Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Descriptive Differs From Prescriptive

Another challenging aspect of Biblical interpretation is determining what to do with narrative accounts. Do they simply describe what occurred at a certain place in space and time? Or, are the events and outcomes we read about normative for us today? (This post is part eight of my ten-part blog series Church, Bible, and Interpretation - It's Not So Simple).

I've studied this issue quite a bit over the past five years or so. It is not simple, nor are there any satisfyingly quick answers. I believe it is safe to say that some narrative passages are only descriptive while others are prescriptive. How are we to adequately handle this?

We must keep several things in mind:

First, narrative passages from the Old Testament are far less likely to be normative for us today than passages from the New Testament. This is because much of the O.T. describes old covenant Israel. In the pages of the N.T. we read of the new covenant community - the church. This is why the book of Acts is often central to any discussions of the descriptive/prescriptive issue.

Second, let's aways, always, always keep narrative passages in their broader context when interpreting. Single passages fit into an overall structure of a book. We have to keep the entire book in mind when determining meaning from any particular passage.

Third, as always we ought to use clearer verses to interpret those that appear less clear to us. For example, King David had multiple wives. Is this a model we should follow? Certainly not. Plenty of other passages make it clear that one man should be made one flesh with one woman (Genesis 2:24 is key to our understanding).

Finally, we must not make the mistake of picking and choosing from narrative when considering what passages are telling us how to live today. It is extremely tempting to call certain narrative passages prescriptive simply because they support activities that we already enjoy in church life. The flip side of this is saying that other narratives are only descriptive because they give us a model that flies in the face of what we like. I wrote an entire blog post on this specific temptation that you can read here.

As we ponder whether or not we should apply certain narrative passages to our lives, let's recall a couple of other things. First, the apostles were part of the early church. It is safe to say that they would not have given approval to church practices that were aberrant. Instead, they would have led the early believers to live church life correctly. Therefore, when we consider narrative sections of the book of Acts we should, I believe, fault on the side of treating them in a prescriptive manner. Click here to read more on this subject.

Second, it is a sad reality that most traditional church pastors reject N.T. passages as being prescriptive, including much of the book of Acts. This is because these pastors cannot treat Acts as prescriptive and at the same time go about their business as usual. Click here to read a post I wrote entitled Professional Pastors Tell the Church That the Biblical Model for Church Life is Unimportant. We must be skeptical whenever salaried pastors begin calling into question the book of Acts as normative for church life.

To sum up, the descriptive/prescriptive issue as it relates to Biblical narrative is not an easy one. We all tend to like simple, straightforward answers. However, we don't get that luxury here. When it comes to narrative, we need to examine each passage thoroughly prior to making any significant decisions. Finally, I highly encourage you to come to your conclusions about the descriptive/prescriptive issue within the context of the church community. The group is usually wiser than the individual.

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