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In Christ Alone? Really?

by John S. Summerwill

‘In Christ Alone’, the words written by the Northern Irish songwriter Keith Getty and the tune by English musician Stuart Townend, is one of very few contemporary hymns[1] to have won a place in the BBC Songs of Praise list of the ten most popular hymns. It came in as number 9 in the 2005 list, four years after its publication, and reached second place in 2013. It has remained high in the list, being in third place in 2019. It was even chosen for the Inauguration of Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury in 2013. [2]

Yet, immensely popular as it undoubtedly is, it has also been controversial. Its inclusion in the most recent British Methodist hymnbook, Singing the Faith (2011), led to an extended correspondence in The Methodist Recorder at the time, which has flared up on occasions since. The focus of objection is on the words in verse 2:

‘Till on that cross, as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied,
For every sin on him was laid. ‘

In my view this is only one of the many defects of this hymn. In this essay I will examine the theological issues involved in the ‘wrath … satisfied’ debate and also critically analyse the Christology, theology, poetry and tone of the hymn as a whole, arguing that it is not fit for use in public worship.


Contents

1. The Central Controversy
2. Theories of the Atonement
3. The Locus of Hope
4. Is This Hymn Needed?
5. Verse Quality
6. What can be said in its favour
7. Tone
8. Divisiveness
9. Conclusion
Bibliography


1. The Central Controversy

Defenders claim that the controversial lines in ‘In Christ Alone’ refer to the classical Satisfaction Theory of the atonement, which is orthodox, biblical and fundamental to evangelical Christianity. Critics of the hymns are usually opposed to this theory and say it is biblically unwarranted. I will examine this in detail later. Some have proposed changing ‘wrath’ to ‘love’, and the whole line to ‘the love of God was magnified’, but the copyright holders have refused to allow it in published versions. The Presbyterian Church in the USA found a version in a 2010 Baptist hymnbook in which this change had been made unauthorised. When their application to make this change in their new hymn book was refused, they withdrew the entire hymn.

Mary Louise Bringle, chair of the Presbyterian Committee on Congrega­tional Song, has explained the decision thus:

People making a case to retain the text with the authors’ original lines spoke of the fact that the words expressed one view of God’s saving work in Christ that has been prevalent in Christian history: the view of Anselm and Calvin, among others, that God’s honor was violated by human sin and that God’s justice could only be satisfied by the atoning death of a sinless victim. While this might not be our personal view, it was argued, it is nonetheless a view held by some members of our family of faith; the hymnal is not a vehicle for one group’s perspective but rather a collection for use by a diverse body.

Arguments on the other side pointed out that a hymnal does not simply collect diverse views, but also selects to emphasize some over others as part of its mission to form the faith of coming generations; it would do a disservice to this educational mission, the argument ran, to perpetuate by way of a new (second) text the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger. The final vote was six in favor of inclusion and nine against, giving the requisite two-thirds majority (which we required of all our decisions) to the no votes. The song has been removed from our contents list, with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness. [3]

Getty’s response to requests to change the words was set out in a correspondence with Collin Hansen in 2013, in which he said:

… we believe altering the lyrics would remove an essential part of the gospel story as explained throughout Scripture. The main thread of what we see revealed throughout the Old and New Testament is the need for man to be made right with God. The provided path toward reconciliation came through Christ’s predetermined and perfect sacrifice on the cross, satisfying God’s wrath once and for all. The two hymnal committees wanted to change the lyrics to focus on how Christ’s death on the cross magnifies God’s love for the world. And indeed, God’s love was magnified on Calvary’s hill. Yet the way this occurred was through Christ doing for us what we could not do for ourselves—shedding his own perfect blood to atone for our sins. … As people in the pew sing “In Christ Alone,” we pray they understand the many attributes of God. His sovereign power, grace, love, justice and wrath all are intertwined. And we shouldn’t turn away from exploring his wrath, because through understanding God’s righteous anger toward sin, we understand his desire for justice and peace. As J. I. Packer so clearly explains in Knowing God, God is not just unless he inflicts upon all sin and wrongdoing the penalty it deserves. While we may think it severe, we desperately need God’s wrath—a holy and just response to evil—to restore the broken world in which we live. [4]

C. Michael Hawn, author of an article on this hymn in the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology (2013), reports another controversy about the hymn:

In a conversation with Stuart Townend, he noted that he was taken by surprise at the controversy over atonement theology in stanza 2 as this was for him a long-held theological truth. He also disclosed that he had received criticism for a line in the final stanza by pro-life Christians: ‘From life’s first cry to final breath. . .’, the assertion by this group being that life begins at inception, not at birth. [5]

When the hymn was included in the devotions at the Methodist Conference in 2020 the verse containing the controversial line was omitted as a way of making the song less contentious.

2. Theories of the Atonement

Two theories of the atonement underlie the contentious lines: the Satisfaction Theory associated particularly with the Benedictine Anselm (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109) and the Penal Substitutionary Theory expounded by John Calvin. The thinking is not at all controversial among evangelical Christians who embrace some version of both these theories (though they are not wholly compatible in their original formulations) and understand Jesus’ death as a ‘full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world’.  Among them this hymn has been warmly welcomed.

The Satisfaction Theory is not Biblical. It has its origins in medieval notions of honour and views sin as a disobedience that robs the sovereign God of the honour due to him. That honour can be restored only by a sufficiently worthy, costly and satisfactory reparation.  Christ pays the debt that sinful mankind owes to God. It should be noted  that Anselm did not see Christ’s death as a satisfaction of God’s wrath, nor was it at all a punishment. Christ was obedient to the Father. He took the debt upon himself voluntarily.

But Christ was in no way under any obligation to suffer death, in that Christ never sinned. So death was an offering that he could make as a matter of free will, rather than of debt. [6]

Anselm sees the whole transaction as the persons of the Trinity working together for love of humanity in a way that remedies the disorder brought by sin and disobedience without compromising God’s justice and righteousness. God’s anger does not come into it.

The Penal Substitutionary Theory builds onto that idea the notion that God’s justice and sovereignty require that no sin may be left unpunished. Calvin held that all humanity is guilty because of Adam’s sin and under God’s righteous wrath. Justice is satisfied if Christ suffers instead of sinners.  The idea that every sin was laid on Jesus comes not directly from the gospels but from the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53:6:

‘and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.’ [7]

Calvin read this as a prophetic foretelling and theological explanation of the atonement and unquestioningly accepted Old Testament notions of propitiation of divine wrath as applicable to the death of Christ. Commenting on Isaiah 53:6 he says,

Our sins are a heavy load; but they are laid on Christ, by whom we are freed from the load. Thus, when we were ruined, and, being estranged from God, were hastening to hell, Christ took upon him the filthiness of our iniquities, in order to rescue us from everlasting destruction. This must refer exclusively to guilt and punishment; for he was free from sin. [8]

Calvin’s theory is full of contradictions and unresolved issues that arise from his attempt to reconcile conflicting Bible passages and ideas. On Isaiah 53:7 he says

He was punished. Here the Prophet applauds the obedience of Christ in suffering death; for if his death had not been voluntary, he would not have been regarded as having satisfied for our disobedience.

Yet time and again he repeats the phrase ‘laid upon him’.  He cannot resolve the contradiction between choosing punishment and being punished. He wants to see God as both hating and loving humanity, and the atonement as both a satisfaction of wrath and an expression of love.

If we would indulge the hope of having God placable and propitious to us, we must fix our eyes and minds on Christ alone, as it is to him alone it is owing that our sins, which necessarily provoked the wrath of God, are not imputed to us. [9]

In fairness to Calvin it must be said that his focus was primarily on the grace and love of God shown in Christ’s death. The evangelical concept of an angry and violent God owes more to the likes of the American evangelist Jonathan Edwards, whose 1741 sermon ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ [10] remains an influential authority in evangelical circles.

The words of Isaiah 53 have influenced Christian thinking to such a degree that they almost rule out the idea that Christ might have chosen to bear others’ sins rather than had them placed upon him. Doctrines of the atonement do need to take into account Christ’s agency and not view him solely as the hapless victim of events. ‘Every sin on him was laid’ closes down the possible debate and leaves open no other way of viewing the cross.

Getty’s lines mix the Anselmian and Calvinistic theories in a confused way by putting the word ‘satisfied’—implying Anselm’s theory—in a context in which it does not belong. Neither Anselm nor Calvin would, I think, have put ‘wrath’ and ‘satisfied’ together, and Anselm might not have approved of ‘every sin in on him was laid.’

Both of these theories have been rejected by many Christians since they were challenged by Enlightenment thinkers such as G.S. Steinbart [11] and then in Victorian times by such theologians as Colenso and Jowett [12], as theories that are based on concepts of God that do not match Jesus’ portrayal of God’s fatherly love in, for example, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The God of the Psalmist who is merciful and compassionate, and graciously forgives sins, does not require even animal sacrifice, let alone the death of the innocent. The punishment of the innocent instead of the guilty is grossly unjust and morally indefensible. Even theologians who believe in the wrath of God have recognised that ‘satisfied’ is not the right word to use. Karl Barth wrote:

But we must not make this [the concept of punishment] a main concept as in some of the older presentations of the doctrine of the atonement (especially those which follow Anselm of Canterbury), either in the sense that by His [Christ's] suffering our punishment we are spared from suffering it ourselves, or that in so doing He "satisfied or offered satisfaction to the wrath of God”. The latter thought is quite foreign to the New Testament. [13]

The Open Bible Info website [14] lists 100 Biblical verses that refer explicitly or implicitly to God’s wrath, mainly from the Old Testament. It is, unquestionably, a concept that is well attested in both testaments and reference is made to it in the teaching of Jesus and in Paul’s and John’s letters. It is not an easy concept to grasp. Anger as a hot and sudden response to a perceived injury or injustice is understandable and usually forgivable. Whether the anthropomorphic attribution of such anger to God, as depicted in scripture, is justifiable is more questionable, especially when it is spread over millennia. This cold wrath of God must be less to do with temper than with the working out in punishment of the consequences of breaches of God’s law. It is difficult to distinguish it from revenge. We cannot know or even speculate in an informed way about the mind of God. Anything in scripture that falls short of the concept of God as loving Father revealed in Jesus is necessarily suspect. What one certainly cannot find anywhere in the Bible is the idea that Jesus’ death satisfied God’s wrath.  The term ‘satisfied’ is far more of a problem than the word ‘wrath’. Indeed, we can even find direct gospel evidence against it, for, John 3:16 says:

He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.

If the wrath of God still rests on the unbeliever, then Jesus’ death did not satisfy God’s wrath: that wrath remains. That is a contradiction that is rarely mentioned or addressed because it completely undermines the idea that Christ’s death was an effective penal substitution for all time. Moreover in several places Paul speaks about the wrath that is still to come: for example:

Because of these things the wrath [orgê] of God is coming on the sons of disobedience. (Col. 3:5-6)

Those who wish to understand the cross as satisfying God’s wrath can do so only by interpreting away numerous instances where the New Testament contradicts them. Indeed, given that Jesus in Matthew 5:21 forbids wrath [orgê] to human beings it seems unlikely that he actually considered it to be a divine attribute at all.

For Christians who hold scripture to be infallible, the moral argument is irrelevant and the contradictions in scripture must be denied or regarded as inexplicable mysteries. The sovereign God in his wisdom knows best and must not be questioned. Questioning the tradition that has been passed down, and the scriptures used to bolster it, is itself sinful. Yet the theologies that have come to us from the past are not always scripturally or rationally defensible. A liberal perspective in the light of critical scholarship is that the Bible is not a harmonious unity in which there is one consistent message. At times we have to choose between contradictory understandings and look for the wisest, most insightful view. It is precisely that approach which leads critics of this hymn to reject a diminished view of God as wrathful, arbitrary, unjust and so constrained by his own laws that he cannot freely waive them and act with the grace and generosity that a good human father regularly displays. Substituting the words with ‘the love of God was magnified’ is a way of giving expression to this. It is not good phraseology; it is not necessarily accurate. It can at least claim consistency with a text beloved by evangelical Christians:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. (John 3:16)

3. The Locus of Hope

The problems with this hymn go much deeper than the single mention of wrath. Other difficulties begin to arise in the very first line: ‘In Christ alone my hope is found.’ Those few words contain a tangle of biblical and theological references. Without the word ‘alone’ they might be acceptable, because hoping in Christ is an entirely orthodox and traditional stance. The word ‘alone’, however, excludes everyone but Christ, the second person of the Trinity. God the Father and God the Spirit are excluded, along with all other human beings and institutions. It is difficult to imagine that anyone other than an entirely antisocial recluse could sing those words and seriously mean them.

There is biblical precedent for saying that one’s hope is in God alone. In Psalm 62, for example, we find:

For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is in him.
He only is my rock and my salvation. (vv.5-6)

This is typical of numerous psalms in which the psalmist asserts that he has no fear of his enemies because the LORD will save him. Sometimes there is specific reference to enemies lying in wait: sometimes the notion of salvation is, as in Psalm 62, vague. The vagueness is useful when it allows worshippers with widely different circumstances and feelings of insecurity or threat to draw encouragement from the psalms. To assert their hope in God is a reasonable and conventional piety. To say that one’s hope is in God alone is either a poetic exaggeration or an indication of a dangerously withdrawn attitude.

What Getty and Townend have done is narrowed the source of hope from God to Christ. That too is not by any means unprecedented. There has always been a tendency in Christian devotion to address Christ or Jesus as God without any intended rejection of the Father and the Spirit. The undoubtedly Trinitarian Charles Wesley says ‘Let me to thy bosom fly’ to ‘Jesu, lover of my soul’ and that is not untypical of his Jesus-centred faith. What he does not do is set the Father against the Son, and that is where Getty and Townend go astray. Their ‘Christ alone’ theology finds ‘the fullness of God’ in Christ (who is called ‘Jesus’ in two places) and sees the entire work of salvation as fulfilled in him. He even usurps the Holy Spirit’s role of Comforter, so that the only role left to God is to be wrathful. Right from the very first words of the song we are led into a confused and inadequate Christology that could in part have been avoided had the hymn begun ‘In God alone.’

What the word ‘hope’ means in the hymn is unclear. It seems to have some unspecified relationship with ‘depths of peace’, ’fears are stilled’, strivings cease’ later in verse 1, and release from the power of sin in later verses. It is perhaps this association of ideas that led the writers to use a classic phrase of the Protestant Reformation, ‘Solus Christus’, one of five solae on which Protestant theology was built, the others being Scripture, Faith, Grace and the Glory of God. In the context of Reformation theology Christ is not alone in distinction from the Father and the Son. The focus rather is on the unique role of Christ as mediator between God and humanity, and the sole Saviour. Its biblical root is in such verses as Acts 4:12, in which Peter says of Jesus of Nazareth, ‘there is salvation in no one else.’ What that theology was never intended to convey is the idea that there is no one other than Christ in whom one can or should hope.

We must, therefore, ask of this opening line of the song whether what it is implying and teaching is a healthy attitude to inculcate in Christians. Is it consistent with the focus of Jesus in, for example, Mark 12:30-31, where the two greatest commandments are identified as ‘love the Lord your God’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself’? The first commandment is focused on God, not on Christ. The second commandment cannot be fulfilled at all without there being a neighbour to love, and the love of neighbour will be wholly inadequate unless there is first a love of oneself. It may sound commendably pious to assert that one’s hope is in Christ alone. It should not. Spiritually healthy Christians love God and know they are loved by God. It is from the security of their appreciation of their own worth in God’s sight that they can reach out in love to their neighbours. The Christian Church has, from the beginning, sought to be a community of love in which God’s love for humanity is expressed in kind, supportive, practical human ways and in the Church’s mission to bring the values of the Kingdom of God into society and its institutions. It should therefore be possible for Christians to hope in themselves, in their families, their friends, their neighbours, their church community, their teachers, doctors, police and politicians, and most do. The work of God in the world, it is often said, is through other people. If we cannot trust and hope in other people, we cannot hope in Christ either. It therefore seems to me that the opening line of this hymn is incongruous for singing by a congregation, whose very presence testifies to an underlying belief that their being together is itself a source of hope. It expresses at best a misguided and superficial aspiration: at worst it is a downright lie.

We have not yet by any means exhausted the theological issues raised by Getty and Townend. For Methodists the last verse should ring two rather loud warning bells since there is here a Calvinism that is contrary to the Arminianism to which Methodism is committed.

‘From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.’

We may pass over the inappropriate use of ‘Jesus’ where ‘Christ’ or ‘God’ would be a more theologically proper term: the scansion requires a disyllable and these authors have not the skill to write poetry and be theologically correct at the same time. It is the substance of the claim that is problematical, for if it is means that not only my ultimate destiny but every phase of my life is predestined, it really is nonsense.  If all of my life from cradle to grave has been predetermined, then I have no free will and so I cannot justly be held responsible for any of my actions. I cannot have sinned, since all I have done is what God willed and destined. The atonement was therefore unnecessary, and God’s wrath is justified only if it is directed against God’s self.  Calvinism has never succeeded in resolving the fundamental contradiction in its teaching that human beings are both clay in the hands of God and creatures who have autonomy and are guilty of wilful sin. The Calvinistic application of Isaiah 53 to Jesus’ death and the claim that ‘Jesus commands my destiny’ are both based on the same belief that God has ordained all that happens. If God has already determined the outcomes for Adam’s fallen race, for Christ as the Suffering Servant, and for each individual, not only are freedom and obedience impossible, but so are sin and disobedience. Christ’s perfection and obedience were not perfection and obedience at all if he could not do other than be the innocent vicarious sacrifice foretold in Isaiah 53.

One would like to think that ‘no power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from his hand’, but the Calvinist doctrines of ‘irresistible grace’ and the ‘perseverance of the saints’ that underlie it are based on a false confidence. It is entirely possible, as experience shows, for the faithful to lose faith and fall away. We may note in passing that there is no such thing as a ‘scheme of man’, since this would have to be a scheme common to all mankind. What is presumably intended is ‘a human scheme’, that is, one devised by one person or some people. ‘Human scheme’ would also be gender neutral, whereas ‘scheme of man’ is just the sort of expression that rigorous editors today try to remove. The editors of Singing the Faith were specifically charged with ensuring that new hymns were gender inclusive and they were over-zealous in eliminating men from many traditional hymns.  They overlooked this breach. According to The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology (see footnote 5), at least two American hymnals have amended the line:  to ‘No power of hell or scheme or plan’ in Worship and Song, Nashville, 2001; ‘No power of hell or human plan’ in Celebrating Grace, Macon, 2010.

4. Is this hymn needed?

John Wesley’s definitive collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780) set a pattern for the books that followed in the various branches of Methodism in the 19th and 20th centuries. In it, as he said in his introduction,

the hymns are not carelessly jumbled together, but carefully arranged under proper heads, according to the experience of real Christians.

This thematic arrangement ensured that there were hymns sufficient for Methodists’ needs in public and private worship. Since there is a limit to the size that is practical for a hymnbook, editors have necessarily to choose between similar hymns competing for inclusion. We may reasonably ask, therefore, of ‘In Christ Alone’, does this hymn say something that others do not, or qualify as superior? From the point of view of a preacher selecting hymns for a service, does it have qualities that would make it a better choice than any of the alternatives?

Singing the Faith includes it in the section ‘Jesus Christ the Saviour: Lord of All’, where it is no match for other contemporary hymns such as ‘Christ is the world’s light’, ‘Jesus is Lord! Creation’s voice proclaims it’, ‘Lord Christ, we praise your sacrifice’, let alone such classics as ‘Crown him with many crowns.’ Its placing is rather odd, as a song that is all about me says almost nothing about Jesus as anyone else’s Lord. ‘We have a gospel to proclaim’ covers all the ground of ‘In Christ alone’ and more, with greater elegance and less self-centredness. The absence of ‘In Christ alone’ would be no loss when hymns that say as much or more, and do it better, are so plentiful.

5. Verse Quality

Hymnbook editors and preachers selecting hymns should have regard for the quality of what they choose, not just its popularity. Hymns that are offered to God in worship should, like the animals brought as sacrifices to the Jerusalem Temple, be unblemished and the best of their kind. It is reasonable, then, to ask whether ‘In Christ Alone’ is unblemished in its verse.

The scansion is regular and good. The rhyme scheme is as follows (lower case denoting a half-rhyme)
A B A b C C D E
F G f g H H I J
K L K L M M N O
P M P M Q q R q

This is somewhat patchy. The weak half-rhymes are song–storm, flesh–righteousness, babe-–save, man–hand. It is better than many worship songs that hardly rhyme at all, but it is not in the same league as the craftsmanship of the best contemporary hymn writers, such as Timothy Dudley-Smith or Brian Wren.

Stuart Townend has himself written: ‘The best hymns demonstrate insight and understanding of the Bible.’ [15]  ‘In Christ alone’ certainly draws on a range of biblical images and references, and maybe this is one of the reasons why it is so popular. A fairly exhaustive list of related passages can be found at https://www.thebereantest.com/keith-and-kristyn-getty-in-christ-alone , though many of these references are to passages containing similar ideas: they are not direct sources. Many of the images are simply taken from a common stock of basic biblical/Christian metaphors that can be found in scores of other songs: light, strength, song, cornerstone, love, peace, fears, strivings, comforter, all in all, etc.. Where better writers take a few images and develop something new out of them, Getty and Townend do little more than pile up a heap of them, adding little or nothing. The result is often superficial and contradictory.

‘He is my light, my strength, my song.’

Light and strength are obvious metaphors for Christ’s support of the believer. How does ‘song’ fit in that context?

The image immediately changes to ‘this Cornerstone, this solid Ground’ (the authors’ own curious capitalisation). These are not synonyms—a cornerstone is placed on solid ground—so how is Christ both? [16] Solid ground hints at the Parable of the Two Houses (Matt. 6:24ff) where the rock foundation on which the wise person builds is Jesus’ teaching, not Jesus himself. The cornerstone refers to Christ as foundation of the Church (in, for example, I Peter 2:6ff). Getty and Townend mix the metaphors rather confusingly, applying a collective image to the individual in a non-biblical way. They are, one suspects, reaching for biblical metaphors but not actually imagining the picture that the metaphors are intended to paint.

‘… firm through the fiercest drought and storm.’

Storm is an evident connection with the Two Houses parable, though what is under threat in that parable is the house, not its foundations.  Drought rarely weakens  solid ground, foundations, cornerstones or buildings. Jesus’ original refers, more plausibly, to floods and wind.

There is no obvious connection between the first four lines and what follows them:

What heights of love, what depths of peace,
when fears are stilled, when strivings cease

— nor is it clear what the last three words have to do with the initial idea, that hope is found in Christ, unless it is referring to death. The Christian life will always involve striving.
It is difficult to understand why this jumble of half-understood ideas thrown together in the first verse of the song has been no handicap to its growth in popularity. Do people not think at all about the meaning—or lack of it—in the words they are asked to sing in Christian worship?

6. What can be said in its favour?

There must be good reasons why this song is popular. Not all of the verse is bad. Verse 2-4 are more coherent than the first verse, and some of the phrases are commendable, such as: ‘fullness of God in helpless babe’, ‘scorned by the ones he came to save’, ‘light of the world by darkness slain’. In all probability, though, its chief asset is an easily learnt, repetitive and memorable tune in sonata form. It is a very traditional sort of tune, with deliberate echoes of Irish folk melody. Its narrow range of just over an octave and low pitch make it comfortable for all voices. Its four-square harmony as found in books like Singing the Faith is easy for the average church accompanist, and yet it can easily be given a much jazzier treatment by music groups with a variety of instruments.

A song that gives a congregation a lift and can be ‘belted out’, lending itself to an arms-in-the- air exuberance, has a good chance of being popular in the BBC Songs of Praise context even if those who sing it neither understand nor care much about the meaning of the words. The winner in 2019 was Blake’s‘Jerusalem’, which owes its success far more to Hubert Parry’s brilliant music than to Blake’s peculiar and mysterious words. In the same list at number 6 is ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’, which is another song where the music (by Holst) is better than the verse, though Cecil Spring Rice’s words are good poetry. Neither ‘Jerusalem’ nor ‘ I vow to thee’  are in Hymns and Psalms or Singing the Faith because neither is properly a Christian hymn: both are slightly jingoistic songs of patriotism, and ‘In Christ alone’ has about it a tinge of that too—undying commitment to the cause in defiance of obstacles or threats from enemies. And although ‘In Christ alone’ is musically and poetically inferior to both of them, it does at least qualify as a hymn and is more appropriate for use in worship than they.

7. Tone

Who is this song about? Is it, as it purports to be, about Christ, or is about Getty and Townend and those who sing it? There are twenty references to ‘Christ’ and ‘Jesus’ by name or by third person pronouns: there are sixteen first person references. Apart from some hints in verse 2, there is little indication of any interest in anyone other than self and Christ. ‘I am his and he is mine’ —a cliché based on Song of Songs 6:3 and much used in American evangelical hymnody—sums up the egocentricism of this song and its arrogance, for there is no sense in it of Christ’s lordship, no humility, no expression of thankfulness or praise, no wonder or awe. Remembering Jesus’ story of two men praying in the Temple (Luke 18:9-14), the tone of this song is much more like the prayer of the Pharisee than that of the tax collector. Hymn writers who use the first person singular are always treading a narrow line, and first person hymns are always at risk of appealing only to those who share the writer’s perspective. Whether such hymns should be used in public worship has long been debated among hymnologists. Some editors (as in Songs of Praise) have changed ‘I’ to ‘we’; some (like The Church Hymnary, 3rd Edn, 1973) have relegated first-person hymns to a section for Personal Devotion, strongly hinting that they should not normally be sung in church. That is a rather extreme position. Many fine, popular traditional hymns have had a widespread appeal despite—or even because of—their personal perspective. ‘Just as I am’, ‘O love that wilt not let me go’, ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say’ are obvious examples. ‘In Christ alone’ would be easier to defend as being in such a category if it was in fact a convincing expression of personal faith. Unfortunately it is not. It is formulaic and curiously impersonal despite its frequent use of the first person.

8. Divisiveness

Finally, there is one other objection to the inclusion of this song in Methodist hymnbooks and worship, and this should be decisive if nothing else is. Regardless of whether one sees merit or deficiency in it, and whatever one’s personal opinions, the question one must ask of a controversial hymn is whether it will unite or divide a congregation. The principle that Paul laid down in 1 Corinthians 8-10 concerning eating food offered to idols has been used in relation to many other issues since: that Christians must not insist on their freedom to do things if others are offended; one must always consider what is good for building up, uniting and edifying the Church. When we have at our disposal a great treasure-trove of Christian hymnody on every conceivable aspect of the faith that people know and love to sing, we do not need and should not use items that cause offence to some and foster division.

9. Conclusion

Any search of the internet concerning ‘In Christ Alone’ will immediately turn up a wide range of articles expressing approval or rejection of it, ranging from brief passing comment to in-depth and scholarly examination of the underlying atonement theology. It is curious that almost all of the debate is focused on the ‘wrath … satisfied’ issue and so little has been said about the Christological, theological, stylistic and other weaknesses. A first principle in the choice of items for inclusion in a hymnal and in any act of Christian worship must be that every item must be of the highest quality, for no true worshipper would wish to bring to the altar of God an offering that is blemished, second-rate and inferior. As Mary Louise Bringle says, those responsible for collecting hymns are responsible too for selecting them with a view to their educational mission. I hope that this essay has shown that this overrated hymn is not good enough for use in Methodist worship.


1. The authors use both ‘song’ and ‘hymn’ in describing it.

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Christ_Alone.

3. Bringle, Mary Louise (2013), https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-04/debating-hymns.

4. Hansen, Collin (2013), https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/keith-getty-on-what-makes-in-christ-alone-beloved-and-contested/

5. CMH . "In Christ alone my hope is found." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press. Web. 19 Mar. 2021.<http://www.hymnology.co.uk/i/in-christ-alone-my-hope-is-found>.

6. Anselm, extract from Cur Deus Homo? quoted in McGrath, Alister E. (2007), The Christian Theology Reader, Third Edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, p.357

7. Calvin was following the gospel writers in treating Old Testament prophecy as though it was a commentary on and explanation of events before they happened. They — Matthew in particular — often refer to Old Testament passages as foretelling events in Jesus’ life. The phrase ‘this was to fulfil’ is used several times with reference to passages in Isaiah, including other verses from Isaiah 53, e.g. Matthew 8:17. Since it is not coincidence that there are parallels between the portrait of the Suffering Servant and the way Jesus’ death is portrayed in the gospels and referred to in the epistles, we must ask (even if it is impossible to answer) how much the portrayal was made to match the prophecy. Prior to the advent of critical Biblical scholarship such a question could not be asked. It cannot now be avoided by anyone concerned about truth.

8. Calvin, John, Commentary on Isaiah 53:6.  See https://biblehub.com/commentaries/calvin/isaiah/53.htm

9. Calvin, John (1559), Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.26.3 in https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iv.ii.html

10. https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/edwards_jonathan/Sermons/Sinners.cfm

11. In his System of Pure Philosophy (1778) Steinbart argued against the Augustinian doctrine of original sin and concept of satisfaction. See McGrath, p.341.

12. See, for example, Benjamin Jowett’s 1859 forthright and controversial Essay on Atonement and Satisfaction at https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/jowett-essays-on-the-epistles-of-st-paul#lf0055-02_head_011

13. Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics IV.1:253. Quoted in https://www.andrews.edu/library/car/cardigital/Periodicals/AUSS/1991-3/1991-3-02.pdf p.208

14. https://www.openbible.info/topics/wrath 

15. https://philipandjenny.com/2006/09/15/tips-for-writing-a-successful-hymn/

16. It may be based on a casual reminiscence of John Mason Neale’s ‘Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ the head and corner-stone’ in ‘Blessed city, heavenly Salem.’ Neale, however works thoroughly and consistently with the building image and is faithful to the biblical original.


Bibliography

Anselm of Canterbury (c.1098), Cur Deus Homo? Quoted in McGrath, Alister E. (2007), see below
Barth, Karl (1967), Church Dogmatics IV.1:253. Quoted in https://www.andrews.edu/library/car/cardigital/Periodicals/AUSS/1991-3/1991-3-02.pdf p.208
Bringle, Mary Louise (2013), https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-04/debating-hymns.
Calvin, John (c.1556), Commentaries.  See https://biblehub.com/commentaries/calvin/isaiah/53.htm
Calvin, John (1559), Institutes of the Christian Religion, in https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iv.ii.html
Edwards, Jonathan (1741), Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/edwards_jonathan/Sermons/Sinners.cfm
Hansen, Collin (2013), https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/keith-getty-on-what-makes-in-christ-alone-beloved-and-contested/
Hawn, C. Michael (2013), "In Christ alone my hope is found." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press. http://www.hymnology.co.uk/i/in-christ-alone-my-hope-is-found.
McGrath, Alister E. (2007), The Christian Theology Reader, Third Edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing
Open Bible, https://www.openbible.info/topics/wrath 
The Berean Test, https://www.thebereantest.com/keith-and-kristyn-getty-in-christ-alone
Townend, Stuart (2004) in https://philipandjenny.com/2006/09/15/tips-for-writing-a-successful-hymn/
Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Christ_Alone.