How Do You Choose a Good Research Topic?

Everyone’s been there.1 Maybe you’re looking at a class assignment. Or maybe it’s the next conference paper or journal article. Or maybe it’s a larger-scale thesis, dissertation, or book project.

You have a sense of who you want your work to address. But you’re having trouble coming up with exactly what you want to discuss.

There isn’t a magic formula for invention. But a good approach begins with imagination and the hermeneutic priority of questions.

The Hermeneutic Priority of Questions

H.-G. Gadamer reflects,

Imagination … is the decisive function of the scholar. Imagination naturally has a hermeneutical function and serves the sense for what is questionable. It serves the ability to expose real, productive questions….

As a student of Plato, I particularly love scenes in which Socrates gets into a dispute with the Sophist virtuosi and drives them to despair by his questions. Eventually they can endure his questions no longer and claim for themselves the apparently preferable role of the questioner. And what happens? They can think of nothing at all to ask. Nothing at all occurs to them that is worth while going into and trying to answer.

I draw the following inference from this observation. The real power of hermeneutical consciousness is our ability to see what is questionable.2

The ability to “see what is questionable” helps us to “break the spell of our own fore-meanings.”3 That is, it puts us in a state of openness to understand the realities we encounter in different ways than we do at first blush.

Good research answers a question. And the first step toward answering a question is “seeing what is questionable” so that you can ask the question.

You might not ask the question as such in your project. But the question you’re answering needs to undergird the whole project so that it has coherence as an answer.

Two Kinds of Questions

The questions you can ask are as infinite as the possible combinations of material involved in biblical studies. For all that breadth, though, the questions basically fall into two types.

Good research projects can try to answer questions that are

  1. known as such or based on known themes.
  2. unknown or unknown as such.4

Questions Known as Such or Based on Known Themes

An example of a known question would be “What is the nature of verbal aspect in Koine Greek?”

Similarly, once someone tried to answer the question “How does Paul use Isaiah in Romans?” the question “How does Paul use Isaiah in 1–2 Corinthians?” became a known permutation of the same theme.

Questions Unknown or Unknown as Such

Basing research on a question that’s unknown or unknown as such requires you to interrogate the basic assumptions undergirding a topic. It’s the kind of question that often gets formed through “a willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals.”5

To take a concrete example from biblical studies, by the late 1970s, the discipline of “Old Testament introduction” was well established, and writers of introductions to the Old Testament followed predictable patterns.

One of those frequent patterns was treating the topic of an Old Testament canon only at the end of the introduction or not at all. Canon wasn’t something central to the discipline. And that sense was the accepted status quo.

But in his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, Brevard Childs argued that this assumption wasn’t well founded.6 Canon wasn’t a subsidiary crater in the wider topic of Old Testament introduction—much less one outside it. The question of canon was actually part and parcel to the whole field.

Questioning the assumption of the irrelevance of canon opened a new line of subsequently known questioning. And scholars began asking, in varying ways, “What might it do for Old Testament interpretation if these texts were approached precisely as canon?”

When Will a Question Lead Somewhere Interesting?

Of course, not all questions that can be asked are good to ask. Simply because you have a “willingness to try [or ask] anything” doesn’t mean the question will lead anywhere interesting.

Gadamer’s description of Socrates’s interaction with the Sophists is again pertinent. Socrates’s interrogation ends in the Sophists’ exasperation—their “expression of explicit discontent.”7 They then “claim for themselves the apparently preferable role of the questioner.”8

But inevitably, the Sophists’ lines either don’t materialize or, if they do, they go nowhere: “Nothing at all occurs to them that is worth while going into and trying to answer.”9

This situation shows how not all questions, when formed, prove productive. Perhaps no question is “bad” in itself. But that doesn’t mean that all questions are necessarily “good” for the specific purpose of driving a research project. Good research must have a point. It must go somewhere. But—as in the case of the Sophists—not all questions one might ask are “worth while going into and trying to answer.”10

All of this then raises the question of how you can identify a research question that will lead somewhere interesting. Sometimes, you might come across a question that clearly will lead somewhere. When you do, that’s great.

But if you’re more ambivalent about whether your question will go somewhere or not, there are basically two answers. Namely, you can expect to find a research question that will lead somewhere interesting if you can show why your question addresses a problem and if you can keep asking questions.

Show Why Your Question Addresses a Problem

In this first case, the issue is essentially that of the “questions unknown or unknown as such” discussed above. If your question falls here, it’s your job to show your audience why they should share your question.

Initially, helping your audience share your question might mean you get to say nothing, or only very little, about where you think the question leads. If your question needs to unseat something “everyone knows,” it might take quite a lot just to show why your question is worth asking.

What problems are there inside what “everyone knows” that get glossed over? On the basis of what “everyone knows,” what next steps is it difficult to take, or what other questions is it hard to answer?11

Keep Asking Questions

Of course, any specific research question might actually not go anywhere. Like the Sophists, you might see only a dead end. Or you might only find that the end of a given question isn’t terribly interesting and isn’t something you can help your audience share.

In this case, the only thing to do is to keep asking questions. A sentiment like that often attributed to Thomas Edison is appropriate here. When asked about his string of “failures” in trying to invent the electric light, Edison is reported to have said something like, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”12

Similarly, Seth Godin observes how one often has to do a lot of bad writing to get that out of the way before better writing starts to flow.13

And so it is with research questions. Sometimes, you have to ask bad questions in order to see how they lead nowhere and get to better ones. And if you’re ever at a loss for how to continue asking questions, asking “How do I know x?” can often be a good place to begin.


To choose a good research topic, you have to start with a question. That question can be either known or unknown. But it needs to be there to unify your project.

That ability to “see what is questionable” and to ask questions accordingly is the first step in choosing a good research topic.

  1. Header image provided by Oliver Roos

  2. Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem,” in Philosophical Hermeneutics, ed. and trans. David E. Ligne, 1st paperback ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 12–13; italics added. 

  3. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed., Bloomsbury Revelations (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 281. 

  4. In distinguishing types of questions in this way, I’m indebted to the descriptions of “normal” and “extraordinary” science in Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 4th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). 

  5. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 50th anniversary ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 91; see also J. David Stark, “Reading (in) Biblical Studies: Thomas Kuhn’s Significance for Contextualizing the Discipline,” Journal of Faith and the Academy 5.1 (2012): 40–54. 

  6. Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 1st American ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979). 

  7. Kuhn, Scientific Revolutions, 91. 

  8. Gadamer, “Hermeneutical Problem,” 13. 

  9. Gadamer, “Hermeneutical Problem,” 13. 

  10. Gadamer, “Hermeneutical Problem,” 13. 

  11. For these general angles of approaching problems with paradigms or what “everyone knows,” see Kuhn, Scientific Revolutions

  12. The actual number of attempts cited in Edison’s sentiment seems to be the subject of some disagreement and variation. 

  13. Seth Godin, Leap First: Creating Work That Matters, Audible ed. (Louisville, CO: Sounds True, 2015). 

The Problem with Doctrines as Freestanding Assertions

Doctrine needs to be an answer to a question that arises and presses for an answer.1 Where it fails to do so, it begins to address freestanding problems and loses connection with its own life context.2

The Trouble with Doctrine as Freestanding Assertion

Belief is “inextricably embodied in patterns of habit, commitment, and action, which constitute endorsement, ‘backing,’ or ‘surroundings’” for that belief.3

So, the trouble with doctrine as an address to freestanding problems is that the doctrine disconnects from this larger life context.4

And in fact, losing connection with this life context runs the perilous risk of falsifying precisely this same belief.

In his Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives an excellent example of how this danger may play out.5

An Example: Pecca fortiter

From his own tradition, Bonhoeffer cites Martin Luther’s dictum Pecca fortiter, sed forties fide et gaude in Christo. That is, “Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ more boldly still” (55). According to Bonhoeffer, in interpreting this maxim, “everything depends on applying the distinction between the data and the answer to the sum” (56).

Pecca fortiter as a Freestanding Maxim

As Bonhoeffer points out, the difficulties with this statement become obvious if we leave off Luther’s “backing” or “surroundings” for it and take it as a “premiss” or a freestanding maxim.

Doing so makes the statement mean something like

You are a sinner … and there is nothing you can do about it. Whether you are a monk or a man of the world, a religious man or a bad one, you can never escape the toils of the world or from sin. So put a bold face on it, and all the more because you can rely on the opus operatum of [or, “work performed by”] grace. (55–56)

Loosed from its moorings in Luther’s thought and piety pecca fortiter, therefore, “conjur[es] up the spectre of cheap grace” (56).

Thus Bonhoeffer comments,

Taken as a premiss, pecca fortiter acquires the character of an ethical principle, a principle of grace to which the principle of pecca fortiter must correspond. (56)

As a freestanding maxim, pecca fortiter advocates “cheap grace” because it makes itself out as an ethical statement. It does not respond to a question that has arisen. Instead it projects from itself the question “What should a follower of Jesus do?”

But, Bonhoeffer observes, this “means justification of sin, and it turns Luther’s formula into its very opposite” (56).

Pecca fortiter as a Response to a Question

On the other hand, pecca fortiter can be a response to a question that has already arisen and that demands an answer. It can and “is meant to be taken, not as the premiss, but as the conclusion, the answer to the sum, the coping-stone, his very last word on the subject” (56).

Pecca fortiter is not a premise but a conclusion. And as such, it is “backed,” “surrounded,” and contextualized by the life context that gives rise to pecca fortiter and demands it as an answer.

What is this life context? And how does it lead pecca fortiter away from being an ethical principle?

“For Luther,” Bonhoeffer comments,

“sin boldly” could only be his very last refuge, the consolation for one whose attempts to follow Christ had taught him that he can never become sinless …. Take courage and confess your sin, says Luther, do not try to run away from it, but believe more boldly still. You are a sinner … and become a sinner … every day, but be bold about it. But to whom can such words be addressed, except to those who from the bottom of their hearts make a daily renunciation of sin and of every barrier which hinders them from following Christ, but who nevertheless are troubled by their daily faithlessness and sin? Who can hear these words without endangering his faith but he who hears their consolation as a renewed summons to follow Christ? (56–57)

Bonhoeffer asserts that this can happen only when pecca fortiter is backed up and surrounded by this commitment at the exhausted end of grace- and joy-filled striving in discipleship. Only then is pecca fortiter a statement not of license but of comfort, joy, and renewed summons in that same task.


Such dynamics are, of course, not unique to early 20th-century German Lutheranism. Our collective memory of why, how, and in what contexts particular doctrines matter can all too quickly become sadly amnesic.

But at the same time, simply being aware of the potential for problems along these lines can help us start looking for better ways to connect doctrines to their proper life contexts.

  1. Header image by the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute

  2. Anthony Thiselton, Hermeneutics of Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 38–39. 

  3. Thiselton, Hermeneutics of Doctrine, 20; see also 28–29. 

  4. Thiselton, Hermeneutics of Doctrine, 3–18, 38–39. 

  5. Here, I’m quoting and citing from the 1963 edition by Macmillan