“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.

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A Narrative Statement of Faith: Impossible?

9 March 2009

As I’ve come to grips with the narrative character of the Scriptures, I’ve become increasingly interested in seeing that reflected in statements of faith — the one I write for myself personally, and others that I’m involved in framing.

I spoke to a number of friends about the possibility of doing this, and they fell into one of two groups: those who thought it an admirable idea, but weren’t sure how one would go about it, and those who thought it was flatly impossible, or at least so difficult as to be impractical.

Thus encouraged, I began to look around for help.  Having been trained since I was very, very small that people get into great trouble in the ministry because they don’t study church history, I turned to church history to see what help I might be able to glean from God’s people of past ages.  As I studied I began to realize something that ought to have occurred to me immediately: it’s already been done. More than once.

So for your edification and reading pleasure, I present the following historical statement of faith, composed in narrative form:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,

And in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into Hades.
On the third day He rose again from [among] the dead.
He ascended into heaven,
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
Whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church
The communion of saints
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

Amen.

Sound familiar? (If it doesn’t — alack and fie for shame on your teachers — google ‘apostles creed’ and see what comes up.)

Does this mean I’ve stopped working on a narrative statement of faith?  Not hardly.  Versions of the creed above were floating around as early as the second century, and it was modified countless times.  The most prominent example of this would be the Nicene Creed — the version of the Apostles’ Creed that was ratified by a genuinely ecumenical council.

The trend continues today, as it should.  God’s people are writers of creeds and confessions aplenty.  We never speak God’s Word in a vacuum, but only at a particular time, in a particular place, to particular people.  While the Word never changes, the times, places and people change constantly, and therefore constant recasting and reformulation is required if we would speak to the people before us, rather than to their ancestors.

So I’m still working on it.  But now, with some guidance from my fathers.