Systematic theology (ST) has both constructive and descriptive aspects.
As a constructive discipline, ST is the organization of the content of God's revelation under appropriate topical headings. This synthetic activity seeks to organize and structure the teaching of Scripture as a whole. In this sense, ST focuses on understanding the Bible.
In its other aspect, ST serves as a descriptive discipline by accounting for how other theologians, present and past, have organized the Bible's contents. This aspect, the descriptive and historical study of works of ST, is an exercise of humility as the student studies how other Christians have understood the faith.
It is this extended act of careful listening to which the digest assignments of the Westminster ST curriculum are devoted. If carried out rightly, ST digests will help you not to regurgitate facts mindlessly, but to savor, consider and "digest" the thoughts which others have spent their lives developing. Avoiding common digest problems will help you create a summary that is useful for understanding, processing and assessing others' ideas.
What is a Digest?
A systematic theology digest is a short synopsis of a written work. It is not an exhaustive reproduction of the details of a work. Rather, it should include the ideas that are most central, important, or distinctive to the author.
The digest should be the student’s own summary or paraphrase of the author’s main points. Occasionally, brief quotations may be included, if they are properly referenced. The particular format may vary (e.g., paragraph, outline, bullet points), so consult your syllabus for specific guidelines. The Center for Theological Writing offers a guide to digest writing and sample digests to guide you in the writing process. See the CTW Kees site for these resources.
Common Digest Problems
Problem: Running out of time
Solution: Plan ahead
At the beginning of each semester, you will be given all the information you need to plan your work. Read through your syllabus carefully to see when particular readings are due. Make a semester-long reading plan the first week of class, making sure to have all the required readings for each digest finished before the digest due date. As you go through the semester, refer to your reading plan and set weekly deadlines for yourself, making adjustments to your plan as necessary to keep yourself up-to-date. You will avoid falling behind and possibly becoming overwhelmed if you commit to keeping to your plan.
Solution: Have a regular study time and place
When it comes to a lengthy assignment such as reading for digests, consistency is the name of the game. Find a place and time that help you to work efficiently and discipline yourself not to break from your schedule. You will benefit greatly from a habit of regular studying.
Problem: Forgetting what was read before digesting
Solution: Work efficiently
Don’t fall into the trap of allowing a long period of time to elapse between reading and digesting. With all you have to read, you are bound to forget some of the material. Read with pen or computer at hand, noting main points as you go so that you can move quickly into the digest when you finish the selection. Let the title, subheadings, introduction, and conclusion of the selection guide you in remembering its main points.
Problem: All the authors seem to say the same thing
Solution: Bring out distinctive emphases
Since your readings are all about a common topic and most of them are written by Reformed theologians, there will often be overlap between the main points of the different readings. Don’t be afraid to repeat these main points from author to author – you want to summarize what a particular author says, even if it is similar to what the last author said. However, you also want to bring out what is unique to each author as far as emphasis, argumentation, vocabulary, and other aspects are concerned.
Problem: Writing a digest that is too long
Solution: Give yourself a page limit
Decide on the length of your digest before you start writing. If you plan to write a 10-page digest, you cannot afford to devote 4 pages to 10 percent of the material. Make sure you limit each digest entry to a length proportional to the length of the reading.
Solution: Limit yourself to major points
Be concise, but not superficial. Begin each section by stating clearly the main points of the author. Let the title and subheadings of the selection guide you in identifying its main points. Leave out supporting details. You can always add details later, but you can usually communicate a main point without appealing to detailed supporting arguments. Once you have summarized the main points of a particular section of text, go on to the next section. If you have space when you are finished with the entire digest, go back and add more information.
Problem: Difficulty Comprehending Material
Solution: Don’t get stuck
Don’t let difficulty with a particular topic or author keep you from reading and digesting material you do understand.
Solution: Get help
Often a conversation with a fellow student or professor can clarify difficult material. Many ST texts were written long ago, and students often struggle to understand them. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Consult a theological dictionary or recommended websites for help with unfamiliar terms.
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