There is nothing about the Torrey Honors Institute on the rings that its graduates receive. These days, college rings tend to be extravagant monstrosities, massive emblems of school pride and affiliation that protrude from the finger and demand the eye’s attention. Torrey’s, however, are simple, elegant and to the point. Rather than having an emblem or a seal, the thin white gold band has only three words inscribed: Bonum, Veritas, Pulcher, which is Latin for the Good, the True and the Beautiful.

The ring exemplifies what’s unique about Torrey maybe better than anything else. The heartbeat of the program is not so much in the Institute itself, but in that which its members chase. John Mark Reynolds, who founded the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola in 1995, sums it up best.

“The ring,” as he tells it, “expresses a commitment to God to pursue the Good, the True and the Beautiful. But it also represents a commitment to the chums, to continue on as a member of the community.”  

Reynolds’ language isn’t simply a line — it’s one of the pillars that the community rests upon. After all, alumni of the Torrey Honors Institute aren’t called “alumni” at all, but “Perpetual Members.” And we wear our status, like our rings, with a healthy amount of loyal pride.

These are the sort of quirks that can make Torrey difficult to explain to others and so dearly beloved by those — like me — who have made their way through it. At its most basic level, Torrey Honors is a “great books” program, though the phrase barely does it justice. Over their four years, Torrey students read many of the classics that have shaped (broadly) Western civilization, wrangling over them Socratically for three hours at a time with each other and the professors who guide them. As much as is possible, students go through the four years of the program together in a cohort — it is the professors, and not the students, who do the rotating. As a result, the formality of classes slowly recedes while reflective communities are born. As students participate in conversations with the texts, classmates often become friends and professors can transform into peers.

Unlike most other traditional “great books” programs, however, Torrey only provides a general education. Its 60 units are substantive, but the size still ensures that students stay connected with the broader life of Biola University and receive more specialized training through their majors. The program is doubtlessly rigorous, with considerable writing and notetaking requirements, but it hasn’t exactly scared students away. Its first class in 1995 was all of 16 people. Today the program houses 375, making it one of the largest such programs at any Christian college.

Yet while Torrey is an academically serious community, students speak often of the way it shapes their lives well beyond the classroom. As Perpetual Member Katie Geleris (’10) put it, “Torrey gave me a broad view of how to live well in the world, and, most importantly, has helped to orient me toward seeking the glory of God above all else in all that I do.”  

That isn’t to downplay the academics, of course. Geleris herself will be attending law school at the University of Pennsylvania this fall. But the refrain is a regular one.

“The lasting effect of my Torrey education is not just viewing my vocation through the lens of great books but, more importantly, being able to feel the weight of real lives in great ideas,” said Matthew Smith (’05), who has taken a tenure track position teaching English at Azusa Pacific University.

Torrey’s method, then, may be “great books,” but its ends and applications extend well beyond the classroom and the academy. Dustin Steeve (’08) is one such Perpetual Member who has incorporated his education into his vocation. He founded The Delight Group, which he describes as “an app development company built on a premise that technology ought not become more human, but ought to work as a tool to aid us in becoming more human.” Others have cultivated similar approaches in medicine, media, politics and (among others) that most important of spheres — the home.

The texture of Torrey Honors is largely, though by no means exclusively, a result of the vision and guidance of Reynolds. Reynolds is a throwback to an earlier era, a professor with an irrepressible and irresistible charisma who would have students reading Plato closely one minute while jovially discussing the subtleties of Disney films the next. Which is why his announcement earlier this year that he is leaving Biola to become the provost at Houston Baptist University was felt so deeply among both students and Perpetual Members. He was leader of our community in more than name only. His passion for journeying with students to discover the Good, the True and the Beautiful in the face of God was infectious in all the right ways.

a professor and students talking around a table

Leaders like Reynolds are, of course, irreplaceable. But the faculty he leaves behind is one of the strongest testaments to the quality of the program he has built. It is, as theologian Fred Sanders put it, “a really deep bench of faculty talent.” And he of all people should know. Having found impressive success both academically and for laypeople, Sanders is himself among Torrey’s most visible rising stars.

What’s more, despite the loss there will be a good deal of continuity in the director’s chair. Paul Spears, who will be replacing Reynolds as director, has been teaching within the program since 1998.  

“Paul has been a director” of Torrey, Reynolds said upon the announcement, “and now he becomes the director.”  

A past recipient of Biola’s teaching award, Spears wrote the book on Christian education — literally. Education for Human Flourishing, which he co-authored with Steven Loomis (M.A. ’96, ’98), lays out the vision for education that Torrey embodies. And as he argues there, learning isn’t simply technical competence or mastery.

“For learning to contribute to human development and flourishing,” he writes, “education as an institution requires conditions of practice and knowledge that are grounded in the Christian liberal arts tradition.”

Spears, like Reynolds before him, sees Torrey’s mission as far broader than simply reading “great books.”  

“Torrey is more about giving students tools to be reflective individuals who can serve God and his kingdom,” said Spears.

Yet he is explicit that the focus on helping students discern their vocation within the community can’t replace the pursuit of excellence.

“The more we can get our students imbibing from the well of excellence,” he tells me, “the better off they will be.”

As a practitioner, Spears has already been at work digging this well. He founded Torrey Cambridge, a summer program at Britain’s prestigious university, in hopes that the exposure to the town and academic community there would expand students’ horizons of excellence.

Torrey’s opportunity, however, extends even beyond the experience of the students who are currently in it. Even with the loss of Reynolds, the program remains one of the most invigorating and exciting endeavors in Christian higher education.

Of course, in an important sense, Torrey is not all that special.

“We were,” as my friend Barak Wright (’11) pointed out, “just students — curious, ambitious, and finally, happy to be called together, to learn from the very talented men and women who have dedicated much of their lives to serving the students at Biola.”

And yet, as I grow older, I am increasingly aware of how rare a community of learners with a shared history and common objects of love is in this world, and that is what Torrey provided us.

Even though the story of the Torrey Honors Institute deserves a broader audience, the moment the point becomes about Torrey or Biola then it will no longer be worth telling. And here again I am reminded of the understated and subtle beauty of the Torrey ring. The friendships that we forged in Torrey, the books that we read, the joys and sorrows that we shared — they are voices calling us “further up and further in,” as C.S. Lewis would put it. The well that the program points to is not, ultimately, that of excellence but the one that springs up with eternal life and consummates the goods that we have begun to taste here below. And even if that story is never told or the world never comes to understand, those who call themselves “chums” and “Perpetual Members” will know well the goods we have tasted and be content in our longing for the day when we will see the Good, True and Beautiful in the face of Jesus Christ.

Matthew Lee Anderson is a Perpetual Member of the Torrey Honors Institute and an alumnus of Biola University (’04). He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why our Bodies Matter to our Faith (Bethany House) and will be attending Oxford University this fall.


A Transition for Torrey

Outgoing director: John Mark Reynolds

John Mark Reynolds

John Mark Reynolds founded Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute in 1995 and has served as director ever since. In his seventeen years of leading Torrey, Reynolds assembled a team of exceptional faculty “tutors” and helped make the Torrey program a nationally recognized “great books” program, drawing high quality students from all over the world to Biola. A prolific blogger, author and columnist for the Washington Post, Reynolds became one of Biola’s most recognized and respected faculty names during his 17-year tenure. In June, he departed Biola to become provost at Houston Baptist University.

“Outside my family, Torrey Honors is the best thing to happen to me so far,” wrote Reynolds in a blog post announcing his departure. “The chance to start Torrey and work with the chums has been the greatest honor of my life.”

Incoming director: Paul Spears

Paul Spears

Stepping into Reynolds’ shoes as Torrey’s new director is Paul Spears, who has been a fixture in Torrey since nearly the beginning, having taught in the program since 1998. Spears is an expert in the philosophy of education and co-wrote Education for Human Flourishing: A Christian Perspective (InterVarsity Press, 2009). In 2009 he was honored by his peers with the Provost Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching. During his time in Torrey, Spears — who was once a youth minister — led groups of students to Mongolia to work with Campus Crusade for Christ.

“Paul Spears got his job by being a servant and he is fit to lead for that reason,” said Reynolds. “He is a gentleman and scholar, a rare enough combination. As a perpetual member of Torrey myself, I am delighted Paul Spears will lead us. I look forward to seeing what he will do. The future is bright!”