October 17, 2017

C. Michael Patton of Reclaiming the Mind Ministries: The Internet Monk Interview

michaelp.jpgMy guest today is C. Michael Patton, President of Reclaiming the Mind Ministries and one of the best theology teachers you will ever hear. He also does several podcasts and writes at Parchment and Pen blog. Michael is one of the sanest, most helpful voices in the Christian blogosphere and I’m honored to have him at IM today.

(You are looking at the only existing photo of Michael. I almost posted one of the thousands of pictures of former Faith No More lead singer, Michael Patton.)

Thanks for being with us today, Michael. First, tell the IM audience a little bit about yourself, your family and your Christian journey.

Thanks for having me Michael. I am a 35 year old husband and father of four children. I live in Norman Oklahoma (the football capital of the world!) and am the President of Reclaiming the Mind Ministries. When I am not profoundly thinking about some theological issue I can be found wasting my time thinking about some theological issue. But, you might also find me watching Smallville, 24, Ghosthunters, collecting super hero figures, or playing Wii with my 4 year old son.

I came to Norman from Frisco TX where I was a pastor for 6 years. It was there that I started The Theology Program (www.reclaimingthemind.org/ttp/home), the flagship of Reclaiming the Mind Ministries. Now I spend my days teaching classes onsite and online, interviewing scholars, and doing my best to maintain our blog (which I simply copied off you ).

How did The Theology Program begin and what is your basic vision of its purpose?

The Theology Program is a six course program of systematic, historic, and apologetic theology created for those who may not ever go to seminary. We have over a thousand local churches that use the material and we also host classes online.

It began in 1999 as I sat in Dr. John Hannah’s class at Dallas Theological Seminary. It was a class in historic theology. I think he was lecturing about the development of theology during the early church or something like that. All I remember thinking was that this was the greatest stuff I had ever heard. Most of all I thought to myself, Why haven’t I heard this before? Yes, I was a good, conservative, evangelical, but everything that I believed was from what I like to call “cut-and-paste” theology. I was never really challenged the way that I was being challenged. I was never challenged to think for myself.

It was bitter-sweet. It was bitter because I just like to confirm my prejudice. Give me what I already know and I will give you an “amen.” I think we are all like that to some degree. But Dr. Hannah was not that kind of teacher. He would not let us settle for any status quo thinking. He challenged us to question what we believed so that we could really believe it. It was sweet because it built my faith. In some sense my mind was being aligned with my heart. My heart always said “This is true,” but my mind was never really there . . . at least in the way that it was becoming.

Anyway, I thought that it was tragic that the most people can expect in the educational program of the church was some form of “cut-and-paste theology.” People need to be challenged—really challenged. Yes, it is risky, but in the end we need to do this if we are going to love our God with our mind.

That is why I created The Theology Program. I hope it challenges people’s thinking in a way that honors God.

What would Reclaiming the Mind Ministries like to do that it’s not doing now? Any future plans you can share with us?

Yes, there are so many things, but two primary things that stand out:

1) Focus on children. We want all people to be equipped to honor God with their minds. This includes children. Our desire is to create an entire children’s ministry that not only teaches children, but gives parents the resources to teach them as well. Habits start early and we need to make theology accessible to everyone, especially those who are going to encounter and engage a hostile world. As we have envisioned this (and begun to implement), we want there to be videos, books, and blogs that focus on theological development for children in a way that they will be excited to learn.

2) Get The Theology Program into more local churches in a formal way. Many in the Evangelicalism are justly criticizing the church for not having enough depth in its thinking. We think we provide this. While the pulpit is an incredible place to encourage and exhort, it is not a great venue for education and discipleship of the mind. It is not an education venue. The Theology Program provides a serious and fun venue for theological education. As Bible Study Fellowship has become to studying the Bible, we would like The Theology Program to be toward the study of theology. Theology is not the end, but it does create a necessary foundation in which all of our actions take root.

One of the things you share with the IM audience is some ambiguity about evangelicalism. From your perspective, what’s happening with evangelicalism now that concerns you most?

We have an identity crisis. It is that simple. We don’t know who we are. Ask ten people for a definition of Evangelicalism and you will find ten different answers. For some evangelicals the Gospel has been lost to the entertainment business. For others it is a means to justify consumerism. And still, for others, it is an obscure journey without a destination or reliable map. We need to reclaim the center once again.

At the heart of evangelicalism is the Gospel. At the heart of the Gospel is the truth about God and man. God is holy, righteous, and loving. You lose one of these and you have lost the Gospel. Humans have dignity as God’s image bearers, yet they have been corrupted with sin. God’s Son is our only hope for restoration. We must call upon God for mercy. Each one of these components, when lost, produces a different Gospel and, hence, a different Evangelicalism.

If Evangelicalism is to survive (and I believe that it can), we need to get back to the Gospel. If this means that a conversation needs to happen about what the Gospel is, then we need to push for this conversation. But people need to come informed beyond their own subjectivity or we will just have more “gospels” and a greater identity crisis in Evangelicalism.

Your teaching is extremely fair with Roman Catholicism and I don’t believe there is a teacher anywhere who gives a more positive view of Roman Catholicism to his students. Why should an evangelical Protestant care about Roman Catholic theology, history and claims?

Roman Catholicism has a rich history. It is part of our past. While we, as Protestants, may reject their view of authority and justification, we must also understand that at the center of our theology, we are very much alike. To the Roman Catholic, Christ is the God-man who died on the cross for our sins. When someone believes this, I have to respect that God is at work to some degree and the Gospel is present in some sense.

Yes, the differences are important and there are reasons why I am not Roman Catholic, but we also need to see that we often say the same things using different language. The divide may be there, but we often make it wider and more hostile than it needs to be through polemic misrepresentation. Both sides have caricatures of the other that do not honor God.

It is often said that to be a good Protestant means that you are also a good anti-Catholic. I don’t think this is the case. I think that we can learn to appreciate what the other contributes to the Body of Christ without compromising the differences. Therefore, we need to understand each other deeply before we are qualified to give a profitable critique that honors God.

You’ve spent a lot of time writing about the emerging church, and the Theology Unplugged series on the emerging church is wonderful. (As is the series on Roman Catholicism.) Why should we be paying attention to the emerging church when so many evangelical leaders, like John Macarthur, are telling us to avoid it as postmodern poison?

Thanks Michael. I think that if we all look deeply inside ourselves, we will find that we are more emerging than we think. Emergers have a critique of the church that needs to be listened to. No, not listened to in the sense that you are going to tolerate their complaints with your arms crossed objecting in your mind at every point—but really listen. I think that there is going to be a knee jerk reaction when the curtain is pulled down on our own institutionalized way of thinking. The emerging church is pulling the curtain down on the evangelical faith and, frankly, I don’t think that many are confident enough to be exposed. They just want to put the curtain back up.

While there many things that I am uncomfortable with concerning the emerging church, I understand the way they think and why they have the issues they do. I have many of the same issues. Critique is always good, especially when it comes from the outside. The postmodern world is looking on from the outside at cultural Christianity and has many things to say. Those on the outside should not determine who we are, but they certainly have a voice that God can use. We need to listen. Some may listen to this voice on the outside too closely and let it set our countenance. Others plug their ears, having dug their trenches and built their walls. Both are wrong reactions.

If “emerger” simply means that we are reformed and always reforming, I am in. But if it means an embittered disrespectful and radical call for change because we are wounded, then I am not. Sometimes the movement seems very wise—very evangelical. Others times it sounds like a teenager throwing a fit. Either way, both sides to listen to each other.

There are less than 10 Eastern Orthodox churches in my state. Why do I need to know about Eastern Orthodox Christianity?

Eastern Orthodoxy is one of those traditions in Christianity that most Evangelicals know very little about. This is not necessarily our fault as the Orthodox Church has not been overly evangelistic with their faith. Yet, like Roman Catholicism, they share in many of the great and biblical truths along with Evangelicals. Many would think of Eastern Orthodoxy as Roman Catholicism without a pope. Setting aside how significant a change this would really be (Roman Catholics without a Pope!), I think we fail to realize how different the Orthodox church is from Catholicism. In fact, they, in my opinion they are much closer to the Evangelicalism of the Reformers than they are to Catholics.

The primary reason I would say that we need to be familiar with the Orthodox Church is because they are part of our heritage. They contribute to the body of Christ in a unique way. Again, there are going to be some important differences (like their view of the atonement, imputed sin, nuances of grace, and emphasis on theosis), but we must recognize how significant it is that they worship the God-man, Jesus Christ, and believe that we are without hope outside of God’s mercy. I think that we can learn from their perspective if we simply learn how to talk to each other. This does not mean we compromise at every turn, but we need to open the door for God to change us through their counsel. They need to be ready for the same.

You’re one of those characters who claims to be both a Calvinist and a dispensationalist. How do you respond to folks who say that’s illegal and impossible?

Lol. Well, most would say this simply because many of the most vocal dispensationalists in the fifties and sixties were four point Calvinists, rejecting Limited atonement in favor of unlimited atonement. What is “illegal” from the perspective of many Calvinists is that you cannot be a Calvinist without accepting all five points. Setting aside the fact that there can be four-point Calvinists (I can introduce you to some!), there is absolutely no necessary connection between dispensationalism and unlimited atonement. As the philosophers might put it, unlimited atonement is neither a necessary nor a necessarily sufficient condition for dispensationalism!

I am a five point Calvinist who is also a dispensationalist. I know many who are. Although, to be honest, this term—“dispensationalism”—is so misunderstood that I don’t like to call myself such unless greatly qualified.

You’ve written a number of confessional pieces on your blog. One was an extended description of the difficulties you had in leaving some of your pre-Christian behaviors and gaining consistency and maturity. What are you wanting to communication with that kind of writing? (Which we do appreciate here.)

You are right Michael. My past tends to haunt me. I am not sure if it is simply a thorn in the flesh or something about which I need counseling! Often I say to myself, “Michael, you are neither a pastor, nor the son of a pastor. Who are you kidding?”—much less a theologian or the son of a theologian.

I write about my past for two reasons: 1) I really do struggle with it. 2) I want others to read my story and see that maybe they are not the only ones who think of themselves as insufficient to do anything for God.

I have a love-hate relationship with my feelings. Do I want to be relieved of them? Not really. I need them to kick my legs out from under me when I am at the throne of God.

You’ve also written about family difficulties with the loss of family members and coping with your mom after a severe stroke. Has does this fit into your calling as a theologian?

When I read this question, I had to take a break. Picture me reading this and taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. You know, that involuntary response of emotion that often slips out and lets you and others know that this affects you in a special way?

It is my daily motivation, Michael. This world is really tough. There are no guarantees. When tragedy impales you on the stake of pain, that is when you find out what you believe—what you really believe. I have seen too many people go through difficulties and leave their faith in disillusionment. I don’t want people to have the wrong expectations of who God is or what he is doing or is going to do.

Misplaced hope is the fountain of disillusionment. We need to know what God has said and, just as important, what he has not said. Then we can trust him the right way so that when these difficulties come, we are more prepared because we have a different perspective.

Before you go, tell our readers how they can use The Theology Program in their church or ministry.

Thanks Michael. There are three ways you or your church can get involved in The Theology Program:

1) Take an online course. We offer courses every Spring and Fall semester. The online courses include live interaction with the professor and other students.

2) Facilitate The Theology Program at your church. This is the way most churches do it. There are six courses each with ten sessions each. You can get the DVDs of these sessions being taught by myself and Rhome Dyck (very high quality DVDs). Then you watch the session on a set day or night with your group, after which you facilitate discussion using the discussion questions provided in the Student Workbook. The success of this has been phenomenal.

3) Teach The Theology Program yourself. We will qualify and/or train you to teach the program at your church.

To find out more about starting The Theology Program in your church contact Rhome Dyck at rhomed@reclaimingthemind.org.

If you want to email me about The Theology Program, please feel free to do so: michaelp@reclaimingthemind.org. Don’t hesitate.
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Thanks, Michael for a great interview. I’d like to recommend everything Michael and RTM does as well worth your time. The Theology Program materials are the finest theological education available without going to seminary. No competition. The material is far beyond the average college and Bible school. Frankly, it’s better than what many of us received in seminary. The DVDs are perfect for class use.

You can view everything RtM produces at the web site. If you have access to a group or a church that could benefit from these materials, take a view moments to show them to your pastor or Christian education director. No denomination I know of is producing materials of this high quality and content.

All of the podcasts are good, but I want to especially recommend some of the archived series of Theology Unplugged. The series on the Emerging Church is the best thing I’ve ever heard on the subject. Rhome and Michael far surpass anyone writing on the EC in intelligent analysis and helpful explanation. Some prominent bloggers should invest a day and learn a bit about the emerging church before they write about it. Their series on Roman Catholicism is likewise outstanding and helpful.

All those programs and more available at the show’s archive.

Comments

  1. Michael,

    Thanks so much for this wonderful interview. I really appreciated Michael Patton’s comments on the importance of good Theology, Catholicism, the EO Church, and the Emergers. Oh well, I enjoyed it all. One word seems to sum up his views…balanced. Would that all of God’s people would strive for a faith that is a nice blend of solid truth and abundant grace. Grace and Truth. Seems like I remember those two terms used to describe another One of inestimable importance.

    Press on!

  2. Thanks for posting this interview. Michael Patton is indeed a fine teacher. I’ve benefited greatly from his writings and podcasts. His taste in television is impeccable, and he also bears a striking resemblance to the actor Cary Elwes (has anyone else noticed this?).

  3. I was not familiar with C. Michael Patton prior to this interview but “reclaiming the mind” is an interesting and worthwhile concept for a ministry. Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind took a well-thought-out look at the Evangelical mind and I think is an excellent exposé of the historical roots of the problem.

    I’m not sure from the interview with Mr. Patton, or from my brief visit to his web site, what his take is on this. I really agree with Mark Noll that the fundamental (no pun intended) problem when the Evangelical mind is the Church’s on again, off again love affair with Gnostic Dualism. Since the Second Great Awakening went to seed at the end of the nineteenth century, it seems that the love affair has been “on.”

    My point is, the problem with the Christian mind is not simply the Church is failing to teach their people at a scholarly level, but it has to do with their foundational philosophical paradigm. With Dualistic tainted glasses, the line of demarcation, between the good and evil (or at least the good and insignificant), is along altitudinal lines. According to that view, the brain/mind is of the body, which is of the material world, thus not that important. The soul is of the heavenly, thus of far great importance (Plato is smiling here).

    Practically, in the everyday Evangelical world, this translates to knowledge (in the Gnostic sense, unlearned, straight from God knowledge) supersedes real Knowledge (of the brain/mind) which is learned through disciplined study. Therefore “God speaking directly to me” in my quiet time that I should do, or think, X, Y or Z is considered far more spiritual, than studying history, philosophy, arts or even theology. Instead of spending the effort of reading books . . . lots of them, books by early church fathers, great theologians, philosophers, politicians and just great authors (and depending on God’s grace to show me the truth) . . . it’s much easier to roll my eyes into the back of my head, place my palms into the air and receive (Gnostic “truth”) directly from God.

    Besides replacing objective, learned truth with subjective Gnostic truth . . . there has also been the tendency to replace (objective) intellectual conviction with subjective dogma. In other words, “I believe such and such because my denomination tells me to,” not because of personal study.

    So, if Mr. Patton is attempting, in his ministry, to bring the church back to the view that God has given us a wonderful mind (not just “us” Christians, but all created people) that is to be used to study, learn and seek truth again . . . then he’s got my vote for president.

  4. excellent. thanks for this. really good!