National Edition

Exclusion of hymn ignites debate over God's wrath

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 14 2013 8:00 a.m. MDT

For weeks there was little reaction to a Presbyterian committee's decision to exclude a much-loved song from the faith's new hymnal because of a couple of words and the composers' refusal to allow a change.

Jason Olson

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For weeks there was little reaction to a Presbyterian committee's decision to exclude a much-loved song from the faith's new hymnal because of a couple of words and the composers' refusal to allow a change.

But the silence broke into a contentious debate earlier this month when Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., blasted the committee in a column published by First Things.

Under the headline "No Squishy Love," George wrote that the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song voted to exclude the hymn "In Christ Alone" because of 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."

"Why do many Christians shrink from any thought of the wrath of God?" George wrote. "R.P.C. Hanson has said that many preachers today deal with God's wrath the way the Victorians handled sex, treating it as something a bit shameful, embarrassing, and best left in the closet. The result is a less than fully biblical construal of who God is and what he has done, especially in the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ."

But Mary Louise Bringle, a religion professor and hymnwriter who chaired the hymnal committee, told USA Today the committee didn't have a problem with the term "wrath."

“People think that we’ve taken the wrath of God out of the hymnal,” Bringle said. “That’s not the case. It’s all over the hymnal. The issue was the word ‘satisfied.’”

That term was used by the medieval theologian Anselm, who argued that sins offended God’s honor and someone had to die to satisfy his honor, USA Today reported. The 15-member committee rejected Anselm’s view and voted 9-6 to drop the hymn.

The vote came after its request to the songwriters Stuart Townend and Nashville resident Keith Getty was denied.

USA Today reported that Bringle wrote about the decision in the May issue of The Christian Century magazine, "but it got little attention until it captured the attention of the blogosphere," ignited by George's piece.

The Economist, a British publication, viewed the episode in a political context, calling it "another reminder of one of the bizarre (to outsiders) features of the American religious landscape.

"The liberal-conservative divide is so pervasive that it runs down the middle of all religious groups, dividing denominations and creating alliances across denominations. A conservative evangelical will happily quote the pope to score a point against more liberal nonconformists. In the words of a 19th-century British comic opera, American religion is a world where, regardless of denomination, 'every boy and every gal born into the world alive, is either a little liberal or a little conservative.'"

mbrown@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @deseretbrown

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