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!