Research Writing at Wheaton

Using the Bible in Academic Writing

This post was co-authored by Collin Kavanaugh, Abby Long, and Monica Colón.

A common misconception about writing in a Christian academic setting (such as Wheaton) is that you’re expected to reference the Bible in all of your writing assignments. While it’s effective to incorporate in some genres of writing, scripture isn’t appropriate evidence for every scholarly writing occasion.

This post will help you identify when to use biblical references and how to do so persuasively for your genre and audience.

Identify Your Rhetorical Purpose

Before you decide whether or not scripture is an appropriate source for your assignment, determine your rhetorical purpose for writing. Is it to reflect on your personal experiences? Make an ethical claim? Advance an historical interpretation? Explicate scripture? Further a scientific hypothesis? Conduct a literary analysis? Evaluate a social policy?

Referencing scripture may or may not be an effective persuasive strategy for your purpose. Next, consider your intended audience.

Identify Your Audience

When writing for a general academic audience, you can’t assume that your readers will share your religious beliefs. Therefore, the Bible may not be considered an undeniable source of information. Appeals to the Bible’s moral, ethical, or historical authority may be unconvincing to many in a general academic audience. 

While scripture may not serve as persuasive evidence for a general audience, biblical allusions can be appropriate in some cases. However, when writing to a wider audience, consider whether the biblical reference is well-known or more obscure. If the allusion is unfamiliar to most readers, contextualize it with a brief explanation to make sure your audience knows what you are referencing and why you are making that particular reference.

If you are writing for a more narrow audience with a shared belief in scriptural authority, such as a Wheaton College professor or your classmates, it may be appropriate to reference the Bible, depending on the genre of your piece. 

Identify Your Genre Norms

A photo of an open Bible next to a notebook

Genres within different academic disciplines, such as the sciences, humanities, and biblical studies, all call for different ways of interacting with scripture. Having a firm sense of your genre  will guide your use of the Bible in a particular paper. Outside of exegetical and applied biblical studies, the Bible is generally not seen as a persuasive source of authority for academic arguments. 

Academic research papers. When writing a scholarly research paper, avoid using the Bible as evidence for an empirical argument. One notable exception is when your argument centers on analysis of the practices, behaviors, or policies of the church or a group of Christians. The key here is to illustrate how a particular theological interpretation of a specific passage, theme, or doctrine has functioned historically to shape the pattern you are analyzing. In this case, you can reference a biblical passage followed by your analysis of the way it has been interpreted and enacted by the group in question.

Scientific writing. As the Rev. Canon Emily McGowin, Ph.D. notes, “In the hard and soft sciences, it’s not appropriate to use the Bible to support one’s theses because the audience, not to mention the broader field of inquiry, doesn’t generally recognize scripture as an authoritative source.”   

Literary analysis. When you notice a biblical allusion in a literary text, you can use it as evidence to support your interpretation of the work. You can also use close reading methods on the Bible as literature itself—though if you’re not familiar with Greek and Hebrew, it’s wise to stay at the narrative level and avoid making claims about the diction and syntax. However, you can examine the linguistic effect of different translation choices in the languages you speak.

Biblical exegesis. When writing an exegetical paper, it is, of course, appropriate to reference the Bible extensively. Carefully select a passage and, if appropriate, conduct an analysis of the word choice, grammar, and syntax in the original language. Be sure to consider the literary and historical contexts of the selected passage. Finally, explore applications of the text. To get started, visit this library subject guide or check out Elements of Biblical Exegesis by Michael Gorman.

Reflective writing. In many general education classes at Wheaton, your professor may assign a personal theological reflection, either as a stand-alone piece or as a section of another assignment. In these cases, you can bring in biblical anecdotes, verses, or concepts that you find meaningful and explain their personal significance. Still, you’ll want to avoid making overly complex or prescriptive claims if you haven’t done much interpretive work on the passage in question.

Guidelines for Using the Bible in Your Writing

If using the Bible is appropriate for your rhetorical purpose, audience, and genre, consider these tips. 

Avoid “prooftexting.” Prooftexting is when you take a verse or phrase from the Bible completely out of context to support your point, and it is generally considered a misuse of scripture. While it can be tempting to simply drop in a Bible verse, it is important to carefully consider the context, meaning, and purpose of the verse so you do not undermine your integrity through misapplications of scripture. 

Justify your use of scripture. When writing for a general academic audience, the Rev. Dr. McGowin points out that “you’re going to need to explain and make a case for why the Bible is relevant to the subject in question. Also, you’re going to have to give more contextual information for the scriptural reference.”

Dive into commentaries. If your argument rests on an interpretation of scripture, it is essential that you explore the ways the passage has been interpreted in a variety of historical and cultural contexts. Look to biblical commentaries to learn more about the history of the passage in question.

Cite the Bible correctly. Most citation guides have specific rules for citing sacred texts such as the Bible. Look up the manual for your particular citation style for specific guidance about abbreviations, in-text citations, reference page entries, and/or footnotes. (Note: The Writing Center is working on an online resource for this, and we will link it here when it’s live.) If you are unsure about your recommended citation style, check with your professor or academic department. Finally, feel free to make an appointment at the Writing Center to get assistance!

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