“Descriptive, not Prescriptive” part 5: Beware the “Transitional Period”

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.

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9 Responses to “Descriptive, not Prescriptive” part 5: Beware the “Transitional Period”

  1. Bobby Grow says:

    The speaker (I thought you would going to give a name, per your prologue) could’ve avoided the “transitional” distinction, and simply highlighted the primary intent of the particular “type” of Lit. I.e. He could’ve said that the epistles are didactic, and thus their primary mode is to teach; and he could’ve noted that Acts is Narrative-Gospel, and thus its primary intention is not to teach but proclaim. That’s not to say there isn’t an vice-versa that inheres between the two disparate “types,” it’s just that per “Type-Genre” analysis; one is primarily intended to teach, and the other is primarily intended to tell/proclaim.

  2. Missy says:

    You know I’m no scholar – just an open mind and most often, an open mouth. I have to admit that it has crossed my mind that the epistles might be documentation of how the churches began to fall away in the ways Jesus’ describes in his warnings in Revelations, rather than a model for the future churches. Your Descriptive/Prescriptive posts have been helpful, but this still lingers in the back of my mind. (I’m hoping I don’t give a speaker a heart attack during Q & A someday.)

  3. Tim Nichols says:

    Bobby,

    Yeah, that would have avoided one of his problems, at least. The problem he would then have to deal with is in what sense the narrative/gospel genre is authoritative and binding on Christians today. It’s intended to tell/proclaim with what result? With my conservative folk, we’re still in heart attack territory there.

    (Not that I necessarily concede the type-genre model as you’re using it, but just to be talking about it…)

  4. Tim Nichols says:

    Missy,
    If I’m lucky, you’ll give me a heart attack during a Q&A session some day. Keep me humble…

    You raise an interesting question. I’d like to pursue it a little. When you say, “the epistles might be documentation of how the churches began to fall away,” do you mean that the teaching of the epistles might be a departure from Jesus’ teaching, or do you mean the epistles might be written to counteract an early departure from Jesus’ teaching in the churches?

  5. Bobby Grow says:

    Tim,

    Like Vanhoozer, with his book “Is There A Meaning In This Text?”, and his premise that reading the Bible (to get right to the point) — and any reading of Lit. (whatever “Type”) — is a moral activity, and thus requires action based upon whatever is being told or proclaimed etc. In that sense, then, even “Stories” (Narrative-Gospel) necessitate a “response,” which if the subject of the Gospel’s proclamation is still present (and we understand the force of the story in the “perfect tense”); then the “Narrative-Gospel” still has universal force, and present conditions that require a response one way or the other. So I think the result, as with any Lit., must be tied to the expecatations that the implied author intends for his implied audience; and the task of the interpreter is to lay that bare for said audience (and thus participate in the proclamation).

  6. kc says:

    What if we consider the period as “conversional” rather than “transitional”? Could that help point to the prescriptive and ease the tension a bit?

  7. Missy says:

    Thanks, Tim. Maybe some day I’ll make it to one of the GES conferences and confound you personally. 🙂

    “do you mean that the teaching of the epistles might be a departure from Jesus’ teaching, or do you mean the epistles might be written to counteract an early departure from Jesus’ teaching in the churches?”

    I suppose I meant that both ways, as I’ve even considered methods of counteraction could have been documented error. At the moment, I can’t think of a specific teaching that led to this thought – admittedly it’s always fleeting. But, the thought does come up from time to time, typically in speculative teachings regarding inconsistencies. Now, I attempted to reconcile this with a good study of the first 3 chapters of Revelation, really looking at these warnings and the issues happening in the churches. The time it was written plays a large role in not keeping it reconciled, though, as some say it was possibly envisioned and penned after the Epistles.

    I hope this is not too far off the topic – but in my mind it seems entirely apropos. 😉

  8. Jim Reitman says:

    Missy,

    I think you’ve got a great point. I mentioned this in a different way to Tim in another conversation we were having: For a guy who’s so big on grace, Paul sure seems to give a lot of “orders” in many of his epistles. An idea I got from Sailhamer (The Meaning of the Pentateuch) was that even in the OT, “Law” was given after the people declined God’s invitation to come up to the mountain (Sinai) for direct fellowship with Him, and then again after the golden calf, etc. Seems to me the people of God in the NT get their own version of “Law” in the epistles only after they too “began to fall away in the ways Jesus describes…” as you so aptly put it.

  9. Tim Nichols says:

    Missy,
    Sorry to take so long to get back to you; it’s been a ferociously bad week. Thankfully, this weekend is tailor-made for beauty from destruction.

    I’m not following you, quite, at this point:

    The time it was written plays a large role in not keeping it reconciled, though, as some say it was possibly envisioned and penned after the Epistles.

    Why does it make a difference whether Revelation was written after the other epistles? I’m not sure I caught your point here.

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