Descriptive vs. Prescriptive September 16, 2009Posted by TJ Friend in General Principles.
Tags: authorial intent, Descriptive, Prescriptive
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 Pharaoh’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.
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.
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.
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?