The Secret of Good Theological Writing
By Brian Key | January 9, 2023
Topic: Pastoral Theology—Theological Studies—Urban Theology
Editor’s Note: Professor Key originally wrote this essay for his students to provide direction as they write theological position papers.
“How can I be more clear?”
That’s a question I have learned to ask in place of my usual binary question, “Did that make sense?” Asking “how can I be more clear” assumes that if there is any misunderstanding, that part of the problem may have been a lack of clarity in my communication rather than any distraction or deficiency in my audience. That question is one that I have used to shape both my writing and preaching—how can I be more clear?
As I work with seminary students who want to grow as theological thinkers, communicators, and shepherds, I work to convince them that the question of clarity should be the test for them as they draft and turn in papers. It is a lesson that every theological student needs to learn. In every paper you write, between the introduction and conclusion, there is a three-part harmony that you are always trying to strike. You must define the terms of your topic or argument clearly, concisely, and compellingly. You must defend your argument through the Scriptures or in conversation with the course readings. Finally, you need to discuss how you landed at that particular point and why it matters. Consistently executing these elements of writing—define, defend, and discuss—will make whatever you write more clear and, therefore, more accessible to your readers. Our Grimké Seminary students have had this drilled into them as Dr. Logan has repeatedly exhorted them: “Define and defend! Define and defend!”
However, there is another aspect of clarity to develop in your writing. You must develop a clear understanding of how the Scriptures, indeed, how the gospel, shapes your understanding of, evaluation of, and your answer to the topic you are writing about. Growing in your ability to clearly articulate and defend what you are arguing based on the ground of the Bible is critical for your development as a theological thinker and pastor.
As you develop the plan and argument for your paper, your main point or position should be one that is clearly grounded in the Word of God. For instance, in the introductory paragraph of a position paper, you will likely introduce a discussion that you have been asked to write about. As a professor, what I am looking for next is a clear main point or position that you are seeking to argue throughout the paper.
Your main point or position should state how the Word of God shapes our response to the problem and any ethical or practical application that results from that main point. This is the process of theological writing for the church. We take concerns, problems, situations, and questions to the Word of God. Then we let God, through his Word, speak to the issue at hand.
Because of what we believe about the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and our role as pastors, we must ground our arguments scripturally to give them weight and authority. Therefore, we want to be pastors and shepherds whose point of view is constantly being shaped and refined by the Bible. We want to be writers and preachers whose positions are grounded in the unshakeable foundation of the Word of God. Growing in your ability to clearly articulate and defend what you are arguing based on the foundation of the Word is critical for your development as a theological thinker and pastor.
One Infallible Authority
As pastors, one of our primary tasks is to help people see how the Bible should shape their lives–their doubts, questions, behaviors, and interpretations of what is true, sound, and beautiful. That external authority provides the fixed reference point for how we make sense of the world around us. For that reason, whether we are preaching or writing position papers, we need to start with the authority of God speaking to us through his Word. We build our theology from there. There are at least three reasons for that.
The first reason is that experience is an untrustworthy ground of evidence. Often when we argue a position, we begin to shape our position and argument based on an experience or interpretation of an experience. However, that foundation is shifty at best. Some of what we know from experience is correct, but some of what we “know” from experience is subjective, situational, and up for debate. But which is which? We also don’t know our blind spots on a given topic or interpretation of a particular situation. In other words, in our preaching and writing, what we ground our argument on is critically important.
“Rooting our position in the Bible also guards us against any attempt to use the Word of God to prooftext a position that the Word of God doesn’t support.”—Brian Key
The second reason that we should ground our positions scripturally is that this method gives us the most substantial epistemological footing. At times it is easy to build an argument from cultural talking points. However, building off the rock-solid foundation of the Word of God keeps us steady in violent cultural winds and guards us against accepting opinions that sound helpful but are actually counter to the Word of God. We don’t want to cede epistemological ground unnecessarily or in ways that lead us to compromise. Rooting our position in the Bible also guards us against any attempt to use the Word of God to prooftext a position that the Word of God doesn’t support. Our work as Christians is to “do theology” in a way that brings our questions to the text and then lets the Word shape our positions and responses. We do not take a position and then prooftext it.
Interacting with cultural talking points, perspectives, and resources is essential. But it is also vital that as we interact with them, we do so in ways that filter everything through the Word of God. The arguments and positions of the authors we read are helpful insofar as they reflect what the Word of God says. As professors, we certainly want you to interact with the required readings as you write your papers. But use the course reading to supplement your positions and arguments, not to make or shape your arguments.
The third, and maybe most pastorally important, reason to affirm the central authority of the Bible in our studies is that it sets the correct example for our congregations. For example, several years ago, I had dinner with another Black pastor in my city. We discussed how to lead our people in conversations about race and justice. The cultural volume was high, and there was a temptation to bring cultural arguments and postures into the church, slap a text on it, and give it to our people as a position and way forward.
However, he wisely said to me, “Start the conversation in the Bible. Your people believe the Bible is true and authoritative. If you ground your teaching there, if they actually believe it is true and authoritative, they will submit to it even if they don’t like the answer. But if they refuse to submit, their problem is with God and not with you, because you refused to use a cultural talking point. Instead, you gave them the Word of God.” This wisdom gave me a firm footing to lead our people through a conversation fraught with emotions and opinions on all sides. Because I didn’t start with cultural talking points or popular books, people couldn’t dismiss me as belonging to a particular tribe aligned with an opposing position. Instead, by taking the situation, questions, and concerns to the Scripture first, I was training our people to let God speak first, shape our understanding, and mold our responses, regardless of our assumptions, experiences, resources, or public outcry.
As seminary professors, we want to shape and strengthen our students for pastoral ministry. One way we do this is to have our students write papers. And when they write papers, we want to see in them the signs of any good communicator of God’s gospel, that through preparation and practice, they run their topics and positions through the filter of the Word of God, letting the Word shape them and their message. Then, and only then, are they able to write (or preach) them clearly from the Word of God.
Remember, “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8).