‘In Christ Alone’ dropped from church hymnal over lyric dispute, scriptural debate
By Dan Wooding
Founder of ASSIST Ministries
(ANS) – An extraordinary dispute has arisen over a lyric contained one of the most beloved contemporary Christian hymns of the modern-day Church, “In Christ Alone.”
According to Bob Smietana of USA Today, the committee putting together a new hymnal for the Presbyterian Church (USA) dropped the popular hymn because the song’s authors refused to change a phrase about the wrath of God.
He said that the original lyrics say that “on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” The Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song wanted to substitute the words, “the love of God was magnified.”
The song’s authors, Stuart Townend and Northern Ireland born and now a Nashville resident, Keith Getty, objected.
“So the committee voted to drop the song,” said Smietana.
“Critics say the proposed change was sparked by liberals wanting to take God’s wrath out of the hymnal. The committee says there’s plenty of wrath in the new hymnal.
“Instead, the problem is the word ‘satisfied,’ which the committee says refers to a specific view of theology that it rejects.
Smietana went on to say that debate over “In Christ Alone” is a mix of church politics, the touchy subject of updating hymn lyrics and rival views of what Jesus’ death on the cross meant.
“The decision to drop the hymn wasn’t made lightly, said Mary Louise Bringle, a religion professor and hymnwriter who chaired the hymnal committee. It was complicated by a foul-up with the rights for the song,” he continued.
“Committee members had found a version of the hymn with the alternate text in the Celebrating Grace Hymnal, a Baptist hymnal published in 2010. They assumed the songwriters already had agreed to the change.”
“We had every reason to think that this was an authorized text because it appeared in a recent hymnal,” Bringle was quoted as saying.
“When it asked for permission to use the song, the committee learned that the song’s authors hadn’t approved the change,” said Smietana.
Capitol CMG Publishing, which manages rights for “In Christ Alone,” said it is working with the hymnal’s publisher to fix the problem. Neither Getty, (who is at present songwriting in Ireland) nor the Celebrating Grace publisher was available for comment.
“We respect our songwriters and the integrity of their lyrics, and the intent of our request was to ensure the song retains the original lyrics as written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend,” Capitol said in a prepared statement.
“Celebrating Grace Inc. is cooperating fully and is taking steps to make the correction in all distributed copies of the song, including the Celebrating Grace Hymnal.”
The USA Today writer stated that Bringle said that left the committee in a bind. The Presbyterians’ new Glory to God hymnal, due out this fall, includes songs such as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” which talk about substitutionary atonement — the idea that Jesus took the place of sinners on the cross. It also includes songs about God’s 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 in order to satisfy his honor,” said Smietana.
“The 15-member committee rejected Anselm’s view and voted 9-6 to drop the hymn.”
Conservative bloggers such as David French of Columbia, Tenn., was one of several people who criticized the committee, seeing its ruling as a sign that the committee was abandoning Christian doctrine. On Aug. 1, the committee issued a public statement defending its decision.
French, in a story titled “Mainline Church Abandons ‘In Christ Alone’ Hymn,” wrote, “What do hymn choices tell us about a denomination? A lot, it turns out.
“First, forgive me for a bit of a personal reflection. When I was in Iraq — especially as casualties mounted, and the IED menace seemed overwhelming — I took great comfort in a contemporary hymn written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend.
“Called ‘In Christ Alone,’ it bucks the contemporary worship trend of shallow, emotional lyrics in favor of a theologically rich presentation of the Gospel. While the entire hymn is outstanding, the last verse was particularly meaningful”:
This is that last verse:
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath.
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.
French went on to say, “It avoids shallow promises of earthly comfort in favor of the ultimate comfort — no matter our earthly destiny — found in Christ. And it’s a beautiful song, covered by countless Christian artists.
“So it was with some sorrow that I read … in First Things that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to exclude the song from the church hymnal. The reason? The PCUSA Committee on Congregational Song objected to the lyric that proclaims ‘Till on that cross as Jesus died/The wrath of God was satisfied.’ The Committee proposed an alternative: ‘Till on that cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.’ Getty and Townend refused the change, and the Committee voted to exclude the song.
“The core of the dispute is the mainline break with orthodoxy on the very nature of God and mission of Jesus. In orthodox Christianity, sin demands sacrifice. God’s wrath against sin — our sin — was atoned through Christ’s sacrifice. Or, as the Prophet Isaiah prophesied: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
“This is the essence of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and mainline Protestantism is increasingly rejecting it in favor of a doctrine that places Jesus not as Savior in the orthodox sense but more as an example of love and nonviolent resistance, Gandhi on divine steroids.
“The importance of rejecting substitutionary atonement is tough to overstate, with ramifications across the full spectrum of spiritual, social, and cultural engagement. In fact, it’s likely one of the key reasons for the steep decline in mainline churches. After all, when the purpose of Christ’s presence on earth is ripped from its eternal context and placed firmly within (and relegated to) the world of ‘social justice’ and earthly systems of oppression, there’s little that church offers that, say, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Occupy Wall Street, or a subscription to Mother Jones can’t also supply.
“If, on the other hand, Christ represents the sole source of our eternal hope, then church offers something that no political movement can replicate or replace. No amount of ‘social justice’ or political liberation can save your soul.
“As a postscript, I had the chance recently to meet Keith Getty and his wife Kristyn at a conference in Texas. They were lovely people, and I thanked them for providing me (and others) with hope in a dark and difficult time. Now, if I see them again, I can thank them for refusing to compromise.”
For those who’ve never heard the hymn, just go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLy8ksqGf9w
If you would to hear my interview with Keith Getty in which he talks about the hymn, please go to: www.assist-ministries.com/FrontPageRadio/FPR06.09.13KeithGettyMono.mp3