“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.

Advertisements

“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.


Whom to Ban from Theological Debate

30 August 2009

We’ve been talking theology here of late, and people being what they are, talk about important things like theology often leads to controversy.  I’ve been involved, willingly or not, in several such controversies, and there are definite patterns, one of the more important ones being this: very often, the fight is more about the people fighting than it is about the theology they’re supposedly fighting over.  This makes it very hard to find a solution, because the real problem is not even being discussed.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that the theological issue on the table will be trivial — although that often happens.  In fact, this dodge works best if the issue is quite important.  A weighty theological disagreement conceals unaddressed relational sins so much better than a trivial one.  If the disagreement can somehow be tied to the gospel, for example, then both sides can invoke Galatians 1: 8-9 (while ignoring what Paul actually did in that instance, but that’s another post).

Now as Americans, we have the notion that everyone has a right to a voice in the discussion.  Everyone should be heard; freedom of speech and the press and all that.  But this is not universally true in such theological arguments, precisely because warped and sinning Christians, especially in positions of leadership, often cause division and then cover their tracks with a doctrinal difference.  As much as it galls our democratic ideals, some people need to be silenced (Titus 1:10-11).  They simply shouldn’t be allowed to participate in discussions of controversial issues.

People who cause division, for instance.  Jesus said,

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word;  that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.

And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one:  I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.

Our unity, Jesus says, is a necessary part of our gospel witness.  Some people refuse to be unified, and persist in dividing the body for their own selfish ends.  They will say that they’re trying to protect the gospel, but in fact their deeds are lying about Jesus and what He came to do.  So if a man’s deeds lie about the gospel of grace, why in the world ought anyone to listen to what he says about the gospel?

And so the divisive, those who exhibit hatred of their brothers, and other such people simply shouldn’t be heard.  A man whose life does not tell the truth about Jesus simply should not be listened to — even if he’s a pastor or a Ph.D., even if he’s a towering theologian or a great exegete, even if he’s right.

Why even if he’s right?  Because “he who walks with the wise will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed.”  The man may be right on paper — i.e., the propositions he would affirm are technically correct — but in a way, that only makes it worse.  He is privy to the wisdom of the Word, and yet it is not profiting him, and that’s a comment on his character: “Like the legs of the lame that hang limp, so is a proverb in the mouth of fools.”  You do not want bad counsel, and — trust Solomon on this — the counsel from this guy is going to have a flaw in it somewhere.

Picture yourself at the Bema Seat, answering for acting in accord with this guy’s counsel.

“But Lord, his doctrine was correct.”

“I told you not to associate with people like him.”  Jesus says.

“But he was so well educated.  He was right about the doctrine!”

Jesus shakes His head.  “I didn’t say, ‘the companion of fools will be destroyed, unless the fools are really well educated, and right about some stuff,’ did I?”

Better just to steer clear.  The ones who lack Christian character are going to be evil company no matter what their doctrinal statement says.  You can’t walk in the light and walk with fools and liars at the same time.


True Tales, Told God’s Way

19 July 2009

In the preceding post, I argued (contra Gordon Clark and various others) that the object of saving faith is the Person Jesus Christ, not merely a proposition or set of propositions about Him.  Among my theology-wonk friends — and there are many of them — this point usually provokes a particular response.  “So it doesn’t really matter what propositions I believe as long as I’m looking at Jesus?” they ask incredulously.

Well, of course it matters.  We’re talking about a particular person here, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Adam, Son of Abraham, Son of David, supposed son of Joseph.  As with any particular person, not all things are true about Him.  He had a certain height, and not some other height.  Eyes of a certain color; hair of a certain length; born in Bethlehem and not in Gaza, born to Mary and not to Elizabeth, suffered under Pontius Pilate and not under Nero, and so on.  Certain claims about Him are true, and others false.

We are called to represent Him, and to do so according to His nature.  Because He is the Truth, we represent Him truly.  We must therefore be faithful to what we’re given about Jesus.  We must say of Him the things Scripture gives us to say.  We must tell the stories Scripture gives us to tell.  We must be true to the volume of material Scripture gives us to present.  When we don’t have time to tell the whole story — which, let’s face it, is almost all the time — then we try to summarize or tell a piece of it that’s particularly important for this person at this time.  There’s nothing wrong with that; Jesus Himself does it all the time, as do the apostles, and we have them for a pattern.

But we should not confuse telling a small piece of the story with “boiling it down to essentials,” as though we could do without the rest of it.  If we’re to be faithful to what God actually gave us, then we’re going to overflow with stories, poetry, songs, parables, proverbs, and much more.  We’re introducing people to a Person, and that process proceeds by addition, not by subtraction. You don’t get to know someone by paring away all that is not essential to the person; you get to know someone by adding more and more: different situations, different angles, different facets of the personality.  Trying to do it the other way around is trying to live in a world God just didn’t make.  We can’t view the abstract proposition as “the essence of it all,” because God didn’t give it to us that way, and we must truly represent what God gave us.

Now God did, in some places, give us abstract theological propositions; they are also an essential part of communication — a point I will take up shortly.  But those propositions come in a cocoon of stories.  Apart from the story context that they elucidate and from which they take their meaning, the propositions are not even false so much as utterly useless, completely without referent in the real world.  Just try to explain “By grace you are saved through faith” without telling a story.  I dare you.


Having Eternal Life

1 June 2009

Our corner of the theological universe commonly makes a big deal about eternal life, which is appropriate — eternal life is a big deal.

But we commonly think of eternal life as something we’ll get after we die.

We don’t say that, of course.  In fact, when we’re evangelizing we regularly say the opposite.  For example, we often quote John 5:24: “He who hears My word and believes on Him who sent Me has everlasting life.”  “Has,” we say.  “See, it’s right now, already, the moment you believe.  Right then, you have everlasting life.”

But we somehow don’t seem to think in those same terms in our daily lives.  We think of having eternal life like having a bus pass — it’s something you carry around with you, so that when you get to the door of the bus, they’ll let you on.  But you don’t use a bus pass all the time; just when getting on the bus. We think “having — right now — eternal life” is like getting a ticket to heaven right now, so we can stick it in our pockets and use it when the time comes.

But that’s not it at all.  The moment you believe the gospel, eternal life begins.  That’s what John 5:24 says, and it’s what we’re claiming to believe.  If you’ve believed the gospel, your life, today, is part of that eternal life.

So what does that look like?


Easter and Eschatology: Is Premillennialism Different from Amillennialism?

12 April 2009

In the last post, I quoted Jim Jordan to the effect that amillennialism is racist, and pre- and postmillennialism have more in common with each other than they do with amillennialism.  I then noted that the ecclesiastical, organizational and confessional lines tend to be drawn the other way, lumping amillennialism and postmillennialism together on one side of the fence, with premillenniallism on the other.

Some people — I know a number — have fled to the premillennial side of the fence precisely because they were unable to make their peace with amillennialism.  Usually the point of serious discontent is the way amillennialism spiritualizes away the promise of kingdom victory over the evils of this world.

However, it has to be said that a great number have fled the other way, from premillennialism to postmillennialism, for very similar reasons.

Premillennial thought understands that Messiah’s kingdom only comes about when Messiah Himself is personally present to set it up.  Until then, human sinfulness presents an upper boundary to the world’s maturation.  That thought, taken by itself, lends itself to a story in which the world descends into the abyss until Messiah appears to save the day and set up His kingdom, and thence to a lifestyle not unlike the amillennial mentality Jordan skewered in last week’s post.  Hence the great number of dispensational premil folks who are “just hanging on until the Rapture.”  They don’t get involved in cultural endeavor because that’s “polishing the brass on a sinking ship.”

This breeds a defeatism, a sense that the gospel cannot have meaningful impact on a whole culture.  The depressive Christianity that comes of this drives people from the premillennial camp to postmillennialism, because they can’t believe that the gospel could be so ineffective.

They’re right to be repulsed; defeatist Christianity is biblically false, historically unsustainable, intellectually stultifying, morally bankrupt, and just plain nauseating.  You’d have to be a gnostic to find any encouragement in it at all…and hey! Guess what?  Most conservative American Protestants are closet gnostics, so there you go.

If the only choices were culturally vibrant postmillennial Christianity and defeatist premillennial gnosticism, I’d be a postmillennialist too.

But these are not the only choices.

Consider the mentality that gives rise to premillennial defeatism: “We’re not going to bring about the kingdom in any case, and Jesus will do it when He comes no matter what, so why invest in culture now?”  Suppose a Christian were to approach his personal sanctification the same way: “I’m not going to become perfect in this life anyway, and Jesus will make me perfect in the next in any case, so why struggle against sin now?”  The biblical answer, of course, is that we are supposed to anticipate and image the life to come in our lives now — and that answer applies at a cultural level as well as an individual level.

But is that compatible with premillennialism?

Sure — just as a sanctified life is.  Premillennial eschatology sees that Jesus’ presence on earth as king is necessary to setting up His earthly kingdom, and nothing less will suffice.  But it’s a far cry from that to saying that obedience to the dominion mandate now is worthless.  Jesus is Lord, and He knows far better than I what value my cultural contributions may have, so simple obedience is sufficient as a motive.  But beyond that, consider: what has been the impact of Christianity on Western culture?  Is Western culture measurably better than those cultures that have never had the benefit of 1500 years of Christian cultural hegemony?

It is.

Cultural endeavor is not polishing brass on a sinking ship after all; it’s continuing repair and improvement of a ship that will always need bilge pumps until the Lord returns.  Sometimes she floats pretty well; other times, she’s listing to starboard and the water line is two feet above the deck.

Presently, the ship of Western Christendom is a shattered ruin, and even what remains is slowly falling apart.  But Christendom gave us the neonatal respiratory ventilator, modern science, and an outpouring of philanthropy unparalleled in the history of the world.  God is pleased when those made in His image snatch the helpless from the jaws of death.  God is pleased when we cultivate the earth as He commanded.  God is pleased when we care for the poor, the weak, and the downtrodden.

But what if it all disappears?  What if the whole culture sinks beneath the chaotic sea as if it had never been? I mean, isn’t that what premillennial eschatology tells us?  I’m not certain that it is, necessarily, but let’s consider it as a worst-case scenario: Christendom 1.0 disappears as if it had never been, and “round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”  Then what?  What was the point?

Then we will know that the words Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes are true, that all our labor under the sun really is shepherding wind.

By the same token, we will know that to fear God and keep His commandments is man’s all, and we will be glad to have done it.

So let us labor as Solomon labored to build the temple, now long destroyed.  If it was worth doing then, it’s worth doing now.  We are the church of Jesus Christ; we believe in resurrection from the dead.  We live in light of eternity, and can afford to wait and see how God will resurrect all that has died to a brighter and yet more glorious future.

He is Risen!