The Christian Century published a couple of articles on the PC-USA’s production of a new hymnal. This is an interesting essay basically defending the publication of hymnals. This is the more interesting story told about the making of it. As the first articles notes, there have been a series of new hymnals produced by denominations in the last 10 years including the LCMS’s Lutheran Service Book. The first article does a fair job of defending the production of a hymnal, although the entry paragraph is one of the worst metaphors I’ve seen in that I don’t think it makes any sense. The author was obviously trying to get to the concept that updating hymnals roughly every generation is a necessary thing. Just because the books in the pews are physically fine doesn’t mean that they serve the spiritual purpose any longer. Instead of reaching for a technology analogy I would have reached for something less ephemeral like maybe the family. Family roles change. We learn new roles, give up some responsibilities, take on other and see others in a completely new light. As the author eventually moves onto, a hymnal shapes a people spiritually over time. It also needs to be shaped by that people. New hymnals allow for new generations to sing to the Lord a new song. Speaking of the Lutheran Service Book, that is one the best things that it has done. The hymn editors did a marvelous job adding “newer” hymns. They also did a marvelous job letting others slip away. For the LCMS this was necessary as the last generational baton pass was dropped. Many had still been using a hymnal produced in 1941. Some had faithfully taken the botched job of 1981 only to find it wanting. And in the confusion created, many wandered outside of the common book. It is hard to form or maintain a Lutheran Spirituality without a common set of hymns.
But the second essay is the more interesting one. One paragraph I believe emphasizes the growing divide between churches that place themselves with the great tradition (what Lewis would call Mere Christianity) and those denominations that are declaring a break (even if they don’t admit it) with that church. (Roman Catholics divide over this around Vatican 2 between those “reading the council in continuity” and those “reading the council as a rupture from that continuity’s summed faults”.) The author of the second piece highlights the discussion and vote around one of the newer hymns they originally wanted to include.
Even more sustained theological debate occurred after the conclusion of the committee’s three-and-a-half years of quarterly meetings in January 2012. We had voted for a song from the contemporary Christian canon, Keith Getty and Stuart Townend’s “In Christ Alone.” The text agreed upon was one we had found by studying materials in other recently published hymnals. Its second stanza contained the lines, “Till on that cross as Jesus died / the love of God was magnified.” In the process of clearing copyrights for the hymnal we discovered that this version of the text would not be approved by the authors, as it was considered too great a departure from their original words: “as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied.” We were faced, then, with a choice: to include the hymn with the authors’ original language or to remove it from our list.
Because we were no longer meeting as a committee, our discussions had to occur through e-mail; this may explain why the “In Christ Alone” example stands out in my mind—the final arguments for and against its inclusion are preserved in writing. People making a case to retain the text with the authors’ original lines spoke of the fact that the words expressed one view of God’s saving work in Christ that has been prevalent in Christian history: the view of Anselm and Calvin, among others, that God’s honor was violated by human sin and that God’s justice could only be satisfied by the atoning death of a sinless victim. While this might not be our personal view, it was argued, it is nonetheless a view held by some members of our family of faith; the hymnal is not a vehicle for one group’s perspective but rather a collection for use by a diverse body.
Arguments on the other side pointed out that a hymnal does not simply collect diverse views, but also selects to emphasize some over others as part of its mission to form the faith of coming generations; it would do a disservice to this educational mission, the argument ran, to perpetuate by way of a new (second) text the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger. The final vote was six in favor of inclusion and nine against, giving the requisite two-thirds majority (which we required of all our decisions) to the no votes. The song has been removed from our contents list, with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness.
All involved agreed that this new song (part of the newer praise song canon) expressed a deep and even core expression of the work of Christ on the cross. The hymn is a strong statement of substitutionary atonement. The hymn committee first wanted to delete that understanding replacing the wrath at sin with a vague reference to love. When that was blocked by the hymn writer, the committee voted to excluded it. Substitutionary atonement given modern meaningful expression would not be part of the new PC-USA hymnal. A Presbyterian spirituality formed by this new song collection will not express how Christians for at least 1000 years have primarily understood the cross. And that was exactly the argument of the exclusionary side. It would be bad pastoral practice, “a disservice to this educational mission”, to perpetuate substitutionary atonement. That is a rupture.
If I was driving deep at this I would ask why? Why is a clear expression of substitutionary atonement so offensive that is must be driven out? I would argue that it takes the law seriously. It takes seriously that God commanded certain things that can’t just be forgotten or endlessly twisted. Any reminder of this to a people involved in redefining sin is an offense.
Are there other perfectly biblical expressions of the atonement? Yes, absolutely. Christ the victor finds wonderful expression in that most Lutheran hymn “A Mighty Fortress”. But we should realize that decisions made physical in books like Lutheran Service Book and the other new hymnals are making permanent and wide the rupture or gulf. And atonement, part and parcel of justification, as Luther said about the Augsburg Confession, “the entire church stand or falls on this article”. Erasing the tradition on atonement could be said to be erasing the gospel itself.