Visit our new site at

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wednesday Festival: Self-Inventory on Biblical Hermeneutics

Julie Clawson at onehandclapping gives us a gift this week with a post of "her seminary homework assignment." Thank you, Julie! Enjoy, all.


Okay, so I'm going to go all geeky here and post my seminary homework assignment – not even the work I'm doing but the straight up assignment itself. Why? Because it is so freaking awesome. (when was the last time you said that about homework?) Basically, for my History and Hermeneutics class I have to answer these questions to help me understand all the "stuff" I bring with me to the biblical text. I've thought about some of this before, but am grateful for the chance to look more in depth at the lenses I use for interpreting the Bible. I wanted to share it here because I think everyone should engage in this sort of exercise. Pastors should require it of their congregation just to help us all know ourselves. Admitting that biblical interpretation is always influenced by our cultural setting is difficult for some people, realizing the extent of that truth is something few people ever take the time to consider. Hence, how awesome this assessment is as a tool for helping reveal such things.

And for the curious, "this self-inventory was first developed in an ongoing working group on the politics of biblical hermeneutics sponsored by New York Theological Seminary. The working group’s membership included faculty from New York Theological Seminary, General Theological Seminary, and Union Theological Seminary, as well as pastors and denominational staff members." It can be found in N.K. Gottwald's “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).


What is my denominational history and tradition regarding interpretation of the Bible?


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.


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 rise of feminist consciousness, this may be an easier question for women to confront, but it is also an important question for men.


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, and so on, 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 nonreligious fields, how does this impact my way of reading the Bible? How does my age and ‘generation’ affect my experience of Biblical interpretation?


Does my congregation have a vision of the common good of the community in which it is located? Does it have any explicit commitments to the attainment of the common good? How does my congregation’s view of its relationship to the larger community influence my interpretation of the Bible?


How does my avowed political position influence my biblical interpretation? Politics is about as narrowly conceived in this country as is class. The term ‘political position’ in this question refers to more than political party affiliation or location on a 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.


Even if I am not very political in the usual sense, or consider myself neutral toward or ‘above’ politics, how does this ‘nonpolitical’ 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?


What is my view of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity? To what extent is my view informed by direct experience of Jews or Jewish communities? How does my view affect my understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and my understanding of the religious identity of Jesus, Paul, and other central figures in the New Testament.


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, and so on.


How do the Bible translations and study Bibles 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 resources of information to compare with them?


How do the published resources I regularly or sometimes consult influence my biblical interpretation? Among these resources may be one’s private library, a church or seminary library, periodicals, church-school educational materials, sermon helps, and so on.


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?


Are the categories and terminology of biblical scholarship completely new to me, or do I have some familiarity with them? 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?


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?


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?


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?

You may remember Julie as the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of our Daily Choices. It was the subject of our January RevGalBookPals discussion.

Thoughts on the above? Or, are you thinking and writing about other things? Either way, let us know in the comments, and do it like so: <a href="the url of your blog post goes here">what you want the link to say goes here</a>
For a complete how-to, click here.


  1. We were assigned this exact same inventory my first semester of seminary. How helpful not only to hear our own perspective but to learn about others' as well!

  2. I wish I had had this in seminary. I can see using this as the basis for a whole year of adult CE as a way to get people to identify where they are coming from and how important that is to know as a growing person of faith.

  3. Wow,this is good stuff. We didn't have this specific assignment although some of these topics certainly came up in class. And I see from the source of this assignment that some of my seminary profs may have had a hand in it.

    I'm definitely saving this for possible use in adult ed.

  4. For those thinking of using this in adult ed, I'm sure you're thinking this already, but I'll just say--a lot of lay folks wouldn't even know where to start answering these questions. I could do some, but would struggle with others. They're things we don't even think about--but it would be really useful to do so. It might be a better group activity with guidance than an individual survey (though giving it out ahead of time to get people thinking about the issues might be helpful.) Just my thoughts.

  5. I agree with Wendy, but as a Jesus geek layperson I'm looking forward to digging into it. :) (But on my would not be a lot of people's cuppa!)

  6. I also had that exact same assignment my first semester (first week?) of seminary--way back in 1997. Thanks for the reminder!

  7. Love this. Actually am going to lift it for discussion in CPE this week.

  8. I assign this every year. I ask students to journal on a question or two a couple of time a week throughout the semester and at the end to revisit it and look for changes.


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.