From Topic to Thesis: A Guide to Theological Research

Michael Kibbe

Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2016. 152 pages. Softcover. $14.00.

Reviewed by Gifford A. Grobien on 10/23/2018

Kibbe, in From Topic to Thesis: A Guide to Theological Research, offers a rare combination of clarity, accessibility, and methodological insight to help the intermediate researcher in theology. His guidance is helpful not only for those in formal study, but also for pastors and for other professionals who still conduct research, even if in a less formal setting or requiring a less formal presentation. Of greater importance is his emphasis, already highlighted in the title, that research should not simply address a topic, but that it should make a point, that is, argue a thesis. The presentation of any research should make a claim about information, not just present information. Even in a congregational setting, a good Bible class tries to persuade its audience that a certain kind of understanding, belief, or action is better or more important than another— even this review has the thesis that Kibbe’s book is clear, useful, and ought to be in the library of most pastors and theological students.

To serve the move from topic to thesis, Kibbe presents a five step process: 1) finding direction, 2) gathering sources, 3) understanding issues, 4) entering discussion, and 5) establishing position. In step one, researchers do not approach sources with a preconception of what to argue, but they study sources to discern what is possible to argue and what needs to be argued. Kibbe reminds us of an essential but often overlooked research step: when orienting oneself to a topic, use tertiary and primary sources, not secondary sources. Tertiary sources familiarize and orient the researcher with the topic, while the primary sources are the substance of what is being studied. Secondary sources, while helpful in later stages, can early on distort what is generally important and take us far afield of the topic.

Step two is to gather sources, and here Kibbe means mainly secondary sources. His guidance helps the researcher identify sources that are relevant and discard those that are not. Step three is the process of reading well to understand information and arguments related to the topic. He emphasizes that good understanding takes time; research cannot be accomplished and presented in an evening. Step four is the art of beginning to formulate a position and to understand how to enter into the ongoing scholarly conversation. Step five, finally, is to make one’s argument. Throughout these steps, Kibbe offers nuggets of advice that contribute well to accomplishing each step, such as how to identify scholarly sources, being award of the chronological development of the scholarly discussion, and importantly, actually answering questions that one raises in order to make a dynamic and clear argument.

From Topic to Thesis is invaluable for undergraduates, graduate students, pastors, and other professionals who engage in all kinds of research. It is also recommended for instructors to require for their students.