There are some books that are so simple and helpful that one wonders why someone has not written them decades before. They are destined to be, if not classic, steadily useful, widely read, and often recommended.
That is the nature of Michael Kibbe’s recent book, From Topic to Thesis.
There is absolutely nothing earth shattering in what Kibbe wrote. Really, there is nothing novel at all, but that is exactly what makes this book so very important. You see, Kibbe takes the time to lay out the simple and necessary steps to doing research well in theological and biblical disciplines.
As someone who learned how to do theological research the hard way—by erring and trying again repeatedly—I would have benefitted from Kibbe’s book when I started my Master of Divinity a decade ago. As someone who has graded theology papers at the graduate and undergraduate level, I know that there are many other students who face the same struggles that I did and some of them never seem to get the knack of research.
Kibbe’s prescribes five steps in the research process.
- Finding Direction – At the beginning of the research process, Kibbe warns his readers not to start with a definite thesis, but he argues that establishing a general topic is the first step. During this phase of the research process, only tertiary and primary sources should be used. In other words, if the topic is Calvin, then only read John Calvin or survey/textbook/reference level works about him. The primary sources will tell you if there is something to argue there. The tertiary sources will tell you where you’ll need to look for more information. This step takes time, but it is important to become familiar enough with the topic to know whether there is an argument to be had.
- Gathering Sources – The next step is to get together the stack of sources that will be used to support any argument. This is a simple, but time consuming process of finding the books and articles that relate closely to the broad topic and then skimming them to figure out which ones should be checked out, copied, or purchased.
- Understanding Issues – Having skimmed and accumulated a stack of sources, this is the phase of research where the student figures out what is going on in scholarly discourse related to the general topic. With note taking tools in hand (though one must only write in sources that one owns), the scholar descends and reads the primary and secondary sources that relate particularly to the topic. In other words, this step requires a lot of reading, but it should be focused reading on the specific topic. During this phase, the researcher will likely return to the “Gathering Sources” step as a pattern of citations form within secondary literature; if everyone is citing something, there is probably a reason why.
- Entering Discussion – It is at this point, after some fairly robust, systematic research the researcher formulates a thesis. The thesis should be something (reasonably) new to add to the conversation, fits within the existing conversation, and the researcher can explain why the first two are true. This may sound a bit difficult for a beginning student, but by the time a student has completed steps 1-3, he or she should be able to say that someone’s contested position is right or wrong or that a previous scholar missed something in the debate. This isn’t a search for novelty, but for scholarly contribution. In other words, this step is what helps differentiate a summary of the topic from an argument for a position.
- Establishing Position – The last step involves actually writing the paper. Now all of the research is carefully woven into a coherent argument that evaluates differing opinions, stays on thesis, and supports the researcher’s thesis.
These five steps form the meat of Kibbe’s book. They are also the gold standard for how a theological student should do research. If time is available—and if it is appropriately used—then Kibbe’s research methodology will lead students to a high quality research paper.
In addition to the value of the stepwise research methodology, this book is helpful because it offers definitions for types of sources, gives appropriate instructions for using web-based sources, and offers some no-nonsense advice to students from the perspective of a professor. Appendix A is a list of ten things that students should avoid; I have observed students doing most of them before!
I will note that the instructions Kibbe gives in this book are from the perspective from a Bible scholar and not a theologian. As such, some of his recommendations for “theological sources” in the back will likely never be the main point of concern for someone in a Systematic Theology course. They are excellent for those doing focused exegesis, but the list would look significantly different if this book were written by a theologian.
Likely, also, a theologian would have placed the stage of defining a thesis a bit earlier in the process. Of course, it may that by the end the thesis must be reversed or altered, but it is not always necessary to wait until quite that much research has been done before deciding where to go next.
It is one of my pet theories, based on my own ongoing PhD studies, that there are generally distinct personality types that migrate toward theology, history, and philosophy instead of language and biblical studies. This sort of research is excellent, and it will fit best with the meticulous nature of many that are already biased toward biblical studies. The other group tends to be more comfortable slinging guns in research and may find Kibbe’s methodology constraining, however excellent it is.
Whether you are a student in theological or biblical studies, this is a must-read book. Especially if you are early on in your studies. Even if you will never quite be able to implement such a rigorous approach to research, this is a good read because it tells you how it ought to be. If you are thinking about heading toward seminary, then this is a book you should read before you get there.
If you are a professor at a seminary or Christian college teaching anything like Christian Studies, Religion, Bible, or Theology, then this is a book that should be on your syllabus recommended for every student in every class. Kibbe says what you were thinking and he does it clearly and in print. This would also be an invaluable text in an early course in an MDiv curriculum or a writing course.
Note: I received a gratis copy of this book from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.