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Q&A: Paige Patterson on L. Russ Bush, the significance of Christ’s atonement & Easter

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Three years after the death of his friend L. Russ Bush, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Paige Patterson says Bush’s impact on Southern Baptist life remains large.

In a new book, “Defending the Faith, Engaging the Culture: Essays Honoring L. Russ Bush,” Patterson contributes an essay honoring Bush, who when he died in 2008 was a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The book, published by B&H, is edited by Bruce Little and Mark Liederbach.

Following is an edited interview with Patterson about the book and about the significance of the doctrine of what theologians call “penal substitutionary atonement,” a doctrine that Bush defended.

QUESTION: What was L. Russ Bush’s contribution to the SBC? Why honor him with this book?

PAIGE PATTERSON: Dr. Bush made many contributions to the Southern Baptist Convention by the fact that he taught philosophy of religion not only here at Southwestern but also at Southeastern for many years. He has quite a number of students who did doctorates under him and those who took his courses.

However, his pristine contribution at a very critical moment in Southern Baptist life was the book that he co-authored with Tom Nettles, who was also here at Southwestern at the time, titled “Baptists and the Bible.” The reason that book was so critically important was that the more liberal and neo-orthodox elements in Southern Baptist life were actually putting forth an argument to the people that Baptists had never believed in the inerrancy of God’s Word and that everybody basically had held the neo-orthodox opinion of the Bible, even though that didn’t come to exist until the early 1900s with (Karl) Barth.

Bush and Nettles did a thorough historical and exegetical survey of all Baptist authors. They were very fair. They included people like (Walter) Rauschenbusch and other Baptists who would not have held to inerrancy of God’s Word, but it was an overwhelming trip the opposite direction. By the time they got through, it was very clear that (former Southwestern Seminary presidents B.H.) Carroll, (L.R.) Scarborough, all the founders at Southern Seminary, all of our great Baptist pastors of history, all the great English Baptists before them and all the Anabaptists did, in fact, hold to the inerrancy of God’s word. Frankly, it was irrefutable. The book was written in a popular enough style that while it was a very scholarly book, it was a book that the average man in the pew could easily read. He read it with enthusiasm, and it put an end to the talk that Southern Baptists, as a rule, did not believe in the inerrancy of God’s word.

QUESTION: How does your chapter honor L. Russ Bush’s work?

PATTERSON: My friend Fisher Humphreys and I had a debate at New Orleans Seminary some years ago, and in this chapter, I allude to that debate and to the position that he took, which was that what we have here is “cruciform forgiveness,” which is the idea that Christ basically set a great example for us but that there was no penal substitutionary aspect of the atonement. Of course, Russ Bush believed with all his heart that (penal substitutionary atonement) was the heart of Christianity. So, I thought it would be an appropriate doctrine for me to explicate.

QUESTION: Why is the atonement necessary?

PATTERSON: The question of the necessity of the atonement is bound up in one verse in Romans 3:26, where it says that he is our propitiation so that he might be both the just and the justifier of those who trust in him. In other words, in the atonement, He justified us to God. But if God had simply acted capriciously to forgive sin and said, “Hey, look, I forgive you,” that would have been what love called for, perhaps, but it would not have settled the issue of justice. So, the very fact that God is both a loving God and a just God seems to presuppose that something had to happen that would satisfy both the demand for justice and the demand for love. Now, it may be that there is some other way that God could have done it, but that’s not the way the Bible presents it. The Bible presents it as the necessity that had to be there in order to satisfy those two poles of the person of God Himself.

QUESTION: What is penal substitutionary atonement?

PATTERSON: If you have a penal institution, you have an institution where miscreants are sent in order to pay for their crime. They have committed a crime, and they have to go to prison. The Bible says that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God; the soul that sins must surely die. We’ve all sinned, and so we must all die; that is the penalty of sin. 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. He’s gone ahead and punished it. He’s given it its full just reward, but he accepted that Himself in His Son on the cross.

QUESTION: Why is penal substitution the primary model for comprehending the atonement?

PATTERSON: 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.

Their relationship with God has been fractured, as a result of which, they are going to die. So, God deals with that by sending His own Son, Jesus, and He gives an indication to Adam and Eve already that He’s going to do it in that an animal dies to clothe their nakedness. They now know that they are naked, and now they’re ashamed about it. They sew fig leaves together and make themselves aprons, but they’re still uncomfortable when the voice of God comes in the cool of the day. So, God (essentially) says, “Indeed, once you take the fig leaf off the tree, it’s going to wither. It’s not a good permanent solution. It’s a human solution. I’m going to give you a divine solution, so an animal has to die in order for them to be clothed.” That was symbolic of what would eventually happen when the Lamb of God would die in order that the shame of our naked rebellion against God would be clothed with His righteousness.

QUESTION: How does understanding the nature of the atonement impact our celebration of Easter?

PATTERSON: There has to be the death of Christ in order for there to be a resurrection. The two are in tandem. You can’t separate them. The resurrection is to be understood and comprehended as the completion of the atonement. His body is placed in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and Satan appears to have the victory. But, three days later, Satan did a search and was unable to come up with a body because it was no longer there. This was the final defeat of Satan.
Compiled by Keith Collier, director of news and information for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas (www.swbts.edu/campusnews).

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