Tuesday, September 6, 2011

On divinity school theology papers

Across the almost fifteen years I've spent teaching theology in graduate/professional divinity school/seminary settings, my customary research paper assignment for the introductory M.Div. courses in systematic theology has been a paper exploring a particular doctrine in the thought of a theologian of the student's choosing. Students have learned from this assignment how to do a certain sort of academy-oriented theological writing and have been able to explore their interests in particular doctrines and specific theologians much more deeply than the course content would otherwise provide. Some students have been able to re-task these papers successfully as writing samples for applications to Ph.D. programs. I've long had the nagging feeling, however, that this assignment has not done the best job of encouraging what a seminary/divinity school course in theology ought to encourage: the integration of the practice of theological reflection with the practice of ministry in congregational settings (though I should point out that these papers did include the requirement of a concluding section reflecting on the implications of the chosen theologian's articulation of that doctrine for the life of the church).

Thanks to inspiration from a conversation last year with my fellow Baptist theologian Mark Medley, Associate Professor of Christian Theology at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky in Georgetown, Kentucky, my theology students at the Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity are working on a different kind of theology paper this semester, which I'm provisionally calling their "Lex orandi, lex credendi worship service/sermon project." Students will choose one of the following Sundays in the Christian year that begins this Advent (Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary) with particular connections with the doctrines explored in this course:
  • The Epiphany of the Lord (January 6, but with optional observance on the nearest Sunday—January 8, 2012)—the doctrine of revelation. Lectionary readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
  • Trinity Sunday (June 3, 2012)—the doctrine of the Trinity. Lectionary readings: Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17.
Students will then plan a worship service for the chosen Sunday and prepare a sermon manuscript intended as an act of worship within this service, drawing upon two of their required textbooks--Baptist Union of Great Britain, Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples, ed. Christopher J. Ellis and Myra Blyth (Norwich, U.K.: Canterbury Press, 2005) and the Celebrating Grace Hymnal (Macon, Ga.: Celebrating Grace, Inc., 2010)--as the primary worship resources for the project (in addition to the lectionary texts) and giving special attention to the theological framework that informs and is informed by these acts of worship on these particular Sundays of the Christian Year. The final paper presenting this project will consist of three parts: (1) 4-5 double-spaced pages offering a theological commentary on the order of service and sermon manuscript; (2) an order of service of 1-2 pages; and (3) a sermon manuscript of 8-10 double-spaced pages. (In addition to the requisite introductory theology textbook, we're using the Baptist Union of Great Britain's Gathering for Worship book of worship and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-connected Celebrating Grace Hymnal throughout the course as resources that help us explore the connections between theology and liturgy suggested by Prosper of Aquitaine's lex orandi, lex credendi tag ("the rule of praying is the rule of believing.") By mid-December I should know whether this new approach to the theology paper is accomplishing my intentions for it.


  1. Wonderful idea, Dr Harmon. For years, I have been requiring my students to write a theological sermon/lesson that is both academically rigorous and practically useful. The coalescence of the scholarly and the churchly are necessary.

  2. You almost tempt me to submit a paper myself!

  3. I've asked students to analyze doctrines in light of biographical or autobiographical writings, taking this cue from James McClendon who, for the sake of ink and paper, left the biographies out of the Doctrine volume. It asks students to bring systematic theology textbooks into conversation with what Charles Marsh has trademarked as "lived theology." I am resigned that my systematic students would find themselves in deep water if forced to debate particular theologians and doctrines with more classically trained students. However, my intent and hope is that they will find there way into knowing how the doctrines came to be important for the life of the church, to understand, appreciate, criticize, and transform its practices.