A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

Behold the Father’s Love

I can easily sing “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” w/a clear theological conscience. Always have. What do I do when I get to the line, “the Father turns his face away?” I instinctively interpret it charitably, in the high-trust environment of my local church.

Does this line from the 1990 song drift too close to suggesting that Father & Son are separable, at odds, broken up? A bit. But if I’ve heard good trinitarian theology at church, I know in advance not to hear the line that way.

The line wraps trinitarian language (Father-Son) around a biblical image (turning away a face) in order to interpret the moment of crucifixion. All in the context of setting forth the cross as the effective communication of the Father’s love via the Son.

Here’s the problem: If you’ve recently heard “broken Trinity” teaching, or Father-angry/Son-merciful teaching (or you suspect that others have done so), you’re primed to hear this line as an instance of that kind of error. It’s an associative trap for the ear.

Counterfactual illustration: Suppose a bad teacher tells you that Christ was literally trapped on the Cross by the power of sin, that sin bound him & compelled him to remain on the cross. Stupid! But it’ll ruin the line “it was my sin that held him there” for you, right?

Similarly, if some weirdo begins teaching that time-travel is the solution to atonement questions, & that all believers must teleport to the 1st century to be saved, that may make it harder for normies to sing “were you there when they crucified my Lord” for a little while.

But it wouldn’t require me to assume Mahalia Jackson was getting dangerously close to teaching the bizarro Time Travel Atonement error. There’s no way to fix the original line, or add an anti-time-travel bridge, or anything. You just have to re-set your associative framework.

Some kind of choice like this presents itself to the worshiper who sings this line from the Townend hymn. Nothing else in the hymn (or, I think, in his other songwriting?) suggests a “broken Trinity” framework. So I naturally assume I can take it in an orthodox sense.

The associative framework I’m operating from is something I’ve made explicit elsewhere, because I’m a theologian and because clarity is important. When I sing it, the line automatically snaps to this grid:

If you’re struggling to get your theology normalized, and need to avoid the offending line because for you at this time it conjures broken-trinity or angry-father associations, that makes sense to me. It’s not a perfect line. But it can be sung perfectly well.

(p.s. While I was writing this it occurred to me for the first time that Townend’s 1990 line might be alluding to the same words in Michael Card’s 1983 song “Love Crucified Arose.”)

About This Blog

Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

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