I didn’t get the dishes finished last night. I finished listening to John Cleary interviewing Fr Richard Leonard sj, and then got hooked on listening to the wonderful Lanchashire accent of Professor Brian Cox (how does someone that young get to be a “professor”?) on ABC1’s “Wonders of the Universe” (you can still catch episodes 2 and 3 on iView; actually I have just looked up his wikipedia page, and now I am wondering how does someone only two years younger than me get to look THAT YOUNG??? Hair would have something to do with it, I guess…).
Anyway, I woke up in the wee hours of this morning (we are experiencing something of an “Indian Spring” here in Melbourne at the moment, it is quite mild outside here by the fire at 6am) with the idea of finishing my comments on the Sunday Nights interview with Fr Leonard.
After they had finished talking about prayer, the subject turned (as it always does in these kinds of discussions on theodicy as surely as night follows day) to the Atonement. Fr Leonard began by saying that there is “that verse” in the old Scandinavian Lutheran hymn “How Great thou art” that he can never sing. “Yes!”, I cried, “I know just the one – its the one that goes:
When through the woods and forest glades I wander
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur
And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze.”
I can’t stand that verse! It’s so vapid and soppy. Actually, just now taking a look at the Wikipedia page for this hymn, I note that this verse is in fact the work of one Stuart K. Hine, an English “missionary” to the Ukraine who translated a Russian version of the Swedish Hymn. Blame him, not the Lutherans.
But no! This wasn’t the verse to which Fr Leonard was referring. The verse was, in fact, another of Hine’s inventions, not in the Swedish original. The verse to which Fr Leonard so strongly objected was this one:
And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.
Fr Leonard completely rejected the atonement theology expressed in this verse. God didn’t send his Son to die for us, he said; rather the death of Jesus was the act of human beings (in particular the Romans), to which God’s act, God’s response and answer, was the Resurrection. He went on to say that he was more comfortable with the “Eastern” theology: Jesus didn’t die, he was killed (I don’t know how accurate that is to say that is the Orthodox understanding). In other words, don’t blame God for the death of Jesus – blame the Romans (shades of Monty Python?).
Now I am well aware of how common the revulsion is to the thought that God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all”, but those are in fact the words of St Paul (Romans 8:32), not Stuart K. Hine or the Scandinavian Lutherans. The argument put forward by Fr Leonard suffers from the common failure of regarding God and his Son as different people, and not just distinct “persons” (the Father and the Son) of catholic Trinitarian theology. But, again, what seems to be lacking in this “critique” is a sensibility of the Scriptural way of speaking of the Paschal Mystery, which strongly suggests that the entire Paschal Mystery, both the Passion and the Resurrection, were a part of God’s will, God’s plan. Here one can mention not only
1) St Paul’s statement in his letter to the Romans in 8:32, but also:
2) John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”
3) Luke 2:42 “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” – indicating that Jesus himself was very conscious of the fact that his impending suffering was not only a human act, but ultimately the “will” of his Father
4) the use of the little word “must” (Gk: dei) used repeatedly by the Gospels (eg. Mark 8:31, Luke 9:22, and even John 3:14) to express the divine necessity of Jesus’ death
It is simply unfaithful to the Scriptures to present a picture of the Paschal Mystery whereby we separate the Passion of Jesus from his Resurrection and say that the former was the will and act of man alone, to which God “responded” with the latter.
In both the case in the last post, the case of prayer, and in this case, the discussion of the Atonement, I can sympathise with Fr Leonard for wanting some other kind of God than this God of Jesus Christ which is presented to us in the Scriptures – but ultimately that is the God we have to deal with, that is the God we struggle to make sense of in our puney theologies.
To turn back to the hymn “How Great Thou Art” (which, incidentally, we recently belted out at last week’s assembly of the Victorian Council of Churches at the Melbourne Salvation Army centre), perhaps we need someone who can read Swedish and give us the hymn closer to the original. The Wikipedia article on the hymn also gives an earlier, purportedly more accurate, translation, which does not include either the verse that I object to or the verse that Fr Leonard objects to.
When your voice speaks in rolls of thunder pealing,
Your lightning power bursts in bright surprise;
When cooling rain, your gentle love revealing,
Reflects your promise, arcing through the skies.
The Bible tells the story of your blessing
So freely shed upon all human life;
Your constant mercy, every care addressing,
relieving burdened souls from sin and strife.
And when at last, the clouds of doubt dispersing,
You will reveal what we but dimly see;
With trumpet call, our great rebirth announcing,
we shall rejoin you for eternity.
It also adds a translation of these two verses:
When burdens press, and seem beyond endurance,
Bowed down with grief, to Him I lift my face;
And then in love He brings me sweet assurance:
‘My child! for thee sufficient is my grace’.
O when I see ungrateful man defiling
This bounteous earth, God’s gifts so good and great;
In foolish pride, God’s holy Name reviling,
And yet, in grace, His wrath and judgment wait.
Perhaps if we were to sing the hymn with these verses, it is something that both Fr Leonard and I could join together happily in singing.