“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.


Hermeneutics is not a Science

24 February 2010

…not the way anybody understand the word today, at any rate.

Of course we defend the notion of hermeneutical science by repairing to some of the older definitions of the word science, chiefly the ones that boil down to “knowledge.”  And there’s nothing wrong with referring to hermeneutical knowledge.

But today, when you hear the word science, you think of experimental science, that endeavor begun by Christians as an investigation of God’s creation, but which has today morphed into a false god in its own right–and one which our society publicly worships.  In our eyes, science gave us rocket ships, birth control, the microwave oven, the vacuum cleaner, cheap produce from Chile, and Christmas vacations with Grandma, even though she lives on the other side of the country.   Religion, on the other hand, gave us the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials and 9/11.  So we worship science, by which we mean both God-less humanistic empiricism and knowledge about the real, tangible world — as sharply opposed to the fantasy world of religion.

(In truth, science, even done by atheists, continues to survive on the borrowed capital of its Christian roots, but that’s another post.)

The point here is, science today is the name of an idol, and attaching the idol’s name to something gives it a veneer of respectability which is, of course, borrowed from the idol by association.  Hence Brand X Whitening Strips, scientifically proven to make your teeth gleam, Acme Weight Loss Pills, scientifically shown to reduce weight by an average of 10 pounds in 3 months, and so on.  Scientifically in this usage means really, actually, in the real world — again, as distinctly opposed to the fantasy world of religion.  Can you imagine someone advertising Brand X Whitening Strips as religiously proven to make your teeth gleam?   Endorsed by five pastors instead of five scientists?

In this climate, when an American evangelical talks about the science of hermeneutics, he is dressing biblical interpretation in the borrowed robes of godless empiricism in order to make it respectable to our God-hating society.  “No, really,” he whines,  “hermeneutics is an objective science.”  This is just begging for table scraps–and from the table of demons, at that.

There are two sets of problems here.  The first is that too many of us believe our own propaganda.  Many evangelicals today, especially of the more conservative sort, really do think that the study of the Bible is a purely empirical matter, and when they contend vociferously that hermeneutics is a science, they really do mean the word in an idolatrous way.  They mean that when you set up your textual sausage-grinder with the proper set of hermeneutical principles, you can shove a text into the top of the grinder, turn the crank, and the meaning comes out the side in a nice, neat casing–and the same meaning comes out the same way, no matter who turns the crank, as long as the principles are right.

Therefore, so the reasoning goes, a great exegete can be a towering saint, a liberal buffoon or a heresiarch; doesn’t make any difference.  If he’s a scholar and his hermeneutics are sound, then…

The problem here is that God did not write the Scriptures to be studied as a detached academic pursuit, but to be studied diligently in order to be believed and obeyed — every word, every letter, every last i-dot and serif.  To claim that an academic curiosity-seeker can subject the text to his idolatrous sausage-grinder and get the same meaning as an obedient saint is just silly.  If it happens, it is a miracle, and purely God’s kindness to the academic.

To read the Word of God is to encounter God Himself speaking, and this cannot be done in a neutral way.  The reader is always for God or against Him, and this orientation greatly influences the interpretive endeavor.  But that’s only the beginning.

The other bit is that a believer who has believed the propaganda is going to miss much of the Bible too.  The Bible is not a science experiment.  It is not a systematic theology text.  It cannot profitably be read like one.  The Bible is art, and God is the artist.  It is laden with associations, symbols, foreshadowing, jokes, double entendres, and connotations.  Words don’t mean just one thing; metaphors adorn nearly every sentence; symbols abound.  Literal meaning is present — richly present — but in the same way that it’s present in a good painting.  We have no extant photographs, but let us suppose (correctly, I should think) that the Mona Lisa looks like the model who sat for it.  It is a good likeness; the literal meaning is there.  If we look at the Mona Lisa and say, “a photograph would have been better” — that is the literalist’s eye, and it’s true as far as it goes.  Sort of.  It misses a great deal of richness and depth that is present in the painting, and would not be in the photograph.  The Bible is a painting, not a photograph.  It is literally true, just like a painting — and not like a photograph.

So to return to the matter of how we describe the interpretive endeavor: Hermeneutics is not so impoverished and so easy that we could call it a science.  I have a suggestion for a substitute term, one that takes into account that God is an artist and it takes an artist’s eye to read His word skillfully–but which also takes into account that there really are rules and systematic principles involved in interpretation.  Here it is: hermeutics is a discipline — an art and a craft.  The word craft suggests a craftsman, and we all recognize that craftsmanship matters, and varies from one craftsman to the next.  The principles may be timeless, but each person incarnates them a little differently, and those differences matter.

If this is the case, what would we expect to see?  We should expect that different interpreters interpret differently.  And as they grow in the image of Christ, their craft increases and their art expands–and they converge on one another, because they are growing closer to the same Triune God.

This, I submit, is what we actually see in the world.  Academics can be, and often are, bitter enemies–as are academically-oriented pastors (you know who you are, boys).  Men who walk with God find ways to be friends with one another.  The more they walk with God, the more they recognize one another as fellow godly men–even though they may differ deeply on academic theological matters.  Moreover, in matters of worship and practice, they converge on one another.  They may ‘do the theological math’ differently, but they increasingly come up with the same answers, however framed in the language of their respective traditions.

*****

I would love to hear some feedback on this.  Fire away — what do you think?  What have I missed?


Retraining the Hair on the Back of the Deacon’s Neck, Part 2

16 August 2009

As I concluded my previous post, I could fairly hear the deacons in the audience shouting, “Just because the hair on the back of your neck stands up, how do you know it’s right?”

That’s a good question.  There has to be some norm, some standard by which to measure.

There is.  It’s called the Bible, and one of the things it teaches us is this: who the hearer is will determine what he hears.  If this sounds subjective to you, that’s because in a sense, it is.  But it’s entirely biblical: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” as Jesus often said.  This saying teaches us that there is such a thing as having ears to hear, and such a thing as not having ears to hear.  The person with ears and the person without ears are both standing in front of Jesus, and both hear the same parable…but only the one with ears to hear really hears it, after all. The same propositional content for both, but one understands and the other does not.

Nor is understanding, or failing to, the full range of outcomes.  The same content can convey two opposite messages to two different people, as Paul tells us:

Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place.  For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.  To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things?

We carry the gospel on our lips and in our lives, and this bespeaks death to those who are perishing, but life to those who are being saved.  It’s the same content, but different messages are received because the hearers are different.  This is obvious with a little reflection: “Yet I have set My King on My holy hill of Zion” is gospel to God’s people, but chains and a rod of iron to those who will not kiss the Son.

This is to say that there is no substitute for walking with God and being conformed to the image of His Son.  As we do this, we will find that He makes us able to see and hear what would otherwise be invisible and inaudible to us.  All of which returns us to the question: how will we know when this is happening?

Two blind men are standing on a hill, looking out at a sunset.  Suddenly, one of the blind men is healed entirely, and the sunset bursts in on him.  “I can see!  I can see!” he shouts.

“How do you know?” asks his still blind companion.


Retraining the Hair on the Back of the Deacon’s Neck

9 August 2009

In 1999 Christ Church of Moscow, Idaho chose the theme “Poetic Ministry” for its annual minister’s conference.  The following is from the close of a talk entitled “Fruitful Labor,” delivered by Douglas Wilson at that conference (emphasis mine).*

…You will probably be accused at some point of advocating or compromising with postmodernism….You must guard yourself against any genuine relativism or postmodernism, but people will just oppose you and this is going to be a handy stick to beat you with….

And the reason for this – and this is why Christians get into legalisms, often times:  there’s the gnostic impulse in legalism, but there’s also the laziness impulse in legalism.  I cannot tell, by looking at a man, if he’s truly temperate.  I can look at him and say “is he temperate; is he balanced?”…I can’t tell by looking at him.  But I can tell if he’s got a can of Coors in his hand.  That’s easy.  So if I make a rule against drinking beer, then I can tell if he’s violating it, and I can tell if he’s violating it at a glance.  This is the lazy man’s way of identifying sin, of identifying a problem.   So if you’re looking for intemperance, you can’t tell that at a glance, so you make up an arbitrary and capricious rule.

Related to poetic ministry, there are many people—we might call them conservative, pro-Enlightenment Christians—who believe that the way to fight the left wing enlightenment — postmodernism — is by embracing the right wing enlightenment — various forms of conservatism, and so forth.  But we’re Christians; we should be operating in another category entirely.  Many people get sucked into the analytic tradition because it’s far easier to catch a bad logician than it is to catch a bad poet….  If you’re appealing to poetry, the biblical patterns and the biblical cadences of poetry, that is pretty slippery for a lot of people, and it would involve a lot of work distinguishing the right and the wrong and the wholesome and the unwholesome, and so forth and they just don’t want to do it, so they’ll just accuse you of postmodernism.

Third, if they finally see you, if they wake up in time, you will be understood by your enemies outside the church….and they will understand far more clearly than many of your friends—but your prayer should be that they will not understand, that they will not see you, until it’s far too late.

This is the dangerous territory we are going to have to enter, and there is no way to enter it by just learning a few propositions.  We are going to have to become different people, better people: people who can catch a bad poet.

this is another aspect of the personalism with which we are re-infusing our theology, and a very necessary one.  Not only is belief in the “saving message” belief in a Person, but it is also belief by a person, and this extends beyond the “saving message” to every act of interpretation.  Every interpretation is by a person, and it matters who that person is. If a reader is at all serious about allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, he quickly discovers that there are some aspects that don’t lend themselves well to propositional analysis: symbols, types, and other such resonances.  When these resonances occur in a passage, a reader with literary skill catches them, and realizes that their presence in the passage is not an accident.

If that reader is also a skilled communicator — say, a good pastor — he can retell the passage in such a way as to highlight the resonances, and a lot of people who wouldn’t have caught the connections on their own will be able to see them with his help.  So he gets up and tells the story to his flock, and all across the auditorium, people get chills and the hair on the back of their neck stands up as they see the connection for the first time.

But what is that pastor to do when someone just doesn’t see it?  Suppose one of his deacons comes up to him after the sermon and says, “Pastor, I don’t think I understand what you were talking about today.  Could you explain it again?”  He does, and the man still just doesn’t see it: “Pastor, I hear what you’re saying, but it just sounds pretty thin to me.  How could you prove that the author really meant for us to see those connections, and interpret them as tying back to that earlier story?”

The answer is, he can’t, because what the deacon means by “prove” is approximately what Euclid meant by it, and stories don’t work like that.  There’s a subtle alignment, a sympathy with the author, that is called for here, and if you don’t have it, they you can’t see the thing well enough to see what the author wants you to see.  N. T. Wright** describes the problem like this:

One of the first insights I came to in the early stages of my doctoral work…was that when you hear yourself saying, ‘What Paul was really trying to say was…’ and then coming up with a sentence which only tangentially corresponds to what Paul actually wrote, it is time to think again.  When, however, you work to and fro, this way and that, probing a key technical term here, exploring a larger controlling narrative there, enquiring why Paul used this particular connecting word  between these two sentences, or that particular scriptural quotation at this point in the argument, and eventually you arrive at the position of saying, ‘Stand here; look at things in this light; keep in mind this great biblical theme, and then you will see that Paul has said exactly what he meant, neither more nor less’ — then you know that you are in business.

I’m not always a fan of Wright’s answers, but he’s describing the process very well indeed.  To bring it back to our struggling deacon, the problem isn’t that the deacon fails to understand the propositions of the argument; it’s that the hair on the back of his neck didn’t stand up when he heard the story told that way.  There’s no easy answer here; restating the argument isn’t going to help at all.

He’s already a good logician, but he needs to become a good poet.  This is less about training his mind than it is about training the hair on the back of his neck to stand up when it should — and that is going to take a lot of time, and a lot of work.

See Part 2 of this post.

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*For those of you who are aware of the Federal Vision controversy, a few words: Wilson gave this address anticipating significant resistance within his circles to the shift toward “poetic” ministry.  Undoubtedly there was some resistance, but it does not seem to have been a huge thing.  However, it seems to me that the Federal Vision battle that erupted just three years later is the anticipated controversy.

To my eye, what’s happened is this: the shift toward a poetic mode of operating is the root, and within a Reformed milieu, the Federal Vision is the predictable fruit.  Most of the FV opponents don’t understand the root and never did — hence all the accusations of lack of clarity — but they can see fruit that doesn’t mesh with their ideas of what good fruit should look like.  So they object to the fruit, and they still don’t really understand where it’s coming from.

**Wright, N. T., Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009) 51.


If You Can’t Base Doctrine On Experience…

20 December 2008

It is a truism universally acknowledged — at least in my incestuously small circles — that you can’t make doctrine from experience.  We often say it exactly like that: “You can’t make doctrine from experience.”  Or in the disclaimer form: “I realize you can’t make doctrine from experience, but I’ll tell you, I’ve found that…”

Of course this position is perfectly understandable.

I think of a man and a woman, both married to other people, who were committing adultery together.  (By the way, this is a true story.)  They justified their adultery on the grounds that they always knelt by the bed first and prayed together that if them coming together was not God’s will, He would step in and prevent it.  He never did.  On the strength of God’s non-intervention, they concluded He must approve, that their ‘love’ for each other must have somehow sanctified their illicit relationship.

See?  You can’t make doctrine from experience.

Countless abuses, errors and rank sillinesses are being avoided, at this very moment, by people who are having strange experiences, but who, on the strength of this dictum, will not try to make doctrine out of it.  This is a Good Thing.

But…

…is it true?  Is it really as simple as “You can’t make doctrine out of experience”?

I submit the following example for consideration:

Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness.  How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.

For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith….

For those of you who haven’t recognized it, that’s Romans 4:9-13.  Paul is arguing that an uncircumcised person — i.e., a Gentile — can be found righteous on the basis of his faith.  How does he prove his point?  Note the portion in bold. Paul argues on the basis of Abraham’s experience.  We use the word “history” instead, but that just means it’s really old experience.

The comeback, of course, is that Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write Romans as Scripture; not being similarly inspired, we can’t interpret experience in the same way that he could — and anyway, he’s interpreting Old Testament Scripture, not his own personal experience.  I think there are good responses to both objections, but let’s bypass them for the moment and look at another example:

If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, and I in Him.

That’s Jesus speaking in John 10:37-38.  He challenges his hearers that if they don’t find His words convincing, then they ought to believe His works — i.e., His miracles.  But these are events which they have seen and heard themselves, that is, personal experiences.  From these personal experiences, Jesus’ readers should derive a christological conclusion.  That is once again getting doctrine from experience.

But perhaps someone will say, “That’s all well and good for the people who see supernatural events like the miracles Jesus is talking about there, but you can’t make doctrine out of the events of ordinary life.”  Really?  Let’s look at a third example:

You shall truly tithe all the increase of your grain that the field produces year by year. And you shall eat before the LORD your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide, the tithe of your grain and your new wine and your oil, of the firstborn of your herds and your flocks, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. But if the journey is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, or if the place where the LORD your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, when the LORD your God has blessed you, then you shall exchange it for money, take the money in your hand, and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses.  And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household.

This is from Deuteronomy 14:22-26, but particularly note the clause in bold.  It’s an instruction on the conduct of the festival year, and the disposition of the ‘party tithe.’  At the appointed time, they are to gather up 10% of the previous year’s income, go up to the place God designates, and throw a party.  They are to do this every year.  No miracles, no supernatural events — just the ordinary rhythms of life, like a Thanksgiving dinner, the Super Bowl, and watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve.

They are to throw this party, Moses tells them, so that they will learn to fear God always.

This rings strangely to our ears for a number of reasons that I’ll pass over here.  We should notice, however, that the theological conclusion comes in the doing of it, that is, in experience.  Again, it is precisely in experience that they are to learn their doctrine.

Does this mean that we can have a strange experience and use it to justify any theological nonsense we want?  Of course not.  There are controls — interpreting experience by what God has said — but that’s a discussion for another post.  For the time being, note: our modern dictum that “you can’t get doctrine from experience” would ring very strangely in the ears of the men who wrote the Bible.  They plainly did not believe any such thing.

Neither should we.


News: We Got Sound!

11 December 2008

I’ve upgraded! For the paltry sum of $20 annually, I can have sound files, and 5Gb of extra storage. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it all — that’s a lot of space — but for the moment, I’ve put up the Living the Living Word lectures. In a nutshell, it’s a 10-week exploration of the idea that the Bible teaches us how to study the Bible, complete with enough suggestions for further study to get you at least to a Bible college-level workload, if you want to do that much. The extra work is not required, however, and the lectures are designed to be beneficial for people who just want to listen.

I’ve also posted my personal recordings of last year’s FGA panels on assurance and the cross, for those who’ve perhaps read about the discussions but haven’t had the chance to hear and judge for themselves. Links to both are also now posted on the Gospel Discussion page.