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.”