working on Bible exegesis and theology papers, part 1: proof-texting, parroting, and failing to read the instructions

(This was first written for and published by the Azusa Pacific University Writing Center.)

Many students struggle with, or are intimidated by, the papers assigned in biblical studies and theology courses. In this two-part blog post, I will describe some of the most common mistakes students make in exegetical and theological writing and suggest possible responses. In this Part 1, I will address the three mistakes of 1) starting with a thesis and working the text to fit that thesis, 2) offering confusing argumentation, and 3) writing about theology when the student should be writing about history. As writing coaches, we can help biblical studies and theology students attempt to learn something new with each and every assignment, write as clearly as possible, and interpret assignment instructions correctly.

(Click here for Part 2 of this blog post, which briefly addresses embedded prejudice and biased language.)

Common mistakes:

  1. Starting with a thesis and working the text to fit that preconceived thesis

“Exegesis” means basically “analysis of a text.” It cannot start with a thesis. Often, exegetical papers do not even require a thesis: the focus is on analyzing or explaining a text, and implications are left up to the reader to discover. However, many students start with a thesis and attempt to “prove” it is true. Instead, if a thesis is required, then it must be discovered along the path of reading, research, thinking, and writing. Try to figure out whether the student is writing a biblical exegesis paper, or an argumentative theology paper with exegetical support. If the student is in a church history class, then papers and thesis statements should look like a history paper, not a theology paper (in other words, church history students need to be researching and writing about history, not interpreting scripture; see below).

In true exegesis, students analyze the text and—eventually—arrive at some new insight or idea about the text. Interpreting a text in such a way as to read one’s own ideas into it is called eisegesis. It is also sometimes called proof-texting—using the text to “prove” that one’s preconceived ideas are true. This is inappropriate to biblical exegesis and theology papers—and most papers, for that matter.

Common causes of working the text to fit a preconceived thesis include:

A. Church teaching—students who grew up in church often parrot their churches’ teachings in their exegetical writing.

Possible response: Encourage students to take the risk of questioning or challenging the beliefs or assumptions they brought to their reading of the text. Encourage them to attempt to “see” the text with fresh eyes and not to be afraid of these questions or challenges. The best exegetical and theological papers are usually the ones that start by asking the toughest questions. This is a chance for you as the writing coach to minister to students by letting them know that God will meet them in their toughest questions. There are no questions too big or too controversial for God. When students make claims about God, scripture, church, etc., ask how they came to those conclusions. If a student ever says, ‘That’s what I’ve always believed’, then sound the alarm!

B. Picking a text they are somewhat familiar with—similar to A above, when students pick a text they are somewhat familiar with for an exegetical paper, they tend to bring prior beliefs or assumptions and have a hard time doing any analytical or interpretive work that doesn’t start with the familiar “thesis” of their previous readings of that text.

Possible responses: If students are at the very beginning stages of an exegetical paper and have chosen a passage they are somewhat familiar with, then encourage them to choose a passage they are less familiar with—something that confuses, angers, raises questions, or in some way seems odd. For students who are farther along in their projects, see A above: help students realize that it is ok to question their beliefs and consider alternative possibilities and perspectives. Help students attempt to learn something new in their exegetical and theological work.

  1. Confusing argumentation

Students, especially beginning students, will often jump from point A (the biblical text) to point B (an interpretation) without clear analysis or connections, leaving the reader asking, “how did we get from the biblical text to this interpretation?”

Common causes:

A. Failure to define terms. Students assume they know what certain words mean and assume that others use those words exactly the same way. Examples: sovereign, atonement, sanctify, justify, control, fulfill, prophet, almighty, omniscient, omnipotent, inspire. This is more frequently a problem for beginning students than it is for more advanced students.

Possible response: When you notice a beginning student using distinctly theological words such as those listed above, consider how well the student has defined those words. Ask the student, “What do you mean when you say, _______________?” “How is that word used or defined in the scholarly literature you read for this project?” You don’t need to know exactly how to define these terms. The goal is to help students learn to write as clearly as possible.

B. Taking verses out of context—both literary and historical contexts.

Signs that a student is taking verses out of context:

  • talks about one or a few verses but not the rest of the section/chapter/book
  • talks about the text itself but does not examine the text’s author, date, location, audience, etc.
  • ignores literary transition or conclusion words in their verse/passage (especially at the beginning of the passage), such as therefore, so, thus, this is, also, and, from there, etc.

Possible response: make sure students are attending to the literary and historical contexts of their passages. Ask them what study they have done on the rest of the passage/chapter/book and on the historical/cultural realities of the time of the events described in the text and of the time the text was written (these are not often the same!).

  1. Writing a theology paper when they should be writing a church history paper

Sometimes students have a hard time distinguishing between theological writing and historical writing. Even though church history classes are listed as theology classes, they are usually more like history classes. Therefore, student writing should reflect the standards of historical, not theological, writing. As such, students writing church history papers should not offer interpretations of scripture or their own theological opinions. Instead, church history students are usually expected to focus on the ways in which certain people, places, or events shaped Christianity. An examination of the assignment instructions, prompt, or rubric will help you identify whether the student needs to write a theology paper or a history paper.

Some questions to consider:
Is the student interpreting scripture instead of reporting on a historical person, group, place, or event in relation to Christianity?
Is the student attempting to demonstrate that a historical figure’s beliefs or ideas are/were right or wrong, valid or invalid, moral or immoral, etc. (theological writing)? Is this appropriate to the assignment prompt?
Or, is the student attempting to demonstrate that a historical figure’s beliefs or ideas had a specific impact on specific people, places, or events in church history (historical writing)? Is this appropriate to the assignment prompt?

Possible response: Review the assignment instructions or rubric together. If students are interpreting scripture or otherwise writing a theology paper when they should be writing a church history paper, then encourage them to shift their focus toward significant people, places, and events and how they shaped the history of Christianity. After doing all this work, students might become stressed. Feel free to remind students that, usually, they do not need to abandon their written content; they just need to refocus it.

Though students make these mistakes frequently in biblical studies and theology papers, our goals as Writing Coaches remain the same: help students learn, write as clearly as possible, and follow instructions closely and thoroughly. Be sure to check back for Part 2 on embedded prejudice and biased language. In the meantime, feel free to contact me with questions or other tips about working with exegetical and theological papers.

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