The perennial problem of the seminary student: what does it mean to write a good theology paper and how do you go about doing it?
Although there really is no definitive answer to such questions, here’s an older article that John Frame wrote describing How to Write a Theology Paper. He explains the 11 steps that he goes through in writing the paper and offers some good thoughts for any seminary student looking for tips on how to write a good paper.
At one point, he explains the importance of offering your own argument and not just re-stating the opinions and ideas of other people:
Furthermore, every paper should contain something of the theologian himself. It is rarely sufficient simply to tell the reader what someone else says (an “expository paper,” as I call it). Nor, in seminary level papers, is it adequate to write down a series of “standard” arguments on an issue—arguments that have been used time and time again. I describe papers of that sort as “party lines.” Party lines are often useful; it is good to have at your fingertips the standard arguments for infant baptism, for example. I myself use this kind of argument frequently in talking with inquirers. But generally, party-line arguments do not belong in theological papers. Expositions, summaries, surveys, party lines—all of these are essentially regurgitations of ideas obtained from other sources. They involve little analytical or critical thinking. But such thinking is precisely what is needed, if the paper is to represent an advance in the church’s knowledge.
You’ll need to read his paper to see his whole process, but here are the 11 steps that he suggests.
- Choose a topic with care.
- Understand your sources.
- Write down what you find interesting.
- Ask questions about your sources.
- Formulate a critical perspective on your sources.
- Organize your notes according to topics of interest.
- Ask, then, What do I want to tell my audience on the basis of my research?
- Be self-critical.
- Decide on an audience.
- Decide on a format and style.
- Produce your formulation.
- Kyle Roberts offers some reflections on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together for responding to violence and brokenness as a Christian community.
Christian community is not some lofty ideal, but an objectively real “divine reality” (p. 26). This means that when we experience disillusionment with another individual in the community, when fragmentation occurs, all that is destroyed is the illusion of a utopian, harmonious existence. The reality—a real community of sinners saved miraculously by God’s grace—remains intact
- Bill Mounce deals with what it means to say that we “are being saved” in 1 Cor. 15:2. (Andrew Perriman offers a very different perspective.)
For me, it is Jesus’ gate and path analogy. Being a Christian is a being a follower of Jesus. You start following at the gate, continue following as you walk along the path, and at the end of the path of perseverance is life. So for me, it is easy to say that while I celebrate the finished work of Christ on the cross and the underserved, grace-filled, regenerative work of the Holy Spirit at my conversion, there is a very real sense in which my salvation is an ongoing process culminating in glorification, provided of course that I hold fast to the gospel.
- Madeleine Flanagan reflects on The Importance of Critical Engagement. Citing one study regarding teens in the church:
The study indicates that students actually grow more confident in their Christian commitment when the adults in their life — parents, pastors, teachers — guide them in grappling with the challenges posed by prevailing secular worldviews. In short, the only way teens become truly “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks” (1 Pet. 3:15) is by wrestling honestly and personally with the questions.
- According to a new study in the Journal of Personality, students crave boosts in self esteem through praise and good grades more than just about anything – including sex and money. (HT)
- Psychology Today offers some tips on How to Recognize When You’re on the Road to Burnout. (HT)
- And Texas is currently dealing with the 11th plague: wild pigs.
This series has ended up being much longer than I’d originally anticipated. So, I thought I would compile a list of all the posts in one place to make them a little easier to access. I’ll do this again once I’m all done (assuming I ever finish).
- Tips for the ThM – part 1 (journal articles)
- Tips for the ThM – part 2 (strong arguments)
- Tips for the ThM – part 3 (concise arguments)
- Tips for the ThM – part 4 (criticism)
- Tips for the ThM – part 5 (concise answers)
- Tips for the ThM – part 6 (I don’t know)
- Tips for the ThM – part 7 (summarizing research)
- Tips for the ThM – part 8 (writing proposals)
- Tips for the ThM – part 9 (the proposal process)
- Tips for the ThM – part 10 (picking a topic)
- Tips for the ThM – part 11 (finding a topic)
Many of the Th.M. research papers that I read manifest a common problem; they lack a clear, strong argument. Instead, students seem to prefer research papers that are more summative or explorative. Papers like this will sometimes explicitly declare their intent to “explore” a topic: “This paper will explore John Calvin’s view of predestination.” Others, will take a more indirect route and just start summarizing out of the gate. (Biblical Theology and history papers are particularly prone to this.) Either way, rather than staking out a position, these papers just summarize data.
There is nothing wrong with providing a good summary. Indeed, that is often critical for writing an effective paper. If you are dealing with a complex issue on which there are multiple perspectives, you need a good summary to orient yourself and your readers on the topic. But, a good summary is not enough for a quality research paper. That’s only the first step. The more significant part of the project comes when you identify the position that you will take.
That’s why writing a thesis statement for your paper is so important. The thesis statement clearly communicates what your are doing with the paper. If you have a weak thesis statement (“I will explore…” or “This paper will look at…”), you will have a weak paper. A strong thesis statement, on the other hand, makes an explicit claim that must then be supported and defended through the course of the paper. Something like, “I will argue that John Calvin’s view of predestination was more biblical and less speculative than that of later interpreters like William Perkins.” Or, “In this paper, we will see that Richard Muller’s arguments regarding the faithfulness and accuracy of Calvin’s later interpreters are correct.” If I took a little more time, I’m sure I could come up with better examples of strong thesis statements. But, you get the point. Make a claim. It doesn’t need to be a new claim, but it does need to be one that you will argue and defend in the paper.
A good Th.M. research paper, then, should clearly stake out a position, interact with the primary data/opinions that both support and contradict that position, and conclude with a statement of how all of this leads to the conclusion drawn in the paper. Don’t get cute. These are not creative writing classes. A good research paper can serve as the foundation for a more creative writing project later. For now, focus on developing a solid argument that is clearly explained and well defended.