(RNS) The dispute over dropping a beloved Christian song from a new Presbyterian hymnal has widened into a multi-denominational tussle, with Baptists joining the fray.
At issue are various Christian doctrines of the atonement, which attempt to explain why Jesus died and whether his death satisfies God’s wrath over humankind’s sinfulness. But some Christians warn that emphasizing these doctrines may have the unintended consequence of turning God into an angry deity who had to be appeased by shedding Jesus’ blood.
That’s the view taken by the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song. The committee removed the hymn “In Christ Alone” from the new Presbyterian Church (USA) hymnal after the song’s co-authors, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, refused to change a line about God’s wrath being satisfied.
Bob Terry, editor of The Alabama Baptist newspaper, stepped into a theological landmine when he wrote an editorial saying Presbyterians got it right. Terry said he believes Jesus’ death paid the price for sin. But the song’s lyrics went too far.
“Sometimes Christians carelessly make God out to be some kind of ogre whose angry wrath overflowed until the innocent Jesus suffered enough to calm Him down,” Terry wrote.
That editorial, which ran earlier this month, touched a nerve.
In blogs, tweets, letters to the editor and phone calls, angry Baptist readers accused Terry of being theologically liberal and abandoning the Bible. Some wanted him fired.
In an unusual move, the president of the Alabama Baptist State Convention and the executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions issued a statement that criticized the editorial.
“As Alabama Baptists seek to be true to Scripture, we affirm the essential and historic Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement,” they wrote, referring to the doctrine that Jesus died as a substitute for humankind.
The fact that a Baptist newspaper editor sided with the Presbyterians made things worse, said the Rev. John Thweatt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Pell City, Ala.
Conservative Baptists have long viewed mainline denominations like the PCUSA with suspicion, accusing them of abandoning Christian beliefs. Siding with them was a bad move for Terry, he said.
“He opened up a Pandora’s box,” Thweatt said. “I don’t think he thought things through.”
Thweatt is a fan of the song “In Christ Alone.” He said he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to change it.
The song’s original lyrics say that as Jesus died on the cross, “the wrath of God was satisfied.” The Presbyterian committee wanted to change that to “the love of God was magnified.”
“To remove that line would gut the gospel,” Thweatt said.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., agreed.
Mohler said there is no contradiction between God’s love and God’s wrath. Both are needed to deal with human sin.
That’s why he believes penal substitutionary atonement is essential. Critics who want to change “In Christ Alone” to remove the line about God’s wrath have bad theology, Mohler said.
“It reveals deeper problems with what they believe about atonement,” he said.
Mohler also gave some context on why penal substitutionary atonement matters to Southern Baptists. It was one of the issues that led to the conservative resurgence — or fundamentalist takeover — among Southern Baptists in the 1980s and 1990s, when some seminary professors began criticizing substitutionary atonement, leading to full-blown questions about biblical inerrancy.
Memories from that conflict are still fresh, he said.
But Jay Phelan, senior professor of theological studies at North Park University, said too much wrath also leads to bad theology.
Phelan said Mohler and other critics are motivated by church politics as well as theology. They’re part of the movement known as neo-Calvinism, which stresses God’s anger over sin.
“You have all the neo-Calvinists who see any move away from strict satisfaction theory as the straight road to liberal hell,” he said.
Phelan said the neo-Calvinist view of Jesus’ death is too limited.
Most Christians believe in substitutionary atonement. But Christians have differing views on how Jesus’ death forgave sinners, said the Rev. Morgan Guyton, a blogger and associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church in Burke, Va.
Among them are the ransom theory, which holds that Jesus’ death was taken to be a ransom paid to the devil to liberate human sinners from bondage.
No one theory can explain the atonement, Morgan said. And too much focus on wrath causes problems with the Trinity by making it appear God crucified Jesus.
Mohler argues that critics of substitutionary atonement forget God is always motivated by love, even in punishing sin.
The word “wrath” does not appear in another popular song written by Townend about the cross, titled, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.”
Written in 1995, that song remains one of the top 50 popular songs in churches, according to the Christian Copyright Licensing International. Its last verse claims the details of the atonement remain a mystery.
“Why should I gain from His reward?” it says. “I cannot give an answer. But this I know with all my heart, His wounds have paid my ransom.”
<strong>Luke 6:20-21</strong> Then he looked up at his disciples and said: 'Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 'Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. 'Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
<strong>Luke 4:16-19</strong> When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.'
<strong>Matthew 25:34-36</strong> Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."
<strong>Mark 10:21-22</strong> Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
<strong>Mark 12:41-44</strong> He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
<strong>Luke 14:12-14</strong> He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
<strong>Luke 16:19-25</strong> "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.
<strong>Luke 11:39-42</strong> Then the Lord said to him, "Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you. "But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God
<strong>Luke 12:16-21</strong> Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."