A 1987 debate on Christ’s atonement between Paige Patterson and then-New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) theology professor Fisher Humphreys may have had “greater significance” in the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Conservative Resurgence than some have thought.
Photo courtesy of the Baptist Message
Paige Patterson, left, and Fisher Humphreys debated the atonement on Oct. 19, 1987, before 300 students and faculty at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
That’s the conclusion of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary provost Jason Duesing, who has published an essay to commemorate the debate’s 30th anniversary in the Midwestern Journal of Theology.
Theological conservatives “had things well in hand” by 1987 in their quest to gain control of the SBC’s committees and trustee boards, Duesing writes. But the debate revealed a need for ongoing “theological examination in all of the Convention’s agencies” to ensure theological orthodoxy prevailed on every point of doctrine.
Among topics at issue in the Oct. 19, 1987, debate hosted by NOBTS was whether Christ died as a substitute for sinners to bear the divine punishment they deserved – a view known as “penal substitution.” Some 300 students and faculty watched the three-hour debate, which stemmed from a longstanding discussion of the atonement in person and in print between Humphreys and Patterson, then president of the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies in Dallas (now Criswell College).
Patterson, a leader within the Conservative Resurgence, argued penal substitution is “the ultimate model in the Bible” for understanding Christ’s death, Baptist Press (BP) reported at the time, and the “one indispensable model” on which the gospel depends.
Humphreys, whom some viewed as among the SBC’s moderate camp, said penal substitution was one of many biblical models for understanding Christ’s death and not necessarily the most important. He spoke of the atonement in terms of “sacrifice,” which he said does not always involve punishment.
Patterson, in reflecting back on the debate, told BP, “Dr. Fisher Humphreys is a great friend, a fine scholar and a formidable opponent for a debate. Even though I was a graduate of NOBTS, the faculty was in the camp of Dr. Humphreys and the students and other visitors were 90 percent in favor of their professor.
“So, I remember being pretty uncomfortable going into the debate,” Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in written comments. “Fisher chose to debate the subject of the atonement along philosophical and theological lines. I elected to turn the debate to exegetical considerations. That decision gave the advantage to me.”
Humphreys, retired professor of divinity at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, told BP he proposed the debate because he “hoped that in a small way a debate might help to reduce the conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention by correcting mistaken ideas some people had acquired about my understanding of Jesus’ saving work.”
“During the debate,” Humphreys said in written comments, “it became clear that both Dr. Patterson and I believe that Christ’s death and resurrection were historical events that really occurred in the first century; we both believe in the glorious Christian gospel that Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead; and we both believe what the Bible teaches about the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
“Although some individuals were reassured by the debate, it unfortunately did little to reduce the broader conflict, so in my opinion it was a minor event in the life of the convention,” Humphreys said.
In 1987, Humphreys told Louisiana’s Baptist Message news journal his differences with Patterson were minor and technical. The two agreed, he said, on “what Paul calls in 1 Corinthians the fundamental, the first and foremost things.”
Duesing, a former vice president at Southwestern who served under Patterson, sees significance, however, in the points of disagreement.
The “often overlooked” debate, Duesing writes, suggested faculty members at seminaries given a clean bill of health by the SBC’s Peace Committee – including NOBTS – advocated some views “divergent” from the theology of rank and file Southern Baptists.
The Peace Committee was formed in 1985 and asked to determine causes of the SBC controversy. The committee’s major report, issued three months before the Patterson-Humphreys debate, said the controversy was primarily theological. The committee noted theological problems among faculty at some other SBC seminaries, but not NOBTS.
As evidence for his view, Duesing cited Humphreys’ contention that penal substitution seems unjust to some observers.
“In a human law court,” Humphreys said according to Duesing’s transcription of the debate, “when Jones is the mass murderer, you don’t let Smith die for him. … For some people, this creates a problem for them. They’re saying, ‘Would God be doing something that looks like it would be wrong if a human judge did it?’”
In the debate, Patterson claimed Old and New Testament believers alike understood sacrifices as the punishment of a person or animal in place of a sinner.
“The penalty for sin is death,” Patterson said. When Old Testament believers “put their hands on the head of that goat or that lamb … and they confessed their sins on the head of that lamb, they understood that lamb, that goat was dying the death that they should die. And that they were going to be free from sin because that guilt had been transferred.
“Now ultimately that’s exactly what John the Baptist does then when he points to Jesus and says, ‘Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world,’” Patterson said.
Both participants agreed, BP reported at the time, that the cross and resurrection were historical events, that Christ’s death reconciled the world to God, that the gospel must be believed and preached and that all biblical teaching on the cross is truthful.
Still, at the end of the debate, Patterson declined to sign a statement of agreement unless it also noted what he deemed to be significant points of disagreement.
Duesing claimed the debate “reveals a great deal not only about the views of the participants but also about the state of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1987.”
Patterson noted in hindsight, “I will forever be grateful to [Humphreys] for his investment in my life and for his proposal for this discussion and the written discussions that followed. With all of my heart, I love this fellow pilgrim and wish him the best for the future. I am also thankful for Jason Duesing’s assessment of the debate. Most of all, I remain thankful for Jesus, who gave His life for us all.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)