Common Problems in Church History Writing

Clarifying a Sufficiently Focused Topic

Clarifying a Sufficiently Focused TopicMany students struggle to clarify the right topic for their paper.  Sometimes a thesis does not readily present itself from your research.  Usually, however, sustained and focused investigation of a single topic will turn up enough material for you to formulate a basic thesis.  Successful paper topics are often the beliefs of a particular person or the causes of an important event.  Sample paper topics include:

  • Charles Hodge’s Doctrine of Justification
  • J. Gresham Machen’s Response to Modern Social Crises
  • Social and Ideological Forces Shaping the Black Theology of James Cone
  • Political Ideology and English Confessions: A Comparative Study

For more tips on selecting a topic and formulating a thesis based upon your preliminary research into this topic, see  Developing Your Thesis.

Maintaining Analytical Distance   

When you are researching a topic that is of personal interest to you, you may find your personal opinions affecting how you read a particular source.  While it is impossible to avoid this subjectivity entirely, you should seek to be self-conscious and self-critical as you approach your research.  Be careful not to allow your own bias to prevent you from hearing and considering positions of your sources. One step toward maintaining a proper analytical distance between you, the historian, and your sources is distinguishing the separate tasks of investigating historical sources and analyzing those sources.  Only after you have suspended judgment long enough to listen carefully to (i.e., investigate) your research should you make historical judgments (i.e., analyze).  Remember too that the purpose of a church history paper is not to make a moral or theological judgment of your subject (e.g., Machen was right) but to analyze the historical forces that were operative in shaping what took place (e.g., this is why Machen did what he did).

Anachronistic Analysis

All good historical study involves an act of imagination, by which the historian travels into a time and place different from her own.  Therefore, the historian must guard against allowing the assumptions of her own time and culture to hinder understanding the past on its own terms.  When researching and writing your paper, the temptation is to expect past people and institutions to share your own worldview assumptions, leading to shallow analysis and unfair judgments. On the other hand, awareness of the differences between your worldview assumptions and those of the time, place, and persons you are studying will make your analysis fair and insightful.

The Fallacy of Single Explanatory Factors

It is sometimes tempting, when studying the influences upon a person or event, to single out one historical factor as the sole or primary cause of an historical phenomenon. But careful historical inquiry ordinarily finds that multiple forces converge to cause historical phenomena, rendering single-cause explanations short-sighted and simplistic.  Your analysis should therefore avoid the reductionistic tendency to formulate at a thesis such as, “The basic cause of the Protestant Reformation was….”  Only when you give attention to the complexity of the historical process will your analysis be cogent and compelling.

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