Systematic theology (ST) has both constructive and descriptive aspects.
As a constructive discipline, ST is the organization of the content of God's revelation under appropriate topical headings. This synthetic activity seeks to organize and structure the teaching of Scripture as a whole. In this sense, ST focuses on understanding the Bible.
In its other aspect, ST serves as a descriptive discipline by accounting for how other theologians, past and present , have organized the Bible's contents. This aspect, the study of historic ST texts, is an exercise in humility as the student studies how other Christians have understood the teaching of Scripture, carefully listening to the voices of systematic theologians of the past.
It is this extended act of careful listening to which the reading assignments of the Westminster ST curriculum are devoted. If carried out rightly, ST readings will help you not to regurgitate facts mindlessly but to savor and ponder deeply the thoughts that other servants of Scripture have spent their lives developing. Here are a few guidelines for effective reading designed especially for ST courses.
Preview Each Reading
Previewing helps you prepare for and remember what you read. It allows you to fix the main points of an article in your mind so that as you read, you can predict what the author will say and revise your understanding as you go. Here are the steps:
- Examine chapter titles, subtitles, the introduction, and the conclusion.
- Skim topic sentences of body paragraphs.
- Read the first paragraph and the last paragraph of each section.
Practice Active Reading.
Based on your preview, pose a question that you think the text will answer. Check your answer against what the text says, and continually predict answers to new questions as you read. Active reading helps you stay engaged with the author’s train of thought. As you read, you can revise your question if it becomes clear that the author is headed in a different direction.
If you do not ask any questions of the text, then you are practicing passive reading, which we often do for pleasure. This is when you let the text “take you where it will,” without having any goal in sight. You will not likely have time to read passively for most courses. To finish your course readings on time and to learn the theology they present, you must be intentional in how you read.
Track Central Themes and Arguments.
At this point, you will have previewed the reading, developed one or two active reading questions, and begun working through the actual text. Your next task is to track central themes and arguments. To do this, you can follow these simple steps:
- Step 1: Focus on key terms and how they are defined.
- Step 2: Identify claims the author makes and locate their support.
- Step 3: Connect claims to trace a line of argument.
Effective reading for ST courses requires careful, patient, focused attention and an active, critical approach to the material. The guidelines above will help you complete the ST readings successfully. For a fuller explanation and examples, Westminster students should refer to the CTW handout entitled “Reading for ST Courses.”
In Systematic Theology courses, professors either recommend or require that students write digests of the assigned reading. Digesting, even when not required, is recommended as a good way to prepare for comprehension quizzes and for your future use. For all courses, digesting aids comprehension and retention, and digests can be used when studying for a midterm or final exam or later in more extended writing projects, preparing sermons, or writing for ministry.
What is a digest? A digest is the student’s own short synopsis or summary of reading material. It should reproduce the ideas that are most central, important, or distinctive to an author or a particular reading. Whatever is most beneficial for understanding a particular theologian or for grappling with particular doctrines should be stated clearly and concisely. The digest should be written mostly in the student’s own words, but it is often helpful to include key quotations from the source. When you include direct quotations, make sure you document them appropriately. For more information on writing digests, Westminster students may refer to the CTW handouts “Writing ST Digests” and “Sample Digests.” These and other resources are available to current students on the CTW Courses page.
Common Digest Problems
Problem: Running out of time
Solution: Plan ahead
At the beginning of each semester, you will be given all the information you need to plan your work. Read through your syllabus carefully to see when particular readings are due. Make a semester-long reading plan the first week of class, making sure to have all the required readings for each digest finished before the digest due date. As you go through the semester, refer to your reading plan and set weekly deadlines for yourself, making adjustments to your plan as necessary to keep yourself up-to-date. You will avoid falling behind and possibly becoming overwhelmed if you commit to keeping to your plan.
Solution: Have a regular study time and place
When it comes to a lengthy assignment such as reading for digests, consistency is the name of the game. Find a place and time that help you to work efficiently and discipline yourself not to break from your schedule. You will benefit greatly from a habit of regular studying.
Problem: Forgetting what was read before digesting
Solution: Work efficiently
Don’t fall into the trap of allowing a long period of time to elapse between reading and digesting. With all you have to read, you are bound to forget some of the material. Read with pen or computer at hand, noting main points as you go so that you can move quickly into the digest when you finish the selection. Let the title, subheadings, introduction, and conclusion of the selection guide you in remembering its main points.
Problem: All the authors seem to say the same thing
Solution: Bring out distinctive emphases
Since your readings are all about a common topic and most of them are written by Reformed theologians, there will often be overlap between the main points of the different readings. Don’t be afraid to repeat these main points from author to author – you want to summarize what a particular author says, even if it is similar to what the last author said. However, you also want to bring out what is unique to each author as far as emphasis, argumentation, vocabulary, and other aspects are concerned.
Problem: Writing a digest that is too long
Solution: Give yourself a page limit
Decide on the length of your digest before you start writing. If you plan to write a 10-page digest, you cannot afford to devote 4 pages to 10 percent of the material. Make sure you limit each digest entry to a length proportional to the length of the reading.
Solution: Limit yourself to major points
Be concise, but not superficial. Begin each section by stating clearly the main points of the author. Let the title and subheadings of the selection guide you in identifying its main points. Leave out supporting details. You can always add details later, but you can usually communicate a main point without appealing to detailed supporting arguments. Once you have summarized the main points of a particular section of text, go on to the next section. If you have space when you are finished with the entire digest, go back and add more information.
Problem: Difficulty Comprehending Material
Solution: Don’t get stuck
Don’t let difficulty with a particular topic or author keep you from reading and digesting material you do understand.
Solution: Get help
Often a conversation with a fellow student or professor can clarify difficult material. Many ST texts were written long ago, and students often struggle to understand them. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Consult a theological dictionary or recommended websites for help with unfamiliar terms.
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