History of Hymns: 'In Christ Alone My Hope is Found'
By C. Michael Hawn
“In Christ Alone My Hope Is Found”
by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend
Worship & Song, 3105
“In Christ Alone” (2001) is one of the most popular Christian songs in this century. Northern Irishman Keith Getty (b. 1974) and Englishman Stuart Townend (b. 1963) are worship leaders and song writers who have collaborated to produce some of the most well-known and vibrant hymns of this era. This hymn was the first collaboration by Getty with another writer; it is the duo’s most popular song, appearing in thirteen hymnals according to Hymnary.org. It was ranked as the number one song in the UK CCLI listing by 2006 and remains in the top 25 hymns (No. 19 as of August 12, 2019 in the USA CCLI rankings).
Townend offers the following account of the song’s origins:
Keith and I met in the autumn of 2000 at a worship event, and we resolved to try to work together on some songs. A few weeks later Keith sent some melody ideas, and the first one on the CD was a magnificent, haunting melody that I loved, and immediately started writing down some lyrical ideas on what I felt should be a timeless theme commensurate with the melody. So the theme of the life, death, resurrection of Christ, and the implications of that for us just began to tumble out, and when we got together later on to fine tune it, we felt we had encapsulated what we wanted to say (Atkins, 2004, n.p.).
The Gettys offer their description of the song’s composition:
[“In Christ alone”] grew first out of an excitement to write hymns that would help twenty-first century Christians sing, know, and embrace the incredible truths of the Lord in fresh language, and second out of a frustration with the lack of depth in the songs that were being sung in many churches (in this sense, it was a kind of “protest” music). We envisaged a hymn that told the incredible story of the gospel and settled on the title “In Christ Alone.” Keith wrote most of the music, and Stuart wrote most of the (genius) lyrics (Getty, Sing, 2017, 91).
Stuart Townend’s roots are in the Anglican Church where his father served as a vicar at Christ Church, Sowerby Bridge (1974-1985). He began his musical studies with piano at age seven, and he began writing songs at age 22, studying literature at the University of Sussex. By 2005, he had been described as “one of the most significant songwriters in the whole international Christian music field” (Cummings, 2005, n.p.). More recently, he was recognized by The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Awards with “The Thomas Cramner Award for Worship” (2017), the citation noting, “His outstanding contribution to the contemporary worship life of the church resides especially in putting songs on our lips which root us in God’s story. The Church will be singing them for many generations to come” (Archbishop of Canterbury, 2017, n.p.).
Keith Getty, a native of Northern Ireland, often performs with his wife Kristyn (b. 1980), where she is frequently featured as a soloist or lead singer on albums. They were married in 2004. His musical education began with classical guitar lessons at age eleven and flute lessons at age twelve. He graduated with a B.A. (1995) at St. Chad’s College, Durham University, where he studied music. Getty’s background in flute led to study with the renowned flautist James Galway, who also facilitated Getty’s development as conductor and orchestrator. His musical influences include classical music, Irish music, and a wide range of church music. Keith Getty’s ecclesial roots are in the Presbyterian Church, where his father was a pastor in Belfast, a heritage that influenced his appreciation for metrical psalms (Huyser-Honig, 2006, n.p.). The Gettys reside between Northern Ireland and Nashville (Getty Music, n.p.). More biographical information is available at https://www.gettymusic.com/about-us.
Getty and Townend tend to use the language of “hymn” rather than “song” to describe their work. As Keith Getty notes, “. . . I was happy to adopt [the term “hymn”] since traditional hymns tend to follow the more historic patterns of church music from the Old Testament to New Testament to church history. It’s in this tradition where we find understanding our faith through congregational singing and passing songs down from generation to generation both attractive and a huge need” (Hehn, 2015, 15). While he notes, on the one hand that, “What we sing becomes the grammar of what we believe,” Getty also laments, “It’s been several hundred years since Christian worship was as shallow as it is today.” Furthermore, he states, “Christianity is more universal than it’s ever been, but people’s understanding of their faith and the Bible is disappointing” (Huyser-Honig, 2006, n.p.). Harking back to his heritage in the Presbyterian Church, Getty also laments, “We are fast becoming the first generation in human history of whom the majority of believers do not incorporate the Psalms in weekly Sunday worship” (Hehn, 2015, 16).
Both Townend and the Gettys have an articulate theology of congregational song. Unlike some who are identified as contemporary Christian artists, they are avidly concerned with the congregation’s participation in the act of singing:
Though maybe understood, regularly a bone of contention, and often under-practiced, congregational singing is one of the greatest and most beautiful tools we have been given to declare God’s “excellences,” strengthening His Church and sharing His glory with the world (Getty, Sing, 2017, xxi-xxii).
When we sing, we witness to the people in our church who are yet to believe—to the unsaved spouse, the cynical teen, the intrigued friend. We witness to the outsider stepping through the door of a church and even, through the sound we make, to the outsider walking past the door of the church. The sight and sound of a congregation singing praise to God together is a radical witness in a culture that rejects God and embraces individualism. Our songs are the public manifesto of what we believe (Getty, Sing, 2017, 87).
It is perhaps this theology of congregational singing along with growing up in a culture of beautiful Irish melodies—in the case of the Gettys—and growing up in the Anglican Church—in the case of Townend—that has contributed to so many singable melodies that cross the stylistic barriers, allowing their songs to be sung both in worship gatherings with screens and praise teams and congregations with choirs and hand-held hymnals. Though his songs are a favorite in congregations that self-identify as “Contemporary Christian,” Getty maintains that he is not usually inspired by Contemporary Christian music because “it’s mostly copies of the last five or ten years” (Huyser-Honig, 2006, n.p.). Instead, he draws from a more eclectic range of musical styles, especially folk songs that tend to have a more universal appeal and accessibility across musical tastes and experience.
Other songs by the Getty—Townend duo also resonate broadly, including “Speak, O Lord, as We Come to You” (2006), “Oh to See the Dawn” (“The Power of the Cross”) (2005), and “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” (1995), a text by Townend. “In Christ Alone,” however, is the signature song that remains both loved and, at times, criticized. The hymn has a strong Christological focus. The scriptural foundation implied in the incipit (the first phrase) is John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (NIV). The first stanza is replete with biblical allusions: Christ is “my light” (Psalm 27:1), “my strength, my song” (Exodus 15:2; Psalm 118:14; Isaiah 12:2); “Cornerstone” (Isaiah 28:16; I Peter 2:6); “solid ground” (Psalm 40:2); “Comforter” (John 14:16, 26); “all in all” (I Corinthians 15:28).
Stanza 2 begins with references to Christ’s Incarnation: Christ “who took on flesh, fullness of God in helpless babe.” Drawing upon the paradox of faith, “The gift of love” was “scorned by the ones he came to save.” The controversy for some arises in the next phrase, which shifts from Incarnation to a particular view of atonement: “‘Til on the cross as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied.” Often referred to as the satisfaction theory of atonement, this approach draws upon Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109), stating that Christ’s suffering was a substitute for human sin and, as such, satisfied God’s wrath against the transgressions of humanity. Traditionally, this has been the view held by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Getty’s Reformed tradition. This was the theological interpretation that influenced John Calvin. Other related, classical views of atonement include substitutionary atonement, that Christ died as a substitute for others or stood in their place, and penal substitution, a view that Christ, by choosing a sacrificial death, was punished or penalized in the place of a sinful humanity.
The controversy over this phrase came to public awareness when the Presbyterian (PCUSA) hymnal Glory to God (2013) voted not to include this hymn when the writers would not allow the following textual substitution: “‘Til on the cross as Jesus died / the love of God was magnified.” This variation had been used in an earlier hymnal Celebrating Grace (2010), but apparently without the composers’ permission. Hymn writer and chair of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song (PCCS) Mary Louise Bringle stated, “The song has been removed from our contents list, with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness.” Continuing, she noted, the “view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger” would have negatively affected the hymnal’s faith-forming function within congregations (Bringle, 2013, n.p).
In a response to the decision by PCCS, Getty responded,
… we believe altering the lyrics would remove an essential part of the gospel story as explained throughout Scripture. The main thread of what we see revealed throughout the Old and New Testament is the need for man to be made right with God. The provided path toward reconciliation came through Christ’s predetermined and perfect sacrifice on the cross, satisfying God’s wrath once and for all. The two hymnal committees wanted to change the lyrics to focus on how Christ’s death on the cross magnifies God’s love for the world. And indeed, God’s love was magnified on Calvary’s hill. Yet the way this occurred was through Christ doing for us what we could not do for ourselves—shedding his own perfect blood to atone for our sins (Hansen, 2013, n.p).
Several theologians also came to Getty’s and Townend’s defense.
Stanza 3 recounts the Resurrection in expressive language, including “bursting forth in glorious day” and “he stands in victory.” The result was that “sin’s curse lost its grip on me. . .”. Stanza 4 expresses the doctrine of eternal security, often described as once-saved-always-saved, in a powerful assertion echoing the spirit of Romans 8:38-39: “No power of hell, no scheme of man / can ever pluck me from his hand.” Maintaining the theological intent, this phrase was altered in Worship & Song: “No power of hell, no scheme or plan. . ..”; in Celebrating Grace, the phrase was modified as follows: “No power of hell, no human plan . . ..” The hymn concludes with an eschatological affirmation: “‘Til he returns or calls me home, / here in the power of Christ I’ll stand” – the final phrase recalling the declaration that began the hymn.
In a conversation with Stuart Townend, he noted that he was taken by surprise at the controversy over atonement theology in stanza 2 as this, for him, was a long-held theological truth. Earlier, he had received criticism for a line in the final stanza by pro-life Christians: “From life’s first cry to final breath. . .”, the assertion by this group being that life begins at conception, not at birth. (Townend, 2018, n.p.).
Many commonly used hymns are controversial. This is nothing new. People of faith do not always agree, even as they seek truth; generally, discussion is healthy, even potentially enlightening. Hymnal committees either adapt possible hymns (changing key words, omitting stanzas) when possible, or choose not to include the hymn in their hymnals. One danger is to view a hymn as a commodity that should please the public in the marketplace of religious goods, success being evident in those hymns “consumed” the most (i.e., garnering the most royalties). Keith Getty and Stuart Townend articulate an artistic authenticity that eschews mimicking the styles of the most successful songs in the marketplace of contemporary music, esteems the heritage of the church’s song, and values the congregation’s full participation in the act of singing.
Regardless of one’s theological reception of this hymn, each hymn writer is sharing a lyrical witness – a testimony – of his faith. Each witness carries with it the author’s/composer’s personal experience, faith heritage, culture, and theological convictions. Even when popular, a hymn writer risks vulnerability when sharing a witness in the very public forum of congregational singing. In balancing this individual witness, it is the responsibility of those who compile hymnals to make careful decisions about which witnesses best articulate the theological heritage of a given tradition and select from the plethora of sung witnesses throughout Christian history those that best articulate and shape faith within that tradition. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of each singer to discern the degree to which the witness of a given hymn informs his/her own faith experience and biblical understanding.
A United Methodist Coda: The discussion above notwithstanding, as well as the haunting beauty of melody and broad popularity of the hymn, it is interesting to note that the hymn was chosen to be included in The United Methodist hymnal supplement, Worship & Song (2011). It would seem that the satisfaction theory of atonement with the reference to the “wrath of God” is at odds with the ubiquitous references to the focus on God’s love and the grace-full allusions that permeate Wesleyan hymns. Indeed, “In Christ Alone” does not appear on the Discipleship Ministries’ evaluation of CCLI list of top 100 hymns that are vetted for theology appropriate to United Methodist theology (latest version, 2017).
Sources and Further Reading
Debra Atkins, Song Story: “In Christ Alone”, Crosswalk.com (22 July 2004): https://www.crosswalk.com/church/worship/song-story-in-christ-alone-1275127.html
Mary Louise Bringle, “Debating Hymns,” The Christian Century (1 May 2013): https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-04/debating-hymns.
“Citations,” The Archbishop of Canterbury Awards, 9 June 2017: https://web.archive.org/web/20170619185947/http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/data/files/resources/5876/2017-Citations-Alphabetical.pdf.
Tony Cummings, “Stuart Townend: The Worship Leader and Hymn Writer,” Cross Rhythms (28 March 2005): http://www.crossrhythms.co.uk/articles/music/Stuart_Townend_The_worship_leader_and_hymn_writer/14571/p1.
Keith and Kristyn Getty, Sing! How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2017)
Getty Music: The official website for modern hymn-writers Keith & Kristyn Getty: https://www.gettymusic.com.
Collin Hansen, “Keith Getty on What Makes ‘In Christ Alone’ Accepted and Contested,” The Gospel Coalition (9 December 2031), https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/keith-getty-on-what-makes-in-christ-alone-beloved-and-contested.
Brian Hehn, “Interview with Keith Getty,” The Hymn 66:2 (Spring 2015), 15-16.
Joan Huyser-Honig, “Keith Getty on Writing Hymns for the Church Universal,” Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Resource Library (1 September 2006): https://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/keith-getty-on-writing-hymns-for-the-church-universal.
Stuart Townend, Conversation with author, June 2018.
Verses marked NIV are from New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.