Carving of Christ carrying the cross
Till on that Cross, as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied.

These words from Stuart Townend’s hymn In Christ Alone have recently caused almost as much controversy in some church circles as the women bishops debate.

The Presbyterians in the USA have rejected the whole hymn from their new hymnbook. Elsewhere, in many churches including my own (and even in some evangelical circles), some words such as “the love of God was magnified” are substituted, even though the author objects. Why all this wrath about wrath? And where do Christian liberals stand?

At one level, this seems obvious. Undoubtedly some passages in Scripture – and much Church tradition, notably the theology of St Anselm in mediaeval times – support the idea that God is angry with sin, that a price must be paid, and that Jesus on the Cross paid that price. Equally, Christian liberals would tend to argue that this idea of propitiating an angry God, especially through the offering of an innocent victim, is a primitive religious idea, which we should have grown out of, and for which indeed the Gospel of God’s love, when taken as a whole, leaves no place. So this appears to be an argument about the authority of Scripture and tradition versus a more rational, balanced and liberal faith reflecting the generosity of God.

But it may not be as simple as that.

First of all, what do Scripture and tradition actually say, and why do they say it? The idea of a loving, forgiving and generous God which is so crucial for liberals does not come out of nowhere; they, too, respect the authority of the Bible and of the Church’s teaching, even if they sometimes interpret them in ways which conservatives find suspect, and it is from Bible and Church that they learn of this kind of God who is rather different from the deity who sometimes appears in the pages of the Old Testament. But they cannot easily wriggle out of the more awkward passages. The idea that God might be angry about sin - for example the terrible injustice and violence that we are currently seeing in Egypt and Syria (and we in the West are hardly innocent; think of the Holocaust alone) - is hardly an unreasonable one. More difficult is the idea that a price may need to be exacted for such sin; surely God, the Father of the Prodigal Son, can simply forgive? Yet sin does have its price, and most of us know that. Whether we see that price as paid to God, or to the demons of the desert in the Scapegoat imagery of Leviticus, or simply to the hard facts of creation where those who put their hand in the fire will always get it burned – that is more debateable. So is the idea that an innocent victim might pay that price on our behalf. Yet, undoubtedly, many Christians have found this idea healing and inspiring.

It is unfortunate that the attempts of Christians to make sense of their experience of the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” have been interpreted through one particular prism; the theology of Anselm. He wrote in the days of feudalism, when the idea of an inescapable debt to one’s earthly lord was a fundamental category for understanding society. We owe a debt to God; we cannot pay it; someone must pay; Jesus paid. Put like that, it is simple and surprisingly logical. But we live in a different world, and each term in this formula needs to be unwrapped and repackaged. Otherwise, we can slip back into a very primitive set of religious concepts: a god whose basic attitude to his creation is one of anger, jealous and sometimes even capricious, who demands his pound of flesh, and is prepared to exact it from his own Son, thereby not always resolving, but perhaps in many cases increasing, the sense of debt and guilt amongst believers.

Not all liberals oppose the idea of the wrath of God. I am reminded of the writings of H Richard Niebuhr in the US between the wars, who (like his brother Reinhold) was opposed to fundamentalism of all kinds and would certainly be regarded as a “liberal” by most conservatives. He was not, however, a liberal in the same sense as some of the 'really liberal' Christian movements such as Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel. He famously accused them of preaching that:

'A God without wrath brought men (sic) without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.'

He and his brother were challenging a certain kind of Christian liberalism which they considered simply superficial in its understanding of the human condition. Other voices, from a more catholic tradition, such as Fr Gabriel Hebert in the UK, would have agreed. All these had been influenced by Karl Barth, though none were dedicated Barthians. Barth was no fundamentalist, and many of his teachings would not be accepted by conservatives (though aspects of his basic theological approach are not congenial to all that many liberals either); but he did accurately reflect the post-World-War-I reaction against a superficial and over-optimistic view of the actuality and potential of humanity.

Much more recently, I think of the impact of some of the movements within liberal Christianity for greater justice in the world. A few decades ago there was a popular hymn (or perhaps 'worship song') which came out of Christian Aid, about the need to share 'the good things all around'. One verse of this concluded:

But man nails Man to a Cross of wood,
And bread is his Body, and wine is his Blood,
And we drink of the love and the WRATH of God
In the good things all around.

If you are struggling for justice and peace, wrath is a reality.

But does that wrath need to be 'satisfied'? And, if so, can it be satisfied by the willing self-offering of an innocent victim? Do not these ideas make God all too human, indeed like the worst kind of feudal lord, or those terrorists who set themselves a quota of victims and don’t care whether they are 'guilty' or 'innocent'?

Classically, the theology is more complex than this. If “God was in Christ” (however we understand that) then it is in some sense God that is paying the debt to God’s self – though some theologians have argued that it is purely Jesus the human being who is the Victim. Then again, if 'we are the Body of Christ', we too in some way, and more than just vicariously, participate in the paying of the debt (if that is what it is). The classic formulations may contain more interesting and meaningful ideas than we liberals sometimes give them credit for.

Vicarious sacrifice can sometimes literally be redemptive. If we go back to the Holocaust, we remember those Christians (and others) who gave their lives by going to the gas chambers in place of their Jewish friends. Thereby, no doubt, Hitler’s wrath was satisfied. But we would surely not wish to push that analogy very far in talking about God.

Angela Tilby, in the Church Times of 16 August, comments that the doctrine of penal substitution is in the end just a metaphor – and one which, as I have noted, has been helpful to many. The trouble with metaphors is that they can be pushed too far, and also that they need to be justified by their usefulness. As I have already hinted, there may be many for whom this metaphor has been ultimately unhealthy and un-redemptive.

For my part, I have no great difficulty in thinking about the 'wrath of God' (though even that is a metaphor or an analogy). I have to admit, also, that the idea of 'debt' and its remission as a metaphor for forgiveness was not invented by Anselm but is right there in the heart of the Lord’s Prayer, even though it is not the only relevant metaphor in the New Testament and not necessarily one which all of us would find helpful today. I can even see that the Cross may somehow 'satisfy' an abstract demand for justice. With the Niebuhrs and others, though against some liberals, I take seriously the Augustinian doctrine of the 'weight' of sin. In some sense, maybe an innocent victim can and must take upon himself the sin of the world. What I find more difficult is putting all those concepts together, because of what they appear to say about God.

I am much happier, even if Stuart Townend is not, to sing that through the Cross the love of God is magnified.