Prescriptive vs. Descriptive

In this post, I’d like to look at one simple distinction that must be made when we are interpreting the Bible. It’s essential to understand the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive texts. I found a very helpful description from a site called Is My Bible Reliable? Here it is:
“Descriptive literature is that which describes what happened.
Narrative literature is basically descriptive. It is telling what happened, but not necessarily telling readers that they should do everything in the same manner.
Prescriptive literature commands the reader to a course of action.
Prescriptive literature instructs the reader to do something, to act in such and such a way. Prescriptive writing is characterized by lots of imperatives, i.e., commands.”
In other words…
Descriptive = “what happened.”
Prescriptive = “what to do.”
For example, let’s look at Judges 3:12-30. In this portion of Israel’s history—after they had wandered from God—Eglon the king of Moab had been ruling over Israel for 14 years (Jdg 3:13-14). Israel cries out to God so the Lord sends a Judge named Ehud to save them (Jdg 3:15). So, let’s look at a passage and see if it’s descriptive or prescriptive:
And Ehud came to [Eglon] as he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber. And Ehud said, “I have a message from God for you.” And [Eglon] arose from his seat. And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into [Eglon’s] belly. (Jdg 3:20-21)
Ehud
Ehud brings a pointed message to Eglon.
So we have two options here; either
  1. This text is prescriptive and God commands all Christians to stab unrighteous people in the stomach. Or…
  2. This text is descriptive and this chapter of the Bible is telling us about a cycle of sin, repentance, and God’s faithful deliverance in the history of Israel.
This should be a no-brainer.
Here’s another one:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Ro 12:1-2, NIV84)
Once again, this should be an easy one. This one is prescriptive and it tells us that, in light of the love of God, we should live our lives for God. We should stop imitating the world around us and transform our minds so that we want the things that God wants.
This descriptive vs. prescriptive distinction may seem like a no-brainer, but I’ve heard pastors (even mega-church pastors) who have forgotten this difference. For example, once a friend of mine was asking a pastor how to balance his Air Force career obligations (specifically studying for promotion testing) with his desire to be involved in church. The pastor explained to him that his job was to fill the jars with water, and it was God’s job to turn the water into wine (John 2:7-10). Now, that might sound nice, but is the Gospel account of Jesus’ first miracle really about how we’re supposed to balance the different aspects of our lives? Is it a prescriptive account that serves as an allegory for how we bring the water to God and He turns it to wine? No. In fact, all of John 2 is descriptive.
So, be careful not to read into a verse of passage what isn’t there.
The other challenge is to dismissively make everything descriptive. There are many passages in the Bible that are prescriptive that I wish were descriptive. We can’t read Matthew 6:24 and just say it’s a descriptive text. It’s not descriptive; Jesus is really saying that we can’t serve both God and money. If you write everything off as descriptive and claim the Bible doesn’t challenge you to repent or grow, then you’re very clearly deceiving yourself.
So I guess the best way I can summarize this post is as follows:  If you’re never being challenged to grow, you’re making everything descriptive; if you’re being challenged to stab someone in the stomach until the dung falls out, you’re making everything prescriptive. Somewhere, in the middle, is where sweetness and light dwell.
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This entry was posted in Bible Study 101 and tagged , by daniel. Bookmark the permalink.

About daniel

First and foremost, I belong to Jesus. I try to live every day to bring glory to my King. I am married to the most amazing woman I've ever met; her name is Connie. I was born in San Antonio, TX; raised in Blaine, TN; served in the Air Force for seven years in Anchorage, Afghanistan, and the UAE; and am now attending Western Seminary in Portland, OR. I'm excited about the future!

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