Friday, July 28, 2006

Determining if Scripture is Prescriptive or Descriptive

Lately I have been asking myself how to determine if a particular passage of Scripture is only descriptive of the first century believers or if it is prescriptive for the church today or if it is both. I do not claim to have all the answers to this hermeneutical issue, but it is one I think is important for us to answer in order to properly interpret and apply the Scriptures.

One approach to this question is to ask whether the action we see modeled in scripture is cultural to that time period or supracultural applying to all cultures. For instance, in Acts 2:42 the believers devoted themselves to prayer. This passage is clearly descriptive of the live of the early church. Is it prescriptive for believers today? Are we to devote ourselves to prayer? I would say yes, because prayer was not something that was unique to the Roman culture. In fact prayer is found as far back as the book of Genesis. It appears then that prayer is rooted in God's plan for how man would communicate with Him. Therefore, I would conclude that prayer is supracultural and devoting oneself to prayer is prescriptive for believers today.

The question becomes more difficult when we try to apply this principle to other patterns seen in Scripture. For example, Paul traveled from city to city to spread the Gospel. He went to the places with large populations instead of the towns and villages. Are we to see this as a pattern for how we are to spread the Gospel. Should we make it a point to concentrate on the cities first and then let the Gospel spread to the surrounding towns and villages from those cities? Another example would be that believers gathered in homes rather than in "church" buildings in the first century. Is this practice prescriptive for us today? (I do think principles of stewardship come in to play here as well.)

I would enjoy hearing your thoughts as to how you deal with these types of interpretive issues in the Scripture.


Alan Knox said...

I don't know an easy answer to your question. But, I wanted to comment so that I could thank you. Thank you for asking a question that actually asks me to think scripturally! I will keep thinking about this.

Anonymous said...

I want to thank you too. I am really working on this question with a friend of mine. There seems to be an inconsistancy in application in many churches.

It kind of funny that Alan Knox commented here because I just started reading his blog.

I am wondering about looking at the principle behind the descriptions. Is the principle the prescription?

I've been looking at home churches, and this seems to be the key issue.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that the descriptive/prescriptive split is helpful at all. It creates confusion and can be easily used to to ignore scripture based on my conclusion about it being descriptive or prescriptive. Who defines what is what?