Your “theological voice” is your academic voice informed by personal knowledge and experience of God and God’s ways, and by the practical application of your theological and spiritual convictions. For Christians, it is
a voice that confidently speaks and writes ‘the hope that is in you’ (1 Peter 3:15) in conversation with other voices in a way that is faithful, credible, critical, and heartfelt.
Take a moment to reflect on those four highlighted adjectives, considering ways in which they reflect—and challenge—your own academic writing.
Hope is one of the three classic theological virtues. In what sense does your academic voice bear witness to Christian hope? The other two theological virtues are faith and love (or charity). How does your theological writing reflect faith, and love?
In what ways does your academic writing critically interact with other voices? Do you think of your writing, and the communication potential it represents, as part of a wider, meaningful theological conversation?
Use this guide along with the related guide, “How to find your academic voice.”
What makes theological writing distinctive?
Let’s assume that, if you are engaged in theological writing as a student, it is legitimate to think of yourself as a developing theologian of one kind or another. There are at least four distinctive features of theological writing.
The subject matter is God and God’s ways
The basic difference between general academic writing and its theological variant is, as Australian Anglican writer and theologian Tom Frame observes, that
The theologian is concerned with God: discerning and defining the character and purposes of God; experiencing and explaining the influence and action of God in the world; recognising and resolving the problems faced by those who want to know God; analysing and assessing rival claims about what God expects and requires of men and women made in the divine image.
As part of their vocation, theologians think thoughts about God, they speak words about God, they devise phrases to describe God; they meet with other theologians to talk about God, they stand in front of students and give lectures about God and they preach sermons that exhort people to listen to God.
All of these intellectual and communicative activities apply also to theological students, who write academic essays, dissertations and theses concerning God and God’s ways.
Frame continues, describing the various communicative tasks of a Christian theologian:
Theologians are to educate and enlighten those called by God into that assembly known as the Church, and they are to speak publicly about God before the watching world. They are first and foremost communicators who are to use every means at their disposal to communicate with those they are called to serve. They are also required to be effective thinkers who can bring clarity where there is confusion and insight where there is ignorance.
For those theologians who discharge part of their calling through the publication of articles and monographs, their written work needs to be clear and concise lest they be misunderstood or their ideas misinterpreted.
The primary audience is the church
Theological writing, whether by professionals writing books or students writing essays, is not done in a vacuum. For those writing essays in the context of theological studies, in addition to your primary readers (lecturers, examiners) there is a wider scholarly community influenced in small or large ways by your writing and thinking.
Reflecting on the themes of a classic book by literary theorist Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues that “the grammatical form of a sentence is shaped by a politics.” He partly explains this somewhat cryptic sentence by noting that “the ability to write well theologically relies on a church to exist that makes such writing possible.” Hauerwas goes on to observe the paradox that theology is a highly specialised discipline which is necessarily accessible to, and practiced by, ordinary people:
One can always say that theology is, like many subjects in the university, a very specialized subject requiring many years of training for anyone even to begin to understand what might lead someone to think it important to say a sentence such as “Jesus is the Son of God.” Just as one must learn the language of physics, so must one learn the language that is intrinsic to the discipline of theology.
I have some sympathy with such a response, but I think when everything is said and done such attempts to make theology invulnerable to criticism does not do justice to the theological task. It does not do so because theology does not have a specialized subject matter.
How does one overcome the evident limitations of this paradox? To answer this, I will refer to another theologian, Susan R. Garrett, who perhaps has in mind a broader field of interest than that of Hauerwas. Garrett offers wise practical advice on how to develop as a theological writer:
Our challenge as writers for the church is not how to dumb down the topics we already know and love but how to move ourselves into new realms of discourse …
How do you figure out what questions will interest people in the church? One thing you can do is find opportunities to teach in local congregations. If you think about it in the right way, teaching in churches is not a distraction from your real work; it is central to your real work …
Another thing you can do is to read widely, including especially books and periodicals outside your discipline. To be an intellectual who can make a difference in the church, to be wise, you need to be conversant across disciplines and in the culture.
If you don’t have time to read, download books or podcasts onto your smartphone and listen to them while you do the dishes or take a walk. I generally resist the implication that the ivory tower is not the real world – it is certainly a part of the real world. But most people do not live there, and if you want to write for those other people, then you need to spend some time being where they are.
These two features of theological writing apply to religion scholars generally, as well as to those who confess faith in Christ and who seek to be led by the Holy Spirit in their vocation as scholars. One does not have to be an active Christian to talk about God or to write for a religious readership. It is also true that all academic disciplines may be pursued as a Christian vocation.
There are, however, two further features of theological writing that properly apply only to those for whom theology is an expression of personal faith in the living Christ, and for whom theological writing is an intentional act of service to the living God. These are not only distinctive but exclusive qualities.
Theological writing as an act of faith
When you write a theological essay you are arguably performing an act of faith. Theological educator Pierce Taylor Hibbs suggests that, for Christians, “writing is a Trinitarian, image-bearing craft by which we mark the world with our presence.” He encourages writers to “be conscious of what we are doing when we write and how the craft of writing fits into our biblical worldview.” He quotes Lucretia Yaghjian, who argues that writing is an act of faith:
Faith in yourself as a writer; faith in the importance of what you are writing; faith that there will be an audience for what you will write; faith that your writing will contribute ultimately to the flourishing of those who read it; and finally, faith in the source of your desire to write.
But Hibbs has more than this aspect in mind when he speaks of faith:
Writing is not the popularly assumed ‘vehicle for thought’ that most academics consider it to be. It is much more. In writing, we mark the world that is marked by the Trinity. This in itself should draw out not merely our enthusiasm, but also our sobriety, our attentiveness, and, perhaps above all else, our sense of service.
We may think of theological writing, then, as an activity that resonates with the work of God in the world – bringing light, nurturing faith, hope and love, and perhaps much more. And it is an activity that enables us to serve others by means of the faith we possess.
Theological writing as an act of worship
Worship and service are two sides of the same coin, but it is helpful here to distinguish them.
Consider for a moment the privilege you have been given to study theology and ministry. Consider the gifts and sacrifices made by others to enable you to study as you do – the instruction and wisdom imparted by brilliant thinkers and teachers who spent years preparing for this work; the enormous repository of print and electronic resources to which you have access; the physical infrastructure, technology and administrative systems that support learning and teaching; and the financial resources that enable you to devote a large amount of time to theological education.
The theological writing you do as a student offers an opportunity to render your work to God in gratitude for the gifts that God has given you. Consider your academic work as a reasonable act of service to God (Romans 12:1-2), and each piece of writing as a gift presented to God who through grace has first given the gifts of learning and scholarship to you.
As the Church Father Athanasius wrote in the fourth century, “when we make a return we give nothing of our own, but those things which we have before received from [God], this being especially of his grace, that he should require, as from us, his own gifts.”
Challenges and rewards of theological writing
With this in mind, how does one pursue excellence in theological writing? Yaghjian outlines four ways to identify, develop and refine one’s theological voice:
First, in order to develop a ‘theological voice of your own,’ you must have ‘a writing voice of your own.’ But you already have a writing ‘voice.’ … At times you may need to gain confidence in the ‘voice’ you have in order to let it resonate more clearly. At other times you may need to let go of that voice in order to give other voices in your writing precedence.
Second, you will learn to find that voice in conversation with other voices, at the same time that you will recognize the echo of those voices in the sound that your own words make on the page.
Third, … the voice that readers hear in your writing will differ according to the audience for whom you are writing, just as your speaking voice may vary in different conversational contexts…
Finally, I suspect that the ‘personal’ and ‘academic’ voices of theological discourse are not as opposed as we sometimes make them, and that those who have developed ‘a theological voice of their own’ have also learned to integrate them in a way that makes the dry bones of their sentences live.
Not all published theological writing possesses the qualities of clarity, conciseness and technical correctness that readers may wish for, but that is a problem for all academic disciplines. What matters is that we recognise the presence or absence of such qualities when we encounter them, seek to inculcate such qualities in our own writing, and encourage others to do likewise.
Tom Frame laments that, of all academics in the humanities and social sciences, the writings of theologians are often the least clear and concise, and the hardest to grasp. He foresees three consequences of this:
- people will simply give up reading theology
- theology will become an even more esoteric discipline than it is presently in danger of becoming
- theologians may obscure their conclusions or allow their work to be interpreted in ways that either inflame controversy or dampen debate. 
Frame discusses at length the state of theological publishing in Australia, and concludes with a note of encouragement and challenge that applies to those writing theological essays and theses as well as books:
Theologians are writers. It is an integral part of their sacred calling. It involves abilities that can be improved and attributes that can be nurtured. Discharging this particular element in their vocation is not easy for Australian theologians at the present time. The number of people wanting to read their words is being diminished by the number of people publishing books whose words are not worthy to be read.
If that sounds like an overly pessimistic assessment, the good news is that, with careful attention to your own research and writing, you can be part of the solution!
All academic writing impacts the writer as well as the reader. Indeed, both research and writing may at times be transformative. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur conceives of texts, either spoken or written, as active “events” which facilitate real albeit limited interaction with the phenomenal world outside the text. He argues that the event of the text, “is geared toward the readers, but it is also geared toward the self. The event has both an outward and an inward trajectory, which can affect the writer significantly.” Moreover, as Raj Nadella puts it:
The writing process challenges the self, expands your horizons, and alters the way you view the world, how you relate to others and to the subject matter. Writing can help you explore the subject matter as well as the self. You explore the subject matter in light of your background and in the context of your worldview.
In a similar vein, you explore the self in relation to the subject matter as well as its ideologies, assumptions, and biases. The writer’s biases and worldviews shape her or his writing and transform the subject matter, but, in turn, that which is written also affects and shapes the writer. The process can be mutually enriching and transformative.
Attention to these aspects of writing have the potential to positively challenge our praxis and encourage innovation in ways that sharpen our communication skills and improve our theological writing.
How to improve your theological writing
In many ways, improving one’s theological writing is no different than improving one’s general academic writing. In her discussion of style and voice, for example, Yaghjian lists 16 characteristics of what she calls “theological plain style.” Most are basic conventions of English grammar. Consider for a moment how they relate to your own writing, and identify one or two which may be occasional or frequent challenges, and work to overcome them. For Yaghjian, theological plain style:
- articulates a structure that readers can follow
- begins paragraphs with ‘topic sentences’ or ‘transitional sentences’
- invites the writer to ‘write naturally,’ but to stay out of the way
- prefers the active to the passive voice
- favours specific, concrete language over abstract, generalised language
- uses nouns and verbs before adjectives, adverbs, and ‘fancy words’
- omits unnecessary words
- prefers positive assertions to indefinite negative statements
- avoids overstatements, qualifiers, and figures of speech
- expresses similar ideas in similar grammatical form
- keeps modifiers close to the words that they modify
- keeps verb tenses consistent within a piece of writing
- places the emphatic words of a sentence at the end or beginning
- is not ‘drab’ but ‘elegant’
- requires rewriting and revision to get it right
- encourages the use of inclusive language as appropriate.
Other Guides in this series explore aspects of these characteristics of good writing. Always keep in mind the “five pillars of writing”—structure, style, readability, grammar, and vocabulary.
To improve your theological writing, the first thing to say is don’t take yourself too seriously. Even theologians have a sense of humour (or they should), and every theologian battles the twin devils of ego and pride. Theological writing should be enjoyable, even when there are looming deadlines and you have a multitude of other responsibilities to juggle. Writing really can be fun!
Second, make key biblical and theological dictionaries, encyclopedias and handbooks your friends. You may also want to include reference works on church history. Familiarity with these resources delivers multiple benefits, including exposure to the writing of experts, clarification of technical terms, examples of clear and concise prose, objective rather than polemical discourse, and often suggestions for further reading.
Third, make a regular habit of reading significant monographs in theology and biblical studies, and any other disciplines in which you choose to specialise. Read classical as well as contemporary authors. Choose carefully—and not just your favourite authors. Do the same, where possible, with articles from key academic journals, including book reviews.
As you read, develop the habit of assessing how well the authors attend to matters of structure, style, readability, grammar and vocabulary. For example, does the structure of the work help you to understand the argument being advanced? What assumptions can you draw from the author’s style and tone? Do the words, sentences, paragraphs, signposting, and general layout make for good readability? Are there distracting grammatical or spelling errors? Is the word usage appropriate in terms of technical and archaic words, foreign words and phrases, jargon and slang? The more you read, critically, the better you will prepare your mind and heart to write.
Fourth, stop reading and start writing. Write, write some more, and keep on writing. There really is no better way to become a better theological writer. It is also helpful to receive constructive criticism from an editor and proofreader from time to time. As well as identifying various errors and weaknesses, to which you as the author were blind, this will alert you to habitual flaws in your writing that you can work to eliminate.
The final word goes to theologian Susan R. Garrett, who pleads for disciplined attention to the kind of theological writing that is transferable to multiple contexts:
A fine PhD program [or, indeed, other theological education program] instills a love for disciplined argument and rarefied discourse that is both a blessing and a curse. It is an intrinsic blessing to be able to think critically; analyse, assemble, and weigh evidence; measure impacts; attend to detail; and observe subtle gradations of meaning.
Such skills can also be an asset when you come to preach, write devotionally, compose Sunday School curricula, blog, or engage in any of the other kinds of writing of interest to a wider church audience—but only if you have the discipline to excise every hint of what might be taken as jargon, didacticism, and intellectual arrogance, and the courage to live by the rule that, with respect to your prose, less is nearly always more.