Why did they change the words to “And Can It Be?”

In this post, I’m chiming in on a comment that I read online, rather than answering a question that was specifically asked of me.

[The comment] As a big fan of Wesley’s hymns (he was adamant about singing them “as written”), I’m upset that a modern hymnal changes the line in “And Can it Be” from “emptied himself of all but love and bled for Adam’s helpless race” to “emptied himself (so great his love) and bled for all his chosen race.” This appears to support predestination or a limited atonement. Wesley’s words are more in keeping with Scripture—the promise was to Adam and his descendants (his “race”). Altering “all but love” suggests that Christ retained other elements of his attributes as God even when “emptied.” What other motivation is there for a sacrificial, atoning death on our behalf than love incarnate? This change is very odd.

[My thoughts]  When I first came to Christ and was introduced to this hymn, these lines spoke to me very powerfully. I was moved by the idea that Jesus “emptied himself of all but love” and “bled” for all of us.  I, too, have encountered the changes that have been introduced to this hymn recently, and I, too, am “upset” about them.

Apparently some hymnal editors have felt that the theology of Charles Wesley, the author of this hymn, needs to be corrected at a couple of points.  For one thing, it’s clear that these editors want the hymn to present the idea of a limited atonement, rather than an unlimited one.  In the original hymn, Jesus dies for the whole human race.  In the modified version, He dies only for his “chosen” ones.

In addition, these editors apparently feel that Wesley has taken the idea of Jesus “emptying” himself a bit too far.  The Bible teaches clearly that He “emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness.”  But it’s generally understood that while Jesus gave up the so-called non-communicable divine attributes (the ones that humans cannot share with God) such as omniscience and omnipresence, He retained communicable attributes such as holiness.  So, for these editors, saying “all but love” wasn’t strictly true. Love wasn’t the only attribute He retained.

It should be noted that various groups change the words to hymns all the time, to words that they find more suitable.  Or at least they try to.  A few years back, the new hymnal of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. got into the news for leaving out the hymn “In Christ Alone.”  It turns out that its editors wanted to change the ending of the line “till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied” to “the love of God was magnified.”  But the copyright holder wouldn’t grant permission, and the editors didn’t want to include the hymn as it was originally written.

To give a further example, I have an otherwise lovely Christmas CD on which another of Charles Wesley’s hymns is altered.  In “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” the line “offspring of a virgin’s womb” is changed to “offspring of the chosen one.”  Somebody obviously didn’t believe in the virgin birth.

I personally have no problem with the theology that Wesley originally expressed in “And Can It Be?”  I believe in an unlimited atonement, and I think the phrase “all but love” is simply a beautiful poetic overstatement, meaning that Jesus came to save us out of pure love.  Nevertheless, what upsets me most is not that some people are singing different words to the hymn these days, because I know this kind of thing happens.  Rather, I’m more distressed by the way this change has been introduced.

“Bled for all his chosen race” is simply bad English.  It should be either “bled for all of his chosen race,” or “bled for his whole chosen race,” or something like that, some correct expression that would fit the music.  It’s also bad theology.  The “elect” or “chosen” (for those who think in such terms) are not a race, they’re a host.  They’re gathered one by one.  You don’t become one of the elect by being born to people who are elect.

I find that the other change has also been introduced awkwardly.  There’s already an interjection in the stanza: “So free, so infinite his grace!”  If you put in interjections too often, they lose their force, and so they should be used sparingly.  I doubt that a poet of Wesley’s caliber would have introduced another one in the very next line: “So great his love!”  For that matter, the change reflects the mistake of taking a poetic overstatement literally.  It’s like listening to the Hollies sing, “All I need is the air that I breathe, yes, to love you” and asking, “Don’t you need food, too?”

So I have one suggestion for anyone who dislikes these new words, as I do, on theological and literary grounds, and another suggestion for hymnbook editors.

I think that if a hymn gets changed like this, you can legitimately go ahead and sing the original words that you have come to love and admire, even while others in your current church are singing the new words.  I say this as someone who was a pastor for twenty years and always wanted both oneness of spirit and freedom of conscience in worship.

I encountered what I think is a good model for this in the church I served as an associate pastor early in my ministry.  This church would would provide optional words in the bulletin for older hymns that used masculine terms for people in general.  That way people who no longer “heard” these terms as inclusive of women could sing words that were meaningful for them and that also captured the original intention of the hymn (since the original writers did not see the terms as exclusive).  Those who still “heard” the original terms as referring to both men and women, for their part, could sing those words out of the hymnal at the same time.  Different words, but sung with the same meaning and in the same spirit.

To give an example from a different liturgical practice that I think provides a good further analogy, a young Catholic woman once came to the service in one of my churches, as the guest of a friend, and asked me if it would be all right if she took communion with us believing in her own heart (as she knew we didn’t quite) that the bread and wine would become the actual body and blood of Christ.  I said we would love to have her join us on that basis.  After the service she made a point of telling me, perhaps for the sake of her own conscience, that she had indeed taken the communion elements with that understanding.  I think having her join us that way was much better than me forbidding a fellow Christian to share the sacrament with us.  Oneness of spirit and freedom of conscience.

So I think a person could sing the original words to “And Can It Be?” in their own church the same way, respectfully and in a spirit of unity.  (You can bet that if I’m ever in a Christmas service where the phrase “offspring of the chosen one” is substituted in the bulletin or hymnal, I’m going to sing “offspring of a virgin’s womb.”  Respectfully.)

And to hymnbook editors I would say, if there’s a hymn that’s so eloquent and lyrical that you want to sing it even though you disagree with parts of it, please think twice about changing the words.  I feel it’s a shame that in this case Charles Wesley’s magnificent poetry has been turned into, frankly, something average at best.  If you really don’t like what he says in his hymns, why not write your own?

Charles Wesley. Possibly turning over in his grave.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

4 thoughts on “Why did they change the words to “And Can It Be?””

  1. I am a five Point Calvinist and love the hymn the way it is written….to me the theology is true either way. These new hymnals get on my nerves anyway…there is one used now that is gender neutral that removes anything that has to do with the atonement.

    1. Good to hear from you about this. I thought Calvinists should be able to admire and appreciate Wesley’s eloquent way of talking about the incarnation and atonement, without having to tweezer his words to make them fit a particular scheme.

  2. maybe “his chosen race” was devised by a sci-fi fan who thinks that humanity is the chosen race, as opposed to, say, Klingons… 🙂

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