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

17 April 2011

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.


“Descriptive, not Prescriptive,” part 4: Options and Patterns

7 November 2010

Before I begin this entry, I need to make something clear to you, dear reader.  Some of the examples I use here are indeed topics of discussion and continuing growth in my church, and I am using them because they are very much on my heart of late.  But I am not picking on my church.  As my church has been prodded toward obedience on these things, it has responded very well.  So as I talk about evangelical resistance to growth in certain areas, that is not a passive-aggressive way of calling out recalcitrant people in my own circle.  There aren’t any.  I mean just what I say — I see this resistance in the broader evangelical church, and I am seeking to address it as best I can.

Options and Obedience

Many believers will simply fail to notice a biblical requirement — say, the one to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.  They may have read those passages many times, but it simply doesn’t occur to them that they should do something in response.  The first time this dawns on them, it is because someone is pushing for a particular type of obedience — say, “We need to sing the Sons of Korah version of Psalm 148 in the service this Sunday.”   Upon being challenged as to why this is necessary, the speaker will respond with Ephesians 5:19.

The response at this point is pretty predictable.  “There’s nothing there that says we have to sing that particular song this particular morning.”

This is of course true.  The church could be in complete obedience to the biblical requirement and never sing any song by that particular band, ever. Unfortunately, too often what happens next is…nothing.

Because we need not sing that particular arrangement of that particular psalm this week, we don’t.  Also we don’t sing any other arrangement of that psalm.  Or any other psalm.  And in this way the fact that God gives us freedom in how we obey becomes the occasion for not obeying at all.


This is where biblical patterns of obedience are so helpful to us.  The Bible not only gives us requirements to obey, it gives us patterns of obedience to emulate.  A particular example may not be the only way of obeying, but it is a way of obeying.  We don’t have to start from scratch.

The first problem evangelicals have with these patterns is failing to even notice them.  We notice that the early church successfully resolved an important theological disagreement in Acts 15, for example — but we pay no mind at all to how they did it.  We recognize the commands to be of one mind, to submit to one another, to contend earnestly for the faith, and so on.  And Acts 15 becomes a sermon illustration: “See, they stood up for the truth.  We should too.”

Yes, but how?  Are we acting in continuity with the way they did it?  We don’t know.  We never even checked to see how they did it.  We just take the goal that the requirement gives us, and improvise something that we think will get us there.

At some point, some observant soul may point out how they did it, back in the day.  “Look at what they did.  They appealed to another church with more theological ‘horsepower,’ they appointed a day to gather, they pursued the dispute until everyone had fallen silent, and then they responded, unanimously, to the issue.”

Most evangelicals respond to that observation in the same way that they do to the suggestion that we must sing this arrangement of this psalm this week.  That is, they say “Sure, that was a good way to do it.  But it’s descriptive, not prescriptive.  We don’t have to do it that way, just because they did.”

True, up to a point.  Every situation is somewhat different, and it is the province of God-given wisdom to appraise those differences and tweak our response accordingly.  This is to say that we will not respond in unison with our fathers at every point; sometimes we will be in harmony with them.

But what madness makes us suppose that we may simply invent an approach without regard for the examples that God gives us in inspired Scripture?  What makes us think that we may act out of harmony with the way in which our fathers obeyed?

“Descriptive, not Prescriptive” Part 3

24 October 2010

Every child in the world knows that you can learn how to live from stories.  And the biblical authors themselves teach us to read the biblical stories for instructions on how to live.  They get doctrine from narrative.  They treat the stories as prescriptive.
And so ought we to do.

Of course, we have to interpret them properly.  “Brothers, do not be children in understanding.  In malice be children, but in understanding be mature.”

So how does this work?  When we read Genesis, it teaches us.  The story of creation teaches us how the world is organized.  We have mostly disregarded those lessons since the Enlightenment, but let’s take one of the cases where we’ve gotten it right.  In the beginning, God made one man, and from his side, He brought forth one woman.  He brought her to the man and created the first marriage, an image of the Trinity: God unites man and woman.  It is, as the popular saying goes, Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.  Also not Eve and Charlotte, nor Adam, Eve, and Charlotte, nor any of the other permutations.

Jesus took the story of marriage’s very beginning and showed that it taught a lesson about divorce: “What God has joined together, let man not put asunder.”  Now, divorce is nowhere mentioned in the Genesis account of Adam and Eve.  There is no direct prohibition of divorce in the Genesis account of Adam and Eve; in fact, divorce is never mentioned anywhere in the whole story.  But a particular marriage can harmonize with the origins of marriage and fulfill what marriage is for, or it can be out of harmony.  Jesus’ prohibition of divorce is a call for individual marriages to harmonize with the paradigm case of marriage.  The exception He allows, in cases of adultery, is also in harmony.  The divorcer, in that case, is not putting asunder what God joined together, because the adulterous spouse has already done that.  In broad strokes, this is the way a true origin story can be applied.

So what origin stories do we have to work with?  Genesis 1 is the origin of the world, and man in it.  Genesis 2 is the origin of man in particular, and marriage.  The story of Noah is the formation of the geophysical world we now live in, and the origin of civilization as we know it.  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the origin of Israel as a people, and Exodus is the origin of Israel as a nation-state.  Acts is the origin of the Church.

Wouldn’t it be something if our ecclesiology began to reflect that last one?  If our actual church practice began to harmonize with our origin story?  But that’s another post.

“Descriptive, not Prescriptive,” Part 2

17 October 2010

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!

“Descriptive, Not Prescriptive,” Part 1

10 October 2010

So as I’m setting out to prove a point about the biblical pattern of doing things, I flip to the relevant passages in Genesis, or Acts, or 2 Chronicles.  If I’m talking to a conservative evangelical who has had some Bible college or seminary training, I will almost invariably hear the same objection:
“You know, that passage is really descriptive, not prescriptive.”

For those of you who are blessed enough not to know what this means, here’s a quick rundown:
Descriptive: What they did
Prescriptive: What we (or at least the original audience) ought to do

In other words, the narrative portions of the Bible are true in that they accurately report what those people did, but you can’t infer from them that we ought to do the same.  If you try — so goes the reasoning — then we’ll have people chopping up their concubines into little bits, or having multiple wives (you know, like David!), or speaking in tongues, or whatever other horrors we can dig up.  Anything to inspire fear, uncertainty, and doubt about learning how to live from the stories of the Bible.

Hence “it’s descriptive, not prescriptive” and its cousin “you can’t get doctrine from narrative.”

Now I don’t mean to be overly offensive, but guys: every child in the world knows that this isn’t true.

“Remember Billy and Susy, who lived across the street?  Remember how one day, their mommy told them to stay in the yard, but little Billy went and played in the street and got hit by a car?  Susy played in the yard, and she’s fine, but Billy’s going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.”

Every child who hears the story, and every parent who tells it, understands perfectly well.  Is there any exegete so obtuse that he can fail to understand that this story has a moral?  Of course not.  And you, dear reader, understood the story as well — even those of you who have had a seminary hermeneutics course at some point.

Furthermore, no parent tells the story and then later begins to think, “Oh my gosh!  What if my kid thinks I’m telling him to act like Billy?”

The question, friends, is not whether we can learn how to live from stories.  The question is whether we ever learn how to live from anything else.

Taking Another Swing

28 February 2023

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.

Creeds: Description, Prescription, and the Role of Gratitude

12 December 2010

In a preceding post I mentioned gratitude as a factor in my use of the creeds, and in discussions with friends and colleagues it has become clear to me that this requires a little elaboration.

First of all, a couple of thoughts about the nature of gratitude in general.  Gratitude is not just about warm feelings in your chest.  Gratitude is about what you do.  If your parents raised you, fed you, clothed you, loved you, and you always felt warmly toward them for these things, but you treated them badly and never once gave any indication that you were aware of how much they’d done for you, are you grateful?  No, not really.  Suppose a friend rebukes you for your ingratitude, and you protest that of course you feel warmly about all your parents have done for you.  Wouldn’t your friend be perfectly right to say “So what?”

Of course he would.  That warm feeling is not an all-purpose moral solvent that cleanses whatever you decide to to.  If you take for granted all your parents have given you, and then protest that of course you’re grateful — by which you mean that you have warm feelings toward them — this is just to say that you are only grateful where it doesn’t matter.  Gratitude that is not meaningfully incarnated is not gratitude at all; it’s just cheap sentimentality.

With reference to the early creeds,  I am grateful to those men who went before me, for their many sacrifices and their great struggle.  Even more, I am grateful to Christ for giving such evangelists, pastors and teachers to His Church.  But if this is to be more than a sticky sentiment, a warm feeling in my chest when someone says “Nicea” or “Chalcedon,” then I need to incarnate this gratitude in a way that matters.

These creeds are the weapons our fathers used in their war against heresy.  This is simply a matter of history; it is as God Providentially arranged for it to be, and we must show gratitude for the way God actually preserved His church, not the way we wish He’d done it. So we must celebrate these key aspects of the faith which our fathers so ably defended, and do so in a manner respectful of God’s design in history — which is to say, respectful of what actually happened and what they actually said.  Therefore, an aspect of this celebration will inevitably be the public reading, or the corporate saying, of the creeds.  And so we find once again that “descriptive vs. prescriptive” fails us as a useful way of categorizing.  The creeds are not just descriptions of what the church believed at one point in her history; they are also — in the fashion just described — prescriptions that govern aspects of our present practice.

But how?  How will it work in practice?  We don’t have to say the Creeds weekly, but we can’t just ignore them, either.  Some churches may simply integrate the Creeds into their weekly worship.  Others may choose to do something quarterly, or integrate the Creeds into their doctrinal statements and new members’ classes.  Others still may designate one Sunday a year to celebrate these things.  After all, if we can manage to observe Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day to celebrate the warriors who have defended our country, why can’t we find room in the schedule for a day to celebrate the warriors of the Church, who defended our faith?  (And may I suggest the Feast of All Saints as a convenient time?)  There is no One Perfect Way to do this, but do it we must, somehow.

Now, am I saying that a man is in sin if he doesn’t say the Nicene Creed at least occasionally?  Not as such.  Saying the Creed is not directly required by Scripture, and so a man can walk with God and not say the Creed — at least in theory.  However, in actual practice, I find that among American evangelicals, our particular refusal to say the creed is the result of a sinful attitude on our part:  ingratitude, sectarianism and father-hatred that ill becomes Christians.

The wage of that particular sin is a particular sort of death.  If you insist on isolating yourself from other members of the Body in defiance of Eph. 4:3, God may give you your desire, but send leanness to your soul.  Cut off from the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit in past generations, cut off from the wisdom of your fathers, you will be reduced to whatever formulations you can dream up yourself, and you get only the counsel of your living friends — which is to say that you will be low-hanging fruit for the fads of the age, and your churches, your schools, your daily practice will fall victim to a pervasive silliness.  (Oh, wait — I just described modern evangelicalism, didn’t I?)

We are ungrateful, and God has given us over to our folly.  You want to know why, when you walk into a Christian “bookstore,” you can’t hardly find a Greek New Testament or even a decent devotional book, but there are crucifix pencil toppers and “God’s Gym” t-shirts in every size you can think of, including a little onesie for your newborn Christian soldier?  This is why.  Could it be any clearer that we need to repent?