Current controversy over the nature of Christ’s atonement for sin points to a truth many younger evangelicals may not know, i.e., the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death on the cross was a major issue in the Conservative Resurgence that took place within the Southern Baptist Convention in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
The issue of biblical inerrancy stood at the forefront of Southern Baptist debates during those years of conflict and controversy, but other issues drew major concern. Moderates and conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention were divided over controversial issues, including abortion rights, the exclusivity of the Gospel, and the nature of the atonement. As might be expected, most of these debates followed the same or very similar lines of division. As in the Reformation of the sixteenth century, to be divided over the formal principle of the authority of the Bible was, inevitably, to be divided over the material principles of doctrine as well.
In its earliest phase, modern theological liberalism developed open antipathy to the substitutionary nature of the atonement. Theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of theological liberalism, rejected the claim that the death of Christ is substitutionary or vicarious. Christ did not die in the place of sinners, bearing the wrath of a righteous God, Schleiermacher insisted. Instead, Christ’s death and resurrection demonstrated God’s love so that human beings might rightly love him. Albrecht Ritschl proposed a similar form of the moral influence theory of the atonement—Christ died as a revelation of the depth of God’s love toward sinners.
As theological liberalism spread to the United States, the Protestant liberals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries adopted the German model, rejecting any substitutionary or vicarious understanding of the atonement and proposing variations of the moral influence theory. Others, following the pattern set by Rudolf Bultmann, proposed existentialist understandings of the cross and resurrection. Most of the adherents to these theories denied the wrath of God against sinners at the cross, which was presented as a political act with a great moral lesson. Many of them denied as mere myth the historical reality of the bodily resurrection of Christ.
While the vast majority of Southern Baptists resisted the temptation to revise the faith in order to meet the demands of the modern liberal worldview, some within the Southern Baptist academy were doing their best to shift the denomination to a more liberal position. Ground zero for this effort was New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The seminary in New Orleans was by no means the most liberal of the Southern Baptist seminaries, but its faculty included a trio of professors who attempted to shift Southern Baptists away from the advocacy of penal substitutionary atonement. These three men, over the course of three successive generations, influenced a host of young seminarians and many pastors beyond the seminary’s campus.
The first was Theodore R. Clark. In 1959, Clark published the book that eventually led to his removal from the New Orleans seminary faculty. That book, Saved by His Life: A Study of the New Testament Doctrine of Reconciliation and Salvation, was published by Macmillan, a major secular publisher in New York City. This was considered a rare achievement for a young Southern Baptist theologian, but the book almost immediately incited controversy. The main thrust of Clark’s book was revealed in the title. Clark argued that Christians put far too much emphasis on the death and resurrection of Christ as the foundation for the salvation of sinners. He argued that the life of Christ is equally important for our salvation. But he also denied that the righteousness of God and the righteous demands of the law required a penal sacrifice. Clark openly rejected “theologies of the cross” that propose that “the crucified Jesus was regarded as man’s substitute or as man’s sin bearer, taking man’s place so that God’s wrath would fall on him rather than on sinful man.”
Unsurprisingly, Theodore Clark also denied the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible. He accused inerrantists of idolatry and asserted that the belief in propositional and verbal revelation is mere scholasticism. He was soon to depart from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, fired by seminary president Leo Eddleman in 1960. But Clark was not alone in his attempt to shift Christians away from an affirmation of penal substitution as the central understanding of Christ’s atonement. Frank Stagg, also then a professor at the New Orleans seminary, said that Clark’s problem was that he spoke too loudly. “I am for freedom,” Stagg wrote a colleague, “but surely we must be somewhat realistic about the people with whom we work. One cannot say all that he wants to say and be able to keep on talking.”
But it was Stagg himself who would keep on talking against substitutionary atonement, even as he taught at New Orleans and beyond. In 1964, Stagg moved to the faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. While at each school seminary, Stagg stridently denied any penal or substitutionary character of the cross. As a first semester student at Southern Seminary in 1980, my first early morning class was with Frank Stagg on the Gospel of Matthew. Professor Stagg repeatedly and emphatically rejected what he called “bloody cross religion.” He vociferously denied the necessity of the cross, insisting that “God did not have to arrange a killing at Calvary in order to forgive sin.”
In his influential New Testament Theology (published when Stagg was still on the New Orleans faculty), Stagg stated his case clearly: “God is free to forgive. The Father does not need to punish the Son in order to win the right to forgive. Were the Father paid off, then there would be no forgiveness. God himself forgives, and in so doing he assumes responsibility for the sinner.”
Like Theodore Clark, Stagg denied the inerrancy of the Bible. His method of interpreting the New Testament strongly suggested that Paul had misunderstood the meaning of Christ’s work. At another level, Stagg’s denial of substitution was also surely rooted in his strange and sub-orthodox understanding of the Trinity. While Stagg affirmed the deity of Christ, he denied the Nicean formulation of the persons of the Father and the Son. And he seemed to deny the personhood of the Holy Spirit. In his case, a flawed understanding of the Trinity almost certainly led to a misperception of both the person and the work of Christ.
The last of the trio of theologians at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary is Fisher Humphreys. Unlike Stagg and Clark, Humphreys clearly affirmed the centrality of the cross and he rightly warned that no human theory or model of the atonement can contain all of the truth about the cross revealed in the New Testament. But Humphreys also sought to shift the church away from penal substitutionary understandings of the atonement. In his 1978 book, The Death of Christ, Humphreys conceded that there could be a healthy understanding of substitution, but he emphatically denied that the Father punished the Son for our sins on the cross. In his words: “Men punished him for alleged crimes, probably blasphemy and revolution, but God, who knew he was righteous, did not disapprove of him at all; he approved of him. To put it another way, Jesus experienced the pain which a man might feel if he were being punished by God for great sins, but he was not punished by God.”
On October 19, 1987, an event advertised as “A Discussion on the Atonement” was held at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Media reports indicated that more than 300 interested students, faculty, and pastors gathered to hear Fisher Humphreys discuss the atonement with Paige Patterson, then president of the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies (now Criswell College). This “discussion” took the form of an informal but energetic debate. Patterson, one of the leading architects of the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC and the movement’s most significant theologian, had taken issue with Humphreys’s book. The discussion was intended to serve as an attempt at mutual understanding and denominational peacemaking. But that intention failed. The lengthy debate revealed a deeper divide over the nature of the atonement than many Southern Baptists had been prepared to acknowledge. Humphreys insisted again and again that he accepted all that the New Testament reveals about the work of Christ. Nevertheless, he stood by his proposal of a non-biblical model of the atonement as presented in The Death of Christ. Humphreys’s proposed model of “cruciform forgiveness” was, he acknowledged, not explicitly stated in the Bible, but drawn from the model of human relationships.
Patterson spoke openly and clearly about his concerns with Humphreys’s proposal. That proposal, Patterson argued, sidelined the atonement model that the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—reveals as central and essential. That model, Patterson insisted, was both penal and substitutionary. In order to make his point, Patterson summoned a host of texts from both testaments, drawing especially from the sacrificial system in the Old Testament.
Looking at the debate, now more than a quarter century behind us, it appears that the main issue was the centrality of substitution and the fact, as Patterson rightly insisted, that all other understandings of the cross in the Bible are themselves dependent on penal substitution. But a second closely related concern was the necessity of the cross. At this point, the two theologians disagreed directly. Humphreys repeatedly stressed his uncomfortability with any notion of necessity. In his book he had argued: “I believe it is unwise to seek for a ‘necessity’ for the cross. It is quite possible to affirm and clarify the importance of the cross without speaking of it as necessary.”
In response, Patterson pointed to a series of New Testament texts, including Romans 3:21-26. He agreed that there is no external necessity that conditions God. But Patterson argued that God has revealed himself to be bound by the necessity of his own character—the very point made in Romans 3.
Most students studying in Southern Baptist seminaries today would likely be shocked to know that these issues had ever been the focus of debate within the Southern Baptist Convention. But they were. As Baptist historian Jason Duesing has noted, the Humphreys/Patterson debate at New Orleans in 1987 reminds us that “the primary motivation and the occasion for a conservative movement were rooted in real and crucial theological concerns.”
There were indeed real and crucial theological concerns. And, by no coincidence, crucial refers to the cross. As these examples reveal, the debate over the atonement is not new—even within the Southern Baptist Convention. This debate has stretched well beyond the SBC as theologians continue to defend or deny the meaning of the cross, specifically its penal substitutionary nature. The Conservative Resurgence in the SBC sought a theological recovery in the denomination and a rejection of the inroads that theological liberalism had made within its schools. A denial of penal substitution was the goad; the goal was its recovery as the Bible’s central message about the cross of Christ.
At stake was the New Testament’s central concern in revealing a theology of the cross: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4). At stake is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the central message of the Scriptures, whenever the penal substitution accomplished by him is questioned, much less denied.
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Theodore R. Clark, Saved by His Life; A Study of the New Testament Doctrine of Reconciliation and Salvation. (New York: Macmillan, 1959).
Frank Stagg, New Testament Theology (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1962).
Fisher Humphreys, The Death of Christ (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1978).