“Descriptive, not Prescriptive,” Part 2

So where does this “descriptive, not prescriptive” thing even come from?

It’s about fear.  It’s about being afraid that someone will take some horrible event in a story and decide that it’s God’s will to act it out.  Next thing you know, somebody’s trying to have multiple wives, and justify it because after all, David and Solomon and Jacob did.  Or speak in tongues, and justify it because it shows up in Acts.  Or dance, because Miriam and David did.  Or drink wine, or…pick your personal horror story.

And let’s face it: “that’s descriptive, not prescriptive” is an undeniably attractive solution.  By denying your opponent in the debate any recourse to the narrative passages of the Bible, you’ve effectively cut his legs out from under him.  It’s all very, very convenient.

It’s also ignorant, foolish, and unbiblical.  The one thing it’s not is childish–as we’ve seen, every child knows that stories teach.

The biblical authors make their points from narrative, and they do it constantly.  Imagine Paul making the argument of Romans 4 in a synagogue — as he must have done many times.  “Abraham was justified by faith, before he was ever circumcised!” he says to the crowd.  “The same thing can happen today.”
Now imagine one of his opponents rising to rebut him: “Our esteemed guest, Rabbi Paul, fails to realize that the Genesis account is descriptive, not prescriptive.”

Or imagine Jesus, teaching on divorce: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts, but from the beginning, God made them male and female.  For this reason a man will leave father and mother, and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
A scribe steps forward in the crowd: “That was true for Adam and Eve, but that’s descriptive, not prescriptive.”

This is just nonsense, and we all ought to know better.  Certainly the biblical authors regularly drew prescriptions from narrative.  If we are not to follow their hermeneutics, then what are we to do?  Just make something up?

That’s pretty much what we’re doing, and the effects are devastating.

The first and most obvious problem is that three quarters of the Bible is story.  God gave us the Bible so we would know how to live, and we’re trying to pretend that a person can’t learn how to live from three quarters of it.  That’s the kind of mistake that tends to issue in long-term disobedience out of sheer, willful ignorance.  Sorry to say, such disobedience is not in short supply.

Second, the most dedicated “description not prescription” guy gets the story about the kid playing in the street.  He will also immediately object, “But biblical stories are not nearly that simple.  They’re far more complicated.”

Of course this is true, but consider the ramifications.   When he pleads “descriptive, not prescriptive,” he is in effect pleading ignorance.  Jesus and Paul set the example, but this guy can’t follow them.  He is admitting that his hermeneutics have broken down, that he’s off the edge of the map.  “Descriptive, not prescriptive” is the hermeneutical equivalent of “Here be dragons.”  But this is just admitting that he doesn’t know how to read the story.

The solution, of course, is to learn.  But instead of learning, he treats his ignorance as an argument for not learning how to read the biblical stories. He wants to deny that it’s possible to learn how to read the biblical stories, and this is just silly.  It’s the equivalent of a frustrated six-year-old who claims that it’s impossible to tie his shoelaces on the grounds that he finds the process confusing.  In Solomonic idiom:  simple ones love simplicity, and fools hate knowledge.  The solution is to listen to Wisdom, turn at her rebuke, and seek for her like hidden treasure.  Blurting out “descriptive, not prescriptive” is a poor substitute.

The fact that conservative evangelicals have pursued ignorance for a few generations compounds the problem.  We have institutionalized the foolishness, and it now afflicts us as a blind spot for our whole community.  Now we have diligent, hardworking servants of God who have been trained to be happy with their ignorance.  Let me say that again: diligent, hardworking pastors are unable to read three quarters of the Bible well, and they’re completely okay with that, because we have taught them to be okay with that.

This is sin, and like all sin, the cure is as simple as it is painful and difficult: repent!


5 Responses to “Descriptive, not Prescriptive,” Part 2

  1. Jim says:


    These are excellent posts. There is not much to add other than I agree with you about fear, but I also think there is another motivating factor that exists.

    Its individuals who seek power and to retain that power at all costs. I have had experience with them. I think there is a term for this – sacerdotalism. The instrument they use to remain in power is doctrine.

    Religion is their throne and their kingdom consists of converts who are just as “ignorant” or hungry for power as they are.

    Being ignorant is bad, but knowing the truth and continuing in a sinful practice (or any for that matter) is a terrible thing. We can label them in many ways. I think the most fitting term is a modern Pharisee and/or Sadducee.

    Thanks for taking the time and effort to point these things out to the church…

  2. Jeremy Myers says:

    So Tim…you seem to be saying that it’s ALL descriptive, and therefore, if used properly and understood, also ALL prescriptive.

    Or are these not even terms you want to use any more?

    Maybe you could say, “It’s all narrative”?

  3. Tim Nichols says:


    Yes, if we must use those terms, then I’d say it’s all descriptive, and all prescriptive. But that’s not really a helpful thing to say. The real question might be, “In what way is it prescriptive?”

    For example, the Torah provides a type of tax-funded care for the poor. Do we, as a different country in a different time and place, have to do it exactly the way Israel did? Of course not; we’re not Israel. But if we take the typical conservative line that tax-funded care of the poor is theft, then we’re clearly out of harmony. Likewise, if we simply treat the poor as though they’re owed a handout, we’re out of harmony; the OT initiatives mostly worked by providing the poor with an opportunity to work (e.g., not mowing the corners of the wheat field.) It’s somewhat analogous to transposing a song into a different key. So there’s a way in which those laws are prescriptive for us, even though we’re not under them.

    By contrast, consider Acts 15. One local church, unable to resolve a serious and far-reaching dispute in-house, appeals to another. The second church, after lengthy deliberation and debate, makes a decree in its own name and in the name of God (“it seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit”), which decree appears to be binding, not only on the first church, but on missionary efforts beyond it. There’s an ecclesiology at work there that goes a lot further than our ‘autonomous local church’ ecclesiology; it’s something more akin to a type of presbyterian setup. I would suggest that we are bound by this description much more tightly than the Torah; we are not Israel, but we certainly are the church.

    Is this helping to spell it out a little more clearly?

  4. Richard says:

    Hmmm well written Tim and good points about descriptive/prescriptive. How does one know when a scripture is prescriptive or descriptive or both? Where do we get the rule from to make the determination? Yours Richard (London, England)

  5. Tim Nichols says:

    Good question. As I say in my response to Jeremy, I would say it’s all descriptive, and therefore it’s all prescriptive. But of course I don’t think that’s a particularly useful set of categories. The question is how is a given text prescriptive?

    I’m moving toward an answer in parts three and four of this series, but I don’t pretend that my treatment of the issue so far is anything systematic.

    I don’t think you’ll get anything approaching a rule for this — the best you can hope for is probably some rules of thumb, and as with all rules of thumb, you have to learn the rule, and then you have to learn when to ignore it. Over-reliance on the heuristics can cause incredible trouble — “You can’t get doctrine from narrative” would be a wonderful case in point. Keeps you out of certain kinds of trouble, but keeps you away from certain kinds of truth, too. What’s wanted here is wisdom, and wisdom is highly situation-dependent. We grow in wisdom by learning cases in a process of addition, not by learning a set of rules. I realize this is too general to be helpful, so let me try a couple of examples.

    Say somebody tries to justify the modern practice of polygamy by appeal to the biblical story: Abraham had a concubine; Jacob had two wives and two concubines; David had a number of wives, and so on. Of course this is the kind of thing that “You can’t get doctrine from narrative” is designed to prevent. But there’s a better way. The story records, but does not justify, that marital practice. “From the beginning,” as Jesus once said about a different marital problem, “it was not so.” If Jesus can make the argument, why can’t we? Of course you can follow that with the qualifications of elders and deacons (“husband of one wife”) and so on. The narrative makes an outstanding case that Abraham, Jacob, David and the other examples of polygamy, despite being heroes of the faith, were deviating from God’s design at this point. The narrative furnishes a description of God’s design for marriage, and that description in turn equips us — as it once equipped Jesus — to make moral judgments about the past and prescriptions for the present.

    By contrast, consider something like drinking wine. Wine is present in the narrative just like polygamy, but with a profound difference. It’s repeatedly endorsed as a blessing throughout Scripture, used as a constituent in OT offerings and feasts, manufactured by Jesus in His first miracle, and is one of the elements of the Lord’s Table. Its abuse is also a prominent feature throughout the story, and is roundly condemned throughout. Condemning drunkenness (a prescription) is easy to support by the descriptions present in the story (and the appropriate framing is that immoderate drinking is perversion of God’s good gift). Condemning wine, on the other hand, is just plain impossible to do with any degree of biblical faithfulness, and the people who try have been forced to resort to linguistic shennanigans like “oinos meant grape juice” in order to get any traction at all.

    I hope this helps some, and if I’m missing your question, please let me know. I’m more than happy to discuss.

%d bloggers like this: