So as I’m setting out to prove a point about the biblical pattern of doing things, I flip to the relevant passages in Genesis, or Acts, or 2 Chronicles. If I’m talking to a conservative evangelical who has had some Bible college or seminary training, I will almost invariably hear the same objection:
“You know, that passage is really descriptive, not prescriptive.”
For those of you who are blessed enough not to know what this means, here’s a quick rundown:
Descriptive: What they did
Prescriptive: What we (or at least the original audience) ought to do
In other words, the narrative portions of the Bible are true in that they accurately report what those people did, but you can’t infer from them that we ought to do the same. If you try — so goes the reasoning — then we’ll have people chopping up their concubines into little bits, or having multiple wives (you know, like David!), or speaking in tongues, or whatever other horrors we can dig up. Anything to inspire fear, uncertainty, and doubt about learning how to live from the stories of the Bible.
Hence “it’s descriptive, not prescriptive” and its cousin “you can’t get doctrine from narrative.”
Now I don’t mean to be overly offensive, but guys: every child in the world knows that this isn’t true.
“Remember Billy and Susy, who lived across the street? Remember how one day, their mommy told them to stay in the yard, but little Billy went and played in the street and got hit by a car? Susy played in the yard, and she’s fine, but Billy’s going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.”
Every child who hears the story, and every parent who tells it, understands perfectly well. Is there any exegete so obtuse that he can fail to understand that this story has a moral? Of course not. And you, dear reader, understood the story as well — even those of you who have had a seminary hermeneutics course at some point.
Furthermore, no parent tells the story and then later begins to think, “Oh my gosh! What if my kid thinks I’m telling him to act like Billy?”
The question, friends, is not whether we can learn how to live from stories. The question is whether we ever learn how to live from anything else.