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Sources that Guide Theological Research


Conducting research is integral to reflecting on and learning about God and God’s world. Thorough research of any subject requires attention to the various sources of knowledge that God has instituted, including Scripture, experience, reason, and tradition. While it is impossible to engage any of these sources in isolation from the others, it is helpful to consider how each individually contributes to guiding the research process. 

Scripture

Sources for Research - ScriptureJohn Calvin famously observed that Scripture provides the “spectacles” through which Christians are enabled to see the world as God intends (Institutes I.vi.1).  The Bible is applicable to understanding all of life, from ancient history to modern psychology, because it weaves a story as big as the universe—a story of a world that belongs to God, is governed by Him, and is redeemed and made new by Him in Christ.  Although the Bible does not speak to all aspects of life equally or in the same way, its general principles are nevertheless relevant to every subject and endeavor. In the realm of theological study, the revelation of Scripture occupies a central focal point. Nevertheless, among the various theological disciplines, the scriptures are consulted for slightly different (though interrelated) purposes.

  • Exegetical papers require the careful, in-depth study of a particular passage, and in some cases several passages, in relation to the surrounding contexts. Research for an exegetical paper involves investigation into the meanings of key words and the structure of a passage, with a view toward understanding what the human author  meant by what is written. This research is aided by commentaries, lexicons, and other biblical studies resources.

  • Biblical theology papers require you to study the scriptures more globally, looking for how themes and ideas are developed throughout the whole Bible. Concordances are very helpful for biblical theology research, as are theological dictionaries like the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery and the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology

  • Systematic theology papers (other than ST Digests) require you to consult the Bible to develop, explain, defend, or critique issues in theology. This is especially the case when taking ST mid-term and final exams (see Writing for Blue Book Examinations). As you consider how the scriptures should inform sound doctrine, you should try to familiarize yourself with what other theologians and exegetes have said about the passages you are studying by consulting systematic theological books and treatises, as well as notes from classroom lectures.

  • Papers on practical theology (including counseling and urban mission) often require you to understand how biblical passages should give guidance to practical ministry situations, such as leading a congregation, evaluating ministries, providing counsel to individuals. You might be required to discuss a theology of ministry that provides guiding principles for ministry situations, or to consider how Scripture might be directly utilized in conducting that ministry—i.e. how a sermon text might apply to a congregation or what biblical passages might be relevant for a counselee struggling with a particular issue. Doing this well requires wisdom and skill in negotiating the questions asked by biblical and systematic theology, but also moving beyond these questions to the application of the Bible. Reading the Bible for its relevance to practical life is a challenging but very important task of biblical research.

  • Apologetics papers may, in the sense described above, be considered specialized instances of applied or practical theology. In apologetic exercises, the Bible itself may be discussed as a topic relevant to the apologetic discussion (i.e. “what does the Bible say about the possibility and limits of human knowledge?”).  When approaching the Bible in this way, apologetics is similar to systematic theology. But apologetics also moves beyond these questions and seeks to discern which biblical passages are most applicable to the root issues affecting the person or viewpoint being engaged. The apologist is therefore, when using the Bible, much like a counselor who must choose her words and biblical references carefully, sparingly, and in prayerful reliance upon wisdom from the Holy Spirit.

  • Church history is slightly different than the other theological disciplines in that its work is generally descriptive, rather than constructive and is not directly focused on Scripture. Nevertheless, studying the history of the church involves understanding how the church has understood and interpreted the Bible through time. Church historians must be familiar with the various hermeneutical strategies employed by theologians to understand how a particular thinker read the scriptures, even as they are attentive to the historical forces that affect how leaders of the church have read and applied the Bible.

Experience

All theological study is engaged, in some way, with human experience. Your own experience and the experiences of others are often useful sources to consider when approaching writing projects. This is especially the case when writing about topics related to religious experience (like the practice of Christian hospitality, the struggle Paul describes in Romans 7, or the doctrine of assurance).

Experience is also a useful resource for writing projects that urge a particular viewpoint or action (such as counseling papers, ministry proposals, sermons, or apologetic discussions). As a writer, you share with your readers some common experience of God and of the world, and the ability to employ this common experience to give insight into your topic of discussion can make your writing tangible and winsome. Likewise, an awareness of the different experiences of others can shed new light on the questions relevant to your topic and help you to balance the insights from different sets of experience in your writing.

One must always remember that experience is an inherently subjective source of knowledge—one that can cloud, as well as clarify, our understanding of truth. Experience alone is seldom a compelling or sufficient source for theological reflection, and a humble appreciation of this limitation needs to underlie your writing.

Reasoning

The definition and role of reason in the study of God and the world is variously understood in different theological and philosophical traditions. (For a helpful discussion of the place of reason in Reformed theology, see Professor Scott Oliphint’s Reasons for Faith.)

Reason is essentially an aid to reflection upon revelation and experience.  Rather than a source of knowledge per se, reason is an intellectual tool that organizes our thoughts, ideas, observations, and questions about God and the world. Sound reasoning follows the rules of logic and aims at a clear presentation of facts and ideas.

Certain research projects (especially in apologetics) will require you to analyze the strength of a writer’s arguments by paying careful attention to how those arguments are structured. That is, you must often test a writer’s reasoning and determine whether it is trustworthy. But this means that first you must understand how an author is reasoning. Not every thinker reasons in the same way, and your attention to how a writer develops his thoughts is in important step toward appraising the validity and usefulness of his conclusions.

For helpful categories to use when dealing with logic and rhetoric, see The Uses and Abuses of Argument, by Stephen S. Carey. 

 Tradition

Identifying “tradition” as a source for research and reflection is a way of recognizing the value of the experience, reasoning, and scriptural interpretation of other people. That is, tradition tells you what other thinkers, both present and past, have said regarding the topic you are researching. All research, in this sense, is an engagement with traditions of some sort.

Knowing, like any other human endeavor, is a human action conducted in relation to others. As you conduct your research, you will choose to read some books and articles and will discard and ignore others. Reflecting on which traditions you engage and which you avoid can be an act of self-awareness that can help to identify additional questions or issues that might balance your writing.

  • Which voices have the most prominent place in your analysis? Which voices have you not listened to carefully enough?
  • What additional questions would you need to consider if you engaged the concerns of another tradition or group of people?
  • How would this engagement strengthen your writing and give it broader appeal?

Questions like these can help guide your research, test the adequacy of your ideas, and strengthen your writing.

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