Engaging the atonement has been, for Paige Patterson, a long walk in the same direction. As Al Mohler noted in a recent blog, the debate about penal substitution and the atonement had roots in the fertile soil of the seminaries—roots that would expose themselves during the Conservative Resurgence. Mohler notes it as a time when the convention began to understand, “… a deeper divide over the nature of the atonement than many Southern Baptists had been prepared to acknowledge.”
Mohler posits that Patterson’s 1987 debate with Fisher Humphreys was instrumental in surfacing the issue, as well as the fact that many who softened the penal substitution of Christ rejected the doctrine of inerrancy.
This is why this issue has always been central to Patterson’s thinking.
As a student, sitting in his Christology course in my M.Div., I remember that issues related to atonement were precious to him. He saw the issues clearly and recognized the contribution of each theory of the atonement. Yet, there was never a question in his mind that there was much at stake if one departed from the idea of penal substitution.
This is why the Conservative Resurgence was both a battle for the Bible and a battle for the blood.
When B&H Publishing released Defending the Faith, Engaging the Culture: Essays Honoring L. Russ Bush, (ed. Bruce Little and Mark Liederbach), they reprinted Patterson’s 1989 Criswell Theological Review article on the atonement as a chapter. After a discussion of the biblical evidence he concluded, “… the atonement was in fact necessary to fulfill the Scriptures. This alone makes it unwise to say that anyone is unwise to speak of the atonement as necessary!”
In an interview about the book, Patterson observed that the core issue is an honest reading of Romans 3:21-26:
The cross pays that penalty. Jesus died our death, and he gave us his life. So, again to come back to the famous verse in Romans 3, God is just in forgiving sins because he has not done so in a cavalier fashion. He has forgiven sin by punishing sin.
Responding to the question of “Why the penal substitution is the primary model for comprehending the atonement?” Patterson replied,
I think that is what the whole Bible is about. The Bible is about the plan of God for salvation. One has to put together his theory of the atonement based on his total theology of Scripture. What happens in the garden is that our first parents sin against God, and they are ejected from the garden. The Bible says that “the day you sin, you will surely die,” so from that time on, they were in the process of dying. They died spiritually the day they disobeyed God, and then as a result, they were dying physically. The supreme problem of all Scripture becomes the appropriate relationship with God.
So, the issue is Scripture. This is why a discussion of the atonement is as fresh in the memory as the Conservative Resurgence—a battle for the cross of the word as much as the word of the cross.