Descriptive or Prescriptive?
It’s often said in Biblical interpretation that it’s important to distinguish between ‘description’ and ‘prescription’. This is particularly in relation to the Gospels and Acts since what we read about what Jesus and the Apostles did were unique events for unique periods of salvation-history and therefore they’re not written so that we might do the same (prescription), but simply in order to tell us what happened then (description).
I have no basic problem with that distinction in hermeneutics, and I do think it’s important.
However a recent thought occurred to me: when has the genre of narrative ever been prescriptive? In other words, the Gospels and Acts simply on the basis of genre would necessarily be descriptive – for that’s all that narrative can be. Narratives don’t usually have commands to the readers ‘go do likewise’ intruding in on the story. It’s by definition descriptive and not prescriptive.
So maybe the distinction of descriptive vs. prescriptive shouldn’t be applied to narrative in the same way it’s applied to say, the epistles, or wisdom literature, law, or even poetry. Maybe there needs to be other ‘in between’ categories between description and prescription when it comes to narrative. I mean, we all know that a narrative can have a ‘moral’ or an instructive element. In other words, it’s a much more subtle way of influencing the reader than direct prescription. But that’s the beauty of narrative isn’t it?
Perhaps (and this is just a thought) narratives can be paradigmatic without being prescriptive. Perhaps the Gospels and Acts have some elements that are supposed to be paradigmatic for the life and practice of Christians today and the job of hermeneutics is to figure out which bits and why, rather than consigning the whole lot to description and not prescription. Anyways, just a thought.
Wish to comment? I’d love to read your thoughts/suggestions.