I have written seminary-level exegesis papers, and I have graded them—dozens of them. And I’m going to tell you a few secrets I don’t think your teachers will mind me telling their students. They’ve already told you what you really need to know, namely how to exegete the Bible. Nothing I tell you will help you if you haven’t really listened to them first.
But I think I can still help. If you read and follow the advice in this article, you will get a better grade—guaranteed, or your time reading it will be given back to you.* Here are my three tips, plus some bonuses at the end:
*In the New Heavens and the New Earth (Rev 21:1).
1. Cite appropriate sources
Teachers want you to cite good books, not because they have some abstract desire to fulfill Turabian requirements but because using good resources—commentaries, dictionaries, journals—is a real-life exegesis skill you will need when something far more important than a grade is on the line: like when you’re shepherding actual souls.
When I started training for ministry, my fellow undergraduates were not generally good arbiters of what counted as a good biblical studies resource. I cringe to think of some of the low-quality books and CD-ROMs my friends and I bought with our meager student budgets before we started listening to our teachers’ recommendations. We were wowed by quantity (300 [public domain] works!) and not sufficiently concerned about quality.
I took one class in which we had to memorize the top commentaries on given books, however. That helped refine my discernment. And I had a nerdy peer later in seminary who modeled for me what it meant to choose and use a good commentary. My pastor did the same. Slowly, I got it: the level of insight I was able to provide to others through biblical exegesis had a lot to do with how diligently I read good books in which people were trying to provide the same thing for me.
One reason to get Logos early on in your ministry training is to gather some good books before you have the ability to discern between useful and not-so-much. People with the same training as your teachers put together the books in the various base packages (undergrads should aim for Silver or Gold, seminary students for Gold or Platinum). Nothing against Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, Matthew Henry, or the old ISBE—and Logos has them all—but your teachers already know you can Google “free Bible study helps.” They will want to see you benefiting from the best commentaries of the last (max?) 40 years. Those writers like to feed their children, so their books cost money. But they’re so worth it.
A lot of ministerial students today are “non-traditional”—they are adult learners called to ministry. They have kids and mortgages and jobs. They can’t bring themselves to the library as often as unattached 19-year-olds can. Logos brings the library to them.
And I must not fail to mention: Logos creates a properly formatted footnote for you every time you copy text from it into your word processor. Look:
2. Make an educated guess at your teacher’s grading rubric
Grading papers is hard work, and teachers often turn to “rubrics”—very specific grading criteria—to make grading quicker, easier, and objectiv-er. The rubric I used to grade exegesis papers for a beginning hermeneutics class included some very simple elements:
- Did the student use the skills taught in class? [This might include word study, textual criticism, or literary genre, for example.]
- Did the student notice these four specific features of the text? [I can’t tell you what those features on your teacher’s sheet are, but chances are they were covered in some way in class.]
- Did the student use proper formatting as defined by the school’s policies?
- Did the student cite an appropriate number of quality resources?
What can you do with this information, given that you don’t know the most important element, the “specific features of the text”? Here’s what I suggest: make an actual list of “points” or insights you’ve drawn from your assigned passage, weave them into an outline, and make sure they’re included in your paper. Chances are some of the discrete items on your list will match those on your teacher’s list.
Your number one goal is to understand and explain the meaning of the passage you are writing about. Your number two goal is to prove to your teacher that you know what you’re doing.
3. Write like a person edifying another person.
Don’t write like an academic computer writing binary theological code to other academic computers. Writing exegesis papers, like preaching sermons, means sending “truth through personality.” Write like you and your teacher both need to be edified by the Bible, because you do.
My controversial, perhaps idiosyncratic advice: unless your teacher or program specifically tells you not to, try writing in the first person. I’ve seen dry, boring writers utterly transformed by the simple freedom provided by first-person pronouns. And since no one is perfectly objective—every writer either loves God and neighbor or doesn’t—the pretension to academic neutrality is just that.
Sometimes when grading papers I have scratched my head and thought, “Did this student forget that another human being might read this?” It’s like the students thought they were practicing cursive instead of writing sentences, or plunking through scales instead of playing melodies. They were going through an academic exercise rather than analyzing and explaining the words of the one, true, and living God! These students needed the justifiably famous advice of B.B. Warfield:
Sometimes we hear it said that ten minutes on your knees will give you a truer, deeper, more operative knowledge of God than ten hours over your books. “What!” is the appropriate response, “than ten hours over your books, on your knees?” Why should you turn from God when you turn to your books, or feel that you must turn from your books in order to turn to God? If learning and devotion are as antagonistic as that, then the intellectual life is in itself accursed, and there can be no question of a religious life for a student, even of theology.
The last time I graded papers, I learned things from my students. I love that. I’m not above getting wisdom and insight from beginners! They edified and instructed me, and I wrote particularly good students long, encouraging notes as a result.
Pray that you’ll be the student that delights your teacher. And work long enough, by God’s grace, to make it a genuine possibility.
A few more random tips, take them or leave them stuck in the internet black hole:
- Write down verbatim whatever verbal instructions the teacher gives regarding the assignment. I can’t tell you how many times I was thankful (or that I wished…) I had done this.
- Don’t be long-winded. A bunch of papers to grade is daunting enough without one of them doubling the stack height by itself. Observe strictly the space limitations given to you.
- Read your paper out loud to someone else. Do it. No, I don’t care how awkward and embarrassing it is! Do it now! Together you will catch errors of all kinds that you won’t catch otherwise. Graders don’t like to waste time figuring out what in the world you were trying to say.
- Hold on to one, two, maybe three specific things your teacher says about exegesis in class and try to put them in the paper. Teachers are super encouraged to find that one of their students actually listened to what they said. You may not bump your grade to a different letter, but you might turn a minus into a plus—not that you should be caring much about such things!
- Spend some time right away learning how to use the tools Logos provides for writers of exegesis papers. A carpenter gets to know the differences between his nails and screws before he builds the house.