Writing a Church History Paper
In many ways, writing a church history paper is similar to writing for any other class. As in other classes, your paper should be unified with a clear thesis—a statement of the position that you are striving to explain and argue. This thesis is usually the answer to the research question with which you began your paper writing process.
Why Did This Happen?
A historical paper is different from papers in other classes because of the kind of question it answers and because of the sources it uses to answer them. In a historical paper, the thesis sometimes answers the question, What happened? This is especially the case if there is disagreement about what happened. But it will also answer the question, Why did this happen?
- What kinds of things answer “why” questions? We can answer “why” questions by examining the forces of history such as economics, socio-political power, and war.
- What are good examples of research questions? Good research questions are narrow and yet have broader implications. A good research question must also be something that you can answer by doing research. For example, you cannot ask, “What was Augustine thinking while he wrote book XI of his Confessions?” However, you could ask, “What philosophical movements may have influenced Augustine’s thought in book XI of his Confessions?”
- What are good examples of thesis statements? Good thesis statements are narrow and sufficiently supported by the research for the paper.
- Where can you find your answers? You can find answers to your research questions in primary and secondary sources.
Writing a paper for church history is, like for all disciplines, an exercise in persuading people. But it is also an exercise in understanding people. Thus, the church history paper is not merely a “report” of what happened but an attempt to explain why an event, written work, person, movement or doctrine took the particular shape it did.
The Forces of History
Your analysis of church history must therefore pay close attention to the various forces that drive history forward. These forces include:
- ideology (including, but not limited to, theology)
Although our God is ultimately Lord over these forces, his providential purposes are hidden from us, and so we, as historians, focus upon the study of secondary causes.
Engaging with Sources
In pursuit of this goal, the church history paper should engage directly and deeply with primary sources. But this interaction should happen in dialogue with key secondary sources.
Not only will these sources help to frame the research question (i.e., what question are we trying to answer in our research?), but they will also marshal evidence from the primary sources to either confirm, refute, or nuance the theses of secondary sources.