Leave My Hymns Alone!

Sometime in the past decade or so, the Anglican Church of Canada decided to get a new hymn book; this item is called Common Praise.  In this new hymn book, a good number of the hymns have the little abbreviation next to the author’s name, “alt.”  So, you’ll see, “Charles Wesley, alt.”  This abbreviation means “altered.”  One usually imagines that “alt.” simply means, “We made human beings gender-neutral,” as though the ancient English word and suffix “man” only ever had one meaning, not two, and that one meaning was “male human being.”

We’re not going to argue about so-called “inclusive language”.  If that were all that hymn books such as Common Praise or Voices United did when the letters “alt.” appeared, I’d get over it eventually.  However, the hymn-book editors, having started to alter hymns in some ways to suit their tastes, have altered them in other ways, thus reducing the timelessness of many hymns and marring both their aesthetic beauty and theological truth.

One oddity is “Good Christians All, Rejoice!”  wherein the word ye has been removed.  Christmastide, as my wife was quick to point out, is one time when people are willing to be old fashioned.  Why get rid of a perfectly good word?  This removal forced them to mess around with the entire hymn, since every verse has ye in it.

“Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending” was missing the third verse.  The loss of the third verse was very disturbing to me, for the original runs thus:

Those dear tokens of his Passion
Still his dazzling body bears,
Cause of endless exultation
To his ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!

It was on a cross our Saviour died.  By his scars we are healed.  There is no good reason why a Bible-believing theologically-orthodox Christian should shy away from these words.

They decided, as well, that “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” an ancient Latin hymn by Prudentius, ought to be “Of Eternal Love Begotten.”  Not only is this avoiding the biblical and traditional Name of one Member of the Godhead, it is also not what Prudentius wrote.  Now we see that we are smarter not only than the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but even those centuries that forged our very faith.

Common Praise seems to dislike the Godhead, in fact.  In “To God be the Glory,” they removed all the masculine pronouns and put in the word “God.”  Thus: “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!  Let the earth hear God’s voice,” and so forth.  I understand the reasoning behind this move.  It is the same as that which caused the change in “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”:  God is beyond gender, beyond personality.  However, God is not less than a person.  Theologically speaking, God is three Persons, in fact.  If we are to speak about God, we should be able to use pronouns in reference to God.  Otherwise, I have a feeling God becomes less, not more, than a person.

I cannot help but think of C.S. Lewis in this moment:

A good many people nowadays say, ‘I believe in a God, but not in a personal God.’  They feel that the mysterious something which is behind all other things must be more than a person.  Now the Christians quite agree.  But the Christians are the only people who offer any idea of what a being that is beyond personality could be like.  All the other people, though they say that God is beyond personality, really think of Him as something impersonal: that is, as something less than personal.  If you are looking for something super-personal, something more than a person, then it is not a question of choosing between the Christian idea and the other ideas.  The Christian idea is the only one on the market. (Mere Christianity, near the beginning of “The Three-Personal God”)

I believe that the removal of pronouns in reference to God makes Him less, not more, than us.  The best compromise I have seen is Madeleine L’Engle’s use of El, but I find it unsatisfactory.  I will continue to use “He, Him, His,” about the Divine Being, knowing that God is not male, that the Triune God does not have a penis (well, not more than one, anyway)*, that He is not a man at all, for I am a man, and I am by no means near the same sort of being that God is.

In “Joyful, Joyful,” Common Praise has marred the beautiful line, “Thou our Father, Christ our Brother”, making it, “Thou our Father and our Mother.”  Now, theoretically, since God is beyond gender, and since God, being perfect, as our divine parent carries within Himself the best of both fathers and mothers and even more and even better than they, God is theoretically both Father and Mother to us.  However, this is not cause enough to change a line that is bringing two Persons of our three-personal God into play and forcing it to reflect a modern liberal sensibility about the divine and push out one of the Persons.  God the Son has been shoved out in favour of non-traditional language about God the Father.  “All who live in love are thine”, the following line, is about those who are the FatherMother God’s, not those who are the Father’s and Christ’s.

I do not believe that editorial boards should tamper with hymns in any way other than making references to the human race gender inclusive.  I don’t even think they should do that, but I know they will.  If they must tamper with hymns, they ought to leave the theological content of the hymns alone.

We find ourselves turning to C.S. Lewis again, and his Introduction to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.  Here, Lewis tells us that we should read old books because they give us a point of view other than our own.  By reading only new books, we are trapped by the blinders of our own age.  By singing only new songs, we are similarly trapped.  By praying only new prayers, likewise.  By tampering with old hymns, by changing their theological content, by modifying their language of God, we are saying that we know better than 2000 years of Christian tradition; we are saying that our age is the only age that knows about God, and that we therefore have the right to change the words of our forebears.  We are depriving ourselves of wisdom that the hymn-writers have to offer us simply because their words do not fit with certain contemporary sensibilities.  We are turning aside from anything uncomfortable — yet isn’t God supposed to make us uncomfortable?

Thus, if you feel that we need to sing, “Thou our Father and our Mother,” and “Of Eternal Love Begotten,” do not tamper with someone else’s art, with someone else’s view of God, with a point of view that may have great wisdom behind it that we do not see.  Write a new hymn.

And if you cannot write a new hymn, wonder what on earth our culture has lost.

*Pretty sure Jesus has a penis.  I’m just sayin’.

The Trinity, the Shack, and Mark Driscoll

First, I would like to point out: The Shack is not a brilliant piece of theology.  It’s not really theological at all.  It is a novel, a story, an idea, an image.  Its Trinitarian theology is weak and clearly the product of someone who sat at a few typical Protestant sermons but never actually spent time reading up on the Trinity.

Because once you’ve read up on the Trinity, you are never so bold as to attempt something like The Shack.

However, The Shack does not commit all of the sins that Mark Driscoll claims it does.  Perhaps this is because Mark Driscoll can’t read.  I should qualify that:  Perhaps this is because Mark Driscoll can’t read literary endeavours (not that The Shack is a shining example of that, either).  Unsurprising amongst the New Calvinists is this idea that we can read a work of fiction as though it were theology.  Everyone already did this with The Da Vinci Code.  I’d hoped we’d become a bit more nuanced in our reading than that.

Nevertheless, Driscoll first says that The Shack commits idolatry, that in representing the unseen, invisible Members of the Trinity, Young has made a graven image.  Wm. Paul Young has not, in fact, made a graven image, and not only because you don’t engrave novels.  Young is not saying in The Shack that God the Father is a black woman named Papa, nor that the Holy Spirit is a small Asian woman named Sarayu.

These characters are merely representations of the characters* of the First and Third Persons of the Trinity.  They are meant to help show Mack and the reader what the inner heart of these Persons is.  No one has seen God; neither did Mack in the book.  The possibility of God showing Himself as a vision is, however, real.  Isaiah had a vision, Ezekiel had a vision, John the Divine had a vision.  These visions were not actually sightings of the invisible God but representations of Himself that he chose to give to His children so that they could understand better a certain aspect of His character.

Then Driscoll argues that The Shack is guilty of modalism (or Sabellianism).  This heresy is the same thing as what Oneness Pentecostals believe — God is One, and the Son and the Holy Spirit are different modes by which He has chosen to operate in the world.  The heresy denies any difference of person amongst the members of the Trinity.  Driscoll’s argument for that is when Papa says that she has already been human through Jesus.

This is further evidence that Driscoll is not a subtle reader but out for the kill.  Yes, when God the Son was incarnate, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit were not.  However, since we believe in one God, not three, the remarkable thing is that they have an intimate sharing of each other’s experiences.  God the Father, being in a state of perfect, unbreakable communion with God the Son, knows exactly what God the Son went through during His days on earth.  Therefore, God the Father, in a very true sense, was, in fact, human through Jesus.  He was never incarnate.  He did not die or rise from the dead.  Yet He has shared intimately those things that Jesus went through while on earth.

St. Athanasius teaches that while God the Son was incarnate, His divine nature never ceased ordering the cosmos and keeping the stars in place (De Incarnatione).  If He could engage in that work of the Godhead whilst confined to a human body, no doubt the Father knows exactly what it is to be human as a result of the Son’s incarnation.

Driscoll proceeds to argue that The Shack promotes Goddess worship.  This is because God the Father is portrayed as a black woman.  Of course, Papa admits that He is not always female, as we see at the end of the book, when He portrays Himself as a man to Mack.  God the Father reveals Himself to us in a myriad of ways, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, but always in the way that we need at that time.  There are times He gives us the tenderness of a mother, times He gives us the sternness of a father.  He is the perfect Father, and so, for the purposes of this fiction, Mack saw Him more as a mother, an image that is used to demonstrate the warm, nurturing heart of the Father.

The final argument made by Driscoll is about hierarchy.  I broadly agree with him.  In The Shack, the Trinity has no hierarchy of any sort, no Person of the Trinity being above the others.  They are simply in an endless, loving communion with one another.  Driscoll points out that, while all the Persons of the Trinity are equal, they still have deference, for Jesus says that He only does what the Father tells Him to do, and that He does the will of the Father, and that the Father sent Him into the world.

The Shack is a novel, not a work of theology.  We cannot take its images of the Trinity as being theological, because then we would be on the start of a road to the modern heresy of vagueness.  I believe that both its supporters and its opponents have completely missed the boat, however.  Regardless of its merit as a novel, it is art.  We should treat it as art, not as theology, which both sides of the argument miss.

But where do we go for Trinitarian theology in a world that has lost its focus on the true nature of God?  People are turning to The Shack as theology (both for a lovefest as well as for the attack) because not a lot of people draw nigh to this question.  “Theology” today is usually actually, “A Christian/biblical approach to issue x, y, or z.”

Start over on the right on the main page with The Creed of Saint Athanasius.  I have a friend whom it once saved from Arianism.

“Beyond Personality” in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.  I read it on Trinity Sunday a couple of years ago and benefitted greatly.  There is a reason Mere Christianity is a classic.

Intimacy and Ecstasy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit by Edith M. Humphrey.  This book is principally a book about Christian spirituality, but it takes its starting point as the Holy Trinity and deals with various aspects of Trinitarian theology, asking along the way, “How now then shall we live?”  Humphrey is a real, live theologian, unlike certain other writers out there.  Plus, she’s an orthodox Anglican.

Understanding the Trinity by Alister McGrath.

The best guides are likely the ancients, however.  Here are two:

Boethius On the Trinity and St. Augustine On the Trinity.  Boethius is shorter; both are online.

*I would have said personae, but that word has been co-opted for theological purposes at this time.