I am about to tell a true story, and I want to make it clear that I am not trying to pick on the speaker in the story. He clearly has the problem I’m seeking to point out, but he is very far from being alone in this. The vast majority of conservative evangelicals in the circles I run in have the exact same problem, and they’ve got it just as bad. A few years ago, this same story could have happened to me, too. This poor fellow just happened to be the guy with the microphone when someone asked an awkward question…
So I was at a conference, listening to a lecture on decision-making in Acts — essentially a brief and competent sketch of Friesen’s approach from Decision-Making and the Will of God, as worked out in Acts in particular. The speaker, following the typical conservative anti-charismatic line, said that you can’t really develop doctrine for today from Acts, because it’s a transitional period. To his (partial) credit, he immediately backed off that and qualified it a little by adding that he supposed you could develop doctrine from Acts, but you wouldn’t want Acts to be your main support; you’d want to corroborate anything you got from Acts in the Epistles, because, again, Acts is transitional.
Now this is the old descriptive vs. prescriptive canard I’ve already discussed here, but another angle on it came up during the Q&A time that I’m embarrassed to say I’d never considered. Someone asked, “If Acts is transitional and therefore at best a secondary support for doctrine today, then how can we rely on epistles written during that same transitional period?”
The speaker didn’t really know what to say (and here I might add, nobody else was jumping in to help him, either). After hemming and hawing a bit, he fell back on stating that the book of Acts is a historical narrative — which was apparently supposed to answer the question.
It doesn’t, though, does it? If Acts is a transitional period and what they said and did during that time in Acts can’t be trusted for application today, then the letters written during that time are as suspect as the words spoken and deeds done. That dumps most of the church epistles at the very least — if not the whole New Testament. I mean, wasn’t the whole first century something of a transitional era?
Now, certain people will immediately notice an upside:
With the NT as a mere description of what was done in the first century, we are free to decide that things have changed. Perhaps we need no longer pay any attention to the biblical patterns of observing baptism, or the Lord’s Table. Perhaps we can reinvent church without regard to what our first-century fathers did. Perhaps ordaining women and homosexuals isn’t so bad; a lot of time has passed, and those old Jewish prejudices just don’t really have a place in the contemporary world any more. And what’s this obsession with a single sexual partner, anyhow? Doesn’t the Bible teach us to love everybody? Sounds like a contradiction to me…
Which is to say, once you get started, how do you stop that thing? In our zeal to prevent abuse of the biblical narrative, my fellow conservatives have gotten on the sailboat of undermining biblical authority, and now the wind is blowing so loudly that I can barely hear them assuring me that they know where to find the brake pedal.
Hard to believe, for some reason.
Learn how to read a story or die, guys. Your personal prejudices will stop you from going all the way, but do you think for a moment that your grandchildren won’t notice that for what it is? Your (lack of) narrative hermeneutics will devour your grandchildren, just as the Reformers’ theology devoured their grandchildren, in their turn. Fix it; the discomfort is momentary, and the benefits will last generations.
Some people will feel that I’m just griping about a problem without offering any solutions, and be justly annoyed by that. But although I haven’t made this post any longer, I’ve been hard at work on the solution to this one for some time: some of it I’ve discussed in my past Descriptive/Prescriptive posts. Other bits I intend to discuss in future posts. And there’s always my course in hermeneutics.