Briefly Noted: Worsham and Frame on Evaluating Other People’s Writings

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In a recent edition of The Chronicle, Lynn Worsham reflects on the reasons why book reviews are a key contribution to the scholarly conversation.[1] IMHO, she is right, and her points serve as a reminder of why theological book reviews are helpful.

Worsham makes several points that are worth repeating. First, she argues that the book review is an excellent venue for faculty and students to develop the skills necessary for scholarly writing. Second, and more importantly, a well-crafted book review helps the scholarly community make wise decisions about how to use our time. In an era in which one must choose between thousands of books on any particular subject, the book review helps make the choice manageable. Third, in order for a review to be helpful, it must provide more than a summary of the book’s content, by engaging the book and evaluating its argument(s).

In addition, Worsham provides some helpful tips for first time reviewers:

  • Don’t review a book by a friend, colleague, or mentor.
  • Don’t review a book by a professional rival or foe.
  • Don’t use the review as an opportunity to eviscerate an author.
  • Choose a book that has just been published, not one that has been out for many months or more.
  • After selecting a newly published book, contact the journal’s book review editor and ask for permission to write a review for publication.
  • In your review, keep your description of the book relatively short.
  • Keep your readers (fellow scholars in your discipline) in mind as you write the review.
  • Make sure you carefully follow the journal’s stated format and typical practices for reviews.

Worsham’s article reminded me of a nifty little treatment of this topic by John Frame. In an appendix to his Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, Frame provides a 12-point checklist for young theologians to help them understand how to evaluate theological writings.[2]

Here is his checklist of ways in which articles, lectures, and books may be evaluated:

  1. Scripturality. Are the ideas teachings of Scripture? Are they at least consistent with Scripture? This is, of course, the chief criterion.
  2. Truth. Even if an idea is not found in Scripture, it may be true—for example, a theory about the influence of Bultmann or Pannenberg.
  3. Cogency. Is the author’s case adequately argued? Are his premises true, his arguments valid?
  4. Edification. Is it spiritually helpful? Harmful? Hard to say?
  5. Godliness. Does the text exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, or is it blasphemous, gossipy, slanderous, unkind, and so forth?
  6. Importance. Is the idea important? Trivial? Somewhere in between? Important for some but not for others?
  7. Clarity. Are the key terms well defined, at least implicitly? Is the formal structure intelligible, well thought out? Are the author’s positions clear? Does he formulate well the issues to be addressed and distinguish them from one another?
  8. Profundity. Does the text wrestle with difficult, or only with easy, questions? . . . Does it get to the heart of a matter? Does it not subtle distinctions and nuances that other writers miss?
  9. Form and Style. Is it appropriate to the subject matter? Does it show creativity

Here is a list of criteria Frame considers unsound when evaluating theological writings:

  1. Emphasis. In this kind of criticism, one theologian attacks another for having an improper “emphasis.” But there is no such thing as a single normative emphasis. An emphasis becomes a problem only when it leads to other sorts of problems. . . .
  2. Comparability. Here a work is criticized because it resembles another work that is poorly regarded. Such resemblance, however, is never sufficient ground for criticism. The strengths and weaknesses of each work must be evaluated individually.
  3. Terminology. Criticizing the terminology of a work—its metaphors, motifs, and definitions—is never sound unless the terminology causes some of the problems listed above in criteria 1-9. The terminology itself is never the problem. This sort of criticism falls under our condemnation of ‘word-level,’ rather than ‘sentence-level,’ criticism.

Worsham is correct that well-crafted reviews are helpful contributions to the scholarly conversation, and Frame provides some helpful guidelines for how to write a theological book review. Any thoughts from our BtT readers on how you would differ from, modify, or add to, Worsham’s and Frame’s arguments?


[1] Lynn Worsham, “The Endangered Scholarly Book Review” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 6, 2012), A29.

[2] John Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (P&R, 1987), 369–370.

  2Comments

  1. Wesley L. Handy   •  

    Bruce,

    This is very helpful!

    For readers of this blog that are students (I’m assuming established scholars will have more freedom), based on my experience and depending on the journal, rather than selecting a book, then contacting the journal, it may be best to contact the book review editor first and ask to be included on the list of reviewers. For instance, one journal I review for had a three page application for determining area of expertise and interest. Also, if you build a good relationship with the editor, one may find that book reviews will come your way. At first, you may not have much choice in what book you can review, but you can take what comes your way and earn better choices with quality reviews. Again, this will differ from journal to journal. Perhaps some of our faculty who are editors can speak more to this.

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Wes, that’s good advice. Thanks for weighing in. I’ll add this word of encouragement to students, especially to PhD students: you’ll be surprised at the number (and quality) of journals who will let you write reviews for them. And you’ll be further surprised at how much $$$ you can save when you get a free copy of an expensive book, in exchange for crafting a thoughtful review.

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