Honor Such Men: The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists

Today at Southwestern Seminary, President Paige Patterson will be presented with the new published festschrift, The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists. Edited by Malcolm B. Yarnell, III, this volume contains chapters by a host of notable scholars, including many of Dr. Patterson’s own Ph.D. students.

I had the privilege of writing the Afterword and used that space to reflect of the enduring influence of Dr. Patterson’s own PhD seminar, “The Theology of the Radical Reformers”:

While the renaissance of interest in Anabaptist studies over the last century certainly has its own polygenesis beginning, two common elements are used to stir both the academy and the pulpit—the classroom and the book. From G. H. Williams to W. R. Estep, the study of the Radicals of the twentieth century started in classrooms and spread beyond the academic confines to churches by way of books. Such has often been the pattern for movements of influence.

With the publication of this volume, a new bridge to the churches has been built, carrying forth the fruit of the hard earned labor of many, not just in their classrooms of study but particularly in one class. The majority of contributors to this volume are students writing in honor of their professor and sharing in common, like soldiers with battled-tested friendships, stories of survival. Paige Patterson’s Ph.D. seminar, The Theology of the Radical Reformers, has achieved legendary status not only for the subject matter but also for the manner in which the professor handles his subjects.

A Ph.D. seminar with Professor Patterson is a fifteen-week marathon, no, more like an Ironman Triathlon combined with Tough Mudder extreme events. Complete with taxing reading loads, as well as writing assignments to stretch and break, the weekly barrage all leads to the presentation of one’s research on a date determined by blind draw. Each week, the students are welcomed to the home of the President and are seated at a long table with the head chair reserved for the professor who enters the room with the energy of ten boys on a trampoline. Joined always by a four-legged companion, the President appears more hunter than pedagogical guide, an identification that proves more apt as the semester progresses. The early weeks of the semester are marked by the professor giving exhaustive and well-organized lectures on the significance of the Anabaptists and their theology. Delivered from memory, the students fashion their own notes from this fecund filibuster, if they can keep pace, for the entirety of two hours.

A Ph.D. seminar with Professor Patterson is a fifteen-week marathon, no, more like an Ironman Triathlon combined with Tough Mudder extreme events.

After a few weeks the first of several book briefs are due. These are concise reports on the assigned readings, upwards of 1000 pages per week. Students have also selected a topic relating the Anabaptists to the present day for which they must produce a creative essay of medium length. The emphasis is on the creative, for the professor, having read and studied in this field for decades, not only is always on the prowl for something new, and desiring his students to think and write in ways that convey facts and truth, but also insists that they do so in a compelling fashion. Amidst the juggling of the reading, the thinking, and the writing, students are crafting a major research paper some twenty-five-plus pages in length for presentation and defense.

From the middle of the semester until the end, each night two students present their research. The student sits directly opposite the hunter-professor, who at times has arrived with his own arsenal of books related to the subject matter of the evening, often boisterously marked, raising the temperature in the room for the student. Peering over his stack of materials, he asks, “Is there anything you would like to declare before you begin?” At this point, if the student has caught errors in his manuscript, he does well to acknowledge them hat in hand.

After the completion of the student’s presentation, the professor engages with questions unpredictable and tenacious. Going page by page, he often notes for the student each and every split infinitive, comma infraction, Style Manual error, and subject/verb disagreement. Then he returns to the beginning and asks questions related to argumentation and content. No question is without purpose, though at times the purpose often is illusive. “In what city does the author live who wrote the volume you cite in footnote four and why is that important?” Or, he will attempt to test the student with something like, “You employ a foreign word in paragraph twelve and you pronounced it correctly. Well done. [Delayed pause and stare.] Now, can you tell me if that is a Greek or Latin word?” when the word was clearly German. It is at this phase that the professor mimics the activity of a shrewd spider slowly cornering her prey in her web, winding and wearing down the subject until, and often with twinkle of the eye, he strikes with a question of such obvious clarity, that it renders the student uncertain, wobbling on what remains of his footing, able only to answer halfheartedly.

To those who have seen this repartee in action over the years, the professor gives tell-tale warning signals that still make even the seasoned observer sit up in his seat. When the interlocutor’s right arm begins to move at the elbow like a quarterback repeatedly pulling back the ball, and the right thumb starts to pull at the inside of the ring on the adjacent ring finger, the time has come for the end. But that is where the unexpected happens and simultaneously where the greatest transformation in a student’s academic life, and often in other areas of life as well, takes place. For the hunter-professor changes into a pastor.

Sensing that the lessons have been learned, Professor Patterson concludes the inquisition with lengthy and prescriptively appropriate affirmation and encouragement of the like most students have never experienced but have longed for and would pay for. The student ends the evening well aware of just how far he still has to go, but believing that he can, in fact, make it there. By the end of the semester, having endured his own personal inquisition and watched several others, the student has a deep and committed interest in the subject matter, formed friendships among his fellow survivors, and a growing admiration and respect for his professor. When a professor walks with his students in this manner, one can see how the classroom transforms and inaugurates significant theological movements and advocates of widespread influence.

For all those that have survived his seminars and owe their awakening to the Anabaptists to his instruction, examination, and affirmation, the opportunity to honor Paige Patterson with the publication of their work is more than a fitting tribute. The Apostle Paul told the believers in Philippi to “honor such men” who gave of their lives in service to Christ (Phil 2:29). May not only this volume but also the lives of its contributors serve as fitting honor to our professor in recognition for his life given to us and to so many. Indeed, may this book serve as another bridge from classroom to churches to further interest in the Radical Reformers.

My thanks to B&H Academic for permission to post this Afterword in full today.


Jason G. Duesing is vice president for strategic initiatives and assistant professor of historical theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He writes regularly at jgduesing.tumblr.com. Follow him on Twitter @JGDuesing.