Indoctrination Through Hymnody in the Pluralistic Church
I’ve been away for a while, so there’s a lot to catch up on, but I’ll start with a follow-up on David Ould’s excellent post, “So Much Anger Over the Wrath of God.” The focus in the blog post he examines is the hymn “In Christ Alone,” a modern classic that is sure to be in evangelical hymnals for decades to come. It apparently caused no little controversy on the committee that is putting together a new Presbyterian Church (USA) hymnal, according to Mary Louise Bringle writing in Christian Century:
Even more sustained theological debate occurred after the conclusion of the committee’s three-and-a-half years of quarterly meetings in January 2012. We had voted for a song from the contemporary Christian canon, Keith Getty and Stuart Townend’s “In Christ Alone.” The text agreed upon was one we had found by studying materials in other recently published hymnals. Its second stanza contained the lines, “Till on that cross as Jesus died / the love of God was magnified.” In the process of clearing copyrights for the hymnal we discovered that this version of the text would not be approved by the authors, as it was considered too great a departure from their original words: “as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied.” We were faced, then, with a choice: to include the hymn with the authors’ original language or to remove it from our list.
Now, let’s be clear: both of those lines are correct. The cross of Christ both satisfies the wrath of God (seen as an intra-trinitarian action) and magnifies the love of God (in giving the life of His own incarnate Son for the sin of the world). The committee thus faced this dilemma–affirm one of these truths, or neither. They chose the latter course of action, and the reason is revealing:
Because we were no longer meeting as a committee, our discussions had to occur through e-mail; this may explain why the “In Christ Alone” example stands out in my mind—the final arguments for and against its inclusion are preserved in writing. People making a case to retain the text with the authors’ original lines spoke of the fact that the words expressed one view of God’s saving work in Christ that has been prevalent in Christian history: the view of Anselm and Calvin, among others, that God’s honor was violated by human sin and that God’s justice could only be satisfied by the atoning death of a sinless victim. While this might not be our personal view, it was argued, it is nonetheless a view held by some members of our family of faith; the hymnal is not a vehicle for one group’s perspective but rather a collection for use by a diverse body.
If these are indeed the arguments presented by those who favored inclusion, it says a lot about the committee. The idea that Christ’s death on the cross is merely “one view…that has been prevalent in Christian history” is true as far as it goes, but fails to note the really important thing–it’s a view that is present in Scripture. David Ould demonstrated that quite well in his post, so I won’t go over the same ground, except to say that as important as the history of doctrine is, the presence of any truth in the Bible is far more weighty and deserves to be the primary reason for the inclusion of any text in a hymnal.
The other thing that’s kind of pathetic here is that an argument is made for including the hymn using the original language based on diversity. This has the odor of evangelicals pleading to have their voices heard, too, in a denomination that has essentially rejected them. Yes, there are still a lot of evangelicals in the PCUSA, but their views have been almost completely sidelined in the leadership of the church, so they are reduced to using a liberal rationale–“it’s the diversity, man!”–rather than making a straight-forward call for the teaching of Scripture to be heard in the Presbyterian hymnal.
Arguments on the other side pointed out that a hymnal does not simply collect diverse views, but also selects to emphasize some over others as part of its mission to form the faith of coming generations; it would do a disservice to this educational mission, the argument ran, to perpetuate by way of a new (second) text the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger. The final vote was six in favor of inclusion and nine against, giving the requisite two-thirds majority (which we required of all our decisions) to the no votes. The song has been removed from our contents list, with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness.
Leave aside the mathematical incompetence here and focus on this. The committee sees itself as having an “educational mission,” which is absolutely correct. Any hymnal serves as a primary tool for catechesis of the faithful. It also serves a confessional purpose, as it embodies the faith of the church (Lex orandi, lex credendi–“the rule of prayer is the rule of faith”–applies to hymnody as much as it does to liturgical prayer). The PCUSA has a Book of Confessions that includes, among other texts, the Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Shorter Catechism, and the Larger Catechism, all of which affirm the penal substitutionary atonement in no uncertain terms. So what the committee has done, in essence, is arrogate to itself the right to change (and in this case, truncate) the church’s confession in order to indoctrinate this and future generations with a theology once summed up well by H. Richard Niebuhr: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
Well, they’ll keep the cross, but only as a symbol of love. And heaven help you if in the pluralistic entity known as the PCUSA, you should mention the wrath of God. What are you, some kind of fundamentalist?
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