Who? What? Why? How? Thoughts On Analyzing Theological Texts

I’ve been privileged to assist in the teaching of an unusual number of classes as a doctoral student here at Princeton Theological Seminary. All students here at PTS are bright, but they tend to have uneven backgrounds in the sort of academic work that theology courses require – namely, analyzing and evaluating texts and arguments. We get former English or philosophy majors who can slice through a complicated text with relative ease, but we also get chemistry and business majors to whom reading difficult texts is nowhere near second nature. Of course, there are many sorts of folks who fall somewhere in between.

Recently my teaching duties have pushed me to reflect more formally on the process of analyzing and evaluating theological texts. These thoughts are in no way profound, but I do think that they might help people who are in the early stages of developing these skills. So, I present them here for whomever wants to glance at them, and also so that I will be able to simply send future students a link instead of taking up valuable classroom time talking about these things.


My advice for beginning students, or students struggling with analysis and evaluation, is to focus on answering four questions about a text: What? Why? and How? These questions are mutually implicating, and need not be addressed sequentially. Sometimes one or the other will be far more clear, and you will be able to work from there towards the others. But bearing them all in mind when you read will help you to make better sense of the text or argument in question.

  • Who? Who is writing? Is there anything significant about the author? Does the author have characteristic trains of thought, or distinctive approaches? Does the author work from within a particular tradition of thought that might influence the topic under consideration? Basically, is there anything about this author and this author's context that might illumine the work being analyzed?
  • What? What is the claim being made, or what is the point? What is it that the author is trying to convince you of? What is the position that the author wants you to affirm? What is the author trying to do?
  • Why? Why is the author making this claim or pressing this point? Why is the author trying to convince you of this? Why does the author want you to affirm this position? Why does the author want to do what this text aims to do?
  • How? How is the author making this claim or pressing this point? How is the author trying to convince you? What conceptual, textual, rhetorical or other resources is the author deploying? How do the pieces of the text or argument fit together?

Again, this represents the rock-bottom level of the analytic process but, as such, it is a fundamentally important level. One can bring any number of more sophisticated analytic tools to a text or argument, but only if one has already gotten some basic clarity on these sorts of questions.

Furthermore, remember that you can deploy this basic level of analysis at various levels of specificity. To take a textual example, consider Calvin’s Institutes (Calvin is pictured, hard at work analyzing a text). This work can be addressed at the level of the whole, at the level of “Book” (of which there are 4), at the level of chapter within book, at the level of sub-section within chapter, at the level of structural paragraph (¶, §), or at the level of textual paragraph (“paragraph” in the non-technical sense). You can see how the task of analysis quickly becomes complicated when tracking how these various levels fit together and relate. Reading notes become essential, and the three questions above may prove helpful in structuring them.


These three questions will also help you when you turn to evaluation of a text, for each carries with it avenues for evaluation.

  • What? What resources do I posses, external to the text or argument in question, on the basis of which I can make a judgment about the claim beings made? Is the author’s position true?
  • Why? Given an answer to the question of why the author makes a particular claim, is that motivation justified? Is it a proper motivation?
  • How? Do the conceptual, textual, rhetorical or other resources deployed in support of the author’s claim work as the author intends? Is his argument successful on its own terms?

As with the analytic discussion above, this evaluative process functions at any level of the text – paragraph, sub-section, and on up – and conclusions can be built into a complicated whole.

I hope this will be helpful to some folks. If you have any further suggestions to help beginning students improve their reading of theological texts, feel free to leave comments about it – the more tools in our pedagogical toolboxes, the better!



Erin said…
Thanks for this: I find it a very helpful schema for reading; easy enough to remember yet thoughtful. I find I get lost in the midst of reading and forget that the author is trying to convince me of something. These guidelines help me retain a critical stance by remembering the author as a real person.

One other thought - In class, there are 2 contexts I have to consider, and whether or not the instructor explains it I am accountable for both:
1, the author's context and
2, the ensuing academic context. Rarely was I asked to simply analyze a work. It was usually with a point in mind. Works are assigned that illustrate points. Practically speaking, knowing the professor's expectation about this is important. It is not always clear what the context of the analysis to be done is.

Great stuff, thanks!

Thanks for the comments! I get what you're saying about two different levels of context. Hopefully a good professor will make the second context clear through lectures or in some other way. But, for my money, the primary point is to get the text right.
Andy Browne said…
This was a great post. As a theology student, I find that it is still important to keep these questions in mind even during the middle of a project.

I think that it is importnat to point out that in large works it is important to be able to break the work down and not feel like you have to give an answer to these questions for the whole work especially if it deals with a number of theological context. I do have a questions though what do you do when the theological concepts are intertwined? Like in the dogmatics its is hard if not impossible to deal with one concept (election, epistemology) without dealing with others (christology, freedom). I hope that makes sense.

All you can do is follow the rabbit hole. In terms of pedagogy, this is another reason why good big-picture introductory lectures are important.
Andy Browne said…
I was afraid you would say that.
Just remember why you're diving down the rabbit hole - you only need to understand those other things enough to make your argument. Scope of the assignment is also an issue here. Its one thing to be writing a 3-page paper, its another to be writing a dissertation.

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