Christians, whether they know it or not, learn a fair amount of their theology through the words of hymns.
I was thinking about all of this a few months ago in my congregation when we were singing the 1715 hymn by Isaac Watts, "I Sing the Mighty Power of God." These words in the hymn struck me:
"There’s not a plant or flow’r below, but makes Thy glories known,
And clouds arise, and tempests blow, by order from Thy throne. . ."
Whoa, I thought. That last line sounds a great deal like the strange theology of Pat Robertson and others who think God sends tornadoes and hurricanes to punish gay people.
But I stopped myself and told myself that this was one more example of the inevitably metaphorical nature of religious language. If you take it literally, you wind up in Robertson's weird camp. If you take it metaphorically, it can say useful things about the sovereignty of God.
But soon after that I read about a decision to remove a particular hymn from a new hymnal for my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). The hymn, "In Christ Alone," contains words that deeply reflect something called the Penal Substitutionary Theory of Atonement. One line says, "Till on that cross as Jesus died/The wrath of God was satisfied." Baptist Press took note of this controversy in this piece. (I borrowed the photo here today from Baptist Press.)
Theories of atonement seek to explain why Christ died and, more to the point, why his death somehow was effective in securing for humanity an eternal relationship with God. Just as there are no exhaustive answers to the old theodicy question of why there is evil and suffering in the world if God is good, so there are no theories of atonement that fully explain the mystery of Christ's crucifixion and later resurrection.
I wrote about all of this here earlier this year as I reviewed an excellent book called Healing the Gospel. In that book, author Derek Flood argues that the penal subtitutionary theory of atonement gets it all wrong. That theory suggests that God loves us only because Christ died for us, whereas the biblical witness says the opposite: Christ died for us because God loves us.
And I think Flood is on point, even though it's finally impossible to reduce the mystery of the atonement to creedal words.
So given that my allegiance to the penal substitutionary atonement theory is close to nil, I have no problem removing a hymn that celebrates it. But the whole episode is a reminder of how much hymn words matter. So if you are Christian and reading this I say (entirely metaphorically and a bit satirically), Onward, Christian Soldiers. . .
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NOT A UNIQUE POSITION
Here's a good interview with a Protestant pastor and author of a new book I haven't yet read, When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough. Among other things, the Rev. Lillian Daniel says, "Often I find that SBNRs perceive themselves as being in this brave and bold minority. They seem unaware that they’re in the mainstream of American culture."