Beginning Your Research
Research is the detailed and disciplined investigation of a topic, text, argument, or event. A research paper is the product of fruitful research, containing not merely a compilation of your research findings but also your informed perspective on the topic. It is the frequent reference to outside sources that differentiates a research paper from other writing assignments that do not depend significantly on the work of other writers. Because research papers combine the investigation of research sources with the author’s own ideas and analysis, research papers can be complex, time-intensive projects that require careful planning. For this same reason, they can be immensely useful to yourself and to others.
Types of Research Papers
As you begin reading the material that will inform your paper, the nature and purpose of your writing should focus your research. While there are many types of research papers, they may be grouped into two major categories, those that focus either on describing and explaining a subject, and those that attempt to engage and persuade the reader of particular position.
Some assignments, such as term papers for church history and biblical studies courses, are expository papers. These involve a detailed study of some subject, often a biblical, historical, theological, or philosophical text or group of texts, which you must analyze and interpret. The goal of this kind of writing is to provide a probing, precise, and illuminating description of the object you are studying. For this reason, these papers usually require intense research into the questions surrounding your topic. How exactly did the influence of the dominating political philosophy affect a theologian’s presuppositions? How does one determine the genre of a biblical passage, and how does this information shed light on the purposes of the author? As you research with questions like these in mind, you should become better informed about the subject you are studying and better prepared to provide a competent analysis and exposition of it.
While an expository paper is basically about facts and their proper interpretation, a persuasive paper seeks to show the value and import of a particular understanding and may often urge the reader to take action or change a wrong belief. Such is the nature of apologetics papers and most projects in practical theology, counseling, and urban mission courses. In contrast to the expository paper, in which the focus of your writing is a text or historical phenomenon, the persuasive paper requires you to focus more directly upon your argument. What set of conditions makes the recommended ministry initiative strategic and appropriate? What is the best approach for engaging the philosophical underpinnings of an opposing argument? Why would you counsel a parishioner in a particular way? What arguments or methods of reasoning are strong, and which should be discarded? Research into these sorts of questions seeks to clarify your perception and interpretation of the many factors affecting your analysis, with the goal of achieving the competence necessary to make a clear and compelling case.
Montgomery Library at Westminster Theological Seminary is an excellent place to begin your research. Visit the library online or in person; the library staff will be happy to guide you as you explore their vast collection of theological resources.
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