I’ve taken up the matter of pleading “descriptive, not prescriptive” to avoid actual narrative hermeneutics before…but apparently I didn’t hit it hard enough, so we’ll be taking another swing here. So let’s talk about this.
“Descriptive, not prescriptive” is such an oversimplification, even in narrative, that it’s practically lying by omission. Applied consistently, it would undermine Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in Matthew 19, Paul’s case for justification by faith in Romans 4, the case for the priesthood of Christ in Hebrews 7, and many other crucial passages.
Let me explain: If we consistently apply the “descriptive, not prescriptive” rubric to biblical narrative passages, then…
- We respond to Paul’s argument from Genesis 12-17 in Romans 4: “What Rabbi Paul fails to understand, you see, is that the events of the Abram narrative – promise before circumcision – are descriptive, not prescriptive. You can’t just run away with a thing like that and decide it applies to you.”
- We respond to Jesus’ application of Genesis 1-2 in Matthew 19: “Rabbi Jesus, of course, makes the same mistake in applying Genesis 1-2 to complex contemporary problems of marriage and divorce.”
- We respond to Hebrews’ application of Genesis 14 in Hebrews 7: “The anonymous author of Hebrews attempts to draw from the simple facts of the Melchizedek account a prescription for bypassing the divinely inspired Levitical priesthood, but what he fails to grasp, of course, is that the Genesis account is descriptive, not prescriptive.”
Now of course, we actually don’t do any of that,* although here’s a little challenge for you: go ahead and take your “descriptive, not prescriptive” reading of Acts and show how it differs in any significant respect from the three above dismissals of the plain teaching of the New Testament. I’ll wait….
As I say, we don’t apply the principle consistently at all, because this is not really a matter of principle. We’re happy enough to ignore our blanket proscription on applying narrative when we like the application. We just trot it out when something makes us uncomfortable – some idiot wants multiple wives because David had them, or someone wants to actually emulate the church order Paul describes, or sing what the early church sang. “Descriptive, not prescriptive” is a handy–if lazy–substitute for having an actual hermeneutics of narrative and having to discern what faithful application looks like.
I don’t mean that everyone who invokes “descriptive, not prescriptive” is lazy. Some of them are (otherwise) hardworking exegetes whose training failed them by not teaching them how to exegete narrative (I understand — my training didn’t cover it either!) They’re following their teachers, who bilked them out of a chance to productively read the 2/3 of the Bible that is narrative. There’s a kind of tragic sincerity to some of these folks, in the same way there would be to a devout village synagogue member who really did believe the gold sanctified the altar, because his rabbi told him so. But devout as the person might be, the position deserves scathing mockery.
All this gets particularly rich when we turn to the book of Acts. Here, we’re not talking about some other period of history where things were genuinely different – before the Fall, say, or Israel under the Law. We’re talking about the founding of the Church. Pleading “descriptive, not prescriptive” about Acts would be like pleading “descriptive, not prescriptive” about the War for Independence, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. It’s our founding! We need not all go about in tricorn hats to believe that our founding history and documents have important prescriptions for us.
It’s amazing how theological conservatives understand the prescriptive nature of America’s Christian founding, but can’t grasp the book of Acts in the same way. Unfortunately — as is generally the case with a hermeneutical cancer like this one — the slimy little thing won’t stay where they want to keep it (in the narrative passages alone). I saw a guy just this week opining that he didn’t see how it made sense to “model yourself off an obscure passage in a letter to a categorically messed up church.” He was talking about the prescriptions for church order in 1 Corinthians 14.
I can’t wait to see him apply the same rubric to 5:1-3!
*We know that we’re justified by faith because Abraham received the promise before he was circumcised. We know that severe sin after justification doesn’t cause us to lose it, because God didn’t impute sin to David after he committed adultery and murder (Romans 4). We know that we shouldn’t divorce for “incompatibility” because from the beginning it was not so (Matthew 19). We know that we should follow Jesus rather than going over to Judaism because Jesus has a superior priesthood – and we know that because Levi paid a tithe to Melchizedek (Hebrews 7).
While we’re at it, we know that we should not continue in sin that grace may abound because Jesus died and rose, and we died and rose with Him.