Surviving Seminary


  1. Getting Clear on Writing Assignments [September 21, 2012]
  2. Coping with Scholarly Citations [November 2, 2012]
  3. Rhetoric [February 22, 2013]
  4. Formulating a Thesis [March 1, 2013]
  5. Active Verbs [March 5, 2013]

Getting Clear on Writing Assignments [September 21, 2012]

One aspect of seminary that is rarely mentioned is the variety of writing styles you are expected to master. Consider this: If you had gone to Law School, you’d be learning how to write a brief. If you had gone to Medical School, you’d be learning how to write case notes and prescriptions. At Perkins, in contrast, you are expected to communicate effectively in multiple writing styles, including sermons, exegetical papers and scholarly papers, reflection papers, and journaling.

Avoid any confusion about what style is expected by reading the instructions for your assignment carefully. If you are still confused, then ask your professors what kind of paper they are looking for. This will also give you the opportunity to ask 1) whether the professors want to see reference notes and 2) if so, which scholarly citation styles they prefer.

Still having difficulty? Get yourself a copy of Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style--64 pages of sage advice on writing with concision and clarity. If you prefer more personal attention, seek out the PST writing instructor. And for help with citations, talk to Jane Elder at Bridwell Library Reference.

Coping with Scholarly Citations [November 2, 2012]

Contrary to popular belief, professors do not insist on correct scholarly citations just to torture poor overworked seminarians. Citations actually serve two important functions. First, they allow your reader to see where you obtained specific information (and if you are revisiting some of your earlier work, that reader could be you). Next, they give credit where credit is due to the scholars on whose shoulders you are standing—both for direct quotations and for ideas, theories, or concepts that did not originate with you. Correct citations are the hallmark of the ethical, the courteous, and the responsible—all desirable characteristics in ministry.

The best way of dealing with citations is to select a citation system that works for you and is the standard in your discipline (most—but not all—PST faculty are happy with Turabian). Memorize three or four of the most common types of citation in that format, and keep its style manual close at hand—on your desk adjacent to your study Bible is an ideal spot—for ready reference on more complicated sources.

Alternatively, you can use an automatic citation generator, but you will still need to know the most common formats in your style of choice so that you can proofread it to confirm that it is correct. Many databases now offer the option of creating a citation for you, or you might decide to investigate bibliographic software products, which is a particularly good idea if you plan on an academic career. Popular options include Endnote, RefWorks, or Zotero. Regardless of how they are generated, always remember to check your citations for accuracy.

For more information, see Kate Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 7th ed. in Bridwell Reference LB 2369 .T8 2007. You can also visit these product overview pages:,, or

Rhetoric [February 22, 2013]

There are many definitions of “rhetoric” but they all revolve around successfully using language, spoken or written, to inform, persuade or motivate a particular audience. In ancient times, it was studied as a major discipline. Aristotle produced what is probably the foundational work on the subject, Ars Rhetorica. Typically, the study involves categorizing types of arguments and choosing the types of argument most likely to succeed with a specific audience. For example, Aristotle structured his analysis of rhetoric under three modes of persuasion:

  • Logos: Argument from reason (i.e. Logic)
  • Pathos: Argument by emotional appeal
  • Ethos: Argument from moral competence (i.e. establishing that the speaker has the experience and competence to make judgments in the topic under discussion)

Over the course of centuries, the practice of teaching rhetoric as a separate discipline has fallen out of favor and what tends to remain comes under the heading of “effective writing.” Often what is taught in these areas is not even labeled “rhetoric.” Many rhetorical strategies have become cultural commonplaces and many of us make rhetorical choices unconsciously without really considering what we are doing.

However, there are benefits both in making conscious choices in the persuasive tools that we use and in being conscious of the tools that are being used to persuade us. Emotional appeals, for example, are often used as a means of short-circuiting debate on practical and moral grounds. While pathos may be a perfectly appropriate and acceptable choice, it can backfire.

Strong rhetorical skills carry with them a moral weight. The ability to persuade requires a moral concern for the wellbeing of those being persuaded. An intelligent listener well-versed in rhetorical tools is better prepared to resist enticing rhetoric and decide issues on their merits.

For more about rhetoric, see:

Formulating a Thesis [March 1, 2013]

Nailing down a thesis can be the most difficult part of a writing project whether you need it for a historical research paper, an exegetical work, or a sermon. What follows are some basic steps to help you get started.

First, work through your resources, like class notes, readings, and preliminary computer searches. Make note of the things that stand out. Why do they speak to you? Do they surprise or irritate you? How does the reading compare/contrast with what you already know? What is the author’s perspective and emphasis? These are the kinds of reflections that help lead you to a thesis.

Remember that a scholarly paper differs from a summary; it is an argument. The thesis represents the question that you hope to answer in the body of the paper. Rather than write the thesis as a question, however, you restate it as a sentence. You will eventually prove or disprove your thesis statement using the evidence you gather in your research. For example,

Question: “What influence did Germanic tribes have on the kind of Christianity spread throughout northern Europe in the early Medieval period?”

Thesis: “The Christianity that spread through northern Europe in the early Medieval period reflected a Germanic tribal influence because of several specific cultural characteristics, including . . . ”

When trying to craft a thesis, it often helps to talk out an idea with a receptive listener, or to diagram your ideas on paper using bullet points, pictures, multi-colored markers, or anything else that unlocks your thought processes. If a good research-caliber question still evades you, listen carefully to your professor and note any mention of current questions being debated by scholars in the field. Or try reformulating an unresolved question from a classroom discussion into a research project. Informed disagreements are the basis for much good research.

Finally, once you have a thesis with which to work, try not to force your evidence to fit into its mold. Instead, listen to what the evidence tells you and allow your thesis to evolve. This evolution can provide a nice introduction to your work. It lets you to say that based on what you knew previously, the situation appeared to be one thing, whereas in light of the evidence, it is actually something different. Then introduce your revised thesis statement and you are off to the races.

For more help with theses, see Kate L. Turabian’s Student’s Guide to Writing College Papers or Purdue University’s OWL—Online Writing Lab at

Active Verbs [March 5, 2013]

We have all heard faculty rail against the excessive use of passive voice by students, but sometimes students are confused by what this means. Passive voice is any sentence construction where the subject is acted upon by the object, i.e. a sentence that depends on the verb “to be,” a somewhat unsatisfactory definition. Here is one illustration:

Passive: Sisera was killed instantly when a tent peg that was picked up by Jael was driven into his skull.

Active: Snatching up the tent peg, Jael drove it through Sisera’s skull, killing him instantly.

If the second sentence sounds more engaging to you than the first, you are beginning to see through the passive voice fog. If you remain confused, there is always a final alternative. Try adding the words “by zombies” to the end of your sentence. If it still reads correctly then you’ve used passive voice.

Active verbs breathe life into prose, and they grab a reader’s attention. They give your work clarity, concision, and they don’t pussyfoot around. Active verbs mean what they say, and they are one of the hallmarks of excellent writing. Cultivate them, collect them, and use them; there are lots to go around.

For example, look at the possible substitutions for this sentence: “Many of the Romans were persuaded by Paul’s soteriological promise.”

  • Paul’s soteriological promise convinced them.
  • Paul’s soteriological promise enchanted them.
  • Paul’s soteriological promise swayed them.

If your writing lacks verve embrace active verbs, and leave passive voice to the bureaucrats.

For more on writing with active verbs, see Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style; or Jerz’s Literacy Weblog: