One Hymn, Two Theological Visions: A Response to Vertical Church

One Hymn, Two Theological Visions: A Response to Vertical Church September 12, 2012

James McDonald’s Vertical Church asserts that the church is vital only when it proclaims the utter transcendence of God.  When we are small, God is large.  When we get out of the way, God’s will is done.  When we let go of our plans, even plans for church growth and vitality and focus only on giving glory to God, God’s “kingdom” will grow and our churches will be blessed.  God is involved in everything, but God doesn’t need us or our partnership in getting things done.  We serve God best by following God completely and without reservations.  For McDonald, power, glory, and sovereignty are the primary defining characteristics of God.  Love is important but, as I read McDonald, love is conditioned more by divine power than power by divine love.

God is operative everywhere, McDonald believes, but God’s omnipresence is more observational than intimate.  God needs nothing from us and is ultimately not influenced by who we are or what we do.  Freedom comes from giving God glory, doing what God wants, following the Bible’s witness.  Conversely, innovation and creativity on our part get in the way of God’s plans for the world.

Vertical Church is grounded in a Vertical God: omnipotent, unilateral in activity, and only indirectly relational.  As I was reading McDonald’s testimony – and it is an excellent manifesto for his position – I was struck by the way our theology is often reflected in how we translate both scriptures and hymns.  For example, the New Revised Standard Version suggests two accurate translations of Romans 8:28:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…

In all things God works for good for those who love God…

Notice the subtle theological difference.  The first has a sense of divine determination.  God has a purpose in all events and is the decisive agent in all events.  The second emphasizes relationship and immanence.  God is at work in all things, even those things God does not wish to occur.  I suspect that McDonald would prefer the first translation because it implies divine direction and sovereignty operative in all things.  I prefer the second translation because it suggests relationship, freedom, creativity, and a world in which God doesn’t determine everything.

One of my favorite hymns is “How Great Thou Art.”  I identify it with George Beverly Shea and Cliff Barrows, and Billy Graham crusades.  Billy Graham and his colleagues popularized the Stuart Hine rendition of the Carl Gustav hymn.  You probably know the words by heart.

1. O Lord my God, when I in Awesome wonder
consider all the worlds (works) Thy hands have made.
I see the stars, I hear the rolling (mighty) thunder,
Thy power thro’out the universe displayed.
Refrain: Then sings my soul, my savior God to Thee,
How great thou art, how great thou art
Then sings my soul, My savior God , to Thee,
How great thou art. How great Thou art.

2. When thro’ the woods and forest glades I wander
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees,
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur,
And hear the brook and feel the gently breeze,
Then sings my soul . . .

3. And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in,
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.
Then sings my soul . . .

4. When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow in humble adoration,
And there proclaim, my God, how great Thou art.
Then sings my soul . . .

Stuart Hine’s version, which would resonate with McDonald’s view exalts the might and power of God, and speaks of the Second Coming of Jesus as both a wondrous and unilateral event.  History unfolds in terms of the cross and the Second Coming.  Majesty, glory, and awe characterize God’s all-powerful determination of history.

The New Century Hymnal (United Church of Christ) purports to present a more accurate version.  But, look at the thological tone and how it differs from Hine’s translation and additions to the original hymn.

1. O Mighty God, when I survey in wonder
the world that formed when once the word you said,
The strands of life all woven close together,
the whole creation at your table fed.
Refrain: My soul cries out in songs of praise to you.
O mighty God! O mighty God!
My soul cries in songs of praise to you,
O mighty God O mighty God.

2. When your voice speaks in rolls of thunder pealing,
your lightning power bursts in bright surprise;
When cooling rain, your gentle love revealing,
reflects your promise, arcing through the skies,
My soul cries out .. .

3. The Bible tells the story of your blessing
so freely shed upon all human life.
Your constant mercy every care addressing,
relieving burdened souls from sin and strife.
My soul cries out. . .

4. And when at last, the clouds of doubt dispersing,
you will reveal what we but dimly see;
With trumpet call, our great rebirth announcing,
we shall rejoin you for eternity
Refrain: Then we will sing your praise forevermore,
O Mighty God. O mighty God,
Then we will sing your praise for ever more,
O mighty God, O mighty God.

There is plenty of praise in this hymn – and also wonder and glory – but the tone is one of immanence.  God is working within our world.  The glory of God is immanent as well as transcendent.  We don’t need to go to heaven – or be raptured – to experience God.   Whereas McDonald’s Vertical God and Hine’s translation delight in dependence, the UCC translation speaks of an interdependent world in which humans have a role in relationship with God.  God is not competitive; God doesn’t need to have all the power; and human creativity doesn’t limit God or compete with God’s prerogative.  Rather, God rejoices in human creativity and can become more active in the world when we create in positive and life-affirming ways.

A final word: It is possible to center your life on God and also center your care on the world.  The dichotomy is not as great as McDonald imagines.  It has been said that we love the Creator by loving the creatures.  From this perspective, the affirmation, “God is the circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” affirms both the vertical and horizontal.  Loving the world gives glory to God and awakening to divine wisdom adds beauty to the world.  I believe this is a more holistic and healing – and, indeed, life-affirming – vision of God and the world than McDonald’s purely vertical vision.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living,  Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

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