Presbyterian cross (image courtesy Wikipedia)
By Spencer D Gear
Why would a couple of hymn writers not change their lyrics for Presbyterians?
According to this news item from ABC News (USA), 31 July 2013, ‘Hymn writers won’t change lyric for Presbyterians‘, the Presbyterian Church (USA) was wanting to change lyrics that deleted Christ’s propitiation to replace it with the love of God. This is the change that PCUSA was wanting. It wanted to change the words, ‘On that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’ to ‘the love of God was magnified’. The ‘hymn writers Keith Getty and Stuart Townend refused to change the lyrics’.
I posted this link to Christian Forums with my comment that I understand the Presbyterian Church USA has a strong theological liberal dimension, but this story just about tops it all for me to show how far off the biblical base this denomination has become in its Christology. Is this denomination not advocating a move away from biblical truth about the atonement?
A PCUSA member replied. Part of that reply was:
Historically there are a number of different theological descriptions of the atonement. The early Church, and today’s Eastern Church, didn’t accept penal satisfaction. My understanding of Calvin is that he didn’t have a single theory of the atonement, but most often used something based on the beginning of Rom 6.
Here’s the PCUSA’s most recent detailed confession of faith: A Declaration of Faith – Introduction. This confession was adopted by the GA but was not made part of the constitution. There is a slightly later one that was, but it’s not as detailed. I think they’re consistent in approach, so it makes sense to look at the longer Declaration when you want more specifics. Note that this confession tends to stick with Biblical terminology, including its description of the atonement. My understanding is that it doesn’t mandate any particular theory of the atonement, an approach that I think is wise.
We certainly believe that Jesus died for us. We don’t assert, and many (it begins to appear most) of our members don’t believe, that he died because God couldn’t forgive us without someone of infinite value dying. That is not a Scriptural doctrine.
This controversy goes back to the late 19th Cent, so I doubt many here have first-hand experience of its origin. Wikipedia has a reasonable article on it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundame…st_Controversy. Despite the title, this article is mostly about the early 20th Cent Presbyterian debates. I don’t think there’s been a significant change between 1903 and now, but there has been a departure of folks who want to stick with 16th and 17th Cent theology, and that has probably shifted the balance. My understanding of the 1903 revision of the Westminster Confession is that it effectively rejects double predestination.
Then he replied in more detail. Here is part of what he wrote (I recommend a complete read of the content of this post by hedrick):
There are of course different varieties of liberalism, as there are different varieties of conservatism. I am a “sola scriptura” liberal, meaning that I’m committed to a Scriptural theology. There are liberals who for reasons that I can explain aren’t as strongly committed as I am to Scripture. From being a Presbyterian and looking at discussions within the Church, I would say that almost all of the PCUSA is liberal in the sense of accepting the best current understanding of Scripture, not in the sense of having abandoned it as an authority. When you see conservative Presbyterians attacking the majority of the Church for “abandoning Scripture”, don’t take that seriously. What they have abandoned is certain traditional understandings of what Scripture says, because the best evidence is that those understandings aren’t in accordance with the intent of the authors. There certainly are Christians who have given up on Scripture. I don’t believe most of the PCUSA falls into that category. (In fact one reason I’m a Presbyterian is precisely because I believe the PCUSA follow Scripture, and that its preaching is typically Scriptural.)
There are four confessional documents from 1967 and later. See Presbyterian Creedal Standards. There is also a resource paper accepted by the GA on scripture, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – Resources – Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture. I believe the general view is expressed by the Declaration of Faith:
33 Led by the Spirit of God
34 the people of Israel and of the early church
35 preserved and handed on the story
36 of what God had said and done in their midst
37 and how they had responded to him.
38 These traditions were often shaped and reshaped
39 by the uses to which the community put them.
40 They were cherished, written down, and collected
41 as the holy literature of the people of God.
I think a reasonable summary is that God revealed himself by what he did with Israel and with Christ. Scripture is a human witness to that revelation.
Because that is God’s only public revelation, we accept it as our primary way of knowing God, and as authoritative. However as human documents, we understand them in light of historical and literary scholarship.
I read his post thoroughly but I did not see anything that would indicate that the PC(USA) believed in vicarious atonement of Christ for our sins and that his death propitiated the wrath of God. Surely this lack is what led to rejecting this statement from the song in my original post, ‘On that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’ and wanting to replace it with ‘the love of God was magnified’. This sure sounds to me like the PC(USA)’s rejection of Christ’s propitiation.
While I admit that to define ‘theological liberalism’ or ‘modernism’ can become a slippery topic, it does represent a major shift in theological thinking in the church, led by theological colleges and seminaries.
At the outset, I need to state that I am essentially a critical realist in my epistemology. Tom (N T) Wright has described this:
I propose a form of critical realism. This is a way of describing the process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of thing known, as something other than the knower (hence realism), whilst also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and thing known(hence ‘critical). This path leads to critical reflection on the products of our enquiry into ‘reality’, so that our assertions about ‘reality’ acknowledge their own provisionality. Knowledge, in other words, although in principal concerning realities independent of the mind of the knower, is never itself independent of the knower (Wright 1992:35).
Why I am not a theological liberal
Roger Olson wrote an article that he titled, ‘Why I am not a “liberal Christian”’. I am in essential agreement with many of the emphases of this article in explaining theological liberalism to which he and I speak and reject. Olson wrote:
Gary Dorrien, professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary and author of a magisterial three volume history of liberal theology in America, defines liberal religion as rejection of any authority outside the self. However, when I read his three volume history of liberal theology in America I discern that all these theologians have one thing in common—recognition of the authority of “modern thought” alongside or above Scripture and tradition….
Liberal theologian Delwin Brown describes the essence of liberal Christianity as granting authority to “the best of contemporary thought” in his dialogue/debate with Clark Pinnock entitled Theological Crossfire.
I use the term ‘theological liberalism’ to describe modernism and postmodernism and their influence on the interpretation of Scripture and its application in the church.
By modernism/theological liberalism, I refer to these major distinctives:
(1) The adaptation of Christian ideas to modern culture and contemporary ways of thinking;
(2) There is a rejection of Christian faith/belief based on God’s authority alone. All beliefs need to be examined under the light of human reason and experience.
(3) God’s immanence is core to theological liberalism with its emphasis of God in the present and acting in the world in the now. Immanence seems to be elevated above God’s transcendent Being.
(4) As a result, the doctrine of sin is de-emphasised as liberal theology sees God’s divine immanence as moving towards the optimistic, positive, humanistic implementation of the kingdom of God on earth.
David J A Clines (The University of Sheffield)
By ‘theological postmodernism’, I refer to these emphases by David Clines:
I want to propose a model for biblical interpretation that accepts the realities of our pluralist context…. First comes the recognition that texts do not have determinate meanings…. The second axis for my framework is provided by the idea of interpretative communities…. There is no objective standard by which we can know whether one interpretation or other is right; we can only tell whether it has been accepted…. There are no determinate meanings and there are no universally agreed upon legitimate interpretations.
What are biblical scholars then to be doing with themselves? To whom shall they appeal for their authorisation, from where shall they gain approval for their activities, and above all, who will pay them?… If there are no ‘right’ interpretations, and no validity in interpretation beyond the assent of various interest groups, biblical interpreters have to give up the goal of determinate and universally acceptable interpretations, and devote themselves to interpretations they can sell – in whatever mode is called for by the communities they choose to serve. I call this ‘customised’ interpretation.
Such an end-user approach could entail recycling old waste interpretations which were thought to have been superseded by the progress model of modernity. Now these discarded interpretations could be revived in a post-critical form to stock afresh the shelves of the interpretational supermarket (Clines 1993:78-80, emphasis added).
J Gresham Machen (Wikipedia)
A Presbyterian Church (USA) theological professor left the denomination over its theological liberalism in 1936. I’m referring to J Gresham Machen. He wrote in his 1923 seminal publication, Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans) this explanation of ‘liberalism’ as applied to the Christian faith:
the present time is a time of conflict; the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology. This modern non-redemptive religion is called “modernism” or “liberalism.” Both names are unsatisfactory; the latter, in particular, is question-begging. The movement designated as “liberalism” is regarded as “liberal” only by its friends; to its opponents it seems to involve a narrow ignoring of many relevant facts. And indeed the movement is so various in its manifestations that one may almost despair of finding any common name which will apply to all its forms. But manifold as are the forms in which the movement appears, the root of the movement is one; the many varieties of modern liberal religion are rooted in naturalism – that is, in the denial of any entrance of the creative power of God (as distinguished from the ordinary course of nature) in connection with the origin of Christianity. The word “naturalism” is here used in a sense somewhat different from its philosophical meaning. In this non-philosophical sense it describes with fair accuracy the real root of what is called, by what may turn out to be a degradation of an originally noble word, “liberal” religion (Machen 1923:2, emphasis added).
Machen also wrote that
two lines of criticism, then, are possible with respect to the liberal attempt at reconciling science and Christianity. Modern liberalism may be criticized (1) on the ground that it is un-Christian and (2) on the ground that it is unscientific. We shall concern ourselves here chiefly with the former line of criticism; we shall be interested in showing that despite the liberal use of traditional phraseology modern liberalism not only is a different religion from Christianity but belongs in a totally different class of religions. But in showing that the liberal attempt at rescuing Christianity is false we are not showing that there is no way of rescuing Christianity at all; on the contrary, it may appear incidentally, even in the present little book, that it is not the Christianity of the New Testament which is in conflict with science, but the supposed Christianity of the modern liberal Church, and that the real city of God, and that city alone, has defenses which are capable of warding of the assaults of modern unbelief. However, our immediate concern is with the other side of the problem; our principal concern just now is to show that the liberal attempt at reconciling Christianity with modern science has really relinquished everything distinctive of Christianity, so that what remains is in essentials only that same indefinite type of religious aspiration which was in the world before Christianity came upon the scene (Machen 1923:7, emphasis added).
Machen noted three points of difference between liberalism and Christianity: (1) Presuppositions of the Christian message; (2) the view of God, and (3) the view of man (human beings). ‘In their attitude toward Jesus, liberalism and Christianity are sharply opposed’ (p. 80).
I think I am poles apart with this fellow in my understanding of biblical Christianity that is opposed to theological liberalism, whether that be modernism or postmodernism. Postmodernism’’s deconstruction is a country mile from a biblical understanding of the world.
Hedrick came back with:
Vicarious atonement yes. Propitiating the wrath of God depends upon how you mean it. If you want official theology, not my personal view, I don’t think there’s a mandated model of the atonement. I.e. that view is permitted, and in fact is common. The Confession of 1967 mentions it as one of a number of descriptions of the atonement given in the Bible.
Personally, I think God hates sin but not sinners (a view that Calvin took as well, I note). But I think the committee saw more than that, that he hated sinners until Christ died for them, and they may well have seen propitiation as either representing a false concept of how his death worked, or at least felt that it was likely to be misunderstood as in that way. I agree with them, though as I’ve noted I would still have accepted it, because I think it’s a view that is acceptable under our standards, and that many of our churches think it’s important.
Calvin & Packer on propitiation
My further response was:
John Calvin did believe in propitiation, as appeasing the wrath of God. He wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion,
I will quote a passage of Augustine to the same effect: “Incomprehensible and immutable is the love of God. For it was not after we were reconciled to him by the blood of his Son that he began to love us, but he loved us before the foundation of the world, that with his only begotten Son we too might be sons of God before we were any thing at all. Our being reconciled by the death of Christ must not be understood as if the Son reconciled us, in order that the Father, then hating, might begin to love us, but that we were reconciled to him already, loving, though at enmity with us because of sin. To the truth of both propositions we have the attestation of the Apostle, ‘God commendeth his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,’ (Rom. 5:8). Therefore he had this love towards us even when, exercising enmity towards him, we were the workers of iniquity. Accordingly in a manner wondrous and divine, he loved even when he hated us. For he hated us when we were such as he had not made us, and yet because our iniquity had not destroyed his work in every respect, he knew in regard to each one of us, both to hate what we had made, and love what he had made.” Such are the words of Augustine (Tract in Jo. 110) [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.16.4, emphasis added).
Calvin further explained:
The free favour of God is as fitly opposed to our works as is the obedience of Christ, both in their order: for Christ could not merit anything save by the good pleasure of God, but only inasmuch as he was destined to appease the wrath of God by his sacrifice, and wipe away our transgressions by his obedience: in one word, since the merit of Christ depends entirely on the grace of God (which provided this mode of salvation for us), the latter is no less appropriately opposed to all righteousness of men than is the former.
2. This distinction is found in numerous passages of Scripture: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him might not perish,” (John 3:16). We see that the first place is assigned to the love of God as the chief cause or origin, and that faith in Christ follows as the second and more proximate cause. Should any one object that Christ is only the formal cause, he lessens his energy more than the words justify. For if we obtain justification by a faith which leans on him, the groundwork of our salvation must be sought in him. This is clearly proved by several passages: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins,” (1 John 4:10). These words clearly demonstrate that God, in order to remove any obstacle to his love towards us, appointed the method of reconciliation in Christ. There is great force in this word “propitiation”; for in a manner which cannot be expressed, God, at the very time when he loved us, was hostile to us until reconciled in Christ. To this effect are all the following passages: “He is the propitiation for our sins;” “It pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell, and having made peace by the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself;” “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them;” “He has made us accepted in the Beloved,” “That he might reconcile both into one body by the cross.” The nature of this mystery is to be learned from the first chapter to the Ephesians, where Paul, teaching that we were chosen in Christ, at the same time adds, that we obtained grace in him. How did God begin to embrace with his favour those whom he had loved before the foundation of the world, unless in displaying his love when he was reconciled by the blood of Christ? As God is the fountain of all righteousness, he must necessarily be the enemy and judge of man so long as he is a sinner. Wherefore, the commencement of love is the bestowing of righteousness, as described by Paul: “He has made him to be sin for us who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him,” (2 Cor. 5:21). He intimates, that by the sacrifice of Christ we obtain free justification, and become pleasing to God, though we are by nature the children of wrath, and by sin estranged from him. This distinction is also noted whenever the grace of Christ is connected with the love of God (2 Cor. 13:13); whence it follows, that he bestows upon us of his own which he acquired by purchase. For otherwise there would be no ground for the praise ascribed to him by the Father, that grace is his, and proceeds from him (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.17.1-2, emphasis added).
Another Reformed writer, J I Packer, wrote in Knowing God (1973):
(image courtesy Hodder & Stoughton)
If, however, you look at the RSV or NEB versions of the four texts quoted above [Rom 3:21-26; Heb 2:17; 1 Jn 2:1f.; 1Jn 4:8-10], you will find that the word ‘propitiation’ does not appear. In both 1 John passages, NEB has ‘remedy for the defilement’ of our sins; elsewhere, these versions replace the thought of propitiation by that of expiation. What is the difference? The difference is that expiation means only half of what propitiation means. Expiation is an action that has sin as its object; it denotes the covering, putting away, or rubbing out of sin so that it no longer constitutes a barrier to friendly fellowship between man and God. Propitiation, however, in the Bible, denotes all that expiation means, and pacifying the wrath of God thereby. So, at any rate, Christian scholars have maintained since the Reformation, when these things first began to be studied with precision, and the case can still be made compellingly today….
What manner of thing is the wrath of God which was propitiated at Calvary? It is not the capricious, arbitrary, bad-tempered, and conceited anger that pagans attribute to their gods. It is not the sinful, resentful, malicious, infantile anger that we find among humans. It is a function of that holiness which is expressed in the demands of God’s moral law (“be holy, because I am holy” [1 Peter 1:16]), and of that righteousness which is expressed in God’s acts of judgment and reward.… God’s wrath is “the holy revulsion of God’s being against that which is the contradiction of his holiness”; it issues in “a positive outgoing of the divine displeasure.” And this is righteous anger – the right reaction of moral perfection in the Creator toward moral perversity in the creature. So far from the manifestation of God’s wrath in punishing sin being morally doubtful, the thing that would be morally doubtful would be for him not to show his wrath in this way. God is not just – that is, he does not act in the way that is right, he does not do what is proper to a judge – unless he inflicts upon all sin and wrongdoing the penalty it deserves….
In paganism, man propitiates his gods, and religion becomes a form of commercialism and, indeed, of bribery. In Christianity, however, God propitiates his wrath by his own action. He set forth Jesus Christ, says Paul, to be the propitiation of our sins. It was not man, to whom God was hostile, who took the initiative to make God friendly, nor was it Jesus Christ, the eternal Son, who took the initiative to turn His Father’s wrath against us into love. The idea that the kind Son changed the mind of His unkind Father by offering Himself in place of sinful man is not part of the gospel message – it is a sub-Christian, indeed an anti-Christian idea, for it denies the unity of will in the Father and the Son and so in reality falls back into polytheism, asking us to believe in two different gods. But the Bible rules this out absolutely by insisting that it was God Himself who took the initiative in quenching His own wrath against those whom, despite their ill desert, He loved and had chosen to save.
The doctrine of the propitiation is precisely this: that God loved the objects of His wrath so much that He gave His own Son to the end that He by His blood should make provision for the removal of His wrath. It was Christ’s so to deal with the wrath that the loved would no longer be the objects of wrath, and love would achieve its aim of making the children of wrath the children of God’s good pleasure (John Murray, The Atonement, p. 15) (Packer 1973:205-205, emphasis added).
Packer cites R V G Tasker: ‘It is inadequate to regard this term (wrath) merely as a description of the “inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe” or as another way of speaking of the results of sin. It is rather a personal quality without which God would cease to be fully righteous and His love would degenerate into sentimentality’ (New Bible Dictionary, s.v. ‘Wrath’). Then Packer adds: ‘The wrath of God is as personal and as potent, as His Love; and, just as the blood-shedding of the Lord Jesus was the direct manifestation of His Father’s love towards us, so it was the direct averting of His Father’s wrath against us‘ (Packer 1973: 204, emphasis added).
Roger E Olson, ‘Evangelicalism and Postmodernism’;
Zane C Hodges, ‘Post-evangelicalism confronts the postmodern age’;
Clines, D J A 1993. Possibilities and priorities of biblical interpretation in an international perspective, in Biblical Interpretation, no 1 (online), 67-87.
Machen, J G 1923. Christianity and liberalism. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Packer, J I 1973. Knowing God. London, Sydney, Auckland, Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton. Also available, but with different page numbers, as a partial Google book online at, ‘Knowing God‘.
Pierard, R V 1983. Liberalism, Theological, in W A Elwell (ed), Evangelical dictionary of theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 631-635.
Wright, N T 1992. The New Testament and the people of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. (Series in Christian origins and the question of God, vol 1).
 Ibid., Hendrick #4.
 Ibid., Hendrick #8.
 Ibid., OzSpen #10.
 These emphases are from Pierard (1983:631-635.
 Christian Forums, Soteriology, ‘Hymn writers won’t change lyrics for Presbyterians’, Hendrick #11, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7764331-2/#post63857029 (Accessed 5 August 2013).
Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 12 August 2016.