A God Without Wrath – and a people who ignore copyright laws

There’s a rather vigorous conversation going on right now in the Anglican blogosphere about wrath – God’s wrath, to be precise. You can read about it here, here, here, here, here, and in a number of posts here.

I’m not going to jump into it, because I think that, like most Internet theological arguments, it will go on and on interminably and no one’s mind will be changed. It will involve ad hominem attacks, caricatures (i.e. the idea that the wrathful God is an Old Testament bogeyman banished by Jesus, when in fact, as C.S. Lewis pointed out somewhere, all the most terrifying texts about punishment in the New Testament are on the lips of Jesus himself!), people flinging favourite texts and favourite theological ideas at each other, and so on.

I do, however, have two comments to make that are vaguely connected.

The first is that I was strongly reminded of a quote I heard again this week from Richard Niebuhr’s 1938 book ‘The Kingdom of God in America’, in which he describes the message he heard in American Protestant pulpits as follows:

“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross”.

Niebuhr was certainly no Conservative Evangelical, but he recognized the religion he heard preached in American Protestantism as a weak, anaemic shadow of true biblical Christianity. I would suggest that Niebuhr’s observation is even more relevant in our day, when a vague, therapeutic deism has largely replaced the full-blooded Theism of historic Christianity, bringing with it a God (or ‘god’) who above all else would never dream of making us feel bad.

I would also suggest that if God is not angry at the monsters who abduct children and turn them into child soldiers, or the rapists who destroy the lives of hundreds of thousands of women, or the military dictators who kill thousands without conscience, or the complacent rich who live in comfort while the majority of the world lives in poverty (I am of course a member of that statistic), then God is not worth bothering about. The God who could not be angry at these monstrosities is a God who loves us too little, not a God who loves us too much.

My second comment concerns the utter disregard of copyright and/or authorial intent that some Christians appear to be exercising here. I’m a songwriter myself, so this cause is dear to my heart. Some of my songs have theological themes, and I would be quite disturbed (in the unlikely event that some of my songs ever became worship classics) if people I had never met took it into their heads to amend my lyrics because they didn’t agree with my theology. If you don’t agree with my theology, don’t sing the song!

However, this is apparently happening with regard to ‘In Christ Alone’. Bosco Peters (the Kiwi Anglican blogger who got this whole thing going) talks on his site about one way the song has been amended:

Till on that cross where Jesus died
the love of God was magnified.

Other commenters on his site suggest:

Till on that cross where Jesus died
the arms of love were opened wide.


Till on the cross where Jesus died
the love of God was glorified.

…and so on. To which I reply, in the strongest possible terms, it is illegal to amend the words of a copyrighted song without the permission of the copyright owner. My understanding is that the authors of this song have not given permission for their words to be amended. Therefore, you have two simple choices: sing it as they wrote it, or don’t sing it at all.

9 thoughts on “A God Without Wrath – and a people who ignore copyright laws

  1. Thanks for this Tim, and thanks for the link to my piece.

    The C.S.Lewis quote quite nails one of the underlying issues, particularly with Fr Ron Smith’s contribution which I outline in my post. I’m glad I’m in such esteemed company on this one (i.e. with both you and Lewis!).

  2. Hi Tim; I don’t write music but I write poetry and I would be wrathful if someone took it upon themselves to change my words. I think we ought to extend the same respect to authors and hymn writers whose work is now in the public domain. I am sure that the works of John Newton and Charles Wesley are due the same consideration. If you don’t like the theology write your own stuff!
    Thanks for your treatment of this issue.

  3. Tim, while I regret the changes made to this song, I hope you are not suggesting that Christian copyright holders should take churches to court to protect their copyright, in direct contradiction to biblical teaching. If they did, they might find that churches could claim that their right of freedom of worship is protected. And that is as it should be. The concept of intellectual property is not a biblical one. I support the right of songwriters to protect and profit from sales of their recorded songs and from use outside worship, but I do not accept that anyone has the right to make a profit from what happens in worship services. For more on my views, see what I wrote at Is breach of copyright theft?, and more generally (although mostly about Bibles) in my Copyright category.

    Reed, I hope you would not want to ban “Hark The Herald Angels Sing”, not Wesley’s original opening to the Christmas carol.

  4. True, Tim. But then there is a question of what is meant by “illegal”. I guess this depends on the jurisdiction, but it is unlikely that any criminal offence has been committed. I am also claiming that no wrong is being done because no human being has the moral right (and probably not the legal right either) to dictate the content of a worship service. And so the only thing that the church has to be concerned about is that the copyright holder might take the church to a civil court. If that is not what you are suggesting might happen, then what exactly is your issue?

  5. Greetings Tim

    Please can you clarify the legal position about:
    (a) omitting a verse or verses in a song – either on a pew sheet or projector screening
    (b) printing all verses and instructing people to omit a verse or verses

    Easter Season Blessings


  6. Tim Chesterton

    Bosco, I’m not exactly sure about the specific instances you mention. But the relevant concept in copyright law is called ‘moral rights’, which protect the relationship between the author and his/her work. One of those rights is called ‘integrity’ – i.e. protecting the work from distortion or mutilation. Moral rights can be waived, but cannot assigned to others (i.e. a publishing company).

  7. Tim Chesterton

    Peter, I’m not really sure what you’re getting at. I’m not suggesting that anything ‘might happen’. I’m simply suggesting that the author’s ‘moral rights’ (see my reply to Bosco above) to have the integrity of their work preserved are protected in law, and should be respected. In other words, I’m not giving an opinion on the issue as to whether or not a composer should take legal action if they feel their moral rights have been infringed. I’m giving an opinion on the question as to whether or not those rights should be infringed in the first place. You seem to me to be saying, “Well, we’re not going to be punished, so we can go ahead and do it anyway”. My position is that whatever legal recourse is taken, churches and worship leaders ought to obey the law and respect the integrity of the author’s work.

    Oh, by the way, no one is “dictating the content of a worship service”, because no one is dictating to the worship leaders which songs they can or can’t use. No one is forcing anyone to sing “In Christ Alone”. But if they do so, they ought to sing “In Christ Alone” as the authors wrote it, without correcting its theology.

    Where I’m not clear myself (this is for both of you, Peter and Bosco) is whether these legal rights extend to the singing of the work by the congregation, or just the printing of the lyrics. I would need to consult a copyright lawyer on that one. But I suspect there’s an answer on the CCLI website somewhere.

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