Students often wonder why I don’t provide a list of set essay topics in most of my courses on the New Testament. I’m not just mean. Learning how to ask good research questions is an important part of studying anything academically. But many of us haven’t ever been taught how to find a good research question. So where do we start?
First, it helps to be clear about what we’re after. A good research question in biblical studies will be
- a question
- relatively short
- about the biblical text or its history
- manageable in scope
Often people come to me at first with a “topic” rather than a question. They might say “I want to write about God’s love.” That’s a great place to start, but it’s not a question. On the other hand, people sometimes come with a thesis statement already framed: “God loves every human being, even those who reject or ignore Him.” The problem here is that we’re putting the cart in front of the horse. How do we know this thesis is true if we haven’t yet done the research, looked at the evidence? What we want at the beginning is not a topic or a thesis, but a question: “Does God love every human being?”
If I know a bit about the topic already, I might have a more specific question. I might ask something like this: “Does God love every human being, how does that love affect people who receive it, and what kind of response does God look for from beloved people?” What’s the problem here? It’s not just that there are a certain number of words in the question. It’s that I’m really asking three different questions. The length of my question is a signal that my question isn’t really focused. This doesn’t mean a long question can never be appropriate. But generally, if I can’t express my question in one relatively short sentence I need to ask myself “Am I trying to force together separate questions?” Sometimes I have to make myself separate those questions and set one or two aside for the time being. Then I can focus on a clear question like “Does God love every human being?”
About the Biblical Text Or Its History
Once we have a relatively short question, we have to make sure that it’s actually on topic for our course. I usually teach biblical studies courses, so our focus should be on the biblical text or the history around that text. How does my question fare? “Does God love every human being?” Notice that the question doesn’t actually refer to the text or history. That’s a warning sign. What I’m actually asking about isn’t the Bible or its history. I’m asking about God.
Now, very often we begin with a question like this. We don’t start with a question about the text or history. We start with a question about theology or spirituality. Those are often the broad, over-arching questions that motivate us and make us care about the text and its history in the first place. What we have to recognize, though, is that we usually can’t answer those big questions all at once in a single course. So I step back and figure out what biblical studies can provide to help me answer my big question. Even a survey course on the New Testament can’t tell me on its own whether God loves every human being. I’ll have to also think about things like how systematic theology fills in the gaps left by the biblical authors, how the church has tried to live out God’s love through its centuries of history, and even what status the Bible itself should have in my thinking. In a survey NT course, though, I can try to understand what the biblical writers say about God’s love and its scope. I can’t answer the big question in my essay, but I can answer an important sub-question about Scripture like: “What do the New Testament writers say about the scope of God’s love?”
But once I have a relatively short question about the biblical text or its history, I’m still not sure that I’m ready to hit the library. I also have to ask whether my question is answerable. Is this the kind of question that could, in principle, have an answer? Is this the kind of question that we have the evidence to answer? I might ask, for example, “Does the author of Revelation believe that God loves all human beings?” The problem is that Revelation doesn’t say anything either way about God’s love for people who don’t embrace the gospel. So the question might be interesting, but it’s not one that we have the evidence to answer. In this sense my question above was better: “What do the New Testament writers say about the scope of God’s love?” While Revelation might not provide any evidence, there are other texts in the New Testament that do. So our broader question is a much more answerable one. Here again, the point isn’t that other questions are bad in themselves. There are important questions that can’t be answered by looking at the text of Scripture or its historical setting. The point is simply that in biblical studies research we’re focusing–for the moment–on questions that can be answered using biblical studies tools.
Manageable In Scope
Finally we have to ask about our question’s breadth. There may be evidence to answer our question, but is there too much evidence? Is there too much evidence for me to examine properly in the space of an essay? Is my question too broad even more a doctoral dissertation?! That is definitely a problem with my current question: “What do the New Testament writers say about the scope of God’s love?” If I try to answer that whole question in an essay I’ll inevitably end up picking and choosing evidence arbitrarily, and I’ll probably end up ignoring important debates about that evidence. I need to narrow it down. Here again, I look for a sub-question that is small enough to manage.
How? There are at least three common approaches to narrowing a research question:
- Ask about the meaning of one key passage related to the broader question;
- Ask about the views expressed by one NT writer or even one NT book;
- Ask about just one aspect of the larger question.
If you take approach #1 you might write an exegetical essay on, say, John 3:16-21. This won’t let me say what the NT as a whole teaches about God’s love, but it will help me to clarify and deepen my understanding of one key part of that evidence. I’ll be closer to answering my big question.
If you take approach #2 you might write a critical issue essay with the question “What does John’s Gospel suggest about the scope of God’s love?” This lets me cover more ground than the first approach. But I’m still making the question more manageable by limiting the amount of evidence I have to examine. The key is that I’m limiting that evidence in a way that isn’t arbitrary. Restricting my focus to one author or book makes good sense. Comparing two authors with different views can also make sense. It can even make sense at times to select key passages from a few different NT books. One danger in that case, though, is that my selection can seem arbitrary. Why am I looking at these four passages and not others? Sometimes there might be four passages that are clearly more important than other passages in answering a particular question. Then limiting your scope to those passages can make sense. But if you’re just picking passages more-or-less at random, your research isn’t going to be particularly useful. Even worse, you might end up only picking passages that seem to support one point of view, leaving out passages that are harder for such a view to account for. So if you narrow your topic by limiting your evidence, make sure you set those limits in a way that’s (a) not arbitrary, and (b) doesn’t stack the deck for a particular traditional answer.
Alternately, instead of limiting the range of your evidence, you can make a question more manageable by making it more specific. If you take approach #3 you might ask something like “What do the NT writers say about whether God loves non-believers before they have heard the gospel message?” I’m still asking about the scope of God’s love, but I’m asking a more specific sub-question that will help me to answer the original broad question. In order to answer that broad question completely, I would have to consider other sub-questions as well: What do they say about God’s love for people who have explicitly rejected Jesus’ message? What do they say about people who are actively working to oppose Jesus? Etc. But by zeroing in on one specific sub-question, one facet of the broader issue, I can also reduce the amount of relevant evidence and so arrive at a manageable essay.
In practice, people will often combine approaches #2 and #3, restricting the scope of the evidence in view and narrowing in on a specific sub-question. So I might ask a research question like “Does John’s Gospel depict God as loving people who reject Jesus?” or “What forms of expression does God’s love for non-believers take in John’s Gospel?” The key is to keep adjusting your question until you can answer it properly in the time and space you have.
But What About The Big Questions?
This whole process is often frustrating. We arrive at university or theological school wanting to dive into the big questions and we find that we’re constantly told “Hang on! Slow down!” The important thing is to recognize that our courses aren’t designed to answer all of your big questions. That’s what the rest of your life is for! Your courses are the training ground where you learn how to ask questions more effectively and how to find answers that are more reliable. By working through these narrow sub-questions carefully, you’ll learn a lot about how to read and make sense of the scholarship that others have done. So you’ll be in a better position to read biblical scholarship on your own as you continue to pursue the big answers. By focusing in on the biblical questions for a little while you’ll learn to recognize when people might be distorting the textual or historical evidence, trying to force it their neat big-question answer. And you also might learn that the most interesting questions are a bit different than the ones you had before. So don’t lose track of the big questions. Hold onto them, and keep asking them. But cultivate the patience and discipline to recognize that big questions are big for a reason. They can’t be answered overnight. And this essay is a change to strengthen your skills both in answering questions and in asking good ones.