“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.

Patterns

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?

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“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.