Thursday, September 5, 2013

In Christ Alone is not in alone in being rejected...

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.”

With these words, Timothy George points us to a hymn rejected by the Presbyterian Church USA's rejection of a hymn text not because it is poor poetry (that could not be said) or because it was empty of content (though many of its genre can rightfully be accused of this) but because the authors would not allow the committee to exchange the pointed, Biblical language of the text with something more innocuous. 

As some of you may already know, I am not fond of most modern contemporary Christian music. Typically, the praise chorus style is shallow and superficial, preferring to sing seven trite and man-centered words seventy times seven rather than seventy words that expound the full Biblical content of the faith.  Though I am still not a great fan, I grudgingly admit that In Christ Alone can be criticized for some things but not for lack of serious and solid Biblical content.

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. . .

Indeed, in his brilliant essay, “The Wrath of God as an Aspect of the Love of God,” British scholar Tony Lane explains that "the love of God implies his wrath. Without his wrath God simply does not love in the sense that the Bible portrays his love." God's love is not sentimental; it is holy. It is tender, but not squishy.  It involves not only compassion, kindness, and mercy beyond measure (what the New Testament calls grace) but also indignation against injustice and unremitting opposition to all that is evil.

Even though you can't find "In Christ Alone" in the new Presbyterian hymnal, you won't have any trouble hearing it sung in numerous churches all over the world. In fact, you can listen to it right now by clicking this link. Keith Getty and his wife Kristyn belong to a new breed of contemporary hymnists who want their music to reflect the reality of a full-sized God, the awesome God of holiness and love.

As I said, I remain a fan of the solid content and faithful character of historic hymnody and I believe that the great Lutheran chorales and their authors have taught us how to sing God's praise best, but I find it hard to fault the content of the hymn In Christ Alone.  You read for yourself.  It is a shame when we have no room in our hymnals for hymns such as these though I find it sadly predictable how hard the modern mind finds the Biblical imagery of God's wrath.  Perhaps it is more true that we have not rejected the hymn as much as we have rejected the God of Scripture.  If for that reason alone, now is time for the Church to come to repentance and confess our greater love for self than for the God whom we know in Christ Jesus by His Word!

In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all—
Here in the love of Christ I stand.

In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.

There in the ground His body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain;
Then bursting forth in glorious day,
Up from the grave He rose again!
And as He stands in victory,
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me;
For I am His and He is mine—
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

No guilt in life, no fear in death—
This is the pow’r of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home—
Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand.

“In Christ Alone”
Words and Music by Keith Getty & Stuart Townend
Copyright © 2001 Kingsway Thankyou Music


Dr.D said...

I am inclined to think that our people have rejected solidly Biblical hymns because they have lost their understanding of what holiness truly is. They fail to comprehend what it means to say, "God is holy."

The increasingly common idea among presumably religious people seems to be that everyone will be saved. That a "loving" God could not possibly reject/condemn anyone, even those who in life rejected Him. This is directly tied to the failure to comprehend holiness.

Universalism is popular, particularly because it is easy, it makes no judgements, and is therefore politically correct. It is, however, grossly contrary to Scripture, and a disastrous error.

Fr. D+
Anglican Priest

Anonymous said...

Why are we so quick to condemn? Did the Presbyterians deny the existence of the wrath of God by trying to exclude it from this hymn? Nothing could be further from the truth. It would make them an object of ridicule in Christendom. What they object to, and I believe they are right and Biblical in doing so, is penal substitution.

For thousands of years the Jews made sacrifices as God commanded. Yet when we gentiles look at the greatest sacrifice, the one all of the others pointed to, we say “punishment”.

If our Lord indeed was punished for our sins, then why does God still need to forgive us? After all, He is a righteous God and would not demand punishment twice for the same sin?

But He forgives our sins in the same way He forgave the friends of Job. Job 42: 7 After the LORD had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, "I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. 8 So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has."

Except that in our case He Who is the sacrifice and He Who intercedes for us is one and the same, our Lord Jesus Christ, Himself the Victim and Himself the Priest. Actually Hebrews says it much better: “9:11 When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”

What the Presbyterians are saying is that you can have atonement without penal substitution, and you can have God’s wrath without God pouring that wrath on His Son, the Son He loves (see Genesis 22:2), of Whom He says, Matthew 17: "This is my Son, Whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!"

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

David Gray said...

It would be fair to note that in so far as they reject penal substitution the PCUSA reveals that they are not Presbyterian at all. Frankly they have no meaningful relationship with the Reformation. But of course the PCUSA has revealed itself in other ways to be apostate so no news here. The PCUSA bears the same relationship to Presbyterians that the ELCA does to Lutherans.

jonathanpaulmayer said...

I also "grudgingly" admit that the text is Christ-centered, but of course it takes more than a decent text to make a good hymn. While the text is the most important part, a pop music ditty written for a soloist does not translate well into congregational singing. They are completely different paradigms, which is why I would never call the Gettys "hymnists."

I disagree with your assessment of the poetry, though; I think it's awful. The rhyme is forced and inconsistent, and at at least one point in each verse it is completely abandoned. "Song" does not rhyme with "storm," or "all" with "stand." Only two words rhyme in the entire second verse. It absolutely drives me up the wall.