Crush Your Exegesis Paper: 3 Secrets Every Student Should Know

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:

  1. Did the student use the skills taught in class? [This might include word study, textual criticism, or literary genre, for example.]
  2. 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.]
  3. Did the student use proper formatting as defined by the school’s policies?
  4. 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.

Final tips

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.


Written by
Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

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  • Mark’s advice to write in 1st person is an inclination in the right direction. It is a significant step towards the cognizance that the study of the Bible and Its exegesis are studies of a philosophy of life/way of living we should all adopt and thoroughly internalize. The “man after God’s Own Heart” said that he delighted in the Law of the Lord and meditated on God’s Law day and night. (Psa 1:2)

    The Holy Spirit through the writer of Hebrews tells us, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb 4:12 ESV).

    The Holy Spirit through John (1st chapter among other places) tells us that when we study the Word, we study our living Savior and Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.

    Jesus told the scholars of His days on Earth (scribes and Pharisees) that “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,  yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (Jn 5:39–41 ESV).

    After a personal odyssey from atheism to faith and from plentiful city life to meager subsistence in the country, Giovanni Papini wrote “Storia de Cristo,” (Story of Christ). In describing the phenomenon of the 12-year-old Jesus astounding the learned men of the temple with His command of the Scriptures and His insights into their application, Papini made the point that Jesus likely had no formal divinity training.

    “Jesus did not attend to the school of the Scribes nor to that of the Greeks, but He did not lack masters; He had three masters and better ones could not be found among the doctors. They were Nature, Work, and the Book.”

    Our true Master and Teacher (The Word from Mouth of God) tells us in His Old and New Testaments that
    “ ‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” (Mt 4:4; Deut 8:3 ESV).

  • Hey Mark,

    I know it’s nit-picky, but you and I both know that Logos doesn’t create “a properly formatted footnote for you every time you copy text from it into your word processor”.

    It formats according to initial citation. It doesn’t account for subsequent notes. It would be great it if did. Instead, I have to continually update my Zotero account with recent Logos purchases.

    Maybe a future Logos Now release could include improved Zotero integration, or their own version of Word integration?

    Other than that, great article. Things I wished I had known sooner in my academic career.

    • As I said in my comment to Mark Snoeberger, we acknowledge some weaknesses in the tool. I personally have used this functionality hundreds of times, perhaps thousands, and even though I’ve had to edit most auto-generated footnotes when I’m writing formal papers (i.e., not all my writing requires full Turabian accuracy), I feel certain that Logos has saved me tons of time. I well remember staying up till 3:00 am after finishing a paper 1:00 am and losing precious hours of sleep creating and formatting a bibliography. Logos got me in bed by 1:30 instead.

      I’m sending your improved Zotero integration idea up the chain along with your Word integration idea. I think you and I talked about this before, but I used StyleEase as well during my dissertation work.

      • StyleEase, i use this as well, however, as of last year, 2015, they are no longer in business.

        I am using StyleEase to write my big paper for my Doctor of Ministry. I went to their page for support as I am using MS Word 2016.

        Do you know of a site that may have StyleEase helps?

        From 2003 to 2008, StyleEase got me thru my MDiv and MAEL . . . so sad to hear they went out of business


      • Hi Mark, yeah, I’d second the Zotero integration idea, especially if you could get it to update to Zotero on new books. I usually just use ISBN numbers and Zotero can find it relatively quickly, but if you could get Logos to talk to Zotero directly, that would be great.

        Don Johnson
        Jer 33.3

    • I agree…Logos uses some odd version of Turabian that looks nothing like what my footnote is supposed to be like or later Bibliography. Yes I know you can change which version or format but I almost NEVER rely upon Logos to format my Turabian footnotes….simply not reliable. I find that copying from Kindle works better actually, sorry.

  • This reminds us of;
    Romans 1:11-12
    “For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you-
    that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”
    I love the double take, “”that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each others faith”
    Some times we think were going to minister to others, and at the same time were “being mutually encouraged by each others faith”. My prayer is that, we would not miss GOD in these encounters. GOD is always speaking unto us, But! Are we sensitive(aware) of his hand involved in the experience?
    Romans 8:28
    “And we know that for those who love GOD all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose”

  • Mark,

    I teach a seminary course in research and writing and have a love/hate relationship with Logos. The “hate” part derives from an increasing number of students who rely on Logos to do all their documentation without taking the time to learn and verify matters of form/style. And in my limited experience, the documentation from Logos is not very reliable. For instance, in the example cited in this post, Chicago Style requires the following (so CMS, 14:247):

    1. Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Baal (Deity),” by John Day.

    Or, if we use the longer entry,

    1. Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), s.v. “Baal (Deity),” by John Day.

    If I got from a student the entry cited in the blog post above, I’d bleed all over his paper. So my question on behalf of my suffering students—are they (and am I) I missing something? I’ve got Logos set to document according to Chicago Style, and I get a properly formatted entry perhaps one time in ten.


    • We acknowledge that this is a problem, and it is actively on the radar of at least one of our executives here, namely Phil. =) Mark, would you mind passing along a few concrete examples you comes across so we can dig into them and address them?

  • Hey Mark,

    In addition to the one I mentioned, two random examples:

    For a journal article example, Logos cites an article of mine as

    1. , vol. 15, Master’s Seminary Journal Volume 15 (1; Sun Valley, CA: The Master’s Seminary,
    2004), 92.

    It should be

    1. Mark A. Snoeberger, “Second Blessing Models of Sanctification and Early Dallas Dispensationalism,” TMSJ 15 (Spring 2004): 92.

    For a book example Logos cites a book by C. Van Til as

    1 Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1979).

    It should be

    1. Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1978), 32.

    Thanks for dialoging. Editing is a thankless task, and you and Phil have an overwhelming one. The idea is a great one, and I’m sure with time and your efforts the implementation will soon get up to speed. Thanks Mark.

    • And thank you for following up with examples. Students should not rely mindlessly on the computer, it’s true. But hopefully they’ll find that the citation feature saves them time even if they have to do some editing.

  • The only problem is that Logos doesn’t add citation footnotes if you paste text into Pages on the Mac app, and I refuse to pay for a word processor when Pages does 99% of everything I could ever want a word processor to accomplish for free.

      • Weird. I’m running the newest versions of Logos with Logos Now and MacOS Sierra and Pages 6.0 and the citation text isn’t even added to my document below where I paste it.

        • Have you tried something like a text-scrubbing app? Sometimes this problem happens, I take it, because a word-processing program can’t parse the footnote style and so just drops it. But if you strip the text of formatting you should get the citation below the block of pasted text. I use Alfred App to paste unformatted text with a keyboard shortcut (⌘⇧V).

  • Hello Dr. Ward:

    I just want to pipe in regarding two matters. Regarding the citation issue. I have posted COUNTLESS times regarding the very same matter in the forums, so I am thrilled to see this is on the radar of FL.

    Second, the controversial “First Person Paper.” Two things you first need to know. First, I am a high school writing teacher. Second, I am also in college.

    I am certainly older than you and understand that third person papers are considered archaic to this newer generation. However, can I just interject one of the challenges? Often times individuals who write in the first person do so at the expense of sounding authoritative on the topic, and this is particularly true for a student who doesn’t write very well.

    Now, I write papers for my class A LOT because I am an online student. Thus far, every one of my professors have told me in one fashion or another that I am an exceptional writer. (The college even tried to hire me as a writing teacher and one of my professors actually sought my help for advice on his dissertation.)
    I get that because I am, after all, a writing teacher. However, all my papers are in the third person, and my professors have never stated that my papers were static or dry, and they never had a problem understanding my view point or believing it to be personal. Why do I say this?

    Is it, perhaps, that because the lower academic arena has fail to properly teach writing these past 30 years or so, we have created writers who struggle relaying information in the written form and as a result, we now have created first person writers? Kind of like how in Florida, we LOWERED the required passing grade for High School end of the year state testing because 66% of students FAILED three years ago, and so legislature had to have an emergency session and lower the requirement for passing because we didn’t have funds to put all those kids in summer school? Guess what? The requirement has never gone back up!

    Just my thoughts floating around in my head…and now here. :)

    • Cynthia, this is excellent. Thank you for writing in. Your perspective is very helpful. I am totally ignorant of best practices in writing pedagogy; that’s why I hedged my view behind the words “controversial” and “idiosyncratic.” Over the years I have wondered, from the outside (because I never took a formal writing course beyond college English), how in the world writing can be taught. The best answer I’ve come up with is that 1) the mechanics of punctuation and, perhaps, of structure just have to be learned in class, but 2) unless someone reads a lot of edited prose, he or she will never be able to write well. Both are necessary, but the latter would seem to be more important because more rare. Oh, and 3) it’s nice to have an editor yourself. I’ve enjoyed working with two great editors extensively.

      • Hello and thank you for your reply.

        I think your question is a good one. “How in the world can writing be taught?”

        Writing has taken the back seat for quite some time, especially as the focus has been put on test scores. We have created students who can fill in a bubble but have no clue how to relay information. They think, “well, I’m not going to be a writer so…” The problem is that they can barely send a basic informative email.

        Anyway, you ask how could writing even be taught? For me, I have eleventh and twelfth graders coming to me and their writing is a MESS. I mean a serious mess. Usually, at the beginning of the year, I’m lucky if two or three students even know the various paper types or that their papers need a thesis. Seriously?!! How could they come into 11th and 12th grade without knowing how to formulate the most basic thesis?

        So, something I have discovered that works in teach writing is showing how writing (in the most basic sense), has a mathematical formula. Later, when they get the “mathematical formula” down, I teach them the “exceptions,” which gives them more creative freedom. I give them writing “formulas” all year long, and review, review, review those formulas just like a math student reviews their times tables. For example (and remember, this is at the most basic level), I’ll start by telling them that although there is more than one type of thesis, they can start with this as a thesis formula—–T + C + 3—which equals Topic + Claim + three supporting facts. And, I remind them that just like addition in math, it can be rearranged and still give the correct answer (as in C+T+3 or 3+C+T, etc.) You should see the look on their faces, and every year I heard “How come no one ever told us this before?” And I ask myself that same question every year.

        Probably more information than you really wanted to know, but I am, after all, a teacher by His design. I’m also heart broken every year by this broken educational system.

          • Absolutely!!! Across the board!

            I’ve had students come in who can barely write a paragraph with a topic sentence (sadly, I’m not exaggerating), and had them exit with an 8-10 page expository research paper! My point is that it can be done, but the teacher (and academia in general) needs to present writing in a way that universally works, (I’m speaking regarding the average student), and as we know, math is a universal language, so that is why I started coming up with little “equations.” It’s pretty neat when they use these little equations in sentences back to me in the class. I get a kick out of it because I know that THAT means it’s sticking.

        • Mark and Cynthia,

          I appreciate this discussion because I teach 11th and 12th grade English in a Christian School. I have noticed a trend in how students write. Our high school students that have come up through our system using Abeka or Bob Jones curriculum always perform better at the high school level than students who transfer in from public schools. I do not write this as an assessment of all schools, however. Asa general rule, grammar is not taught in the school system. When transfer students arrive, they are a few years behind their classmates in grammar. I have a 12th grade transfer student this year that cannot identify a subject and verb.Let that sink in. Usually, these students speak as poorly as they write. Attention has been given to watching movies and writing short paragraphs or simply discussing the videos. Teaching the writing process is difficult in these circumstances.

          So, to the point…As I went through seminary and then completed a post-grad degree in education, I found the value in writing in 3rd person. It causes one to really consider the words they are using. Additionally, it does have a sense of authority that first person cannot convey. Finally, it is required in Turabian and APA with few exceptions. As a reinforcement, I read a journal article a couple years ago by a tenured college professor who retired early because he could no longer work with the poor level of writing that freshman were producing. He determined the system was broken. And, for the most part, it is broken. This is why I am a stickler for writing according to the assigned style.

          Finally, as a Logos user for several years, I have almost without exception had to edit auto generated footnotes. To be fair, I usually have to edit bibliographies auto-generated in MS Word, as well. Students need to know how to insert and format footnotes and bibliographies. In fact, many of my professors would not accept auto-generated footnotes, in-text citations, and bibliographies for that very reason. I grumbled and complained about it but, in the end, it made me a better writer and teacher. I find humor in the fact that many high school seniors almost faint when they are told to write 500 or 600 words…really. They believe it takes them days to write this amount of material. This is a result of low expectations on the part of schools and students.

          In my studies, I still use Logos. But I am careful to use it in academic writing. In some books, there are no page numbers given. Also, I usually have to quote an entire line of text in order to use the auto footnote as it will not work when copying and pasting just a few words. I think Logos is a great tool but it still needs rough edges smoothed before it is reliable enough to use without a careful eye in editing.

          In the end, students are writing way below grade level in general. They have very little patience with formatting and style. These skills, however, are necessary to academic success. Learning to format and manually, in my opinion, is the way to go until a huge project is undertaken…like a dissertation. Just thoughts.

          • These are valuable thoughts, and I don’t disagree. (I’m also proud to see that BJU Press is doing well teaching writing in your opinion, because I had a small hand in some of their upper level English books while I worked there. I’m also myself a product of A Beka and BJU Press English, though I cannot now recall which ones I got when.) I defer to the high school teachers regarding writing in high school—and I’m ready to do so quite possibly with writing in grad school, too. Perhaps my proposal should be amended, however, to call for a compromise: allow first-person sometimes on purpose, or allow it to grad/undergrad students who have proven themselves capable of writing in the third person.

            And if “the system” is broken, it’s the overall culture and not merely the formal educational component, right? We live in a culture that does not value formal speech or writing the way it used to, as John McWhorter has argued. I suppose my feelings on this issue have been shaped deeply by some of my heroes, people who can write formally but with verve and personality. I think of people I know personally like my seminary prof Layton Talbert and people whose writing I admire from afar even if I don’t always agree with it like Stanley Fish.

            Jumping up on a soapbox a little bit again… I don’t think of this as a day when good writing is in short supply. The web has made it available in greater supply than ever. There are some mondo clever bloggers out there with substantive things to say whose writings I simply would never have seen before the web made mass democratization possible. And if we’re losing the formal writing style that used to be part of our culture, one thing I think we’re gaining is a style of prose built on the possibilities of the hyperlink. I think Ross Douthat is a great model of this, as is Alan Jacobs. They can show you their reasoning and give you easy ability to follow up on the topic. It’s not all bad news out there. I’m trying to look on the bright side of our situation!

  • Why didn’t you reference the source of BB. Warfield’s quote? You have a link to another blog and he doesn’t provide the source either! I see this more and more on blogs. I am very reluctant to use a quote on blogs (this includes Logos’) if I am unable to confirm its accuracy. Others would be wise to do the same so that we don’t have so many quotes floating around that people really didn’t say.

    • If I’m ever in doubt about the source of a quote, I just make it Abraham Lincoln if it’s deep, Mark Twain if its witty but a little archaic, Yogi Berra if its witty and more contemporary, and Ben Franklin if its deep and witty and archaic.

      Actually, that original blog post (on my personal blog) does have attribution in a link at the top. I, too, get frustrated with blogs that don’t give attribution. I do try to track it down.

  • I think it would be great if a link was provided to be able to download or at least see a great exegesis paper. I finished my MDiv in 2002, so it’s too late for me, but a great example would be helpful to present and future students.

    • A great idea, but I’m not sure I wrote any myself… I wonder if any teachers out there might be willing to send me an exegesis paper they thought was good? mark.ward [at] faithlife [dot] you know what.

  • Thanks Mark,
    I’ve come to the game later in life. I was in the military (Intelligence) and then a Narcotics Officer before entering a Bible School at 50+ years old. This blog is one of my favorite on logos. Not to disappoint you, but it is not because of your writing alone! You have some of the best people following the blog and making such helpful comments. So to all who read and respond I say thanks! There is a footnote I’m looking for in the future, “Well done, my good and faithful servant”. Thanks for advice along the way!

    • Not disappointed. I enjoy the comments too, particularly on this post.

      And I’m glad to see an old dog learning some new tricks. =)

Written by Mark Ward