WE HEARD last week that that the stirring hymn "In Christ
alone", which was sung at the Archbishop of Canterbury's
enthronement, has been rejected by the compilers of a new
Presbyterian hymn book in the United States because of the line
"the wrath of God was satisfied" (
News, 9 August).
This line has caused upset to all who find penal substitution
unacceptable. There have been attempts to change the words, but
permission has been denied by the authors, Stuart Townend and Keith
Getty. "In Christ alone" is perhaps the best known of their hymns,
but there are many others, which are stirring, inspiring, and
singable. They have perfectly adapted the folk-rock idiom to the
language of praise.
Their lyrics may be less imaginative than, for example, Graham
Kendrick's, but they are less careless than Kendrick. Where
Kendrick tails off into banality, Townend and Getty's words match
the music flawlessly. Take their magnificent Easter hymn "See what
a morning". Traditional words are so skilfully and accessibly
paired with the pounding rhythm that significant phrases burst
through like shards of light.
"See God's salvation plan; wrought in love, born in pain, paid
in sacrifice"; "And we are raised with him; Death is dead, love has
won, Christ has conquered" - those defiant triple phrases both
point to the Easter victory, and in a sense enact it. It is
So how should we react to the theology of the cross in "In
Christ alone"? I am unconvinced by the attempts to "correct" the
authors, for example by substituting "love" for "wrath" in the
critical line. Worthy, wimpish, and ultimately patronising, it
refuses to allow them to engage with one of Christianity's most
Penal substitution may not be found in scripture, but it does
have an honourable pedigree. It is crucial to Anselm's
understanding of the Atonement; Calvin developed it, and it still
moves individuals to tears of repentance.
Yet this deeply disturbing, even cruel, conception of what
happened on the cross works because it is a metaphor. Taking it
literally as a forensic analysis of salvation is simply a mistake.
It should be seen alongside, for example, John Donne's "Batter my
heart, Three Person'd God".
As paradox, penal substitution has great force. To imagine
Christ standing in for me at the place where I am most guilty and
in need brings about the kind of insight that can change a life. We
should not try to conform genuine poets such as Townend and Getty
to our theological mediocrity.