By now most people surfing the net have read and forgotten about the decision by the committee for the Presbyterian Church (USA) to drop “In Christ Alone” from the new hymnal. Numerous blogs were written in July and August some by friends and colleagues of mine challenging the decision.
The offending line was “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied,” in particular, the verb “to satisfy.” The verb, whether intentional or not, pointed toward Anselm of Canterbury’s understanding of the atonement as satisfaction and it was Anselm’s idea that the committee did not like. The chair of the committee Mary Louise Bringle was quoted as saying, “People think that we’ve taken the wrath of God out of the hymnal. That’s not the case. It’s all over the hymnal. The issue was the word ‘satisfied.’” Bringle also has an article in Christian Century in which she elaborates on some of the committee’s discussion.
Part of the problem is a rather long-standing confusion between Anselm’s understanding of satisfaction and the Protestant Reformation intensification of Anselm’s idea, which is better known as penal substitution. Although they belong to a family of atonement theories, they represent different takes on a basic idea: Jesus’ death paid a debt for sin that set things right with God.
Another problem is the lengthy debate carried out in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries over penal substitution as a viable model for the atonement.
While I’m not planning to enter into all of this, it does provide a good place to ask consider again how we might understand the atoning work of Christ. Read the rest of this entry »