Thursday, 1 August 2013

'In Christ Alone' and the PCUSA: Getting the Story Straight and Rambling on the Atonement

(We will be returning to the multi-part series on marriage. But first, this little diversion).  

The recent controversy over the PCUSA's decision to exclude the popular contemporary hymn 'In Christ Alone' provides a fabulous object lesson on two items: 1st, the danger of jumping to conclusions and, 2nd,  the history of Christian views of the atonement. 

And I never pass up an opportunity to talk about the history of Christian views of anything. 

The actually-not-so-recent decision by the PCUSA to keep 'In Christ Alone' out of their new hymnal (it took place back in May, I believe, but people are just now talking about it as far as I can see) has been cited by many as another evidence of the PCUSA's slide into liberalism and apostasy. The decision was over the line 'and on the cross as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied.' The PCUSA committee wanted to include a version of the hymn (which has appeared elsewhere) that says 'and on the cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.' 

The PCUSA has been accused, by making this decision, of caving to modern relativism and its distaste for a God of wrath and judgment out of a wimpy desire for a more tolerant, loving, 'soft,' God. 

But, I'm afraid that most of these accusations fail to even bother to try and understand what actually took place amongst the PCUSA decision-makers, and serves as an unfortunate example of hastily jumping to conclusions. 

I don't deny the importance of being on guard against false doctrine, Paul's letters regularly attest to the importance being watchful. But  such a vigilance should not exist at the expense of cool reason or thoughtful engagement with what's really going on. 

I also don't deny that the mainline denominations have been, in many ways, slipping into an un-orthodox theological liberalism. My home church left the PCUSA and I supported that decision, and still do. 

And, I really do like 'In Christ Alone,' a lot. 

But I'm not willing to concede that this decision is just another step in their 'path of apostasy.'  That strikes me as way too simplistic. 

You see, here's the thing. 

3374281260_51ab30b6dc_n.jpgThroughout Christian history there have been a number of different views regarding what is, theologically, happening on the cross. Why exactly is Jesus dying? What is the significance of His death?  This question is what we call the issue of the atonement. And there are, naturally, different 'theories' of the atonement.

As I go into some info about these different theories, I really encourage you to do your own research, because my assessments are, I'm sure, full of mistakes. 

In the Middle Ages, a theologian by the name of Anselm taught a view on the atonement that focused on God's honor. God's honor was threatened by sin, and someone had to make amends for this threat. Sin had to be atoned for to rescue God's honor.  The Reformers, Calvin especially, never really rejected this basic frame of mind and taught, similarly, that God's justice needed satisfied. God's justice cannot merely be turned aside, it must be fulfilled. Calvin (as he is usually caricatured, anyway) taught this in a very clear legal-framework; in terms of crimes that had to be paid for, to God, by somebody so that we may stand before God as justified. This view is called the Penal Substitution view of the atonement. 

This, arguably, differs from the view of the Church Fathers; or at least from what the emphasize. 

In early Christian writings, you find very little about God's wrath being satisfied, actually. Usually, instead, their focus is on the defeat of satan and the defeat of death. When humanity fell, Satan and death gain dominion over the human race. Christ comes to satisfy that dominion and overturn it. Yes, God is somehow involved in all this, in that He is the one who placed the curse of death upon the earth. And yes, the atonement is still substitutionary. In fact, it is more broadly substitutionary than the penal view, in that Christ is taking on all that is broken in humanity and putting it to death, not just the legal consequences of sinful actions. 

But in the Patristic teachings there is little discussion of a need for God's wrath to be satisfied. The emphasis is more upon God's grace and love in offering Himself to be handed over to death in our place - but with the knowledge that through this action He would defeat death and all of creation would begin to be freed from death and sin. The emphasis is upon God's love being manifested on the cross, not so much His wrath. 

There is variation among the Fathers/or at least rather varying ways of describing all this. Forgive me for the simplicity of this description. 

Athanasius' classic text 'On The Incarnation' would be considered one of the most key articulations of the Patristic view. I highly encourage you to sit down and read it for yourself. I recommend this version:

"It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits." -Athanasius 

In this quotation, God's motivation is to save humanity from 'their own negligence' and 'the deceit of evil spirits' not His justice. 

Gregory of Nazanzius quite explicitly tosses out what would later be described as penal substitutionary atonement: "To whom was that blood offered that was shed for us, and why was It shed?...if to the Father, I ask first, why? For it was not by him that we were being oppressed.” –Gregory of Nazanzius

According to Gregory, God had no wrath that needed satisfied by Jesus to save us. Instead, with the rest of the Fathers, he emphasizes that humanity did not need its dues paid to an ever-vengeful God, but needed recreated and rescued from death and sin. The cross is thus not a symbol of God's justice or wrath, at least not in any explicit or exclusive way, but is more so a symbol of love and His challenging of the forces that have entrapped humanity in sin. 

There are other, newer, theories of the atonement that take slightly different angles, try various synthesis of these and other views, etc. I am not very familiar with these, so I shall not bother to comment on them. 

None of these views necessarily deny that God is just or wrathful. They just deny that God's justice is what needs satisfied for us to be saved. Indeed, it affirms His wrath against sin and evil, because here once and for all they are destroyed and cast out. 

For a long time, people have been proposing problems with the Medieval/Reformed view of the atonement. E.g., 'How can God punish Himself?'   It has been a topic of some debate, and certain mainstream, protestant, groups have never been thrilled with it with it or, at least, believe we should not focus so exclusively on it as if it is the only image of the atonement in the Bible. 

The song, 'In Christ Alone,' has a very specific and very exclusive view of the atonement. One that I have personally struggled with. I am honestly not sure that I can agree with it because I lean toward the more Patristic view of the atonement. I am not sure that the cross is God satisfying His own wrath, but God sticking a knife into the heart of death and winning victory for the renewal of His beloved creation.

It's hard to say exactly what was going on at the PCUSA. And I can confess that my research has been pretty shallow. But from what I have seen, no one (certainly not the condemners) have given much evidence for what the discussion was really about. All I have found is this account purportedly by one of the participants, that has already been lost to the Internet under a wave of alarmist reactions to the apostasy of those Presbyterians. And this view makes it sound like differing views over the atonement was exactly the issue at hand, not some distaste for God's wrath. 

Here are some of the reflections by a member of this committee (from here:

"The text agreed upon was one we had found by studying materials in other recently published hymnals. Its second stanza contained the lines, “. . . 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. . . . We were faced, then, with a choice: to include the hymn with the authors’ original language or to remove it from our list.

. . . 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." 

From this account, the discussion has little to do with the issues that have been brought up by critics. 

For whatever it's worth, C.S. Lewis opts for the Patristic view (known as the Christus Victor view of the atonement) in The Chronicles of Narnia. There is really nothing in that story about God's anger or honor needing to be assuaged, only of man's need to be rescued from the dominion of Satan (the White Witch) and Christ's (Aslan's) willingness to offer Himself to Satan in our place - all the while knowing that this act would break Satan's power and lead to death itself "working backwards." Lewis quite clearly rejects the Reformed/Medieval view in Narnia, and seems to lean this way in his other writings as well. 

I know I personally would be quite conflicted over creating a hymnal that has a song that promote a very exclusive and specific view of the atonement that, in the grand scheme of Christian history, is far from monolithically ascribed to and which I personally am uncomfortable with based on my reading of Scripture and my engagement with early Christian writings.

Though, I will say, it is odd for a traditionally Reformed denomination to be running away from important Calvinist thought.

But that's different from being liberal or unorthodox.

In fact, quite the contrary in the minds of my ardent Arminian friends.

It may very well turn out that there is more to the story. But no more to the story has been given as far as I know. At the very least, none of the condemners have given any detail or insight into what happened whatsoever, and have only drawn conjectures based on the PCUSA's final decision.

This is problematic on a number of levels, not the least of which is the lack of charity. The Church has enough controversy and division without it having to be...shall we say.... manufactured (there's been a lot of that going on lately). 

Also not the least of which is the ignorance it reveals about different views of the atonement and of Christian history. This proves one of the many dangers of evangelicals' oft-cited historical amnesia. Because we don't know the history of our own theology, we jump to ridiculous conclusions when faced with something different to what we are used to. There is a long history of Christians believing, or at least leaning towards saying, that God's love, and not so much His wrath/justice (at least in the way we typically think of these things), are what is 'going on' on the cross.  There need be nothing earth-shattering or apocalyptic about this, if we knew history. 

I think it's also interesting that in his, now popular, critique of the PCUSA's decision, entitled "No Squishy Love," Timothy George (who I have great respect for and whose book on reading Scripture with the Reformers looks tremendous, though I have not read it yet) compares the change of this hymn to various historical heretics who denied God's wrath. The funny thing is that Athanasius, known primarily for his stalwart stand against the heresies of the 4th century, would quite possibly agree with the non-wrath version of the hymn. This fabulous article puts it well: 

“While Athanasius uses legal vocabulary at times, his guiding framework for understanding sin and salvation is not of sin as transgression, and salvation as an escape from punishment, but a medical paradigm of sin as corruption, and salvation as an escape from death. From this perspective, the problem of the atonement is not an angry God, but a sick and dying humanity.”   ("Substitutionary Atonement and the Church Fathers" by Derek Flood). 

Historical amnesia leads one to believe that everything different than the way you think must be apostasy. Usually when that happens, you end up throwing out a good chunk of Christian history as apostate without even realizing what you're doing. If the PCUSA is apostate for this decision, so must much of the early church and the beloved C.S. Lewis. And the Eastern Orthodox Church, which never bought into any of this penal substitution stuff (though many of my Protestant friends might not have any problem accusing them of heterodoxy), for that matter. 

Just earlier today, actually, while not even thinking about this case, I started to dream ahead to when I am (as I hope to be) teaching theology. I imagined what sort of a syllabus I would put together. I know exactly what my first two assignments would be.

First, I would have my students write a 1-page description of how they would describe the Gospel to someone.

Second, I would have them read Athanasius' classic text, 'On the Incarnation.'  (including C.S. Lewis's marvelous Introduction to a newer translation)

Then, I would have them compare this text to what they originally wrote. I wager that they would find some significant differences, not the least of which would be (though they wouldn't necessarily know the right terms for it) a difference in their understanding of the atonement.

I would hope that these differences would be a source of surprise.

This assignment would hopefully help to show how easily we get lost in our contemporary mindset (a danger Lewis himself warned of in his introduction to a translation of On The Incarnation) assuming that the way we think is, clearly, the way everybody has always thought. We so easily miss how many ideas we take for granted and assume as true, that have not always been believed. Indeed, scores of men and women sincerely trying to understand and live out the same faith and reading the Bible as you or I have come to a variety of different conclusions on a variety of different things and this must be taken into account in understanding our own opinions. This awareness would serve to remind us not to wallow in the small world of just what is right in front of us, but the need to be in touch with the vastness of the Christian Tradition, to constantly keep, as Lewis remarks: "the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds."

"And this can be done only by reading old books," he adds (Introduction, On the Incarnation by Athanasius). 

Without this cleansing breeze, we will make many mistakes. 

For further reading, I recommend this PCUSA pastor's discussion of the situation. I don't agree with everything he says, nor do I think his caricature of penal substitution is fair, but this gives you another example of the more complicated picture within the PCUSA. This decision was not made by a bunch of liberal hippies scheming about how they can get rid of the wrathful God of the Bible, but seems like the decision of people well informed by Christian history and the varying tenable descriptions of the atonement - and wisely aware of the  various issues of navigating the relationship between theology and church life. 


  1. Thanks for reading and sharing!
    Your profile mentions a cross-border theological friendship. This is just a hunch, but is Regent College (Vancouver) by any chance an institutional factor in that connection? My wife and I graduated from there in 2006.

  2. Thank you for your initial blog post, it was very helpful for me and affirmed my hunch that there had to be more to the story than what I was getting from the critics.

    Alas, I have no Regent connections. I did consider attending there, but I am at Gordon-Conwell. Did you like Regent? I have been very impressed with what I have seen of it.

    Great to hear from you!