ATLA > Member Center > Professional Development > Reference Resources > Primary Documents in Theology

Primary Documents in Theology

Primary Documents: What are they?
It is important to have an understanding of what a primary document is and what it is not. For most researchers, a primary document is a first-hand account of historical events or time periods. Examples of primary documents include: diaries, letters, journals, memos, manuscripts, newspaper articles of current events, photographs, records of government agencies like birth or death certificates, and minutes of conferences or agencies. A secondary source analyzes or interprets an event or theory. For example, a letter from a Union soldier to his wife during the Civil War would be considered a primary document. A book written by a historian that discusses letters written by soldiers during the Civil War would be a secondary source, even if it includes those letters we consider primary sources. 
Primary sources in theology can be more difficult. The context of the project determines how the document is functioning. Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians is a secondary source for understanding Galatians, but a primary source for studying the Reformation. For more help with using and indentifying sources see: Steven Scheuler, "Primary and Secondary Sources in History: A Primer for Undergraduates, Challenges for Librarians," The Reference Librarian 55:2 (April 2014), 163-167, DOI:10.1080/02763877.2014.881274
Locating Definitive Editions of Theological Writings
When doing work with primary source material, it may be helpful to understand the historical context of the author and the literary context of the document. Finding an original manuscript, sometimes called an autograph, of Plato’s Republic is unlikely but finding a copy of it in its original Greek is highly likely. It is always better to try to locate materials in the original language of creation than to rely on translated works but it is understandable that either you or the researcher (or both) may not be fluent in the author’s original language. Good reference works provide context and bibliographic references to primary source material.
General Theology
Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Catholic University of America. New Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967-2013.
Jones, Lindsay, Mircea Eliade, and Charles J. Adams. Encyclopedia of Religion. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.
Early Christianity
Di Berardino, Angelo. Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity. Downers Grove, IL.: IVP Academic, 2014.
Kannengiesser, Charles. Handbook of Patristic Exegesis The Bible in Ancient Christianity. Leiden: Brill, 2004.
Medieval Theology
Bjork, Robert E. The Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Reformation Theology
Hillerbrand, Hans Joachim. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Modern Theology
Reid, Daniel G., Robert Dean Linder, Bruce L. Shelley, and Harry S. Stout. Dictionary of Christianity in America. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990.
Forrester, Duncan, and Alister E. McGrath. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.
Here is a partial list of “definitive editions” of some theological writings:
Martin Luther
Luther, Martin. Ausgewahlte Werke. Hans Heinrich Borcherdt, and Georg Merz, eds. Munchen: Kaiser, 1965. (The 1883 or “Weimar” edition of Martin Luther’s works in print or available online as a subscription database by Proquest)
Luther, Martin. Works. Edited and translated by Jaroslav Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, Helmut T. Lehmann, and Christopher Boyd Brown. Saint Louis: Concordia; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955-1986. (An English translation of Luther’s works available in print or electronically by Logos Bible Software)
John Calvin
Calvin, Jean. Joannis Calvini Opera Selecta. Vol. 3-5 Institutio Christianae   
            Religionis
. Monachii: C. Kaiser, 1926-1959. (The definitive 1559
            Latin text.)
Calvin, Jean, Institution de la religion chretienne.4 vols. Bibliothèque des Textes Philosophiques. Paris: J. Vrin, 1965. (The critical edition of definitive 1560 French text.)
Karl Rahner  
Rahner, Karl. Grundkurs des Glaubens: Einführung in den Begriff des Christentums. Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1976.  (Foundations of Christian Faith in German.)
Wolfhart Pannenberg
Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematische Theologie. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1988. (Systematic Theology in German.)
Karl Barth
Barth, Karl. Kirchliche Dogmatik. Zollikon-Zürich: Evangelischer, 1947. (The original German)
Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Translated by G.T. Thomson. Edited by G. W. Bromiley, T.F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1936-1977. (An authorized English Translation)
For older titles the Christian Classics Ethereal Library has many helpful English translations of important theologians including a select library of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Nicene Fathers, and Post-Nicene Fathers, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and others.
When in doubt, it is often a good idea to ask a professor which edition of a theologian’s work is preferred.
How To Track Down the Papers & Works of Theological or Religious Thinkers
It is a fairly common occurrence in a theological or seminary library to get requests from researchers for the original letters, papers, or manuscripts of religious thinkers, missionaries, clerics or theologians. A researcher may say, “I am doing research on Paul Tillich for my dissertation and I would love to find his original letters to Reinhold Niebuhr.” Where might you start to look for these letters?
First, you need to know something about Paul Tillich. What was his nationality? Did he teach somewhere and if so, where? Was he affiliated with a specific church or group? Questions like these will provide you with some wonderful starting points. In many cases, you might wish to direct researchers to reference sources that discuss the person in question (and you might look yourself if you are not familiar with the theologian.) Many reference sources include bibliographies which could prove invaluable.
There are three wonderful online resources that you can check to look for the personal papers of a religious thinker, missionary, cleric or theologian. They are:
WorldCat: a wonderful resource for locating the works of a given author or figure. However, it does require that the material in question was catalogued by an institution and the holdings uploaded to OCLC’s WorldCat database.
National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections: a Library of Congress gateway for searching OCLC WorldCat (Manuscript materials) -- nearly 1.5 million catalog records describing archival and manuscript collections and individual manuscripts in public, college and university, and special libraries located throughout North America and around the world.
Archivegrid: a subscription database that provides another entry point into the world of manuscript and archival collections in the US and abroad.
While these three resources are invaluable to tracking down personal papers or manuscripts, there are other ways to find these documents. Google searches for the personal works of a religious figure or theologian can assist you in locating materials that have not been included in national databases. As always, be aware that information may be outdated or incomplete. Posting a query to a listserv is another option and may provide you with the answers you need. Atlantis, the listserv used by members of the American Theological Library Association, is a wonderful way to get quick and accurate answers about theological questions, including the holdings of archival materials in library collections.
There are always questions about who qualifies as a “major” thinker in the fields of theology or religious studies. Do we only include thinkers of the past? Are we to consider the personal papers of living theologians? This ambiguity makes it very difficult to provide a comprehensive list of the locations of the personal papers of theological or religious thinkers. However, here is a small sample of the locations of the writings of some of the major thinkers in theology and religious studies:
Union Theological Seminary/Columbia University
·        Dietrich Bonhoeffer
·        Emil Brunner
·        Reinhold Niebuhr
·        Rosemary Radford Ruether
·        Friedrich Schleiermacher
·        Paul Tillich
 
Harvard University /Harvard Divinity School
·         Paul Tillich
·         Theodore Parker
·         H. Richard Niebuhr
Yale University/Yale Divinity School
·         Jonathan Edwards
·         Hans Frei (catalogue record)
·         George Lindbeck
St. Michael’s College/Univ. of Toronto
·         Henri Nouwen, also see the Henri Nouwen Society
Boston University
·         Martin Luther King, Jr.
·         Howard Thurman
Library of Congress (a good starting point for searches)
·         Reinhold Niebuhr
Duke
·         Stanley Hauerwas
·         Frederick Herzog
University of Basel, Switzerland
Jewish National and University Library of Jerusalem
·         Martin Buber
Hans Urs von Balthasar-Stiftung
·         Hans urs von Balthasar.
Marquette University
·         Bernard Lonergan
Eastern Mennonite University
·         Menno Simons
The Swedenborg Society
Syracuse University
·         Rudolf Bultmann
Stanford University
·         Martin Luther King, Jr.
There are many more figures that could have been included in this listing but a comprehensive list of every theological or religious thinker would require a very large volume as well as agreement among scholars as to the constituency of the list. Many living scholars may not have donated their personal letters, papers, or manuscripts to an institution yet and others may never have had their works collected in an archive or research collection.
Other Original Documents
Besides the papers or manuscripts of religious or theological thinkers, there are other primary documents you might be called on to help researchers find. For example, you might get a researcher who wants to find letters written by women missionaries in Asia to their home churches. As in the earlier cases mentioned above, you may wish to start with reference sources or already published monographs or serials that discuss women’s missionary work for starting points. You can also search Google to hunt down libraries, societies, or archives that collect missionary information. Many institutions, including Boston University School of Theology Library, are digitizing mission works to provide greater access to this information to the scholarly community.
Many religious organizations keep historical material either in a central repository or scattered in collections throughout the world. Church records, for example, can be found in local parish or diocesan offices or could be deposited in collections held by universities or seminaries. It is often a good idea to check with the administrative offices to see where such records might be housed.

 —Jonathan McCormick, Assistant Librarian of Circulation Services, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary Library, jonathanmccormick@ggbts.edu