08/12/2013 10:54 am ET Updated Oct 12, 2013

In Context: The Wrath of God, the Presbyterian Church, and a New Hymnal

Back in May, The Christian Century published two articles by Mary Louise Bringle, chair of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song of which I'm a member. One of the articles, entitled "Debating Hymns" noted that when denominations publish new hymnals there is, inevitably, controversy.

Church folks, myself included, often approach change with great suspicion. The beloved nature of worship music only causes us to approach hymnal change with even more caution than usual.

With this in mind, I was surprised of the quiet reaction to Bringle's article -- for a time, at least. In it, Bringle relates the very difficult, split decision of the committee to reconsider including "In Christ Alone" in the collection. (For those who don't know it, "In Christ Alone" is a 2002, contemporary Christian song by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend.)

Last week, Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala. referenced the committee's decision in an online essay, "No Squishy Love," in which he reflects more broadly on the idea of divine wrath in contemporary religious thought. Well, George finally got the Internet humming. Soon, even Glenn Beck's magazine "The Blaze" picked up the story.

Various news outlets have published similar stories in recent days, some laughably inaccurate, others closer to the truth. On August 7, 2013, The Huffington Post Religion was sporting the headline, "Is the Presbyterian Church Afraid of the Wrath of God?" I'll leave if for you to judge the quality of such a headline.

The Christian Post published an entertaining piece that includes a suggestion that the "In Christ Alone" decision is evidence why some conservative churches are leaving the denomination. Carmen Fowler LaBerge of the conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee was more than happy to connect the dots for the Post: the committee's decision is supposedly related to broader PCUSA decline in scriptural understanding and a flawed theology of salvation.

(To which I wonder: is contemporary journalism really to the point at which one line from one hymn says something meaningful about an entire denomination that is soon-to-publish a hymnal with a full 850 hymns and songs available for critique?) I hope not. Thankfully, Bob Smietana published a more accurate piece with Nashville's Tennessean that since has been picked up by the Religion News Service, USA Today, and HuffPost.

How Did We Get Here?

The entire conversation about "In Christ Alone" may not have occurred had the Celebrating Grace Baptist hymnal (2010) not published the piece with a verse reading, in part:

Till on that cross as Jesus died the love of God was magnified

Well, it turns out the authors didn't actually approve that version of their text -- though it's printed right there in black on white and in many pews today! Instead, the authors' copyright holders informed the Presbyterian Publishing Company that they would only allow the first version of the text which reads, in part:

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

The lines suggest differing theologies. So the committee had a decision. As Mel Bringle records in the Century, "We will inevitably have made some wrong decisions as a hymnal committee; but to the best of my knowledge we made no careless or cavalier ones."

Since the copyright holders did not allow the version published in Celebrating Grace to be published again, we had to decide whether to include the piece with "changes" to the version upon which we originally voted. Unfortunately, our four years of quarterly meetings were ended and so, over email, the committee prayed, debated, and voted. A majority voted not to include the hymn -- many reasons are cited in the Century piece. We were also well aware that for congregations who want to sing it, the hymn is available in several other resources.

Personal Reflections: Singing God's Wrath

Now, a few personal, unorganized thoughts. Let me say that again: these are personal reflections, inevitably skewed by my own flaws, and not any sort of official response from our committee chair or the publishing company.

If you want to sing about God's wrath, and you buy the new Presbyterian hymnal, you'll be in luck! There's an entire section entitled, "Christ's Return and Judgment." You can sing about many ways Christians have spoken about the saving work of Jesus Christ and the powerful justice and righteous anger of God.

In "Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me" you can sing how the water and blood which flowed from Jesus' side on the cross is the "double cure" saving you from God's wrath.

You can sing Twila Paris' "Lamb of God," a contemporary praise and worship piece that sings the sacrifice of Jesus the lamb.

You can sing a Korean praise and worship piece with the words "with his blood has washed and healed me / paid the heavy cost."

You can sing the old Baptist standard, "Beneath the Cross of Jesus" a hymn focused on the cross, beholding the form of Jesus suffering, and confessing the two wonders of God's redeeming love and our personal unworthiness.

And, I promise, there's much more. You can scrutinize it till your heart's content when the hymnal is published in late September.

Oh, and did I mention there are 32 hymns and songs in the new hymnal's section titled "Jesus Christ: Passion and Death"!

Any credible Presbyterian hymnal will, of course, include reference the power of God's righteous, just anger and the saving work of Jesus. This hymnal does. Plenty. (Some Presbyterians will surely say it does so too much, and, who knows, they may be right.)

While scripture clearly speaks to the reconciling work of Jesus' death and resurrection, to do so, the Bible often uses metaphors and images. Developed theories of atonement (a word that means "at oneness," referring to the saving work of God at Christ's death and passion) came later.

In Romans 3, Paul uses a metaphor of sacrifice common to the temple. In Romans 8, God is the judge and Paul describes more of a legal transaction. 1 Peter speaks of Christ's death as a ransom, an economic metaphor. Colossians 2 uses a battle metaphor (think, "A Mighty Fortress.") And that's just the start; there's lots more.

The Confession of 1967, of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Confessions, puts it this way:

God's reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery which the Scriptures describe in various ways. It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd's life given for his sheep, atonement by a priest; again it is ransom of a slave, payment of debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the powers of evil. These are expressions of a truth which remains beyond the reach of all theory in the depths of God's love for man. They reveal the gravity, cost, and sure achievement of God's reconciling work. (C67, 9.09)

When it comes to atonement, as scripture attests, God's people have been trying to find the right words since before we were even called "Christians."

Also, it's probably good to remember that theories other than Anselm's satisfaction theory of atonement do not reject the reality of God's wrath, they just don't see what happened on the cross as a demonstration of it. With that noted, I'd be lying if I said I think most Presbyterian churches will want to sing of God's wrath every Sunday. "Wrath," as it is commonly understood, is probably not the most helpful word for most congregations for some of the very reasons Timothy George addresses in his essay.

Aware of this debate of recent days, a statement on the hymnal blog concludes this way:

We are confident that this collection of hymns and songs -- shaped by the biblical story of God's mighty acts in history -- reflects the breadth and depth of Reformed theological tradition. The absence of one song, readily available through other sources, doesn't change that. We pray that Glory to God will equip the church to sing of God's love and justice and always and everywhere to give thanks and praise to God.

The Wrath of the Internet and the Hope for Something Else

Honestly, I'm not surprised that in a divided church, and in a news environment itching for the latest click bait, the absence of one hymn is being taken as evidence for people's previously-held theories of the denomination. (If anything, I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner.)

I believe the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God!, to be a collection of hymns and songs that is broader in every direction than the previous hymnal. When it's published, I trust that careful scrutiny will find it's a good fit for the denomination, resourcing a wide variety of congregations with a wide variety of hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs to God.

As is true with every hymnal committee ever, we will have made some poor decisions here and there. We're not perfect. But, as Bringle says, our decision were never careless nor cavalier. My prayer for the denomination -- and for the blogosphere -- is that we don't get sidetracked debating word choices in the new hymnal and miss the forest for the trees.

I could make up 10 headlines for click bait articles on the new hymnal, articles that would not serve the church or God's kingdom.

Here's a fake headline for fun: Hymnal Committee Champions "Mothering God." Take note, however, that the "new" hymn entitled, "Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth" is a version of Julian of Norwich's writings from 1393. It includes reference to Christ giving his very body for our peace. And, of course, it's balanced by many a hymn bespeaking God's other diverse attributes that soar beyond our words and understanding. But, even so, what a catchy headline the first words would make.

And another fake headline: Anti-building, Nature-worshipping Hymnal Committee Encourages Congregating at Rivers. Did you know "Shall We Gather at the River?" is included in the new hymnal for the first time ever in a Presbyterian hymnal? Surely the committee has a vendetta against all established church buildings, especially those with steeples!

I remain hopeful we won't get stuck in unhelpful, uninformed debates, throwing hymn verses at one another in some unending game of "Why the Denomination Sucks: Hymnal Edition." (Hint: your winning reasoning always has to do with your previously-held beliefs and self-satisfied finger-pointing.)

I remain hopeful there will be enough in the new collection for everyone to sing our Presbyterian heritage and dreams in the "compact theology" of hymns and songs.

I remain hopeful that, amidst our changing denominational structure and demographics, music might be something that brings us together rather than tears us apart.

Hope of the world, thou Christ of great compassion:
speak to our fearful hearts by conflict rent;
save us, thy people, from consuming passion,
who by our own false hopes and aims are spent.

Hope of the world, O Christ, o'er death victorious,
who by this sign didst conquer grief and pain:
we would be faithful to thy gospel glorious;
Thou art our Lord! Thou dost forever reign!

(Georgia Harkness, 1954)