Monday, 17 April 2017

‘In Christ Alone’: What should we sing instead of ‘The wrath of God was satisfied’?

Every so often, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty’s ‘In Christ Alone’ spawns theological debate due to its infamous lines:

Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied

These words are controversial because of the theology of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) they presume. I don’t need here to go into the reasons for why they’re controversial; it’s enough for me to link to this recent post at Ian Paul’s Psephizo blog and to Steve Holmes’s eight-year-old post on the song’s grammatical problems. But if we do happen to object to these particular lyrics, what should we sing in their place? How about N.T. Wright’s suggestion?

Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The love of God was satisfied

But this amendment, if you read Holmes’s post, isn’t free from problems. So I sing a variant:

Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The God of love was glorified

You could argue it’s a little too Abelardian in its theology (the cross as moral influence) and doesn’t fit especially well with the following lines (‘For every sin on Him was laid / Here in the death of Christ I live’), but it works for me. However, if you’re not in favour of a moral influence model of atonement, what other words might fit, metrically and theologically? Someone in the comments on Psephizo proposed:

Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was turned aside

And here is my suggestion if you want to affirm Christus Victor:

Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The Devil’s schemes were nullified

If you see Jesus’s death as a sin offering (cf. Leviticus 4, 16), you could sing:

Till on that cross as Jesus died,
This world of sin was purified

And a ‘second Adam’ revision could look like:

Till on that cross as Jesus died,
Creation’s course was realigned

I’m not sure how much sense that makes, though, and the rhyming is perhaps unforgiveable!

So what are my reasons for seeking alternative lyrics for these two lines? I have three reasons. First, and most importantly for me, I don’t appreciate the way in which some champions of PSA appear to use this and similar songs as measures of orthodoxy. (Maybe this was purely a noughties phenomenon.) There are genuine problems with PSA, and some might choose not to sing these words precisely because they cannot assent to the theology of atonement PSA presupposes. But this does not mean that anyone choosing not to sing this song or these two lines in particular is heterodox or unorthodox. So I do not sing about the cross satisfying God’s wrath—not because I necessarily disagree with a doctrine of PSA, but because I just do not think any model of atonement can be used as a measure of orthodoxy. Scripture does not explain the precise mechanisms of atonement and so to privilege PSA as the model of atonement is mistaken. My second and third reasons are simpler to explain. These lyrics seem unhelpfully to conflate two different models of atonement (satisfaction theory and PSA). And I find the octave leap from ‘The’ to ‘wrath’ quite jarring because it seems tonally to celebrate God’s wrath. Taking these three aspects into consideration, I will continue to sing, ‘The God of love was glorified.’

14 comments:

  1. I wish there was a 'like' button here! I had unthinkingly sung those lyrics because I enjoyed the rest of the song, and the lilting melody, until I asked my husband why he didn't sing them. When he explained, I didn't want to sing those words again. And yes, it is ridiculous to assume that some song lyrics are representative of one's orthodoxy. That's just daft! But there's nowt so daft as folk.

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    1. Not sure Blogger has a 'like' button . . . I'll have a look around.

      Are you resuming blogging now Lent's over, Sandy?

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  2. Legally speaking you sing what's written by the author. It's called copyright and if you can't sing those words for theological reasons you have no right to alter them to appease your sensibilities.

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    1. You're probably right, though note what Ian Paul says (I don't know if he's right or not; copyright law isn't my specialism):

      Finally comes the question of copyright. The Presbyterian Church were right to consult the hymn’s authors before changing the words in a published work. But what is copyright about? Principally two things: recognition of the author; and recompense for the work. It is not about hymn writers controlling our doctrine. In fact, if you read the words of the song, it is full of biblical language, and would be thought of as theologically conservative, even without this one phrase. There is plenty else here that I would hope the writers are pleased that people want to sing. So my recommendation would be to use it, to amend this one phrase, to credit the original writers, to note the amendment, and to pay up your royalty fee.

      If it turns out that it's illegal to do this, then I'd encourage reconsidering using the song at all.

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    2. That is the point of copyright. It is illegal to do that and if you don't want to sing the song as written, you don't sing it at all. Or you get permission from the author to make the amendment you want, but that's unlikely to happen because it sets a precedent.

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    3. But who enforces the legality or otherwise of a song? If, for example, my church followed Ian Paul's stance here (which it doesn't - to my knowledge, I'm the only person who sings different lines here, and I'm not in any position of authority), who would enforce the copyright (or how would it be enforced)? Genuine question.

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  3. Well gathered, Terrry! I love people's creative ingenuity in all those alternatives.

    My reservations singing that line have generally been around the area of visitor misunderstanding. Yes, good for them to come to discuss PSA in due course, but not to be hit over the head with God's wrath needing satisfying within ten minutes of walking through the church door.

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    1. Thanks, Rosie. Aside from the original, the Tom Wright example, and the one about wrath being turned aside, all the alternatives are mine. Feel free to add more, though!

      As to your point, yes . . . I'd never thought of that. I guess I tend to think of these things in the context of people who are already Christians. Do you have any anecdotal evidence of how visitors hear those lines?

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  4. My friend Robert Sang posted the following comments on Facebook and has given me permission to reproduce them here. Part one:

    I think there are several points to be made here:

    1) Language is inadequate to express a thought fully, particularly in a song, where you have to fit in many ideas into the short space of a line or two. Sometimes ideas are expressed in terms of a metaphor or a few simple words, which may not necessarily be trying to imply an entire theology out of it. We sometimes use analogies of penal substitution or other legal terminology only to present an imperfect and incomplete picture of what has happened, but not necessarily intending for it to represent the entire picture.

    2) In the case of “In Christ Alone”, I don’t think it’s the language of penal substitutionary atonement which is the problem. In other words, is it always wrong to use words or phrases that talk about substitution, taking another’s place for punishment, etc? If, for example, a song were to be based on Isaiah 53, it would surely use that very kind of language. There are also a number of different forms of penal substitution theology which focus on different ideas. The problem with “In Christ Alone” is more to do with that line “the wrath of God was satisfied”, which is more Calvinist satisfaction theory where it implies that God is a God whose anger must be appeased. However, even Romans 5:2 speaks of being saved from God’s wrath. So maybe it's just the word "satisfaction" that is the issue because of its immediate association with satisfaction theory of atonement, making it now somewhat of a loaded word?

    3) “In Christ Alone” might be rather Calvinist anyway. The lines “From life's first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny” could be seen as predestination theology, which is another debate.

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    1. And part two:

      4) Using “the God of love was glorified” doesn’t quite fit with Stuart Townsend’s sentiment to express within those few lines that some sort of transaction occurred, and suddenly introduces a different idea into the subject but then switches back, which isn’t considered good song writing. I don’t think it works either just to put anything that rhymes with “died”, otherwise one could put “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the Son of God was crucified” which would not only be stating the obvious, but wasting an extra line repeating essentially the same idea from the line before. If you don’t want to drift too far from the spirit of Townsend’s song, having something like “And on that cross, as Jesus died, we by his blood were justified”, or something similar could work.

      5) Another of Stuart Townsend’s songs might be more problematic than this one. “How deep the Father’s love for us” has the lines “Why should I gain from His reward? I cannot give an answer; But this I know with all my heart - His wounds have paid my ransom.” This could very well veer into the ransom theory of atonement, where commonly, Christ’s death was a ransom paid to Satan or to death. That depends on whether Townsend subscribes to this view, or whether he has a later view of ransom theory similar to the likes of Gustaf Aulen where it’s not so much a transaction being paid, but the word "ransom" is used to describe the liberation from sin and death. Again, this shows the inadequacy of language, particularly in a short line in a song.

      6) Another example of language’s inadequacy where it may or may not be hinting at a particular type of theology is in the Christmas carol, “Away in a Manger” and the lines “The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” Some have argued this suggests a Docetic Christ who doesn’t act in a human way and doesn’t cry, because apparently all babies cry when they wake. It has been argued that the line should read “some crying he makes.” But not all babies do cry when they first wake up. They can be lying quietly in their cribs starring up at their mobile (the thing hanging over their bed, not their mobile phone!). They might cry eventually, but not necessarily right away. “Away in a Manger” therefore could simply be expressing what Jesus does at that particular moment, and not necessarily that he never cries at any point. So in that case, I think “no crying he makes” works.

      7) Ultimately, with all songs and creative expressions, or even prayers, we have to recognise that we can’t convey every idea adequately in a few short words. Therefore we have to assess, on a case by case basis, whether the song writer is simply trying to convey a point and express their love for or praise of God at that moment rather than laying out a full theology, especially as we do use metaphor and simile in everyday language. Bananrama’s “Love in the first degree” is an example of a secular song that uses legal metaphor and even transactional language to describe feelings of love, but one would hardly argue that this represents some kind of theology of how love works.

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    2. I'm quite drawn to Robert's 'we by his blood were justified', I must admit - copyright issues notwithstanding!

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    3. Robert has added a bit to #5:

      Also, these lines are somewhat awkward for English speakers when considering how to pronounce the words. Do you say "I cannot give an answer" like an American or a Northerner, so that "answer" rhymes with "ransom", or do you say "arnswer" in Queen's English, in which case it wouldn't quite rhyme with "ransom" unless you say "rarnsom" and don't mind sounding like a plonker?

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  5. You forgot an "If you need a theory to worship Jesus, go worship your fucking theory" Hauerwasian alternative. Something like:

    Till on the cross as Jesus died --
    for "Why?" -- by Christ! -- the church divides.

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