Singing theology: changing lyrics and the meanings of songs

  • An opinion piece by Jon the freelance theologian

    A few Sundays ago I tweeted a comment about how changing song (or hymn, if you prefer) lyrics annoys me, particularly if the change makes no sense.

    The song in question was ‘In Christ Alone’, by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, which usually features the line ‘And on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’.  This refers to a particular doctrine of the atonement called ‘penal substitution’, which can be summarised as Jesus dying as a substitute for others to pay the penalty for sin that God demands. (The doctrine is a bit more complicated than that, to be fair, but we could be here all day if we go too deep into it.)

    This song has both reflected and caused controversy. In Christ Alone became very popular shortly after a big debate in British churches, particularly evangelical churches, about whether the penal substitution theory of atonement was a correct way of viewing the atonement, particularly as it depicts God as more like an angry judge rather than a loving Father. The argument got very heated. I’m not sure whether In Christ Alone was written specifically to put forward the penal substitution view – it might have been – but regardless, it became very popular in churches that held that view.

    Subsequently some church groups asked to change the line to reflect a different view of the atonement, and those requests were turned down by the songwriters. This has led to some denominations dropping it from their hymnals.  

    I’m not particularly interested in defending the song, or the theology behind it. But then I sat in a service, the song came up and the line was changed to ‘the love of God was satisfied’. Some people, for example, the bishop and author NT Wright, have made the case for the theological correctness of such a position. But the theological correctness isn’t the issue. The issue is this is a copyrighted song and if the composers don’t want you to change the words, then you have no right to do that just because you don’t like them. (I also think that change makes poor theological sense because how do you satisfy love? And it gave me a Rolling Stones earworm all day to boot, but that’s a different gripe.)

    If you disagree with a song, then drop it from your hymnal. I actually think that’s the way to go. There are hundreds of thousands of other songs out there. Dip into a hymn book from 100 years ago and you will find many, many songs that fell out of favour. New worship CDs are released all the time. Wait five minutes and an equally good song will slip across your radar. So there is no need to change someone else’s lyrics to suit yourself, which is disrespectful to the person(s) who wrote it, even before we get to the legality or otherwise of doing it.

    But, while we are on the subject, perhaps we could review a few of the songs we do sing. Because the In Christ Alone issue highlights the problem. People are uncomfortable singing the theology, but they like the tune. So they change it and carry on. The selection of songs for their tune over their content is problematic. I’ve been in a worship time where the band played In Christ Alone, complete with the original penal substitution reference to wrath, followed immediately by the classic hymn ‘Here is Love, Vast as the Ocean’, which contains the line “When the Prince of Life, our Ransom, Shed for us His precious blood.”

    Well, that’s two different theories of the atonement right there – ‘penal substitution’ and the ‘ransom theory’. So, which one does that church believe? Or maybe the atonement is a fluid doctrine that changes depending which song you’re singing.

    All this goes to show why Christians should watch what they are singing, because these are contradictory theological statements being made one after the other. No wonder people get so confused.

    What do you think? Do you agree or disagree (or simply not care)? You can comment below.

    Thanks to Dave and Simon for the discussion around this.


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