Begin with a Research Question

Choosing a Research Topic

Theological research begins with a research topic. The most effective research topics are those that are narrow, or limited in scope. A topic provides the area within which your research will be performed, but research is most effective when it is guided by a research question. Instead of researching "the worldview of Christianity," use a question to guide your research: e.g., "What is the worldview of Christianity?" or "What do Christians believe about theology?"

Narrowing Your Topic and Crafting a Research Question

The more narrow your topic, the more manageable your research will be. A key priority for any research project is therefore to narrow the scope of research. For example, "What do Christians believe about theology?" is an impossibly broad research question. The combination of the keywords "Christian" and "Theology" will yield millions of resuts (48,797 in Regent's catalogue alone). In our sample question, three of the question's components could be narrowed.

  1. The subject "Christian" could be narrowed to "Protestant," and Protestant could be narrowed to "Baptist." Baptist could be further narrowed to Southern Baptist or Free-Will Baptist, each of which could be narrowed to individuals or churches (e.g., "What does First Baptist Church in Vancouver believe about theology?" or "What does Charles Spurgeon believe about theology?").
  2. The verbal phrase "believe about" could be narrowed, or specified, in several ways. For example, we could ask "What theology do Southern Baptists consider to be correct?" or "What theology is functionally evident among Southern Baptists?"
  3. The object could be significantly narrowed: instead of theology, we could inquire concerning christology or a specific doctrine such as the atonemonent, or even penal substitutionary atonement.

In summary, "What do Christians believe about theology?" is too broad to be a succesful research question. A better question might be, "What did Charles Spurgeon teach about penal substitutionary atonement?" Because a narrower question requires the researcher to be familiar with the topic at at hand, narrowing the question is a task a researcher must continually engage in as he or she researches.

Resources for Research Method

There are several resources in the Allison Library that provide further instruction regarding the first stages of planning and performing your research. These include:

The Craft of Research
A Manual for Writers
From Topic to Thesis
Find Initial Sources

A succesful research project will uncover and interact with the most significant sources that pertain to your research question. However, it will take some work to find these sources. It can be helpful to browse through those resources generated through a search of the Allison Library catalogue or journal databases or the physical shelves where related resources can be found; while this will yield many research sources, it may exclude those that are most significant and will not provide sufficient evaluation to reveal those sources that are most important. Therefore, unless you have prior knowledge of your subject, it is often helpful to begin with tertiary sources. A tertiary source provides a survey of a topic without itself arguing for a new position (e.g., a dictionary or encyclopedia). An article in a dictionary will canvas a topic and provide a short bibliography of relevant literature; such a bibliography is a great place to begin your research. Annotated bibliographies are another tertiary source that will provide an extensive bibliography of scholarly material on a subject along with evaluation of its signficance.

Find Significant Sources

Tertiary sources and catalogue searchs will yield mostly secondary sources. To find the significant sources necessary for a research project, you will need to identify the most relevant secondary sources and, in some cases, primary sources concerning your research topic.

Secondary sources are those that evaluate, analyze, and argue from primary sources, while primary sources provide first-hand accounts of an event or person. In the study of history, primary sources will include letters, diaries, and material objects that were created in the time period you are studying. In biblical studies, a primary source is usually the biblical text, contemporary literature and relics that shed light on the text, and copies or editions of the text that form the basis of text critical work.

Secondary sources are a great place to discover signficant sources. Pay attention to the primary sources that recur in many secondary sources and the secondary sources with which authors most often interact. When you encounter the same article or book referred to in multiple secondary sources, you can be fairly certain that you should not ignore that work. As you immerse yourself in your research topic you will be better able to identify those works that you (and others) find most thorough in coverage and persuasive in argument.