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Systematic Theology

An overview of the resources for the study of categories common to Systematic I, II, and III

Resources on How to Write a Research Paper

We've all been there. We know (sort of) on what we want to write, but we don't really know how to write it, how to organize our thoughts, or how to organize our research. It's fun to read, but it's another thing to articulate, analyze, and synthesize our thoughts.

Here are some ideas/resources that might help you along the way:

  • John Frame, professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at RTS, wrote a helpful step-by-step process for how to write a theology paper.  You can access it for free here.
  • Michael Jensen (D.Phi. at Moore Theological College) has written a short, topically-arranged book, How To Write a Theological Essay (78+pages), available on reference at SBTS.  Find it here.
  • The Craft of Research, accessed here, gives a book-length treatment of the subject.
  • The Writing Center, located in the library, has a staff dedicated to helping you craft an excellent paper.

Here is some advice regarding Systematic 1, 2, or 3 class papers specifically:

  1. Start Early. Begin planning your paper the day before the first day of the class. You'll get first crack at the books, you'll get to ask the professor about any research "snags" you hit along the way, you'll get plenty of time to edit and refine, you'll learn more about the subject, and you'll finish the assignment stress-free.
  2. Define the question. Every paper seeks to answer a question. The sooner you discover what that question is and the more specific you can make your question, the better off your paper will be. Once you have your question, the answer to that question can be your beginning thesis statement. This thesis statement, with refining, will begin your writing effort on a good foot to having a strong paper.
  3. Discover the lead, competing positions regarding your particular question. This requires reading, and sometimes reading broadly.  You want, in this step, to be able to summarize precisely the arguments/positions regarding your research subject.
  4. Pick a position. Which available position wins out and why? Is there one that is "the best"?
  5. Defend it against the best objections. One common problem of bad theology papers is that students fail to treat their objectors fairly. It doesn't do you or the world any good to argue against a position nobody actually holds. Moreover, it's disingenuous and academically uncouth.

Your paper should not look like your research. It's feasible that your actual paper will look something like this:

  1. Introduction (define the problem), Thesis (state your solution), Methodology (preview how you will demonstrate your Thesis).
  2. Summarize the available and most persuasive positions (including your own).
  3. Support your position.
  4. Defend your position against the best objections.
  5. Conclusion. Restate your position in light of your paper. This is not a simple "copy" and "paste" of your Introduction. It is the final appeal to your readers for why your position is superior in view of all you've just said.

Remember, you are not done until you have edited your paper. Read through it again, editing as you go, and then have someone else read through it so you have another set of eyes looking at what will be the finished product.

Distinction between Primary and Secondary Sources

It is often the case that when doing theological research, it will be important to examine Primary Sources.  A primary source is an author's first-hand account of the event being studied.  Examples include: diaries, letters, journals, memos, interviews, manuscripts, newspaper articles of current events, photographs, records of government agencies like birth or death certificates, and minutes of conferences or agencies. Secondary Sources interpret/analyze the event in question.

Here's a clarifying example from the ATLA website: "A letter from a Union soldier to his wife during the Civil War would be considered a primary document.  A book written by a historian that discusses letters written by soldiers during the Civil War would be a secondary source, even if it includes those letters we consider primary sources. "  The distinction is relevant for researchers because interpretations of primary sources may be incorrect.  If you rely only on secondary sources, your own conclusions may be, consequently, skewed.

For Systematics:

A primary source would be the original (or definitive) edition of a work. Examples (again from the ATLA site) would include:

  1. Ausgewahlte Werke—the 1883 or “Weimar” edition of Martin Luther’s works. (Also available online as a subscription database by Proquest.)
  2. Institutio Christianae Religionis—John Calvin’s Institutes (definitive version in 1559) although the 1560 French edition is also considered definitive.
  3. Grundkurs des Glaubens—Karl Rahner’s  Foundations of Christian Faith in German.
  4. Systematische Theologie—Wolfgang Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology in German.
  5. Kirchliche Dogmatik—Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics in German.
  6. While not a “definitive” edition of their works, many theological librarians use the Christian Classics Ethereal Library to look at the works of the    early church fathers, originally published in print as Early Church Fathers series.

A secondary source would be a later, non-definitive edition, a non-definitive translation, or an examination of a particular facet of the primary source.  For example, Paul Helm's John Calvin's Ideas is a secondary source because it is an analysis of Calvin's works; Balthasar's The Theology of Karl Barth is a secondary source for the same reason.

If you're unsure what an author's primary works are, you can peruse the Enclopedia of Christian Theology by Lacoste or The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought to get an idea of particular theological thinkers and their primary works.  These are helpful, but not comprehensive guides to theological research.  If you ever have trouble finding primary literature, contact a research expert at the library or attempt to dialogue with a researcher in your field of interest.