Four writing tips for seminarians

In the spring of 2016 I served as a teaching assistant for a course at Yale Divinity School on theological interpretation of the New Testament (co-taught by Dale Martin and Kathryn Tanner. I know!). After the first month of class, the students began submitting one 3-page theological exegesis of a NT text on a weekly basis until the end of the semester, for a total of eight mini-papers. The goal—quite successful, as a matter of fact—was to offer detailed feedback on each student's writing in order to see a much improved paper #8 compared to paper #1. It was a lovely thing to see how much improvement could come in just two months.

At the beginning, however, there were a lot of problems to work out. After finding patterns across a number of students' papers, I wrote up a list of writing tips, and I thought I'd share them here. They probably lean in the direction of liberal seminarians, or at least seminarians at a liberal school—though my sense is that even the most conservative context is full of students whose self-understanding is one of liberation or progression or expansion from former, supposedly more parochial, less open-minded ways. I share my suggestions here because I think they capture a specific set of proclivities—as much intellectual as writerly—that are worth identifying and exorcising as soon as possible, being consistently damaging to rigorous and charitable theological thought.

Here they are:
  1. Avoid referring to what "modern people/believers/Christians" or some anonymous collective "we" think, assume, or believe. E.g., "modern believers find the subordination of women in the NT problematic." This is an empirical claim that is not true: some modern believers (the world over, but including in the U.S.) disagree with the claim that the NT subordinates women; others think that it does, and that that is God's will. Either, minimally, specify the group in question (e.g., "many mainline Christians in the U.S. are troubled by...") or, preferably, just state, and support, your own position on the matter (e.g., "this text/claim is troubling because...").
  2. Avoid fundie-bashing, that is, using conservative evangelicalism and/or fundamentalism as foils in your argument. This, because it is either too easy or too complicated: too easy, because there is always a seemingly stupid fundamentalist position available to caricature, but which is immaterial to your argument; or too complicated, because in fact many conservative theologians have sophisticated theories about theological questions, but by dismissing them rhetorically, your own argument is weakened by acting as if their arguments and positions do not exist or do not require thoughtful consideration.
  3. Avoid contrastive argumentation, that is, only stating your own position by way of contrasting it with some other (often 'very very bad') position. Not only is this usually unnecessary, but it also invites the question, 'Why aren't these two claims/positions compatible?' For example, 'instead of a divinely authored document, the Bible is a collection of disparate texts from different time periods' is an instance of bad contrastive argumentation, because the Bible very well could meet both descriptions, yet the claim assumes, without demonstrating, their mutual exclusivity. Best to avoid the contrast, and simply state your own claim, followed by support.
  4. Stay modest in your rhetoric and your claims for what your argument accomplishes. Try to be measured in how you represent your conclusions. Assume that if such-and-such theological question has been controversial for centuries, your own paper has not resolved it for all time. At best, you may have resolved some specific issue, or taken a strongly supported position on one side or the other, or pointed out the problems inherent in the side you opposed, etc.

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