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Don’t take metaphor as literal

16 August 2013

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 exhilarating.

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 potent metaphors.

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.

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