Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Prescriptive Word of God

I think that it's safe to say that, for the most part, we read the Bible as a prescriptive work. In other words, when we read the Bible we believe that we should do or live out what it says. There is no doubt that the commands and exhortations of the Bible like "Love the Lord your God..." and "forgive each other" are meant to be lived out.

We often read Bible narratives the same way. For example, since David was "a man after God's own heart," we often read about his life to learn how he lived so that we can live like him.

There are times when this can be challenging. Since Israel (the people of God) cut off the thumbs and big toes of enemy kings, does that mean that we should repay our adversaries by doing to them what they have done to others? Or, since Solomon had many wives and concubines, does it mean that polygamy is acceptable?

I've recently been confronted with the idea that parts of the Bible are not meant to be prescriptive. Instead, some of the Bible is to be descriptive. This idea is easy to swallow for the ideas listed above. Sure we can accept that when the Bible is explaining Solomon's heirum, it does not mean that all Christian men should have dozens of wives. We also would agree that David's adultery is not an example of holy living.

There are some parts of the Bible that might choke us up if we read them descriptively. In Acts, new Christians were baptized immediately after salvation. There are no specific accounts of infant baptism (although some entire families were baptized) and there are no baptism classes. Does this mean that we should baptize every Christian immediately after salvation? Are baptism classes unbiblical? Or, is the book of Acts (at least partially) descriptive of the early church?

Now, I would admit that some would argue that this is a poor concept of Scripture because it means that any person can subjectively decide what's prescriptive and what's descriptive based on whatever feels good at the time. However, whenever we read Scripture we cannot take any verse or passage in isolation from the rest of Scripture. If someone wants to claim that Solomon's marital practices are prescriptive for all, they must then explain away Adam and Eve, Paul's exhortations in Corinthians, and the instructions for deacons and overseers.

What do you think of these topics:

- Baptism in Acts

- The role of women in the church throughout NT

- Homosexuality as a sin (Romans 1)

- The belief that all authorities, whether good or evil, are put in place by God (Hebrews 13)

- The "Holy Wars" of the OT (Yes, this is a broad category of which some are good and some aren't)

- Slavery (Old & New Testaments)

Perhaps we should consider reading descriptively more often.


  1. This is quite a big chunk to bite off at one time. All of the topics you listed would require extensive treatment. Perhaps, you can define descriptive for me. It seems to me that I can say that Solomon's polygamy is descriptive: it describes how I am allowed to act. So how is descriptive different from prescriptive.

    Also, you insist that this is not a dismissive and subjective way of dealing with texts that are uncomfortable. Can you explain how it isn't?

    Now, don't get me wrong, I agree that not everything in Scripture gives us straightforward prescriptions regarding behavior. However, I think it is more complicated than just saying it is or isn't prescriptive. There are many different genres of literature in Scripture that can all function in a multitude of ways. For instance, Genesis describes the scene of creation. Does it describe it figuratively or literally? Or does Genesis 2 literally describe an event that we call the fall? Or does it simply give us a fable like prescription that the result of disbedience is expulsion from the presence of God?

    All this is to say that narrative and command, or what you delineate as descriptive and prescriptive respectively, are generally wrapped in the same package and are not mutually exclusive. So, saying that something is either descriptive or prescriptive seems misleading. I think that quite often Scripture functions both ways.

  2. I think determining prescription and description is part of good exegesis. Many passages in the Bible are misused because they are understood to be prescriptive for us today when they do not mesh with our cultural understanding of ethics or Christianity. It does not mean that the Bible can be taken to mean whatever you want it to mean, but opening it up to a larger realm of interpretation allows voices to be heard that may not always be heard.

    It is interesting that nowadays we tend to dismiss the subordination of women in the NT as simply a result of their culture, but we do not treat homosexuality, slavery, and divine warrior theology the same way.

    My point is that people make subjective decisions about the Bible anyway while dismissing all others as true. Learning to do accurate and in-depth exegesis is a crucial discipline of pastors and church leaders, but maybe we need to teach lay people how to do it as well. Although this might rock some worlds... But, I think we need to learn how to bring in other subjective interpretations to widen our circle so that we might hear how our understanding may not be entirely respectful to the marginalized other.


What do you think?