpful depth to it as well. It begins:

Fans of a beloved Christian hymn won’t get any satisfaction in a new church hymnal.

The committee putting together a new Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) hymnal dropped the popular modern hymn “In Christ Alone” because the song’s authors refused to change a phrase about the wrath of God.

The original lyrics say that “on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” The Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song wanted to substitute the words, “the love of God was magnified.”

Let’s first note how the story is written in easy-to-understand language for people not familiar with the underlying theological debates or denominational processes. It’s much more challenging than it looks and I think it pays off here. It goes on:

The song’s authors, Stuart Townend and Nashville resident Keith Getty, objected. So the committee voted to drop the song.

Critics say the change was sparked by liberals wanting to take God’s wrath out of the hymnal. The committee says there’s plenty of wrath in the new hymnal. Instead, the problem is the word “satisfied,” which the committee says refers to a specific view of theology that it rejects.

Debate over “In Christ Alone” is a mix of church politics, the touchy subject of updating hymn lyrics and rival views of what Jesus’ death on the cross meant.

The story goes on to provide much more detail and context, but in just 8 sentences, we have a very good understanding of what happened and why it matters — and a fun lede sentence to boot.

Of course it’s easier to write about political hot-button subjects or culture war issues, but this is a fantastic story with far greater reach about major trends in theological change. We all know it’s possible to write an engaging and newsy story on doctrine, but we also know how difficult it is to do, much less do well. Now go read the whole thing.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Something to look into:: I hear some churches have banned” the Battle Hymn of the Republic” and changed Amazing Grace that saved a “WRETCH” like me to something less negative for none of us are really in THAT much need of God’s grace

  • wlinden

    That particular hymn sounds grounded in the “ransom” view of atonement… but I doubt the paper would even try to go into theology in that much detail.

  • Reformed Catholic

    Well, you won’t find the Battle Hymn listed in the new PC(USA) hymnal Index as such, just “Mine eyes have seen the glory”. Also, any militant verses have been ‘massaged’.

    FWIW .. in the last hymnal that came out (and also in the new one) you won’t find “Onward Christian Soldiers” either.

  • Karlw1988

    I can understand why the hymnal committee might found that part of the hymn problematic. If people don’t have proper theological context, it could be taken as supporting an overly simplistic caricature of penal substitution


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