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.

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About Pete

I am a child of God, a husband, a father of four children, a pastor, and a church planter. I live in Sydney Australia and live to see Jesus made famous in this city and be the only God people worship.

Posted on July 28, 2009, in Bible and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I think you raise a really important question Pete.

    A rule of thumb I employ, but by no means is it exhaustive and it’s not entirely answering your question, is that I look for how the Epistles treat the subject matter. Is what is covered in the Gospels and Acts also included in the Epistles? If so, then it is far more likely that the subject in question is prescriptive.

    Clear example is that of preaching. Jesus came to preach. Descriptive or prescriptive? Paul’s letters make it pretty clear as to which one.

    A question would be of this, what is the BIblical warrant? My answer is twofold, 1) Biblical theology & 2) Jesus’ words to the disciples in JOhn 14:26; 16:12-13

    I repeat, this is only one hermeneutical key I employ, but I think it’s helpful

  2. Dear Peter

    Thanks for that. Like that thought of description vs. Paradigmatic, rather than Description vs. prescription. Something to mull over. Having said this, I wonder how we then distinguish between what is mere description and what is then paradigmatic? But, as you said, that is the work of hermeneutics. mmm. Maybe too deep for my small brain.

    Ying

  3. Hi Pete,

    Thinking of it. Yes, I agree. But the tricky part is to work out what is paradigmatic in narrative. Is it? Nevertheless, doctrines are formulated from narratives or narratives support doctrines or the whole of Scripture. At MTC, we learned that Luke 4:17 is paradigmatic for Jesus’ ministry.

    The thing is, when we read the narratives, already we are being instructed on so many things from Jesus and the apostles that form and shape our thinking and actions.

    Sometimes, putting a label or terms on things are not helpful as we know, like in life, things are dynamic employing multiple factors at one go. Take walking as an example, we don’t tell our brains ok, now it’s time to walk, move the right feet first followed by the left. We just walk and instantaneously employing physological, biological, physics principles etc all at one go.

    Labels and terms are for us to dissect things so that we can discuss it, more for academic and research purposes I reckon. But in real life, many things happen at one go.

    Ok that’s my 2 cents worth. šŸ™‚ ron

  4. I like Wenham on this. Changes the way I’ve taught narrative: http://tinyurl.com/lg8wy7

    Similar ideas seem to be operating in The Story of God: http://www.somacommunities.org/blogs/story-of-god/

  5. i live it. great thought!

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