Is That Descriptive or Prescriptive? Ackshually, It’s Both

If we recognise that every bit of scripture is both describing and prescribing something, the question is this “descriptive” or “prescriptive”? becomes unhelpful and not a little limiting. If we always answer both, we are forced to ask how do we tell which is which? It can be more helpful to reframe our original question into two, and add a third question between them, to get to the heart of the passage. The more accurate and helpful set of questions are: (1) what is this describing? (2) why is this here? and, (3) what, therefore, is this prescribing? Let me explain.

Here is a phrase-cum-question you often hear knocking about in discussions about the biblical text: is it descriptive or prescriptive? What they mean to ask by that is something like this: is this passage simply describing a thing that happened and isn’t binding on us or is it showing us something that we ought to copy and emulate? Is it merely describing an event (descriptive) or is it giving us some instruction (prescriptive)?

You are most likely to hear this descriptive/prescriptive chat when it comes to the book of Acts. But there’s plenty of Old Testament and gospel examples of the same kind of discussion. Sometimes, though people will use different words to say effectively the same thing, this question is behind any comment anyone ever makes along the lines, ‘that was just cultural’. In other words, it’s just describing the culture of the day and its practices, not binding us into doing exactly as they were doing.

Now, before I go on, it bears saying this is a legitimate question to ask. Not everything, in exactly the form it is described in the Bible, is binding on us. Just go and read the book of Judges, for example. Particularly any of the latter half. Almost nobody reckons just about any part of what is described there – in the form it happened – is stuff for us to emulate and copy today. Most of us are pretty clear it is describing what happened, not prescribing a pattern for us to follow.

Similarly, some stuff in the Bible is evidently binding on us and everybody reckons they are clear and obvious commands to follow. Turn to Matthew 5:21 or Romans 13:9 or James 2:11. It’s hard to argue that these things are merely descriptions of events that took place, not least because they aren’t describing any particular events! Nobody to my knowledge argues anything other than these are binding commands of Jesus. They are not describing any happenings, they are prescribing how we must behave as believers.

So far, so obvious, right? But what do we do with narrative passages of scripture? Most narratives don’t have any obvious binding commands in them directed at us. Whether stuff in Judges and Kings or New Testament narrative like Acts. Most of these narrative are describing events and don’t have commands from God directed to us the reader.

The problem with saying they’re prescriptive is they’re often full of mad stuff that really doesn’t seem like the sort of thing Jesus would have us do. Which of us, for example, reads 2 Samuel 11 and thinks that is just what Jesus wants his followers to do? So, we may say, these things are obviously just descriptive. But the problem here is that they are in the Bible and 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us pretty clearly all scripture is God-breathed and given to us for a reason, specifically so that we might be learn from it and be trained in righteousness. If the danger of saying narratives are prescriptive is that we might be led to prescribe all kinds of mad things, the danger of saying they’re descriptive is we think they prescribe (and therefore say) nothing at all!

But the story of the Levite cutting up his concubine and sending her body parts all over Israel is in our Bible for a reason, isn’t it? It might well not be prescribed – it isn’t something we are to emulate – but the purpose of the story surely exists to tell us something about God, his character, his people and how they ought to respond to him.

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