“How do I write a research paper for seminary? And just what exactly is ‘theological reflection’ and ‘critical thinking?'”
Good questions. Necessary answers.
In response, I am humbly providing the following guide to my students in graduate theological and religious studies (seminary). This guide may, however, be of help to others (of other disciplines) in graduate school, particularly as the student seeks to incorporate critical thinking into the paper. And, yes, I do believe that we can define both critical thinking and theological reflection.
Writing a Research Paper in Theology and Religious Studies
A Brief Guide
Michael A. Milton, PhD, MDiv., MPA, the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions and Evangelism; President, the D. James Kennedy Institute for Reformed Leadership
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Psalm 19:14
Graduate-level research and writing can be a mystery of sorts. It doesn’t have to be. Let me give you some concrete steps that I trust will be of some assistance.
The ability of a student to isolate a presenting issue and place it within the larger framework of systematic or Biblical theology; moving from the immediate context to a practical application.
The demonstrated ability of a student to review a presenting issue, literature and experiences that can speak to the presenting issue, and the demonstration of tools (i.e., theological reflection) to come to terms with the implications of the presenting matter. Coming to terms may include practical application to a pressing real-world problem, or being able to merely state the problem in the simplest terms for further study.
A Suggested Framework of a Research Paper in Theology and Religious Studies Incorporating Theological Reflection and Critical Thinking
State the question of your papers
- Introduce it with a quote or some other appropriate and helpful literary device.
- E.g., “Holiness is ordinarily associated with sanctification. Yet, the question of this week is ‘What is the meaning of vocational holiness?’ The question, thus, links sanctification with one’s call to and, possibly, to the faithful practice of that vocation.”
Isolate the theological issue at hand.
The theological issue that is surrounding the larger question has presenting issues that if not grasped or followed can have negative consequences. The theological issue can, also, hopefully, have constructive or spiritually healthy results. Speak to these. Explore these within the instructor’s stated limits of words or pages.
Thus, a student might respond to the question of the week supposed in the previous paragraph:
“The Bible states that shepherds must be faithful to ‘know well the condition of your flocks and give attention to your herds’ (Proverbs 27:23). This command calls us to reflect upon the matter of faithful pastoral ministry. It, also, becomes, in a sense, “The Imitation of Christ” (De Imitatione Christi by Thomas a’ Kempis).
For the Lord Jesus Christ identified Himself as a “Good Shepherd” in the Gospel of John (10:11-18).
Thus, the student might postulate from this Biblical survey, “The real matter at hand may be characterized as faithfulness: faithfulness in the God-ordained calling and in a greater understanding of what that vocation entails.”
Integrate your readings, research, and, not always necessary, your experience, but, certainly, always, your critical thinking.
- Use scholarly indexes (e.g., ATLA, JSTOR, etc.) to research peer-reviewed journal articles on “Jesus as Good Shepherd,” or “vocational holiness,” or “Faithful Gospel Ministry,” or “Shepherd as a metaphor for pastors in the Old Testament.” Be creative in the way you use key words and phrases for your search.
- What is most relevant in citations? Some “authorities” are not allowed (e.g., Wikipedia), but even such cites can be helpful in “following the footnote trail.”
- The taxonomy of citation authorities might be listed as:
- Peer-reviewed articles in scholarly journals that are subject-matter-expert (SME) publications;
- Other peer-reviewed articles (if not in Theology and Religious Studies, then, perhaps, is a social science, or archeology, etc.);
- A volume by an SME (an SME by acclamation of the Academy or by peers in the profession, not by his or her own self-identification);
- Popular SME publications (e.g., “Christianity Today”);
- Interviews with SMEs, documented and articulated in correct Turabian layout;
- Other books (e.g., “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck might provide insight into the human condition).
- Cite readings from your assigned textbook
- “Our assigned text also says …”
- Cite personal experience (you do not need to nor should do this on each paper)
- “In my own life, I have seen how this has worked both positively and negatively. Once, when I was in school . . .”
- Remember that personal recollections, interviews, emails, and other forms should be cited appropriately in a research paper.
- See the Turabian Guide here.
- Restate the question.
- Summarize the research.
- Make your concluding statement.
- Writing the Weekly Research Paper: https://michaelmilton.org/2016/07/24/writing-the-weekly-research-paper/
- A Brief Guide for Writing Theological Reflection Papers:
- A good source for research (in addition to the Library database, always your first destination): “Annotated Links to Websites on Religion and Theology:” https://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu/resources/website-on-religion/