Following Jesus Through the Power of the Spirit, Pt. 6: Directional Sets and Bible Interpretation

Part 1

February 27, 2023

by Larry Caldwell, Chief Academic Officer and Professor of Intercultural Studies and Bible Interpretation


Several weeks ago, Greg Henson and David Williams introduced us to the concept of “directional sets.” Building off the pioneering work of Paul Hiebert—and especially his descriptions of “bounded,” “centered,” and “fuzzy” sets and their relationship to Christian identity and the mission of the Church—Greg and David identified the limitations of Hiebert’s sets. Instead, they proposed the idea of “directional” sets: discerning which direction Jesus is moving and moving with Him. A few weeks later, Philip Thompson looked at two historical examples to help shed even more light on the directional set concept. Philip especially noted the 1997 statement of Baptist pastors and scholars which affirmed “an open and orderly process whereby faithful communities deliberate together over the Scriptures with sisters and brothers of the faith, excluding no light from any source.” I will take Philip’s quote even further in terms of implications for directional sets and Bible interpretation.

The truth is, historically, light from most sources has been excluded by Bible interpreters who fall into either the bounded set or centered set categories. One’s interpretation tends to be either bounded or centered firmly within the boundaries determined by the majority theological opinion of the specific community of interpreters (whether they be Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, and so on). Often, there is very little “wiggle room” regarding specific interpretations that fall outside the boundaries of one’s group or denomination.

Of course, most Bible interpreters will quickly say they approach the interpretation of the biblical text with an “open mind,” in most cases using the “neutral” human tools of the grammatical-historical approach and the various “criticisms.” These interpreters, however, oftentimes fail to understand how much their own culture and worldview, and those of their group or denomination, subtly, or not so subtly, influence both their interpretations as well as their boundaries. As a result, we now have over 1,000 different denominations worldwide, with each placing their own cultural boundaries on the biblical text.

Here’s where the concept of directional sets is so helpful, especially when doing Bible interpretation: discern where the Spirit is moving and follow Jesus in that direction. So how do we do this when doing Bible interpretation? Such directional set Bible interpretation reinforces what I’ve argued for over the years in my own writings, especially in my book, Doing Bible Interpretation. Here I maintain that two of the basic foundations to good Bible interpretation (of seven) are these: 1) the Holy Spirit guides Bible interpretation and 2) Bible interpretation is best done in community. Let’s look at each foundational piece in turn.

First, let’s look at pneumatic Bible interpretation. When studying God’s authoritative Word, it’s important to realize we are not alone. We have a helper. The Holy Spirit has promised “to guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13) including our Bible interpretations. Directional set Bible interpreters will thus exhibit humility as we approach the biblical text, knowing that we can’t do it only on our own. Instead, our interpretations of the Bible must always be guided by the Holy Spirit. Sure, we have our own human minds that God has also given us, and we should use them (as well as the culturally determined human-made “tools” we have developed to help us). Directional set Bible interpreters clearly maintain that Bible interpretation is both a Spirit-led and human-led process. To emphasize the human alone is an arrogance that does injustice to God’s role in the Bible interpretation process.

Second, let’s look at communal Bible interpretation. Bible interpretation never was intended to be done entirely alone, in isolation from other believers. It’s not a private discipline (as much as Western believers might think it is). While we can learn much about the Bible in our own private devotions and study, it’s particularly in community with other believers where good Bible interpretation occurs. We need a local community of believers—in Bible studies and in small and large group gatherings—to help us. Directional set Bible interpretation is best done with a community of believers who are all listening to the Holy Spirit and examining the Bible together to discover God’s will for their lives, both individually and corporately.

The example of the Bereans in the book of Acts is helpful here: “Now these Jews . . . received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). The Bereans are a good example for all of us who would study God’s Word. They are also an example of how a directional set approach to community allows cultural diversity to be present within the Body of Christ, even as that Body strives to interpret Scripture. Peter provided a helpful example of that, as well.

Next week, we will look more closely at that cultural diversity and I will describe a cross-cultural experience I had with Bible interpretation.

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