How to Write a Seminary Paper: Part 1, The Thesis
It’s that time of year again. No, not Halloween. Not Thanksgiving. Those are just warning signs of the impending doom that awaits. The impending doom, of course, is the end of the semester at seminary. That’s right. Your semester paper is almost due!
Writing is important. Your paper isn’t just homework. This isn’t busywork. This isn’t one of those things that you do in school that you will never do again. Writing is an important skill in any career, and it is a necessity if you are training for pastoral ministry. The skills you will learn from writing a good seminary paper will translate into sermon prep, newsletter articles, emails to church members, bible studies, Sunday School classes, and congregational letters. You need these skills. Seminary papers provide a great opportunity to learn how to write, so don’t waste your homework!
How do you write a seminary paper? I want to answer that in the following paragraphs, but first I must admit that this post is entirely selfish. I’m tired of reading bad papers. Actually, I’m willing to bet that if you asked any teacher “what is the worst part of your job” they would answer “grading papers.” It’s at least in the top 3. Why? I’m glad you asked, because that brings us to our first principle of good paper writing!
The Most Important Principle
No one wants to read your paper.
This is the most important principle for writing a good paper. It’s like that scene in Band of Brothers where Ronald Speirs tells Blithe, “the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier’s supposed to function.” If you want to write a good paper remember first and foremost that no one wants to read it. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you will be able to write as a writer is supposed to write. No one wants to read what you are writing. There are 1000 things they would rather read, and they are probably only reading in the first place because the internet is down.
Just to be clear, it’s not you. It’s not personal. The problem is that you have been asked to write an academic paper. The problem is the genre. Most people find academic papers boring. You find them boring, and surprise surprise, your teacher finds them boring. Even most academics find them boring. So why write an academic paper then? Why not just dispense with the whole genre? Because they serve an important purpose.
The academic paper is designed to extend the body of human knowledge by proving that something is true and persuading others of its truthfulness. You can only truly extend the body of human knowledge by engaging in rigorous and robust examination of the evidence. Sure, you can take cheap shots and short cuts by engaging in ad-hominem arguments or logically fallacious magic acts, but in those cases you are just persuading without increasing the body of human knowledge. A good academic paper does both–proves and persuades–and therefore requires rigor in the writing. That’s asking a lot from your reader. It’s asking a lot from you, of course, but it’s asking a lot more from your reader because your reader has a much higher cost/reward ratio. It’s hard to read an academic paper, and unlike you, your reader doesn’t have to finish what they’ve started. Furthermore, since most of us are naturally lazy, your reader is naturally predisposed against reading what you have spent so much time writing.
Which means, as we’ve said, no one wants to read your paper. So what are you going to do about that? Easy. You’re going to make it as easy on your reader as humanly possible. And that begins with the first paragraph.
It’s All About the Thesis
Making it easy on your reader begins with your thesis. A good thesis makes a good paper. You’ve probably heard that before. We are taught in Middle School that if you have a good thesis, and stick with it, then we will end up with a good paper. The problem, though, is that no one tells us how to write a good thesis! What makes for a good thesis?
Three characteristics of a good thesis
A good thesis has three characteristics.
A good thesis is easy to find
The first characteristic of a good thesis is that no one needs to go looking for it. It’s right there, calling your name. A good thesis is obvious and easily identifiable. The person reading your paper should be able to point to a particular sentence in your paper and say “there it is!” There’s an absolutely foolproof way of doing this. Begin your thesis sentence with the phrase “The thesis of this paper is….” You poets can even vary that a bit! “The point we want to address here is…” or “I will prove the following in this paper…”
I know, that seems so uninteresting! Where’s the sense of mystery? Where’s the poetry? Do I really need to spell it out for everyone? Should I really make it so obvious? Yes! Yes you should, because remember no one wants to read your paper. This isn’t a mystery novel. This isn’t the next best seller. You are quietly contributing to the body of human knowledge by engaging in careful and nuanced debate on the basis of the evidence available to you at this particular time. No one wants to read that kind of thing! So make it easy on them: tell them what they are about to read and why it is significant. Don’t withhold the main point until the end. Don’t hide your thesis. Don’t make them go hunting for the payoff.
Think of it this way. A good academic paper requires three things: (1) a good question, (2) a good answer, and (3) a good argument. The bulk of your paper is going to be an argument that your answer to a specific question is the right answer. That is what an academic paper is. It’s an argument. An argument that your answer is correct. So where does your thesis fit in? The thesis is the answer. Your thesis is the answer to the question that you are asking, and the rest of the paper is the argument that your thesis is correct.
Which means, in the end, that making your thesis as clearly identifiable as possible isn’t boring at all. It’s just good sense. It means that you audience will be able to more easily able to follow the exciting argument to come!
A Good Thesis is Concrete
The second characteristic of a good thesis is that it is concrete. What do we mean by concrete? We mean that it is as specific as possible. Or to put it another way, building on the previous section, a good thesis will provide a specific answer to a narrow question. A good thesis is a specific and defensible answer to a good question.
Let’s consider a case study. Let’s say you are tasked with writing a paper on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. Look it up first to remind yourself of the passage. OK, let’s pretend you’ve been in the commentaries and the lectures for the semester and maybe listened to a sermon or two. What would constitute a good thesis for this passage? You need something specific and defensible in 10-15 pages of text.
Here’s a bad thesis. “In this paper we are going to explore and explain 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.” Why is that a bad thesis? Because it is not specific. You paper could be about 100 different things! You have not made any claims. You are not defending any territory. You are not making an argument. You are simply wandering off into the wilderness of and seeing what you see. The end result will be an incoherent hodgepodge of miscellaneous things you find interesting about 1 Cor. 15:1-11. It won’t be a paper. A paper is an argument; it is an argument that proves an answer. An exploration, by contrast, is a series of musings loosely organized around a theme. Those musings may be insightful, but they do not constitute a paper. Make a claim and prove it.
OK, round two. Same passage, different thesis. “In this paper I will argue that Paul defines the gospel in terms of the death and resurrection of Christ.” Much better! You are staking a claim, and what is more, the claim is demonstrable. It may be a bit obvious, at least as it’s presently worded (see the next characteristic below), but it’s a claim nonetheless, and I know what to expect from your paper. I expect you to talk about Paul’s definition of the gospel, and I expect you to argue that it is centered around the death and resurrection of Christ. What makes it superior? Its specificity. I know what you are arguing for, which makes it easier to process the rest of your paper. In fact, it’s specific enough that you could probably exclude the biblical reference (1 Cor. 15:1-11) and I would still be able to guess what passage you were referencing within a couple of guesses. You’ve made it easier on me, the reader, and as a result I am grateful.
This second attempt, however, is not perfect. It’s a B+ thesis. To improve it, let’s look at the third characteristic of a good thesis.
A Good Thesis is Interesting
A good thesis will motivate your reader to continue reading. A good thesis will surprise your reader, and that surprise will in turn provoke your reader to continue reading. The problem with thesis above is that many of your readers are going to respond “yeah, I already know that, so I guess I’ll find something else to read.” It’s a good thesis, but it might not grab the attention of many readers, so it’s not a great thesis. A great thesis generates interest, and that initial interest is the inertia you need to propel your reader through the detailed argument that constitutes the bulk of your academic paper. Interest is inertia.
There are, of course, a legion of ways to create surprise, not all of which are worthy of a good academic paper. We are all, of course, familiar with “click bait”–big claims and provocative propositions that prove to whither on examination. We’ve all fallen for that morning show’s headline, “Coffee causes Cancer,” only to be relieved by the equally silly headline from the competitor’s channel: “Latest Study proves Coffee Prevents Cancer.” Such bombastic and attention-grabbing theses are unworthy of the true scholar. An academic paper is an attempt to increase the body of human knowledge, not generate the next meme. We have to surprise our audience with integrity.
So how do we generate interest? How do we come up with an interesting thesis? It’s a real challenge, and that challenge is made all the more challenging by the fact that for us Biblical scholars the subject matter of our thesis is several thousand years old. The text we are talking about has been studied and restudied 1000s of times. Is there anything new to be said? Probably not. So, before moving on, I want to say that you should be content with the first two characteristics of a good thesis. If your thesis is clearly identifiable and specific, then be proud. You did it. B++.
For you over-achievers, though, here’s some advice. There are a number of ways of constructing an interesting thesis without compromising integrity. What follows is just a sketch, and meant to be more suggestive than definitive, but maybe you will find it helpful. I’ll keep 1 Cor. 15:1-11 as our case study for illustrative purposes.
- Present an old truth in a new way, or with reference to a new situation. The great thing about this option is you’re not changing the substance of your boring thesis, you’re just reframing it so it is more informative. You are telling your reader “you may think you understand this, but you haven’t yet fully appreciated it yet. “In 1 Cor. 15 Paul defines the gospel, and that gospel actually has two historical events as its center, not just one. Paul centers the gospel on not just the death of Christ, but his death and resurrection.“
- Challenge the natural way we think about something. This is another great option accessible to everyone, and a companion of the previous example. “In Cor. 15 Paul centers his gospel not on the process of salvation–how we get saved–but rather an the event of salvation–the death and resurrection of Christ.”
- Place the old truth next to some new idea or comparator. Ever notice that a familiar color looks totally different when it’s next to competing colors? I confess I sometimes pull out my black pants thinking they are my dark navy pants; how to tell the difference? Put them against something I know is black and see what they look like then. Look at the text next to something new. “Paul’s gospel, which finds as its center an historical event that took place in the past, is radically different from the gospel of the American dream, which finds as its center a hope for the future.”
- Highlight a detail that is under-appreciated. “Twice Paul uses the phrase ‘in accordance with the Scriptures’ to define the gospel. What scriptures is he referring to?”
- Sort through ongoing debates and suggest a path forward. “How should we define the gospel? Some find 1 Cor. 15 to be Paul’s central definition of the subject, and others see it as more tangential and circumstantial. In this paper we summarize the currently scholarly stance on the subject in the hopes of seeing a way through the debate….”
- Challenging a consensus by arguing for a minority report. “Though most scholars regard 1 Cor. 15 as essentially disconnected from the rest of 1 Corinthians, when we way the evidence we see that so and so was correct in regarding it as the hinge on which the whole epistle turns.”
- Ask a question that you don’t think has been asked before. “In 1 Cor. 15:1-11 Paul defines the gospel. But where does that definition end? Does the gospel include Christ’s appearance to the disciples, and last of all to Paul? Is Paul’s appointment as an apostle part of the gospel, and if so, in what sense?” You may find in the course of your research that this question is not as unknown as you thought, in which case just jump up to the above suggestions. This may be an opportunity, for example, to challenge the consensus or to think about the issue in a different way.
- Actually add something new to the body of knowledge. This is the apex and summit of the good thesis. This is the perfect thesis. If you find something truly new, something that truly adds to the universal body of human knowledge, then it’s time to send out your ThM and PhD application. Still write the paper, though, and hand it into your professor, because he or she might have some helpful critique, direction, and correction!
These are just a few options, but they should get you started
The introductory paragraph(s)
So we now have a good thesis, but where are we going to put it? Put your thesis in the first paragraph. If the thesis is the “main course” of your paper, then the first paragraph is apartif. It’s sole purpose is to set up the thesis. A good first paragraph will highlight the glory that is your thesis, and so a good first paragraph sets the stage for the rest of your paper.
Let’s put it another way. We said above that a good paper requires (1) a good question, (2) a good answer, and (3) a good argument. The thesis, as we have already established, is actually the “good answer.” If that’s the case, we need to state our thesis as early in the paper as possible, which is likely the first paragraph. If the thesis is the answer, then it stands to reason that the question should come first! In the first paragraph you are setting up the central question and providing the concluding answer.
So here’s a great structure for your first paragraph (or two if you need two):
- First sentence: a concrete question that grabs the attention of your reader and generates interest in the answer.
- Next 2-4 sentences: a set of contextual or situational statements that establish, for those in doubt, that the question you have asked is important, relevant, and interesting.
- Final sentence: your thesis statement, which is to say, the answer to the question that you are asking.
You might be thinking at this point that there is no artistry here. No mystery! Actually, if you set up your first paragraph in this way you should have plenty of mystery. Your first paragraph follows a tight narrative structure. You create a problem, show why that problem is difficult and important, and then relieve the tension created by that problem with your thesis. This highlights the importance of your thesis for your audience. The fact that you’ve given away the ending is not really a problem because, remember, you are writing an academic paper, not a novel. This is not a mystery drama. No one wants to read this, so you are making it easy on your reader by giving them all the tools necessary to process the data as they go.
Your thesis makes or breaks your paper, and your first paragraph highlights the beauty of your thesis. If you have these components in place, you can be confident that you are on the right track. You still have to make an argument, of course; your thesis is as yet unproven and untested. Your journey has, in some ways, just begun. But you have a map, and what is more, so does your future reader.