Reading your Bible without missing the point (part 1): prescriptive versus descriptive.

I’ve decided to offer a few thoughts about some of the ways that those in my theological tradition often read the Bible.  I realize this might be a touchy subject.  Some readers, if they are thoughtful, might be challenged about the way they have interpreted some verses.  However, poor interpretation of the Bible often has a systemic result; not only does it harm the person who misinterprets, but it often harms the witness of the Church because it causes people to say or do things that misrepresent God.  There are times to take a bold stance on things; so let’s do our best to make sure our stances really do align with what the Bible is saying.

Today’s point is this: some content in the Bible is prescriptive, while other content is descriptive.  What’s the difference?  Prescriptive content is that which, after careful examination of the text, establishes a clear model for us to follow.  For instance, I would be quite comfortable considering Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:19 as prescriptive of how we should behave, even today: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Notice, however, that when these words were originally spoken, Jesus did not say them to you or me.  He said them to the disciples at the time.  That means that before we decide that this is a prescriptive model for us to follow, there are other interpretive tools that need to enter into the equation.  For example, we might consider other scriptures, or the literary genre, or the historical context.  But these are issues for another post.  Thankfully, this often can be done by simply exercising common sense.

Descriptive content, on the other hand, is narrative material that is simply telling us what happened.  Sometimes the Bible just tells us what happened, and there isn’t necessarily prescriptive model attached to it.  When the Bible tells us that Judas hanged himself, it’s just telling us what happened.  That doesn’t mean we should go do that ourselves.  That might seem obvious, but I use it as an example to demonstrate the rule for situations that might be less clear.  For instance, the way that God deals with one person in the Bible is not necessarily the way that he will explicitly deal with me.  God dealt with Jabez one way, but it would be a misappropriation of scripture to therefore assume that he must also do the same for me if I can make the variables equal.  The text is simply telling us what happened (and revealing something neat about God!).  Similarly, when God gives Abraham a clear and specific calling, reading this too prescriptively can send us into theological turmoil.

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart said that “Narratives record what happened—not necessarily what should have happened or what ought to happen every time.  Therefore, not every narrative has an individual identifiable moral of the story” (Fee & Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All it’s Worth, 2003, p. 85).*  So next time you’re reading the Bible, try applying this principle…and it may just help you hear God speak more clearly.

*I know that this is not proper citation.  But it’s my blog so I can do whatevs.  If I actually thought any of my professors read this, I might change it :).

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7 Responses to Reading your Bible without missing the point (part 1): prescriptive versus descriptive.

  1. Craig Rayment says:

    I enjoyed the blog! How would following Abrahams call send us into turmoil? Not disagreeing just wondering your thoughts.

    • phillee4840 says:

      Good question Craigers…I could have clarified this. Take, for instance, the fact that God has a specific place where he calls Abraham to go. If we take this as prescriptive for our own lives, then we might find ourselves asking which house God is calling us to buy, or which outfit God is calling us to wear, etc. because we’ve decided that since God’s instructions to Abraham were specific and explicit, they must be for me as well in whatever decision I need to make.

      Of course I’m not saying that God doesn’t care about the small stuff. He certainly does. In fact, God might have a specific plan for us in his will in regards to things like jobs, colleges, houses, etc. I’m just saying that this text shouldn’t cause us to assume that it is necessarily always the case.

      • Craig Rayment says:

        Very good sir! I agree, thanks for the further explanation! I pray for you from time to time and miss you friend.

      • phillee4840 says:

        Thanks Craig. We miss you too. I wanna play some golf! Blessings and prayers for what you’re doing in Wisconsin!

  2. Rob says:

    Thanks Phil!! I find this helpful.. I am going to specifically use this for a week or so.. So simple but yet genious… 🙂 some pretty smart professors.. Also you are one rad dude!

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