There is a growing discussion around the need for “Pastor Theologians,” those shepherds who want to be moored deeply to Christianity’s theological heritage and believe that theological depth is intrinsic to the pastoral vocation. To address this need, Biola’s Talbot School of Theology started the Master of Arts — Classical Theology degree, a one-year “great books” degree in partnership with Biola’s Torrey Honors College. Now that we have graduated our first class, we reached out to alumnus Ron Offringa (’20), one of our first graduates, with some questions about his experience.
What attracted you to the classical theology program instead of a more conventional degree?
While there are some advantages to pursuing the Master of Divinity degree, Talbot’s Classical Theology program takes a different approach. First and foremost, there are three types of courses: engagement with a theologian (Master Practitioner), doctrine (Common Places) and Scripture (Sacred Page). Rather than learning from secondary sources, the texts are the primary teachers, which means we were saturated in Patristic, Medieval, Reformed and modern sources. This kind of deep reading of primary texts not only helped me understand the various authors on their own terms, but allowed their thoughts, prayers, and arguments to deeply mold my prayer life, theology and teaching.
Second, some of the aspects of an M.Div., while not technically part of the Classical Theology degree, are present implicitly. Want to learn how to navigate impassioned discussions between parishioners who vehemently disagree with one another? Three hours of discussion on a debated text of Scripture gives excellent practice in learning how to mediate and be a charitable discussion partner. Want to improve your preaching? Read the sermons of the best homilists the Church has ever produced: Origen, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Luther, Edwards, etc. Much of pastoral work is learned on the ground, but there is no substitute for learning to preach and teach from the fathers.
Third, while an M.Div. is traditionally accomplished in three years, the Master of Arts — Classical Theology can be completed in a calendar year. When I entered the program in September 2019, my wife was pregnant with our second child, I had a two-hour commute, and my church was in the middle of searching for a new rector (head pastor). Between my responsibilities as a husband, father, student and music director/administrator at my church, life on its own was overwhelming. Signing up for a three-year degree seemed impossible. For those who are stretched thin with responsibilities but who still desire to be trained theologically, the classical theology program may be the perfect balance of rigor and time commitment.
Did anything surprise you about your time at Talbot?
I think I expected to be a fish out of water. I thought I would be the weird one or that I wouldn’t belong, and I expected hostility or maybe just ambivalence. My expectations could not have been further from the truth. There were moments of difficulty, stress and tension, but those were always overcome by the tender, loving community of students and faculty at Talbot. What I found, much to my surprise, was a place where I felt like I belonged, where I felt safe to be vulnerable, where I could use and sharpen the gifts God has given me. At Talbot I caught a glimpse of the kind of fellowship and contemplation one longs for in the eschaton.
When you think about your classes, classmates and thesis, what would you say to incoming students?
I joined the classical theology program to fulfill some of my educational requirements to be ordained in the Anglican Church in North America. For anyone looking to prepare for ministry, I can’t recommend highly enough the Master of Arts with a focus on Classical Theology program at Talbot. My fellow classmates stunned me with their thoughtful questions and arguments, desire to search for the truth together, and most of all by the deep friendship and camaraderie we shared. The professors were charitable, helpful, challenging and insightful. Dr. Jenson taught me how to read and relate charitably. Dr. Strobel helped me rethink my doctrine of God and taught me to pray in reality, which opened me up to find God’s grace even at my most tired, stressed and angry. Dr. Price showed me how to help people process their ideas in discussions and helped me see the power of vulnerability. Dr. Sanders helped me be a more measured, accurate writer. Dr. Peterson helped me have a deeper appreciation for the importance of anthropology, not only theologically but pastorally. Dr. Johnson taught me how deeply the atonement relates to every other doctrine and helped me fall in love with medieval theology. Dr. Lockett helped me contextualize Scripture within its ecclesial and canonical contexts and gave me a deeper appreciation for bearing one another’s burdens in love. The thesis project was an incredible challenge, but one that forced me to think and read wider than I ever had. It is an excellent capstone to the work one does in the program and good preparation if one wants to eventually pursue doctoral work. In short, I walked away far better prepared for holy orders, yes, but also as a better Christian.
If you could say any one thing about the program to folks who are looking into it, what would you want them to know?
I believe this program has been, and will continue to be, one of the main gifts God has given me in my pursuit of obeying his call on my life. I am a better husband, father, minister, and Christian because of this program. My time at Talbot in the classical theology program facilitated and enabled some of the most transforming work that God has done in my life. If you’re considering it, apply. You won’t regret it.
Dcn. Ron Offringa serves as assisting clergy of Christ’s Church Yucaipa (ACNA). He is a transitional Deacon in the Diocese of Western Anglicans. He and his wife Katelyn are raising their three children in Yucaipa, CA. Ron was one of the first two graduates of Talbot's Master of Arts — Classical Theology program.
For more information, visit Talbot’s Classical Theology Degree.