The Presbyterian (PCUSA) hymnal controversy around the doctrine of the atonement (Part 1)

By Robert A.J. Gagnon, Ph.D.

Gagnon 5

Robert Gagnon

By now most Presbyterians and many non-Presbyterians know that the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song (specifically nine of its 15 members) voted last April not to add the popular worship song “In Christ Alone” (2001) to the forthcoming PCUSA hymnal, Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (scheduled to be out by the end of September). “In Christ Alone” was the 11th most sung worship song in American churches last year and in the top 20 for the past six years (kudos to Christianity Today for the link). If you have forgotten the song or have never heard it (whether because you stopped following Christian worship songs written in this century or just live in a hole in the ground), you can hear many good performances online. I’m particularly fond of this rendition of the song. To many it appears that the committee majority rejected the song for reasons that border on the heretical. Controversy centers on the second of the following two lines in the song: “Til on that cross as Jesus died / The wrath of God was satisfied.”

The episode has been a public relations disaster for the committee and the hymnal project generally. So many have expressed deep disappointment over what they perceive to be a severe compromise of the Gospel that the committee has had to put up a special posting on its website to deal with the controversy. Like most damage-control situations, just getting at the truth has proven to be a monumental task.


The furor

Although news of the committee’s decision first came out in early May in an article in the Christian Century by the chair of the committee, the matter didn’t become widely known until Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School and a prominent evangelical scholar, came out with an article on it called “Squishy Love” on July 29, 2013, in the Catholic publication First Things (George happens to be a Southern Baptist; Beeson is an interdenominational evangelical institution). In an engagingly erudite way, George charged the committee with an aversion to concept of the wrath of God.

The controversy was then picked up by many others. A day later Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, wrote on the positive value of the concept of the wrath of God for Christian humility in an article for The Washington Post entitled “Whatever Happened to the Wrath of God.” An Aug. 2 article in the online evangelical Christian Post assessed the situation largely through an interview with Carmen Fowler LaBerge, head of the evangelical Presbyterian Lay Committee. She saw the action as evidence of denominational downplaying of “the necessity of atonement,” a reluctance to accept God’s wrath as a reaction to sin, and another instance in a long trajectory of PCUSA missteps away from Scripture and toward a theology more appealing to cultural trends.

christ alone lyricsMore background information came in through secular reporter Bob Smietana in two articles, one for his own paper The Tennessean (Aug. 4) and another overlapping but distinct article two days later for USA Today and the Religion News Service.

Given that both Timothy George and Russell Moore are Southern Baptists and that Southern Baptists have a strong view of what is commonly referred to as “penal substitutionary atonement” or just “penal substitution,” it is not surprising that the PCUSA controversy has garnered significant attention in Southern Baptist circles. They had their own controversy when an editor of The Alabama Baptist wrote in an Aug. 8 editorial that, though loving the song, he does not sing “the wrath of God was satisfied” (for the editorial and follow-up corrections go here). The editorial unleashed a flurry of critiques from Southern Baptist leaders (see also this Aug. 16 background piece in the Associated Baptist Press). On Aug. 12 Albert Mohler, influential president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, contributed an interesting piece on his blog page, in which he emphasized the significance of penal substitutionary atonement for galvanizing “the Conservative Resurgence that took place within the Southern Baptist Convention in the last quarter of the twentieth century.”

In England an evangelical Anglican minister and NT scholar, Ian Paul, surprised some by coming out in a blog with views similar to the PCUSA hymnal committee majority. The issue of penal substitutionary atonement has been a contested subject for a decade now within British evangelicalism. Influential “evangelical” Baptist minister and social activist Steve Chalke wrote a book in 2003 called The Lost Message of Jesus (Zondervan) that identified penal substitutionary atonement as “cosmic child abuse,” a book that surprisingly received an endorsement from N.T. Wright. A significant response to this came out in a 335-page book called Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Crossway [US] / Inter-varsity Press [England], 2007) written by three British evangelicals, Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey and Andrew Sach. It was widely praised by top evangelical scholars and leaders in both America and Britain, though N.T. Wright was overall critical of it (see his 2007 response in Fulcrum). The debate fueled a book of collected essays from different perspectives: The Atonement Debate (Zondervan, 2008). A 2007 sermon by Wright entitled “The Word of the Cross (1 Cor 1:18)” took a swipe at the line “the wrath of God was satisfied” when Wright commended to his hearers the practice of replacing the word “wrath” with “love” as “more deeply true to sing,” adding that “In Christ Alone” was “in other respects one of the very few really solid recent additions to our repertoire.” I appreciate much in Tom Wright’s work but regard these comments as regrettable, for reasons that shall become clear later.

[Note: In America the major evangelical critic of penal substitution has been Joel Green, a NT professor at Fuller Seminary, formerly of Asbury Seminary. See the book The Nature of the Atonement (Intervarsity Press, 2006) for essays by Green (a “kaleidoscopic view”), Thomas Schreiner (penal substitution), Gregory Boyd (Christus Victor), and Bruce Reichenbach (a “healing view”); see also Green’s Recovering the Scandal of the Cross (Intervarsity Press, 2000; 2nd ed. 2011).]

The committee as a whole and some individual members (who appear to have voted against the song) responded to criticisms by denying that there has been any systematic attempt to eliminate the themes of God’s judgment/wrath or of Christ’s substitutionary atonement in the hymnal. In addition to the official statement and statements of the chair, discussed below, see the blog post by committee member Adam Copeland. I have communicated by email with one of the committee members (who almost certainly voted against the song and wishes to remain anonymous). This person dismisses the controversy by saying that the song was rejected simply because the hymnal already had too many other songs with a similar theme. At the same time, this person was unable or unwilling to explain inconsistencies in such a narrative. So what’s the truth in all this?


Stumbling on the Scandal of the Atonement as Amends Not Only by God But Also to God

Initially, the hymnal committee was in favor of the song’s inclusion in the new PCUSA hymnal. However, that was when they had an unauthorized version before them that had replaced the original words “the wrath of God was satisfied” with “the love of God was magnified.” They subsequently discovered that the writers of the song, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, had not approved the change previously and would not consent to it now.

Apparently, though these songwriters were all for God’s love, they didn’t like the implication that they had committed some sort of theological heresy in writing the original lyrics. (Note that Townend wrote a song in 1995 called “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.”) Probably too (I’m just guessing here) they felt that they had already covered the theme of God’s love with the stanza:


In Christ alone, who took on flesh,

Fullness of God in helpless babe!

This gift of love and righteousness,

Scorned by the ones He came to save.


Obviously these words are expressing the fact that Christ is God’s “gift of love” to the world, the “fullness of God in helpless babe … scorned by the ones He came to save.” As the “fullness of God” Christ is clearly not playing the Good Cop role in relation to God the Bad Cop. Rather, by dying for us He is clearly carrying out God’s will. There is also another allusion to divine love in the previous stanza (“What heights of love, what depths of peace”) but since the stanza ends with “Here in the love of Christ I stand” it may be Christ’s love that is meant. Even if that were the case, since the song then describes Christ as the “fullness of God,” Christ’s love is obviously at the same time God’s love.

So it is clear that the songwriters for “In Christ Alone” are not denying God’s love. They affirm it in the song. Yet they are also right to speak about how Christ’s death fulfills the demands of God’s justice/wrath and the relief that it is for us to realize that we will not be recipients of that wrath. Not that God wants to destroy us: At the greatest personal cost God has done everything to prevent that from happening short of obliterating our decision to say yes or no. But God has also told us in Scripture that we face His wrath if we don’t take the way out that He offered to us in Christ. It is the only way that could be offered; otherwise God surely would have found another way of saving us than having His own Son undergo an excruciating and shameful death on our behalf.

So the committee was left with the option of taking the song with the words “wrath … satisfied” as opposed to “love … magnified” or not taking it at all. The official communication by the hymnal committee flatly denies that the song was rejected over the theme of satisfying God’s wrath:

Some have argued that this decision reflects a defective theology or unwillingness to reckon with the judgment of God. But the absence of one text, however popular, should not be construed as a failure to address this theological theme. Scripture speaks in a variety of ways about what happened in Christ’s death, and a model of atonement that understands the cross as satisfying God’s wrath and saving us through the blood of Christ is already richly presented in this collection. For instance, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” and “Judge Eternal, Throned in Splendor,” beloved hymns from the 1955 Presbyterian Hymnbook, are both included in [our hymnal] Glory to God, as is “Lamb of God” by Twila Paris from the contemporary praise and worship canon, and a praise hymn from Korea that speaks powerfully of how Jesus “with His blood has washed and healed me / paid the heavy cost.” (my emphasis)

I have been associated with educational institutions long enough to know that “official” statements often paper over the real issues that would otherwise make the institution look bad to the general public or donors. This appears to be one such case. Although the official statement would lead most readers to think that the song was not censored for promoting the view of “the cross as satisfying God’s wrath,” the facts appear to be otherwise. I say that not just because of a vague hunch but rather for three solid reasons.

First, the songs cited in the official communication as also speaking of “satisfying God’s wrath” do not in fact do so. The hymn “Judge Eternal, Throned in Splendor” doesn’t even refer to Christ’s atoning death. Twila Paris’s delightful song, “Lamb of God” says “O wash me in His precious blood” and mentions God’s love but nowhere refers to God’s wrath, let alone Christ’s death as satisfying that wrath. The unnamed praise hymn from Korea says that Christ’s blood “paid the heavy cost” but doesn’t say to whom or in compensation for what. Even the old standard, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me,” though it says that Christ’s blood will “save from wrath,” doesn’t say anything explicit about Christ’s death satisfying (i.e. fulfilling the demand of) God’s wrath. Readers without a theological background may think that this is nitpicky. Yet there are many Christians, both liberal and Orthodox (including many who hold an exclusive “Christus Victor” model), who would emphatically deny that these themes imply that God’s wrath or judgment was satisfied by Christ’s death.

Second, the committee’s own actions underscore that the rejection of “In Christ Alone” was due to the theme of the satisfaction of God’s wrath. The committee was fine with accepting the song when it thought the song read “the love of God was magnified.” Yet when the committee discovered that the original read “the wrath of God was satisfied” and could not be changed, a majority rejected the song. Because of two words, “wrath … satisfied,” and really the one word “satisfied” in connection with God’s wrath, nine committee members stumbled over the stumbling stone that the demands of God’s wrath are “satisfied” by Christ’s death.

Third, the official statement is at odds with statements made by the committee’s own chair, Prof. Dr. Mary Louise (Mel) Bringle. What makes the claim of the official statement really bizarre is that, just before assuring readers that the view of “the cross as satisfying God’s wrath … is already richly presented in this collection,” the official statement itself declares: “For a more detailed and nuanced account, see hymnal committee chair Prof. Mary Louise Bringle’s Christian Century article “Debating Hymns.” Yet Bringle appears to contradict the official denial. Bringle states emphatically:

Arguments [for rejecting the hymn] … 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. (my emphasis)

Here Bringle is quite clear that the majority of the committee rejected the hymn on the theological grounds that “it would do a disservice” to the committee’s “educational mission” to “form the faith of the coming generations” if they accepted a hymn with the words “the wrath of God was satisfied” because it would “perpetuate … the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger.” That’s quite a strong statement. The majority saw it as their mission to educate out of Presbyterians the notion that God’s wrath is satisfied by Christ’s death.

You will note that Bringle uses the adverb “primarily.” We should not “perpetuate the view that the cross is primarily God’s need to assuage God’s anger,” meaning, if we are to take the adverb seriously, that the cross is partly about assuaging God’s anger. The adverb is not to be taken seriously. For had it been taken seriously by the committee majority, the majority could not have voted down the hymn on the basis of one or two words that, while not representing the totality of truth (what does?), nonetheless are true enough. The word “primarily” provides some cover for the majority who otherwise could be charged with rejecting wholesale a distinctive element of Reformed theology.

We can’t simply attribute to Bringle bad memory here in recounting the reasons for the vote of the majority. The reason is not just because the official statement itself commends her “more detailed and nuanced account.” It is also because she states that at the time this hymn was discussed the committee was no longer meeting so “our discussions had to occur through e-mail.” “The final arguments for and against its inclusion are preserved in writing.”

So while the official committee statement gives the impression that the satisfaction theory had nothing to do with committee’s rejection, it refers readers to the chair’s account that states otherwise. Sounds like inept doublespeak. It would be easy enough for the committee to show that there was no theological animus behind its decision, were that the case, simply by publishing the pertinent emails (minus names). I’m not holding my breath for that.

On top of Bringle’s article in Christian Century is a USA Today article that quotes her, shedding additional light on the reasons for the rejection (Bob Smietana, “Presbyterians stir debate by rejecting popular new hymn,” Aug. 6, 2013). When the committee realized that the original words of the song were “the wrath of God was satisfied,”

That left the committee in a bind, Bringle said. 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. (my emphasis)

Here Bringle makes a distinction:

Substitutionary atonement [pass]

God’s wrath [pass]

Satisfying God’s wrath by Christ’s death [reject]

She justifies the rejection of the concept of satisfaction merely by mentioning the name Anselm (an 11th century scholastic archbishop of Canterbury who formulated a version of penal substitution based on the honor of feudal lords being besmirched needing to be “satisfied”), a name recognizable probably to only less than one percent of persons singing the hymn. The song does not mention either Anselm or God’s honor. Sin is an offense to God’s holiness and God’s justice. As such it does incur God’s wrath and the divinely prescribed penalty for sin is death.  I trust that these concepts are so elementary to Christian faith and basic morality that I need not delay to defend them here. As we shall see, the concept of Christ’s death satisfying or fulfilling the demands of God’s justice or wrath is both a major emphasis of Reformed soteriology and a significant element of New Testament soteriology. Anselm is a red herring.

In sum: While it is true that the committee has not eliminated all traces from the hymnbook of God’s judgment and Christ’s death as a substitutionary saving act that cleanses from sin, it did eliminate the song “In Christ Alone” on the basis that it perpetuated the allegedly flawed view that that the cross is about God satisfying (i.e., fulfilling the needs of) His own just wrath against sinful humanity. The majority considered this view to be so harmful that, because of the one-time use of the word “satisfied” with God’s wrath, they rejected one of the most popular Christian songs of our day, one filled with beautiful lyrics and set to a worshipful tune, which even the committee itself had previously accepted. They did not reject it lightly. They rejected it out of a sense that it was their “mission to form the faith of coming generations” and that it would have done “a disservice to this educational mission” to have accepted it. It was their duty to protect Presbyterians against this word “satisfied.” Yes, the committee considered and rejected 4,000+ other songs. But it didn’t reject a song this popular, previously accepted by them, and then inadvertently supply us with the anti-scriptural, anti-Reformed smoking-gun reason for doing so. It would be flatly false for any member of the committee to now claim that the very same themes reflected in the words “the wrath of God was satisfied” are widely present in other hymns that made it into their hymnal – unless they failed in their “educational mission” to purge Presbyterian worship of such alleged distortions of the faith. Apparently Bringle had no idea what kind of ruckus her revelation would cause.


In the next installment we will discuss the phenomenon of a Presbyterian hymnal committee rejecting a song for promoting a major element of Reformed soteriology.