“Descriptive, Not Prescriptive,” Part 1

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.


13 Responses to “Descriptive, Not Prescriptive,” Part 1

  1. Peter Beringer says:

    I think part of the problem is when people eisegete narrative to provide some justification for their false doctrine. I suppose the point is that we can misinterpret the “moral of the story” and the goal is to get it right.

  2. Jim Reitman says:

    I’m teaching hermeneutics this fall and considering how I’m going to approach “The Use of the OT in the New.” I am profoundly and increasingly impressed at how broad swatches of OT narrative are so routinely pressed into service throughout the NT for exactly the kinds of object lessons Peter (above) is talking about. Some of these NT uses may seem bizarre to some of us, but the more I think of narrative as the best way to point out the character of God, the more I see how these threads in OT narrative make so much “normative” sense in the way the NT authors see them.

    So, for example, what’s the point of Genesis 22? Just like Tim’s example of Billy running into the street, who in their right mind would take that narrative as a template for child sacrifice??? So does that mean it’s only “descriptive”? How does this same narrative “function” within perhaps the most famous context in the NT, the allusion to Gen 22 in John 3:16? With a single adjective (monogenes in the Greek, best translated “one and only” or “one-of-a-kind”), John makes it pretty clear to anyone familiar with Gen 22 that he sees quite a significant and “normative” parallel between what God did in Gen 22 and what he did in John 3:16, especially when we realize that God told Abraham “Take your son, your one and only son, and…”

    There are all kinds of things we can speculate about the connection here, but at a minimum we can see that the point—the object lesson in either case—is all about what God gave and not what he wants to take away in his relationship with humanity. To then leave Gen 22 (or John 3:16) and conclude that God must be a cosmic killjoy if we see “penal substitutionary atonement” in the narrative—just as contemporary “bleeding heart” exegetes are pretty much accusing anyone who holds to that view—is really akin to running into the street and getting hit by a car.

  3. Jim says:

    Interesting perspectives, I remember somewhere Paul said that what was written is for our instruction. At the time, the Old Testament was about all we had at that point.

    I guess I would challange the statements about narrative not being useful for teaching (doctrine if you will). If someone can show me a passage that prohibits narrative use in that fashion I’ll give them a fair hearing.

    If not, then I think of the words of an old famous Irish preacher,

    “God has not confined Himself within the narrow limits of any school of doctrine – high, low or moderate. He has revealed Himself. He has told out the deep and precious secrets of His heart. He has unfolded His eternal counsels, as to the Church, as to Israel, the Gentiles, and the wide creation. Men might as well attempt to confine the ocean in buckets of their own formation as to confine the vast range of divine revelation within the feeble enclosures of human systems of doctrine. It cannot be done, and it ought not to be attempted. Better far to set aside the systems of theology and schools of divinity and come like a little child to the eternal fountain of Holy Scripture, and there drink in the living teachings of God’s Spirit.” C.H. Mackintosh, The Mackintosh Treasury, Miscellaneous Writings by C.H. Mackintosh,(Loizeaux Brothers, New Jersey, 1976), 605.

    Just my two cents…

  4. Tim Nichols says:


    I agree. It’s been done very badly, very often, and the conservative evangelical answer is “ostrich hermeneutics” — just don’t look at it at all. But that’s plainly not a good answer; the job is to do it right.

    But the simple delight in simplicity, and fools hate knowledge. Human nature hasn’t changed a whole lot.

  5. Tim Nichols says:

    As far as I’m concerned, “use of the OT in the NT” is pretty much the biblical primer for hermeneutics. Well, that and “use of the OT in the OT” (which busts up a lot of the flakier christological hermeneutics and bad typology), and “use of the NT in the NT”. Bottom line, if you don’t get your hermeneutics from watching the biblical authors interpret the Bible, then you’re just making stuff up.

    Your Gen. 2 example is dead on — the whole story presupposes that child sacrifice is a *bad* thing; the last-minute substitution doesn’t really make sense otherwise.

    re. penal substitution, a lot of the newer Eastern churchmen also don’t hold to it. They maintain that their tradition has never held to it, but there is some disagreement on the point, it seems to me.

    Jim J: Thanks for that. Good words.

  6. Bobby Grow says:

    Not to be overly simplistic, but the moral of the “story” provided in the Bible is simply: Jesus!

    But yes, the descriptive/prescriptive can be over-drawn; nevertheless it’s “control” certainly must constantly be asking: “how does this point to Jesus?” Not questions that fill in the “gaps” for our ethical and philosophical systems, eh.

  7. Tim Nichols says:


    I’d love to hear you talk a little more about this. If one must simplify it that far, “Jesus” is not a bad choice, although I would think “Triune Fellowship!” would be better.

    I think the ethical gaps actually do need to be filled in (not quite so much the philosophical ones), and the latter does a very good job of doing that.

  8. Bobby Grow says:

    Hey Tim,

    I think Jesus is the Triune God’s self-revelation; so we don’t know the Triune God w/o Jesus. In short, we agree about Trinity.

    I do think ethical issues are taken up by the principles provided in Scripture. But I don’t think that we should try to somehow think these issues out w/o grounding them in Christ’s life for us.

    I’ll have to come back later, to try and flesh this out further.

  9. Jeremy Myers says:


    Excellent post! I’ve been stuggling with this “prescriptive/descriptive” thing for a while. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is ALL descriptive, and therefore…as you point out, all prescriptive as well, but in a “guiding ethic” sort of way. I still have a lot more thinking to do on this subject. Thanks for breaking ground!

  10. Michele says:

    A great post Tim,

    Paul was doing this very thing to write the doctrine of faith alone in Christ in Romans 4. “Was it before Abraham was circumcised, or after?” Paul pulls universal knowledge about how we relate to God from the story of Abraham’s life.


  11. Tim Nichols says:


    I think we do agree, although I’d still want a little more clarification. Moses unquestionably knew the triune God; saying “Moses knew Jesus” requires further discussion.


    Good to hear from you, brother! Hope things are well with you.
    Happy to break a little ground — and I think I’ve got about 3 more posts on this subject lined up in the queue. It’s one evangelicals should spend more time on.


    EXACTLY!! We either have to admit that Paul’s hermeneutics were illegitimate/irrelevant to us, or submit to the Word of God and just learn how to do it right, for a change.

  12. Tim Nichols says:

    I forgot to say — I’m using that example in the post that goes up Sunday.

  13. Michele says:

    Tim… Sweet!

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