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A New Kind of Theological Master’s Degree

October 30th, 2018 | 6 min read

By Guest Writer

By Fred Sanders

Biola is launching a new master’s degree, with the first class starting in fall 2019. It’s the Master of Arts, Classical Theology, and it’s a Talbot School of Theology degree, in cooperation with Torrey Honors Institute. I think it’s fair to say that it’s not just a new master’s, but a new kind of master’s.

Since we’re among friends here at Mere Orthodoxy (the Torrey / Mere O connection goes all the way back), I assume there’s a lowered risk of sounding self-indulgent if I share some of the background to this new master’s program. I want to share three elements of that background.

Theology at Biola

First, there’s the immediate origin story, which is about community: In late 2016 I shared the manuscript of my book The Triune God (Zondervan, 2016) with a small group of theological friends here. People like Rob Price, Ryan Peterson, Kyle Strobel, Darian Lockett, Matt Jenson and Adam Johnson had generously helped me by reading and giving feedback on early drafts of some sections. Group discussions in particular had really deepened my understanding of the things I was writing about, and given me confidence to go on.

So among the acknowledgements, I included this line:

The vibrant theological community at Biola University (I speak without irony; come and see) helped guide my thinking in many ways, especially the friends who read portions of the manuscript and offered critical appreciation.

I characterized life at Biola as including “vibrant theological community” out of sheer gratitude, and I threw in the line “I speak without irony” because I think we’ve all heard so much for so long about the scandalous non-existence of the evangelical mind that I felt I should let people know I had actually spotted the evangelical mind in its natural habitat (apparently, La Mirada–who knew?).

But then Kyle Strobel called my bluff: he pointed out that when I invited people to “come and see,” I was issuing an invitation that nobody could accept. Sure, you could come to Biola. But the particular group of people I was lauding were drawn from separate faculties all across campus and were never together in one place in any official capacity. Strobel was in the Institute for Spiritual Formation; Price and Peterson in Talbot grad theology; Lockett in undergrad Bible; Jenson and Johnson in Torrey. Other great theologians were scattered around campus as well. (I promise: as my Dad from Missouri would say, you can’t swing a cat around here without hitting a theologian) Nobody could come hang out with us; we could barely make time to hang out with each other because our own programs pulled in different directions.

“We should do something about that,” one of us said. That was in September 2016, and we have been busy ever since, preparing to do something about that.

Torrey Meets Talbot

That brings me the second element of MACT’s background. It makes use of major, existing, local resources. To put it in terms that make sense to Biolans, it’s Torrey plus Talbot. You could view this MA as a Talbot School of Theology degree that makes use of Torrey Honors Institute techniques: that’s probably the most straightforward way of thinking of it, since it is in fact listed in the Talbot catalog, accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, and administered through Talbot.

But you could also think of it as a Torrey master’s degree, at least if Torrey Honors did a master’s degree focused on theology. Ever since I started working at Torrey (back before the turn of the century), it has been obvious to me that the way Torrey is structured would be an ideal model for seminary education. Torrey Honors Institute does undergrad general education in socratic seminars on great books.

The Christian tradition has a wealth of classic texts that ought to be the foundation of pastoral formation. Of course I mean the Bible, but I also mean the creeds, the writings of the church fathers and medievals, the theology of the Reformation and the masters of the Protestant scholastic movement, etc. A seminary program that focused on reading such things well, and discussing them in community under the guidance of careful tutors… well, that would just work. The only question is, which seminary would have the vision and guts to give it a try? The answer turns out to be Talbot School of Theology.

So you might say the voice is that of Torrey, but the hands are those of Talbot, or maybe vice versa; anyway, it’s a close partnership. I should also add that Torrey Honors itself is currently in the preliminary development stages of its own distinctive master’s degree, which will of course include theology but also take in more of the liberal arts; so if you’re attracted to the MACT only for the Torrey format of it, you should probably wait for more news from Torrey.

I think a lot of students will recognize the inherent value of this degree, and we’ve built it to be the right size for delivering that value: it will teach you how theology is done. We’ve made it a small degree so that nobody can confuse it with an MDiv or one of the other authorized credential standards.

But let’s say somebody takes this little MA, gets a glimpse of the greatness of classical theology, and decides to learn Greek, take practical ministry courses, and get an all-out MDiv. That’s when the MACT’s location in a full-service seminary like Talbot shows itself to be so advantageous. Many courses from the MACT will plug right into the other degrees Talbot offers. I would love to see the MACT serve as a doorway for pastor-theologians in a range of churches.

John Webster Stimulus

The third background element is the influence that the theological vision of the late John Webster exerted on the planners of the degree program. From the late 1990s on, Webster peppered his writings with comments about how theology ought to be studied. He considered himself to have been somewhat theologically mis-educated, in that his formal training included in its very structure so many distractions and deflections from the main task, the serious business, of Christian theology.

In a 2008 interview, Michael Allen and Jason Byassee picked up on this and asked Webster the great question, “If you were just starting out in theology today, what topics and issues would you want to tackle?” Webster’s answer was:

What I didn’t get round to doing when I set out: lots of exegesis, lots of historical theology, mastering the big texts of the traditions of the church. Then I’d be better able to figure out what to do with whatever showed up than I am as I stumble around now trying to work out what I should be about. (“Being Constructive: An Interview with John Webster,” Jason Byassee and Mike Allen, Christian Century June 3, 2008, 34.)

There are, I think, a number of good theology programs that will give you “lots of exegesis, lots of historical theology, mastering the big texts of the traditions of the church.” But the MA Classical Theology is structurally designed for exactly that end: courses in Sacred Page, Common Places, and Master Practitioners, plus an innovative thesis that operates in the mode of theological commentary.

To get to that curricular design, we had to start by breaking the structure of the Berlin model of theological education, a well-established structure which effectively divides the unity of theology into discrete university disciplines. Even in evangelical settings with faithful practitioners, this curricular model is so animated by historicist and naturalist presuppositions that it constantly threatens to dissolve Christian confession.

The MACT is a tiny piece of territory in the landscape of theological education, but we intend for it to be a testing ground where we can carry out some of what Webster described as a “frankly utopian” vision of theological education. In the final chapter (“Scripture, Theology, and the Theological School”) of his 2003 book Holy Scripture, Webster lamented the distortions of the Berlin divisions, and offered a glimpse of hope:

There is no inevitability about these inherited curricular arrangements and their rationale…. They are not a fate; they are simply contingent dispositions of the matter whose momentum derives partly from their establishment in prestigious places of higher learning, partly from the cultural standing of the model of rational activity which undergirds them.

We have thought hard for quite a while about what Webster was getting at in such a passage. We have tried to imagine how we could do something here in Biola’s theological community to move in the direction he indicated. Our next step down this road is the Master of Arts, Classical Theology. Come and see.

Fred Sanders is a systematic theologian who studies and teaches across the entire range of classic Christian doctrine, but with a special focus on the doctrine of the Trinity. He has taught in the Torrey Honors Institute since 1999, and is an amateur historian of Biola’s institutional history. He and his wife Susan live in La Mirada with their two children, Freddy and Phoebe. They are members of Grace Evangelical Free Church.