Words that matter

by Glen V. Wiberg

The final statement in my previous column in Pietisten quoted a fine statement by Bob Smietana that inspires me to further discussion. “The words in a hymnal matter.” The context was a recent trend of music leaders sharing music across theological lines where copyright laws in some cases are frequently ignored and letters requesting permission for the use of such hymns are not written. There are those who say, “We’re so small who cares,” or “There are more important matters.” Really?

The exceptions are hymns whose copyrights have expired and not been renewed. I recall several years ago when a Covenant Hymnal Commission dealt with the change of a Lenten hymn still being used on Good Friday: “My Crucified Savior, Despised and Condemned” (Hymn 236). This is a hymn that was in the Augustana Hymnal (1925), which we Covenanters adopted but were stuck on one word. The third verse is as follows in the Augustana Hymnal:

Our Saviour thus finished God’s plan for our race
And laid the foundation for pardon and grace.
And then rose triumphant, the conquering Lord,
Appeased the Creator and mankind restored.

It was the word appeased that stuck in our throats. The committee changed only a single word in order to bring us in line with the Covenant’s embrace of Paul Peter Waldenström’s views, which is still important to many of us who proclaim not the appeasement of God wrath, but the love of God as Gospel. Thus our adjustment was “Obeyed the Creator and mankind restored” – that is, he was obedient unto death. Does a single word matter to current and future generations?

The Christian Century (Sept. 4, 2013) describes a similar story involving a “foul-up” over copyrights for the contemporary song, “In Christ Alone,” by Keith Getty and Stewart Townend. It became more than a legal issue of copyrights, but at its core a conflict over the theology of two words in two different versions of the song.

Original Version:

In Christ alone who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless Babe!
The gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
‘Til on the cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.

Alternate Version:

In Christ alone who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless Babe!
The gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
‘Til on the cross as Jesus died,
The love of God was magnified;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.

The “foul up” occurred with version two in the new Baptist hymnal, Celebrating Grace, when it was assumed that this version had been cleared by copyright, which was contested. And a 15-member Presbyterian Committee voted 9-6 to drop “In Christ Alone” from their hymnal.

I find it quite amazing that thousands of people will be denied the opportunity to sing this lovely contemporary hymn, due to the inflexibility of the composers. I find the hymn to be fresh and very singable. The alternate version has a theology that would gladden the hearts of most Covenanters. Unfortunately this version was not the approved version by the composers, who would not budge from their Anselmian position. Though I would ask as a Covenanter, “Where is it written?”

Even if I disagree with their theology, I am sad that they would limit the use of “In Christ Alone” for those who disagree with them. As a result of their theological fixation there will be thousands fewer voices giving glory to God with this song.

Glen Wiberg, veteran Covenant pastor and writer, lives in New Brighton, Minnesota. He was Chairperson of the Covenant Hymnal Commission.

See all articles by Glen V. Wiberg