Mary Louise Bringle, chair of the committee that chose to exclude “In Christ Alone” from the Presbyterian Church USA’s hymnal is now claiming the word “satisfied” not the word “wrath” was the real reason for the decision.
“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. The 15-member committee rejected Anselm’s view and voted 9-6 to drop the hymn.
Bringle, alas, is changing her tune. In an earlier, more unguarded account she wrote for the Christian Century, Bringle admits that wrath was the real issue:
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.
Wrath and satisfaction shouldn’t be severed in the way Bringle attempts—this isn’t an either/or. Yet by Bringle’s own account, it was above all discomfort with the idea of an angry God that led the committee to nix “In Christ Alone.”
Bringle’s changing story muddies the historical record, of course. More regrettably, it obscures the real theological fault lines the decision exposed. Better for those on both sides of the debate to have the courage of their convictions and argue honestly than to obscure the theology behind the headlines.
Update: Perhaps the saddest element of this case is that the hymn’s original phrasing better represents the Presbyterian Church USA’s historic beliefs than do objections raised by the committee members. Here are two passages a friend pointed me to in the Westminister Confession as presented in the current edition of the PCUSA’s Book of Confessions:
Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, doth, in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal. [ . . . ]
The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself, which he through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him
Sadly for those concerned with preserving the Presbyterian legacy, “In Christ Alone” was excluded from the Presbyterian Church USA’s hymnal precisely on the basis of its assertion of historic Presbyterian beliefs.