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Descriptive vs. Prescriptive September 16, 2009

Posted by TJ Friend in General Principles.
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Hello again. I would like to use this post to talk about the distinction between texts that are prescriptive and those that are descriptive. Before I get into these terms I need to spend some time describing authorial intent. The writers of the Bible wrote for specific purposes to specific audiences. When you are reading or studying any passage of scripture it is important to ask who the author is and what he is trying to say to his audience. We are not the original audience. The authors of the Bible wrote to inform, correct, challenge, teach and explain things to the people in their time period.  Our goal is to discover this original message. Once we understand what a text means to its original audience then we can bridge the historical/cultural gap and apply that meaning to our own time and culture. We are separated from the Biblical cultures by thousands of years. They had different languages and practices then we do. We even have a different worldview then they did. We miss the point if we skip over the original audience and try and frame the text into our own culture. Each passage of scripture has one meaning. (Sometimes an author will use words and phrases that have a double meaning, but this too should fit into the cultural context in which it was written.) Our goal is to discover what that meaing was for the people it was originally written for and then apply that meaning to our current situation. When we come to a text we should ask how the people who first heard it would have understood it, and how they would have responded or reacted to the message. You can start to get a sense of what the people back then believed by looking at the things that are talked about or emphasized. Let’s take the book of John for instance. In John 20:31 we read: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you my have life in his name.” John was writing to show people that Jesus was actually who he said he was and that He is the way to salvation. The people he was writing to, must have had a hard time believing this. As we read through John’s gospel we can see what things he emphasizes to back up these claims. He showed the coming of John the Baptist, different miracles and sayings of Jesus, and of course his death and resurrection. John’s audience needed to be shown that Jesus actually was the Christ, the Messiah, God’s only Son who came down for them and that by believing in Him they would have life. Once we see how John met his audience we can apply those same things to people today who may be caught in the same mindsets as they were.

Descriptive vs. Prescriptive

The bible is full of many different types of literature. There is poetry, biography, prophecy, narrative, discourse, letters and proverbs, just to name a few. We will get more into all these different genres later, but for now it is important just to recognize that they exist. There is a vast difference between the book of Exodus and the book of Isaiah. Recognizing these different genres will help us understand the difference between descriptive and prescriptive. Descriptive texts are those that simply describe what is happening without giving a command or instructing us on how to behave. The book of Exodus is mostly descriptive. It talks about the Israelites in slavery in Egypt and how God rescues them out of Pharoah’s hand and brings them to Mt. Sinai.

Prescriptive texts are instructive. They are commands either of what to do or what not to do. In Exodus we have the ten commandments. These fall in the prescriptive category because they “prescribe” certain behaviors. It is important not to get these two confused. Just because something is descriptive does not make it prescriptive. There are many things that people do in the Bible that we should not do. It seems obvious that statements that simply describe what is going on are not the same as commands, but there can be some confusion. The confusion comes when we bring in the idea of modeling or examples. There are many people in the Bible that did great things and so we want to emulate them. The question is how far do we take it. Should we make rash vows like Jephthah (Judges 11:30-31) or sacrifice our children to prove our faith in God like Abraham (Gen. 22)? Obviously not. If we are going to use people in the Bible as models, we want to model their character and their faith, and bring those ideals into our own culture. We should have the perserverance and trust in God like Joseph to believe the promises spoken over them, even when his situation didn’t match up. We should look to the boldness of Caleb, who saw big giants but believed that if God was for them, then no one could be against them. We can take the principals and learn from them without copying their exact behavior.

Fleeces

I want to address the two biggest texts that are descriptive that have been taken prescriptively. The ifrst is the story of Gideon (Judges 6-8). The Israelites have been worshipping false idols and basically turned their back on God, so God allows them to be oppressed by the Midianites. The Israelites then turn to God and ask Him to save them. God in his mercy, raises up a deliverer, Gideon. Gideon is just an average (or in his eyes below average) guy who God chooses to use to save Israel. An angel comes down and speaks to Gideon directly and even does a miracle by consuming some bread and meat with fire. God is calling Gideon to a big task and Gideon needed to know for sure that God was with him. Gideon then asks God if he would confirm his word with a sign. He puts out a fleece and asks for the fleece to be wet with dew and the ground to be dry, and the next night he asks if the fleece would be dry and the ground would be wet. God does this for Gideon and even gives him one more sign that he is with him. On the night that the Israelites are to attack Midian, he gives a dream to one of the Midianites and allows Gideon to hear it. Basically, God revealed himself to Gideon in many ways, in order to strengthen him and give him the courage he needed to send 300 men against a force “as thick as locusts” whose camels “could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore” (Judges 6:12). This was an impossible situation in human terms and so God revealed himself to show that He would be with Gideon.

So that is the story. God showed up and destroyed the army of Midian. The problem comes when people take this story as a way to hear God. They come up with all kinds of weird requests that if God doesn’t follow then He must not be leading them. Just because Gideon put out a fleece and God answered his request to make it wet and the ground dry does not mean that this is how God speaks to everyone. We should not test God with our own “fleeces” to see if He is leading us in a specific direction. This is a very specific situation. Gideon needed huge reassurance from God, because of what God was calling him to. I doubt any situation we are in is as drastic as God calling us to take on an uncountable army with a few hundred soldiers. Most of the time, these “fleeces” people put out before God are nothing more than our own selfish motives trying to force God to speak to us on our terms not His. We should not put God to the test. He will speak to us as we seek Him, but we should not expect or force Him to speak to us in a certain way. He may be speaking to us in other ways that we are not even listening to.

Acts

The book of Acts describes what happens after Jesus ascends to Heaven, and how the Gospel is spread throughout the known world. There are a lot of principles that we can follow from these descriptions, but how much do we need to model our churches after? A lot of people want to get the church back to its first century version. The problem is that the book of Acts, including 2:42-48, is primarily descriptive. It is revealing to us the way the first church looked like. It is impossible to take that model and make an exact replica of it today because we are not living back then. There is nothing necessarily wrong with teaching, breaking bread, signs and wonders, selling possessions and praising God. And actually these are good things and we are encouraged in other places to do some of these things. We can’t simply say that since this was how it was at the beginning then this is how it should be now. For one thing, we can’t meet together everyday in the temple courts because we don’t have the same temple set up that they did. We are living in a completely different culture now. What we need to do is see what God’s original intent for the Church was and apply that to our situation today. It is clear that as the Church we should pray, take communion, meet together and be unified among other things. But we don’t need to follow the exact practices the first Christians did. As we look at how they did things and seek God we can gain insights on how the Church today should function. I believe God set up general principles for the running of the Church because He knew that the church would end up in many different cultures and He wants us to seek Him for the direction and running of the Church instead of just following a model.

Reflection

Who is someone you look up to either from the Bible or from your life? What character traits do you value in that person and how can you emulate those?

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Comments»

1. lisa - June 15, 2010

Thank you very much. This was easy to understand with clear examples. Much better than A.A. Hodge

2. Na - September 27, 2013

This was exactly what I needed. Thank you so much.

3. leslie mac - October 31, 2013

saddest thing I have read in a long time. Essentially you have taken the God of the Universe right out of the bible. Can God no longer breath life into His words that He wrote for all time across all cultures for all mankind? We may not face an army of horses and chariots that Gideon faced but we certainly face the same spirits that were over the Midianites (which means strife by the way) they may just be packaged differently in our culture and in our time. Remember our struggle is not against flesh and blood but, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Eph 6:12.
I don’t think these have changed with culture and time, still the same as they were back then and I don’t know about you but if God is asking me to go up against the same forces of strife and fight an impossible battle I am going to want to be able to get the same kind of specific direction from God as Gideon did. My God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, Hallelujah and Amen!

TJ Friend - October 31, 2013

Leslie,
Thanks for reading my post! I wish I could actually talk to you in person so that you could hear my heart and understand why I wrote this and what I was trying to say. Unfortunately, I am limited to the few short words in this reply.

First, I 100% believe that the Bible was written for us and can and does apply to our circumstances (2 Tim 3:16). We do encounter impossible situations that we need God to come through on, and it is vital that we seek God for His help and guidance. Heb. 13:8 is an important verse that we need to be reminded of.

That being said, I want to apologize if my writing was unclear. Let me summarize my main point and how the discussion on Gideon fits in. This post is about the differences between prescriptive writing (writing to tell us what we should do) and descriptive writing (writing to tell us what happened). For those texts with explicit commands for us, we simply need to obey them. For those texts without commands, we need to understand the principles found in the text and ask God how we should apply those today.

In the story of Gideon, Gideon asked God to confirm the word that he had been given. God was the one who initiated with Gideon earlier when he called him to lead Israel in saving them from the Midianites. Gideon, was simply asking for confirmation of what had already been spoken. This is something we can also do. My concern is when we use “fleeces” as a source of divination to find out what God is saying. For instance, let’s say you are trying to decide whether to move or stay where you are at. This is a great opportunity to seek God through prayer, community, fasting, etc. to see what He would have you do. If you simply said, “God if you want me to move, have it snow tomorrow” or something like that, you are seeking God’s revelation on you own terms and you are depriving yourself of the intimacy that could come about as you seek Him.

Of course God can speak through signs in the natural world. We just need to be careful, that we don’t force God to speak to us how we want Him to. If you have a decision to make, seek God and trust Him to reveal His will in His timing, not by trying to manipulate God through requests for signs that are of our own imagination.

I hope that this addresses some of your concerns. My goal in this blog is always to be encouraging and to help people as they read the word. I hope that even if you do not agree with everything I have written, you can at least find something that is edifying.

1 Thes. 5:21 – “Test everything. Hold onto the good.”

Thanks again for checking out my blog. Have a great day.

T.J.

4. Ryan Boldt - April 23, 2014

Excellent guidance! Thanks!

5. Hoteluri 5 Stele Bucuresti - June 21, 2014

Hotel Ieftin Bucuresti

Excellent article. I’m facing some of these issues as well..

6. James M - September 20, 2014

Thank you for a fine article. Proper interpretation of the Bible and proper application of the Bible are skills that I need to better learn. The challenge comes when something that is declared is very much at odds with the prevailing sentiment in the culture. See for example 1 Cor 14:34-35. It seems to me that there is a tendency to bring in information about the original intent of a passage when the passages are difficult (slavery, women, etc…) In passages dealing with sex, however, there is a tendency to say that the texts are normative. Please offer your thoughts. I try to acknowledge with my students that we in the church tend to pick and choose passages to make normative and such picking and choosing seemingly without set standards leads to problems. Thank you in advance for your response.

TJ Friend - September 20, 2014

James,
Thanks for taking the time, not just to read this, but to offer a thoughtful response. We are living in a society that has more access to the Bible and tools to study it, but at the same time people are becoming more “biblically illiterate”. This greatly distresses me, and is my motivation to help people recapture a delight for God’s Word. I think the best answer to your question/concern is that we need to read the Bible holistically. For any issue in the Bible it is important to see everything the Bible says about it if we want to be faithful to follow it. It is not wise to build doctrines off of one single verse. At some point I am going to do an entire blog dealing with the issue of homosexuality in the Bible, but I do want to make a few comments. This issue, and the other sexual prohibitions (see Lev 18), not only span both testaments, but are pervasive. God is constantly telling his people to refrain from sexual immorality. It is actually interesting you brought this up. I am currently reading a pro gay marriage book, to see what arguments people come up with. The trend I have seen (and is repeated in this book) is that there are only a handful of verses that talk about this issue and so we shouldn’t make a huge deal about it. If you only count passages that specifically say homosexuality, then of course you are going to be limited. From Genesis onward, men having sex with women is the assumed norm. You don’t see any positive examples of men having sex with men. I don’t want to get too far into this issue, you should read my other post “Eating Shellfish and Interpretive Methodologies”. I talk a little bit more about interpreting OT laws.
I want to mention a little bit about Genre also. Paul’s letters in the NT are all epistles and need to be interpreted in that genre. The biggest thing about letters is that they were “situational”. When Paul is writing he is addressing specific issues going on at the Church. A lot of these issues can apply to multiple churches, but in reading any of the epistles are goal should be to understand what was going on at those churches that needed to be addressed. A lot of this information can be found in the introductions to commentaries. For instance the Corinthians obviously had some issues with spiritual gifts. It appears that they were doing things disorderly and even comparing themselves based on which gifts they had. As you read epistles especially look for what issues the author is addressing.
Books like Leviticus are less “situational” in nature. They are not addressing concerns of a particular church. Leviticus is a book primarily about holiness. It is giving instructions to the Israelites on how to live literally in the presence of God and not be killed. Some of these laws were to protect them (like the food laws), others were to set them apart from the nations around them, and some of them were there because God detested the practices. The laws on sexual ethics fall into this third category. These things were so bad that God judged the nations around Israel for them (Lev 18:24), nations that didn’t even believe in God. If God is serious enough about a sin to judge those outside of His people, how much more should we follow that law.

My preference is to let the Bible interpret itself. Instead of looking to historical context to determine if something is normative, we should look to the literary/canonical context. Because there is so little on issue of women being silent in church, we need to be very careful on how we interpret those passages. As for sexual purity, the Bible is very clear. We can’t simply pick and choose what to follow and what not to follow. Every thing is there for a reason. Some of the laws were only for certain people at certain times. Are job is to look through the rest of the Bible and see what the whole council is on that topic and then follow it. Even on the laws that don’t directly apply to us, we should make every effort to find an application that we can follow today. 2 Tim 3:16 – “All Scripture is god-breathed and is useful…”

Hopefully this helps.

7. Theology Professor - October 4, 2014

Excellent article and critical to understand proper Biblical Hermenuetics. Let me apologize for being critical on presentation. As a Professor I run into this all the time. I have such a high view of Scripture that it is bothersome to see the Bible and Scripture left in lower case when they should be capitalized. It is not simply another book but the greatest book, The Bible, The Scriptures.


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