Ryan M. McGraw
From Topic to Thesis: A Guide to Theological Research, by Michael Kibbe. Downer's Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016, 152 pages, $12.00, paper.
Theological papers and sermons often share in common that they hover around a topic without a clear aim in view. Both theological students and pastors need to develop the skill to tell people what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they plan to do it. This easy to read book by Michael Kibbe gives theological students needed help to do just that. It is a must read for theological students and for those seeking to write and to teach more effectively in the church.
Kibbe places theological research on the right footing. He asserts that those doing theological research must confess their unworthiness to know God, trust in the Spirit to help their labors, rest in God’s self-revelation in Christ, and submit to God’s authority (27–28). He also exemplifies focused writing in the flow and structure of his book. He breaks down the task of theological research into finding direction, gathering sources, understanding issues, entering discussion, and establishing a position (43–44). He illustrates his principles helpfully in light of widely differing sample research projects related to the kingdom of God in Mark and the doctrine of divine accommodation in John Calvin (e.g., 50–52). The appendices, which treat a range of research-related issues, are invaluable. This is true particularly of the sections on ten things not to do in writing a theological paper and in his introduction to the indispensible Zotero bibliographic software. He furnishes readers with much needed help to learn how to argue for positions rather than merely present information.
Kibbe overstates his case slightly at one point when he says that we must read the Bible as we do any other book and that one’s view of the divine inspiration of Scripture has no bearing on hermeneutical methods (21). The primary difference that he overlooks is that, unlike human authors, the Lord is aware of every consequence of his words. While it is true that we should read the Bible grammatically and in its context, it is also true that we must piece together theological consequences from Scripture in order to conclude things such as God’s Tri-unity and Christ’s two natures. Such doctrines are revealed by God in Scripture as clearly as are express statements in particular texts, and they provide the backdrop without which the message of Scripture would unravel. While this principle does not allow for wild private interpretations of Scripture, it also distinguishes the Bible from any other book. While the methods of theological research overlap substantially with other disciplines, theology remains a unique discipline in these respects.
This book is precisely the tool that both seminary professors and students need to make the task of writing papers an exercise in developing a skill instead of completing an assignment. By teaching readers how to research and to write well, Kibbe teaches them how to think and to communicate better. The church needs men in the pulpit who are clear and interesting. While preaching sermons and writing papers are very different tasks, they are not unrelated, since they both require students to make a point clearly and persuasively. This reviewer hopes that this book will be useful to the church by teaching men how to think and to express themselves better in the seminary so that they might communicate more effectively in the pulpit.
Ryan M. McGraw is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as an associate professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Ordained Servant Online, June 2016.