“Before the Throne of God Above” and Calvinism

A day or two ago, my brother Kent Berman asked on the Hymnody group on Facebook whether the second verse of the hymn “Before the Throne of God Above” was Calvinistic.  For those who aren’t familiar with said verse, it goes like this:

When Satan tempts me to despair
and tells me of the guilt within,
upward I look, and see Him there
who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died,
my sinful soul is counted free,
for God the just is satisfied
to look on Him and pardon me.

Before we get into the heart of the discussion, though, I think it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the skill with which this verse (and indeed the whole hymn) was written.  The author was Charitie Bancroft, who penned it in 1863, but it is so smoothly written that in 1997, Vikki Cook was able to write a new tune to it and introduce it into fairly common use.  Technically speaking, this is about as good as it gets (though I’m not as impressed with the technique of the tune).

Note also that the very existence of a doctrinal debate about a hymn says something crucial about the hymn.  It has content.  An awful lot of contemporary praise songs will never stir up Scriptural controversy because their content is generic, shallow, and bland.  We can read a hymn and say, “I disagree,” only when the hymn says something substantive enough to elicit disagreement.  Whether we agree with it or not, we are forced to acknowledge that “Before the Throne” is spiritually meaningful.

When it comes to that meaning, I don’t think much of anybody would have a problem with the first six lines of the verse.  Instead, the controversy lurks in the last two, and whether those lines teach the doctrine of substitutionary penal atonement (as distinct from substitutionary atonement).  For those who aren’t up on the nuances of Calvinism, substitutionary penal atonement is the idea that God imputed our sins to Jesus and then punished Him on the cross because He had become sinful.  In turn, God imputed the righteousness of Christ to us.

The concept of imputation comes from a mistranslation in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate Bible, which he produced c. 400 AD.  In it, Romans 4:3 says rather than Abraham’s faith being counted to him as righteousness (as in the ESV) righteousness was imputed to him.  Counting carries with it the sense of God considering us righteous even though we aren’t; imputation carries with it the sense of somebody else’s righteousness (Jesus’ righteousness) being ascribed to us.

Imputation has significant implications with respect to the Calvinist doctrine of eternal security, or perseverance of the saints.  If Jesus’ righteousness has been imputed to us, God, when He looks at us, can only see that righteousness.  He will continue to see that righteousness regardless of what we do (how could my actions affect Christ’s righteousness?), with the result that in His eyes, we can never fall away.

Thus for substitutionary penal atonement.  This gives rise to two questions.  First, did Bancroft intend to teach substitutionary penal atonement in the last two lines of the verse?  Second, can we sing the hymn in good faith anyway.

I think the answer to the first question is probably yes.  The hymnary.org bio for Bancroft reveals that like so many nineteenth-century female hymnists, she was a minister’s daughter, in this case, the daughter of a rector of the Church of Ireland.  As with all the other Anglican-communion churches of the 19th century, the Church of Ireland, though not intensely so, was Calvinistic.  It taught infant baptism, original sin, and so forth.

Bancroft’s doctrinal sophistication is evident from her writing.  “Before the Throne” refers to numerous passages of Scripture, and she weaves them into a coherent whole.  These are not the ramblings of a praise-band leader with no particular denominational attachment.  These are the words of somebody who thoroughly understood what she believed and, based on her background, believed in Calvinism.  She’s not being vague in talking about God looking on Jesus and pardoning us.  She’s being very precise.

However, answering the first question is not the same as answering the second.  We can sing in good conscience hymns written by people who believed error.  Indeed, we do it all the time.  “Dressed in His righteousness alone/ Faultless to stand before the throne,” was almost certainly intended as another expression of the same Calvinist doctrine, but that’s not what I mean when I sing “The Solid Rock”.  I’m thinking about the righteousness I receive from Christ (as in Philippians 3:9, not that I have received Christ’s righteousness itself.

I think the second verse of “Before the Throne” is open to similar reinterpretation.  After all, Isaiah 53:11 in the NASB (the ESV is slightly different) reads, “As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied.  By His knowledge the Righteous One, my Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities.”  If you make “His”, “Christ’s”, and “He”, “God”, that says pretty much what those last two lines do.

I read Isaiah 53:11 in a non-penal substitutionary sense.  Christ bore my sins and died in my place (thus satisfying God), but He Himself was not stained with the guilt of those sins and remained sinless.  If I can apply that reading to the passage (which I think the text allows me to do), I can also apply it to the hymn.  If somebody wants to excise the verse, fine, but I wouldn’t have any problem singing it in worship.

All of this might seem like a lot of doctrinal nit-picking over two lines in a hymn, but I think the process is actually quite praiseworthy.  We’re responsible for singing with understanding, so we need to give thought to whether we understand the things we sing and whether we agree with them once we do understand them.  A hymn that doesn’t ask us to engage in this reflection isn’t asking nearly enough.

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