How to Write a Theology Essay

Andy Naselli —  September 19, 2012 — 3 Comments

jensenTheology professors may want to assign this new little book as required reading:

Michael P. Jensen. How to Write a Theology Essay. London: Latimer Trust, 2012. 78 pp.

Each of the twenty chapters (titles in bold below) ends with a bullet-point summary:

1. How not to lose heart before you start

  • The topics of theology really matter
  • The knowledge of God is not the preserve of the very clever
  • Starting to write theology is a challenge that can be fun!

2. What is theology in any case?

  • Theology is a species of reason, subject to the Word of God
  • Theology is a form of speech
  • Theology is evangelical: it about God and his deeds
  • Theology is evangelistic: it is an invitation to submit to the Lordship of Christ

3. What is a theology essay?

  • An essay is an invitation to persuade
  • The object of the theology essay is to say true things about God
  • The theology essay deals with ideas and concepts
  • It is not merely a summary of Scripture

4. The responsibility of theology

  • Theology is answerable to God and must be done with prayerful reverence
  • Theology is best done in service to God and his people

5. Choosing the question

  • Choose a topic that interests you, but look carefully at the question
  • Avoid a topic that is a contemporary church controversy where possible
  • Consider what others are doing

6. Analysing the question

  • What higher level task am I being asked to do, explicitly or implicitly?
  • Am I being asked to find a cause or a purpose, or trace a connection, or describe something?
  • What is the measure I am being asked to use, explicitly or implicitly?
  • Where is my question located in the context of the ongoing theological conversation?
  • Are there any extra features of the question that I have to take into account?

7. Beginning to think about it

  • Get your brain moving early on
  • What different ways of answering the question are there?
  • Do some preliminary quick reading to orient yourself to the topic

8. Brainstorming

  • Get everything you can think of down on paper in no particular order
  • What thinkers might be relevant? Especially look for potential opponents
  • What passages of Scripture might be worth investigating?

9. How to read for theology essays (and what to read)

  • Read to gain basic information
  • Read to gain nuance and subtlety
  • Read to develop arguments
  • Read to find stimulating conversation partners and ‘surprising friends’
  • Read to find out what the opposition says

10. Using the Bible in theology essays

  • You have to read Scripture as a whole to do theology biblically
  • Orthodoxy helps you to read Scripture theologically
  • Avoid prooftexting and word studies

11. How to treat your opponents

  • Treat your opponents with respect
  • Avoid cheap shots and caricature

12. Some advice on quoting

  • Use quotations sparingly
  • Quote if:
    • The author nailed it
    • You want to prove your opponent really does say that
    • You are expounding a view to learn from it
  • Quote SHORT
  • Quote faithfully to the author

13. Types of argument for your essay

  • Volume knobs, not on/off switches

14. The classic introduction

  • Your introduction should set the scene and frame the question
  • Your introduction should state your answer to the question
  • Your introduction should give an indication of how you are going to answer the question

15. Why presentation matters, and how to make it work for you

  • Presentation does matter
  • The essential principle: don’t distract your reader

16. How to write well in a theology essay

  • Be a reader of great writing
  • Don’t be afraid of metaphors
  • Learn the simple rules of English punctuation
  • Be clear, and avoid vague words

17. The art of signposting

  • Use headings
  • Use summative sentences
  • Use questions that flow

18. Bringing home the bacon

  • Your conclusion should add nothing new
  • Make sure you have fulfilled any promises you have made
  • If you do have some space, consider the implications of your essay for other areas of theology

19. What to do with it now

  • Don’t be shy about thinking of ways in which your essay could have a second life

20. A footnote about footnotes

  • Use footnote commentary sparingly
  • Don’t hide extra words in your footnotes
  • Take care that the footnote relates clearly to the text
  • Use footnotes to protect yourself by showing that you have read widely

Related: Six Useful Books on Writing

3 responses to How to Write a Theology Essay

  1. …but there’s more to the book than the summaries! :-)

  2. This is a great article. Thanks!

    Do you have any thesis ideas in the area of philosophy or apologetics with a theological tone?

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