Comment by Stanley Pearson
I find myself in great sympathy with what you are saying in this article. I have neither the musical nor the literary knowledge to analyse the structure of the hymn in the way you have done in the second half of the essay, but I found myself in sympathy with what is being said. Like so many modern evangelical hymns it simply doesn’t speak to me as poetry and the essay chrysalises for me why this is the case, and I found the analysis to be helpful and revealing.
On the theological aspects of the hymn, I find both the satisfaction theory and the penal substitution idea abhorrent, and I believe that neither are biblical. The satisfaction theory arises from mediaeval ideas based on a feudal society and is not biblical and I believe the penal substitution theory ignores the message of Jesus that God is a God of love. It also ignores the message we see developed in the prophets, who wrestled with the tension between God’s Covenant commitment to his people and their waywardness and disobedience. From Hosea onwards we see the development of the idea of prevenient grace and a God who forgives even before we ask, because that is his nature.
I feel uncomfortable with the way in which Christians have taken Hebrew texts and seen in them specific prophesy relating to Christ. The so-called servant songs in Isaiah have several interpretations in Jewish thought, often expressed in terms of the people rather than an individual. One interpretation relates to the birth of Hezekiah, who like all the Davidic kings became a divine figure. But the evangelical Christian emphasis on the texts portraying the suffering of Jesus underpins much of the thinking behind ideas of Christ’s sacrificial death and the idea of Penal Substitution.
Different metaphors of the meaning of the Cross speak in different ways to Christians in different circumstances. Christians under persecution, for example, may find help in the idea of God’s justice and Christ as Victor over evil but no one metaphor carries absolute truth and to try and make it so has been compared to a form of idolatry. We need several overlapping metaphors if we are going to begin to understand the depth of our relationship with God.
In the days leading up to the Crucifixion Jesus was progressively abandoned by those he loved and those he worked for. The disciples fled at the time of arrest, Peter denied Jesus three times, the crowds changed from cries of Hosanna to Barabbas and Jesus went to the cross alone. At the time of his death we have the cry of great dereliction “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Softening this by reference to the rest of Psalm 22 I find unconvincing. Moltmann’s theology of the Cross emphasises that Jesus chose to commit himself to us with all our shortcomings and to go to the Cross rather than stop short and compromise his love for us. This was his choice and not God’s demand and God the Father withdrew and allowed God the Son to make this sacrifice.
Now this is an interpretation of the meaning of the Cross which makes sense to me as an individual. It is but one metaphor, but the point is that it is one which reflects the view of a significant body of Christian believers. I find that there are hymns used in worship which I simply cannot bring myself to sing because they do not portray the God I understand, and I believe I am not alone in this. The work of the Holy Spirit is to build up and not to break down, to unify and not to divide and hymns used in congregational worship need to respect this.