Adapted by Dr. J. Michael Utzinger from Erskine Theological Seminary's "Writing Theological Papers," primarily authored by Dr. Don Fairbairn (Used and adapted with permission).
This document is designed to help students prepare and write the various types of papers they will be called upon to submit while participating in religion courses at Hampden-Sydney College. The document does not cover all types of assignments, or even all possible types of papers, but it does cover the main types of papers that will be expected of students. The syllabi for the various courses will give guidance regarding the degree to which the student will be expected to follow or use this document for a given assignment.
A. General Description of a Religion Paper
At Hampden-Sydney College a religion paper is a piece of written work dealing with a question or issue that is related to Christian theology and ethics, biblical studies, American and historical studies of religion, and world religions.
B. Elements of a Religion Paper
Regardless of the topic, writing a religion paper involves at least two of the following four elements:
It is crucial for the student to learn these four elements in order and to recognize that if a paper involves one of these elements, it also involves the element(s) that follow. A paper that involves research necessarily also involves reporting, analysis, and reflection. A paper that involves reporting necessarily also involves analysis and reflection. In other words, it is never sufficient simply to gather information, or even to report that information clearly. An adequate religion paper always involves analysis and reflection, even if it does not always involve research or even reporting.
From these four elements come three distinct kinds of religion papers: reflection papers (which actually include analysis and reflection), reports (which include reporting, analysis and reflection), and research papers (which include all four elements).
With this preliminary discussion of theological papers in mind, the student is ready for the process of carrying out an assignment and producing the paper that emerges from it. The basic steps in this process include understanding the assignment, choosing the topic, gathering information, and organizing and writing the paper.
A. The Type of Paper Expected
The first step in preparing a good paper is understanding what type of paper the professor is asking the student to write. Is the professor calling for a research paper, a report, or a reflective paper? Determining this enables the student to know which of the elements described above need to be included in the paper. (Again, remember that all papers involve analysis and reflection, that reports also involve reporting of information, and that research papers involve all four elements.) Normally the assignment will make this clear. Even if the professor does not use the words "research paper," "report," or "reflective paper," it will be readily apparent what type of paper he/she expects if the student pays attention to the way the assignment is written.
B. The Scope of the Paper
Understanding the assignment also requires that the student grasp the intended scope of the paper, as indicated by the page range the professor stipulates. If the assignment calls for a short paper (say, 3-6 pages) and calls for research, then the student knows that the expected research is to be very general and need involve only a handful of sources. If a research paper is to be 10-15 pages, then considerably more detailed research is required, involving a number of different sources. A report or a reflective paper is generally shorter than a research paper of comparable depth. Five pages would be a fairly long reflective paper, a moderate-length report, but a short research paper. By paying attention both to the length stipulated and the type of paper called for, the student is able to get a feel for how much depth he/she is expected to muster in the paper. (Please note that when the professor stipulates a set page number, this does NOT include the title page or the bibliography. The number of pages stipulated refers to the number of pages in the paper itself.)
C. The Relation between Topic and Sub-Questions
A third factor in understanding the assignment is interpreting the way the professor delineates the topic and the sub-questions related to that topic. (Obviously, this step does not apply if the professor gives the student the freedom to choose his/her own topic.) Often the professor will give a general topic and then pose several specific sub-questions about that topic. The student should then pay careful attention to the relation between the topic and the sub-questions by asking:
A. Choosing the Topic
Generally speaking, when a student is assigned to write a reflective paper or a report, the topic will be given to him/her in a specific way. (For example, the assignment may be to read Gustaf Aulen's Christus Victor and to summarize Aulen's major thesis about the way the Church has viewed the atonement for most of its history.) In the case of such papers, the student's task is very clear, and this step in the process of writing the paper can be skipped.
In the case of a research paper, the situation will almost always be less clear-cut. Sometimes the professor will give the student a topic (or a choice of several topics) on which to write. At other times, the professor will leave the choice of topic entirely up to the student. Even when the professor gives the student a topic, the topic will probably be too general to be covered thoroughly in the number of pages the assignment calls for, so the student will need to narrow that topic appropriately. It is always better to cover a fairly narrow topic well in a paper than to treat a broad topic superficially.
When choosing a topic, the student needs to recognize that he/she will not be able to narrow the topic appropriately until he/she knows a fair bit about it. So all research starts with a general topic and becomes more specific as it goes along. The student should begin with either the topic given to him/her by the professor or (in the case where he/she is called on to choose the topic) a topic that is of particular interest to him/her. Hopefully some of the material in the course will spark the student's interest and give him/her a desire to study a particular topic further. That general topic can then become the starting point for research.
B. Narrowing the Topic
As the student begins to do research, he/she will quickly learn enough about the topic to begin narrowing it, and the bulk of the research will focus on this more specific topic. For example, perhaps a New Testament class gives a student the desire to study the idea of grace more fully and to write a paper on this topic. Simply spending five minutes with a Bible concordance will show the student that two-thirds of the New Testament passages in which the word "grace" occurs are in the letters of Paul. On the basis of this, the student may decide that a good topic for the paper would be "grace in Paul," and he/she can begin studying Paul's letters and reading articles about Paul's understanding of grace. Almost immediately the topic has been narrowed from something too general for a research paper to something more appropriate. Furthermore, the student may find that he wishes to look only at Paul letter to the Galatians. The topic is now narrowed even further.
In many cases, narrowing the topic is not as simple as it would be in the example just given. The student needs to think carefully about how the topic can be appropriately narrowed. If the research deals with history, the topic can be narrowed geographically or chronologically. For example, instead of writing on pietism in general, the student can write on English pietism (geographical narrowing) or on the first generation of pietism from 1675-1700 (chronological narrowing). If the topic deals with a ministry issue, the student can write on one application of a ministry principle, rather than on the principle in general. Careful narrowing of the topic early in the research will yield a much stronger paper in the end.
C. Focusing the Topic
As the research continues, the student needs not only to narrow the topic, but also to focus it. He/she should identify a particular problem or a specific question related to the topic, on which the research and the paper will focus. The simple way to begin to focus a paper is to answer the "so what" or "who cares" question. In other words, imagine that you told someone your paper topic, and they replied "who cares?" You should be able to explain why the topic is significant. (By the way, saying your professor made you is not what we are getting at here).
This step is very simple in the case of a reflective paper or a report, and more complicated in the case of a research paper. In the case of a reflective paper, the information will have already been presented to the student (usually in class), and the student will simply need to recall it in order to analyze and reflect on it. In the case of a report, the assignment will direct the student to the specific source of information (such as a reading assignment or film).
In the case of a research paper, the student needs to utilize various resources to help him/her find relevant sources of information. Finding the best sources of information is an important skill that the student needs to develop quickly in seminary, if he/she has not already honed this skill in college or elsewhere. We strongly urge students to work with Hampden-Sydney's library personnel to find sources for their research projects. The following discussion in this document is not designed to be a replacement for seeking help from the library staff. Rather, we simply offer some comments about sources for research.
A. Primary vs. Secondary Sources
It is very important for students conducting research to recognize the difference between primary and secondary sources. A primary source is a source produced by someone directly involved with the topic one is researching. A secondary source is produced by someone who studied that topic but was not directly involved with it. (One can also speak of a background source - a source written prior to the time of the primary sources for the topic.) The difference between these will become clear through several examples:
If a student is researching the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith, then Paul's letters to the Romans and the Galatians would be primary sources. Commentaries on those letters, sermons that mention justification by faith, systematic theology textbooks that deal with the doctrine, hymns that celebrate the significance of the doctrine, etc., could all be acceptable secondary sources for the research.
If a student is researching Luther's understanding of justification by faith, then Luther's writings (especially his commentaries on Romans and Galatians) would be primary sources, and books and articles about Luther's views would be secondary sources. (In this case, the Bible would be a background source, not a primary source!) Notice carefully that if one is studying the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith, then Luther's commentary on Galatians would be a secondary source. But if one is studying Luther's doctrine of justification by faith, then his commentary would be a primary source.
If a student is researching the life of Billy Graham, then his letters, tapes and transcripts of his sermons, statistics from his crusades, documents describing the structure of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and his own books (especially his autobiography) would be primary sources. Books and articles written about him by others would be secondary sources.
If a student is researching contemporary worship styles, then hymnbooks, liturgical books, musical scores, and audio and video tapes of worship services would be primary sources. Books and articles about contemporary worship would be secondary sources.
In most cases, research assignments (as opposed to reports and reflective papers) require students to consult at least some primary sources, as well as some secondary sources. This does not mean that a student must read large amounts of primary source material when writing a relatively short paper. For example, if a student is writing a 7-page paper on Wesley's understanding of total sanctification, he/she is not expected to wade through all of Wesley's sermons looking for passages that discuss this idea. Rather, he/she may use secondary sources (such as an article on Wesley's idea of total sanctification) to identify which sermons discuss this concept most fully. The student is then expected to read those sermons himself and to interact directly with Wesley, rather than relying only on the secondary source.
Therefore, the initial phases of research are probably best done using secondary sources. These books and articles will help the student to narrow and focus his/her topic and to identify which primary sources will be most useful. (The professor may also be a helpful resource in identifying useful primary sources.) But the main phase of the research focuses on study of primary sources. The student seeks to understand these sources himself/herself, and secondary sources are an aid toward that understanding. The student is not to rely exclusively on these secondary sources or to trust them implicitly.
B. Printed vs. Electronic Sources
The vast increase in availability of information in the late 20th century has made it much easier to access primary and secondary sources for research. Web-based library catalogs enable students to search for books in many libraries, and Inter-library Loan makes these books available to the student. No longer is one limited to the books in one's own school library. Similarly, electronic databases such as the ATLA Bibliography enable students to identify articles about specific topics very easily, and the new ATLAS project enables students to read many of these articles electronically.
Web pages on any subject known to humanity can be easily located from virtually any computer terminal. However, with this ease of access to information comes the responsibility to use one's sources wisely. The student must remember that not everything that appears on a computer screen is true or reliable. In fact, people may write absolutely anything they want on their web pages; there is no one to check the accuracy of their claims. This is especially true for topics concerning religion. Many web pages contain material that is inaccurate, distorted, or otherwise untrustworthy. For example, a teaching assistant in the field of European history recently found that a number of undergraduates were citing a particular web page as a source of information about WWII. Upon checking, the teaching assistant found that it was a seventh-grader's personal web page-hardly the most reliable source of facts about the war!
More typical is the use of Wikipedia by students. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia for which articles are contributed by users. This means that, at present, anyone can write an article for the encyclopedia for Wikipedia. This, of course, means that information may or may not be reliable and is typically not written by experts. Ask yourself a question: why take a chance? Take the time to read an expert in the field, and you will be better off.
In contrast to a web page, a theological book published by a reputable publishing company must have met significant criteria for accuracy and trustworthiness, or it would not have been published. That does not mean that it is infallible, but it can at least be taken seriously. Accordingly, students are wise to lean toward printed sources of information (books and articles in reputable journals), rather than web sites. This does not mean that students should not use electronic versions of sources. In many cases, printed sources (especially older primary sources) that are hard to locate in book form have also been reproduced electronically, and are easily accessible. To read Tertullian's Apology on a web page rather than in book form is perfectly acceptable. To read a web page giving the opinions of someone who may or may not be knowledgeable about Tertullian is much more suspect.
Conducting theological research involves discerning which sources are more reliable and which are less trustworthy. The library staff will be more than willing to help steer students toward good sources.
C. Top Ten Things to remember about the ATLA Religion Database
HSC Reference Librarian, Shaunna Hunter, has helpfully created the following guide for using the ATLA database.
C. Book Reviews and Review Essays
Book Reviews are useful tools for students to determine whether a book might be useful for his research. The reviewer typically summarizes some of the major arguments of a book along with criticisms (both positive and negative). Review essays usually review more than one book on a related topic. Such essays, at their best, survey and critically analyze the state of current scholarship on a particular issue or topic. It is important to remember that a review often reveals as much about the reviewer as the books reviewed. Further, while they are useful, time-saving tools, reviews should not be used as a source for a research paper.
D. Peer-Reviewed Sources vs. Popular Print Sources
Because religion is a pervasive human experience, its discussion is common in popular media sources. News magazines tend to run topics of current religious interest. Such popular sources present topics in an accessible and interesting format. Religious new magazines, such as Christianity Today and Christian Century, are no exception. Such secondary sources should typically be used as you would use a review. An exception to this rule is when these sources are used as a primary source. For example, you can often find essays by contemporary religious thinkers in newspapers, magazines, journals of opinion, or institutional organs. One might wish to research contemporary evangelical reaction to gay marriage in Vermont. Using essay by James Dobson on the topic published in Christianity Today would be quite sensible.
A peer-reviewed journal, whether a print or online journal, publishes only articles judged by experts in a particular field to have scholarly merit. This means that peer-reviewed journals offer students the best place to find reliable secondary sources.
E. Reading the Sources
Just as it is important to learn the skill of finding the best sources of information, it is also important to learn the skill of reading sources well. In particular, given the limited time that any student will have to do research and write a particular paper, it is important to discern how much time it is worth spending on a particular source. Knowing when to read quickly and when to slow down to study very carefully is a crucial skill to develop. As a general principle, the student should not normally begin reading a particular source with the assumption that he will read it completely. Instead, the student should approach each source with several tasks in mind.
The first task is to determine whether the source will be useful enough to spend more than a few minutes reading. For a source to be useful, it needs to cover a subject substantially related to the question of the student's research. In the case of a book, the student can read the dust jacket (or back cover), preface, foreword, and/or introduction of a book to determine quickly whether the book is relevant to his topic. If the book seems to be relevant, then studying the table of contents will enable one to make a final decision about whether it is a worthwhile source. As previously mentioned, book reviews and review essays can also help determine the usefulness of a book. If the source is an article, it may have a short abstract giving a summary of the argument, and reading that (and/or scanning the article looking at the headers and sub-headers) will enable the student to decide whether it is worth spending time on that article.
Once the student decides that a given source is relevant to his topic, the second task is to ascertain whether the source provides anything new, anything the student does not already know. Reading the concluding chapter of a book or the last couple of paragraphs of an article will alert the student to whether the book simply re-hashes something he/she already knows, or whether it provides a new perspective that needs to be taken seriously.
After completing these two tasks, the student may decide not to read that source. If so, then before returning it to its place the student should look through the bibliography (or in the case of an article, the footnotes or endnotes) to see whether this source lists other sources that look especially promising. If the source is a book, looking at the books on the same library shelf around that book may also turn up some valuable sources.
If the student decides that the source is worthy of attention, and if the source is an article, at this point it is probably time to read it thoroughly. But if the source is a book (or even a long article), it would be worthwhile to skim read to get a clear picture of the contents, and then decide which chapters or sections one should read slowly and carefully. Reading the first couple of paragraphs of each chapter, as well as the headers and sub-headers, might help the student decide that only certain portions need to be read carefully.
In order to see the value of this process, imagine that a student finds 5 books and 10 articles that seem to relate to his/her topic, and that those sources total 1200 pages. For most people it would take 60 hours to read all of those sources completely, and then one might still not have all that he/she needs for the paper. But by spending one hour looking over all 15 of those sources, the student might realize that only 2 books and 5 articles need to be read. Then spending another hour or so with those 7 sources might enable him/her to recognize that a total of 100 pages should be read very carefully. The skill of determining what needs to be read carefully and what does not will pay huge time dividends, both during one's student days and throughout one's life.
During the course of his/her preparation, the student has identified an appropriately narrow topic and has focused it by posing a question, and now he/she is in a position to craft the paper itself. As the student does this, he/she should pay attention to two major factors.
A. What elements are necessary in order to answer the question?
The student should first consider what is necessary in order to answer the paper's question convincingly. What information will need to be presented? Will answering the question depend primarily on presenting evidence/information, or will it depend primarily on analyzing evidence and deciding between competing views on the issue? As the student thinks about the necessary elements for the paper, he/she will be able to devise an outline of the steps in the argument.
B. How important are various pieces of evidence?
Once the student comes up with an outline of the steps in the argument he/she will use, he/she then needs to think quite ruthlessly about how important and how complicated each step in the argument is. The paper should use most of its space on the steps in the argument that are most important, most crucial in answering the question the paper will pose. Material should not be included simply because the student has discovered it, or even because it is interesting. It should be included only if it is important to the argument. Furthermore, the student should not use most of his/her space on the early phases of the argument and then, realizing that he/she has almost reached the page limit, rush through the latter phases of the argument. Rather, he/she should plan ahead of time approximately what percentage of his/her space to allot to each section of the argument.
By this point, the student should have a clear picture of how he/she will proceed to answer the question of the paper and what evidence/information he/she will need to include. The student is now ready to begin writing.
A theological paper should NOT be written as if the professor (who presumably knows as much about the topic as the student) were the intended audience. It should be written so as to be understandable to a well-educated layperson. Writing for such an intended audience forces the student to be clear and well-organized in order to communicate effectively.
A theological paper should have three major sections: the introduction, the body, and the conclusion. (The body will likely have sub-sections as well.)
A. The Introduction
The introduction to a paper should usually take up no more than 10% of the paper's total length. It should explain the topic, and it may also explain in a preliminary way why this topic is important and worth studying. Most important, the introduction should state the particular question that will be the focus of the paper and should give the answer that the student will elaborate in the paper. Generally speaking, stating and answering the question should be done in a single sentence: the thesis statement. The introduction should also lay out clearly the structure of the paper, the steps of the argument that the student has come up with as he/she was organizing the paper.
Many students find that it is easier to delay writing the introduction until after they have written the body of the paper. That way, the student will know exactly what shape the paper's argument will take, since he/she will have already written that argument. If one does delay the writing of the introduction, however, he/she should still formulate a clear thesis statement before writing the body of the paper. Then he/she can write the rest of the introduction around that thesis statement later.
B. The Body
This part of the paper should normally encompass about 70% of its total length and should clearly present the information and analysis necessary to answer the question of the paper. The student should keep several things in mind as he/she writes this part of the paper:
C. The Conclusion
This part of the paper should normally encompass about 20% of the total length, although in some cases it is appropriate for the conclusion to be longer and the body correspondingly shorter. The conclusion should clearly repeat the question and answer (that is, the thesis statement) posed in the introduction and should briefly show how the body of the paper has led to that answer. Furthermore, the conclusion should reflect on the significance of the paper's argument for Christian life and ministry.
Note carefully that in a research paper, the introduction poses the question (and states what the student's answer will be), the body reports the information and analyzes it so as to answer the question convincingly, and the conclusion reviews the entire argument and reflects on the significance of the answer the student has proposed in the paper.
In a report, the body of the paper deals mainly with a summary of the information in the source on which one is reporting. As a result, it might well be shorter than the 70% figure given above, and the conclusion reflecting on the significance of that information would probably be much longer proportionally.
In a reflective paper, the little reporting that might be necessary could probably come in the introduction, which might then be a bit longer than the 10% figure given above. The body of the paper reflects on the significance of the material, and the conclusion might be simply a brief summary of the student's reflections.
The paper should follow American academic conventions, as set forth in Diane Hacker, The Bedford Handbook (6th edition).
B. Acknowledgment of Sources
In a theological paper (or any other piece of academic writing, for that matter), it is IMPERATIVE that all information gained from any source other than the writer's own knowledge be properly acknowledged. Failure to acknowledge the sources of one's information gives the impression that one has come up with the information or ideas on one's own, and is completely unacceptable from an ethical point of view. Passing someone else's ideas off as one's own constitutes plagiarism, and students suspected of plagiarism will be subject to the Hampden-Sydney Honor Court. See the College Catalog for further information about the policy regarding plagiarism.
There are basically two systems one may use to acknowledge the sources of one's information. The first is the standard system of footnotes (or endnotes), described in chapters 56b (MLA), 59d (APA), 60d (Chicago) of Hacker. The second is the parenthetical reference system (also called the Harvard system), described in chapters 56a (MLA), 59d (APA), and 60d (Chicago) of Hacker. Generally speaking, if a paper has about 5 sources or fewer, the parenthetical reference system is preferred. If it has more than 5 sources, footnotes or endnotes are preferred. If a paper includes repeated references to a few primary sources and scattered references to a number of secondary sources, it is appropriate to combine the two systems by using parenthetical references to acknowledge primary sources, and footnotes or endnotes for secondary sources. (For example, if the paper's primary source is the Bible and it also involves numerous secondary sources, then by all means place Biblical references in parentheses at the end of the citation, and footnote other sources.)
For example, suppose two of the sources for a given paper are a book and an article whose bibliographical entries look like this:
Noll, Mark A. Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997.
Hodgson, Leonard. "The Metaphysic of Nestorius." Journal of Theological Studies 19 (1918): 46-55.
If the student is using the standard system of footnotes or endnotes, then the first reference to teach of these sources would look like this [the letter "x" in each of the illustrations below stands for the page number from which the citation comes]:
1Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), x.
2Leonard Hodgson, "The Metaphysic of Nestorius," Journal of Theological Studies 19 (1918): x.
***Notice carefully that there are several differences between the way a footnote is written and the way the corresponding bibliographical entry is written. Footnotes list the author with the first name first; bibliographical entries with the last name first. Footnotes use commas to separate elements; bibliographical entries use periods. Footnotes place publishing information in parentheses; bibliographical entries do not.***
If the student refers to these same sources again later in the paper, then subsequent references to each of these sources would look like this:
1Noll, x. OR 2Hodgson, x.
If the student is using the parenthetical reference system, then the references would come at the end of the sentence in which the source is cited, and the references would look like this:
... end of sentence (Noll 1997 x).
... end of sentence (Hodgson 1918 x).
Since the amount of information in Hacker can sometimes be daunting, it may be helpful for the student to use a summary of that information, which gives the standard bibliographical format for various kinds of sources. Summaries can be accessed at
(Chicago style): http://www.dianehacker.com/resdoc/history/footnotes.html
Other useful links for writing religion papers: