Throughout the ages-and no less today-Christians have differed among themselves in their interpretation of the Bible, both with respect to particular passages and with respect to the meaning of the Bible as a whole. This can be explained only in part by the nature of the Bible itself.
How we construe the Bible is greatly affected by our experience and identity as interpreters. There appears to be a complex of factors at work in all of us as biblical interpreters, no matter how different our conclusions. We don’t come “naked” to the Bible. Rather, the way we are “outfitted” with pre-understandings and pretexts shapes what we see and what we emphasize in the Bible.
As we come to see the hermeneutical factors at work in ourselves, we become more self-aware in our interpretation and more self-critical in a constructive sense. We are also able to see why differences of biblical interpretation arise among intelligent and sincere believers.
Your overall hermeneutical perspective will profoundly affect your experience in this course. Some perspectives in the course are likely to be new to you and may seem silly or false at first acquaintance. As you study, you are encouraged to try to see why these perspectives on the Bible have arisen and to consider how they may be fruitful in clarifying and possibly enlarging your own perspective as it develops over time.
Several crucial factors in the pre-understanding of biblical interpreters are set out below in the form of questions that you ask yourself about your perspective on the Bible. You are asked to answer them thoughtfully and honestly with respect to your life. The “correct” answers are those that uncover as precisely as possible the mix of influences that have brought you to where you now are in your biblical understanding.
Please follow the instructions in submitting your completed self-inventory.
- CHURCH HISTORY/TRADITION
What is my denominational history and tradition regarding interpretation of the Bible?
- AUTHORITATIVE CRITERIA
What are the norms or standards beyond the Bible recognized in my tradition to indicate how and in what particulars the Bible is the Word of God? This may include a founder of the denomination, a church body, a confession, a creed, a set of customs, a type of personal experience, a social commitment, as well as other possibilities.
- WORKING THEOLOGY
What is my actual working theology regarding interpretation of the Bible? To what extent is this the same or different from the official position of my denomination or the “average” viewpoint among my church associates? Is my working theology more or less the same as my formal theology, such as I might state in an application to a seminary or before a church body?
How does my ethnic history, culture and consciousness influence my interpretation of the Bible? This may be somewhat easier for Blacks, Hispanics and Asians to answer, but it is also a necessary question for Anglos to ponder.
How does my gender history, culture and consciousness influence my interpretation of the Bible? With the recent rise of feminist consciousness, this may be an easier question for women to confront, but it is a question of equal importance for both men and women.
- SOCIAL CLASS
How does my social class history, culture and consciousness influence my interpretation of the Bible? Since the dominant ideology in our society tends to deny that social classes exist among us, or to belittle the significance of class, it may take considerable effort on your part to identify your class location. For starters, you can ask about work experience, inherited wealth, income, education, types of reading, news sources consulted, social and career aspirations, etc., and you can ask these questions about yourself, your parents, your grandparents, your associates, your neighborhood, your church.
How does my level and type of education influence my interpretation of the Bible? If I have had technical or professional training in non-religious fields, how does this impact my way of reading the Bible?
- COMMUNITY PRIORITIES
How do the values, welfare and survival needs recognized or felt implicitly in my community/church influence my interpretation of the Bible?
- EXPLICIT POLITICAL POSITION
How does my avowed political position influence my biblical interpretation? Politics is about as narrowly conceived in this country as is class. By “political position” this question is broader than political party affiliation or location on the left-right political spectrum. It also takes into account how much impact one feels from society and government on one’s own life and how much responsibility one takes for society and government, and in what concrete ways. Also involved is how one’s immediate community/church is oriented toward sociopolitical awareness.
- IMPLICIT POLITICAL STANCE
Even if I am not very political in the usual sense, or consider myself neutral toward or “above” politics, how does this “non-political” attitude and stance influence my biblical interpretation? What is the implicit political stance of my church and of other religious people with whom I associate?
- CUSTOMARY EXPOSURES TO THE BIBLE
How does the mix of uses of the Bible to which I have been or am currently exposed influence my biblical interpretation? Such uses may include worship, preaching, church school instruction, private study, Bible school training, ethical and theological resourcing, solitary or group devotions or spiritual exercises, etc.
- BIBLE TRANSLATION
How do the Bible translations and Study bible I use influence my interpretation of the Bible? What translation (s) do I regularly or frequently use, and why? If I use a particular study Bible with explanatory essays and notes, what line of interpretation is expressed in it? Do I accept the study Bible interpretations without question or do I consult other sources of information to compare with them?
- PUBLISHED RESOURCES
How do the published resources I regularly or sometimes consult influence my biblical interpretation? Among these resources may be one’s private library, church or seminary library, periodicals, church school educational materials, sermon helps, etc.
- INTENT AND EFFECT OF BIBLICAL PREACHING
How do my church and pastor (or myself as pastor) understand the role of the Bible in preaching as an aspect of the mission of the church, and how does that understanding influence my own pattern of biblical interpretation?
- ORIENTATION TO BIBLICAL SCHOLARS
How does my attitude toward and use or nonuse of biblical scholarship influence my biblical interpretation? Am I inclined automatically to accept or to reject whatever a biblical scholar claims? Does the biblical scholarship I am familiar with increase or decrease my sense of competence and satisfaction in Bible study?
- FAMILY INFLUENCE
What was the characteristic view of the Bible in my childhood home? Have I stayed in continuity with that view? Do I now see the Bible rather differently than my parents did (or do)? If there have been major changes in my view of the Bible, how did these come about? How do I feel about differences in biblical understanding within my current family setting?
- LIFE CRISIS
Have I experienced crises in my life in which the Bible was a resource or in which I came to a deeper or different understanding of the Bible than I had held before? If so, what has been the lasting effect of the crisis on my biblical interpretation?
- SPIRITUALITY OR DIVINE GUIDANCE
What has been my experience of the role of the Bible in spiritual awareness or guidance from God? What biblical language and images play a part in my spiritual awareness and practice? How do I relate this “spiritual” use of the Bible to other ways of reading and interpreting the Bible? Do these different approaches to the Bible combine comfortably for me or are they in tension or even open conflict?
LEARNING FROM THIS SELF-INVENTORY
A. HOW DO I MIX AND PRIORITIZE THE FACTORS?
Now that I have attended to each of these hermeneutical factors, is it possible to rank them in terms of the extent of their importance in my biblical interpretation? Do I recognize that some factors are “foundational” or “pivotal” for me? If that seems to be so, how are the less dominant factors related to and affected by the more dominant factors? Do I detect any factor at work in my biblical interpretation that is not identified in the self-inventory? Does it surprise me to find that some factors are apparently more influential in my biblical interpretation than I had previously realized?
B. WHAT NEXT STEPS DO I WANT TO TAKE?
What new awareness do I gain from this self-inventory as to how I actually interpret the Bible as the particular person I am? Do I want to learn more about the workings of some of these hermeneutical factors in the way I interpret? Now that I am getting more aware of how these factors interplay in my interpretation, is there anything I may want to consider changing in my attitude or practice so that I may become a more adequate and self-consistent biblical interpreter?
(This self-inventory was first developed in an ongoing working group on the Politics of Biblical Hermeneutics sponsored by New York Theological Seminary whose membership included faculty from New York Theological Seminary, General Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary, as well as pastors and denominational staff members. The self-inventory has gone through several revisions and some of the hermeneutical factors listed have been contributed by students at NYTS. Suggestions for improvement are always welcomed).
N.K. Gottwald. “Framing Biblical Interpretation at New York Theological Seminary: A Student Self-Inventory on Biblical Hermeneutics” in Reading from This Place, Vol. 1: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in the United States (Fortress, 1995).
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