Sunday, December 2, 2012

What Do Evangelicals Mean by the "Prescriptive/Descriptive" Distinction?

Some people as of late have misunderstood the term "descriptive." As a result, they have begun to critique evangelicals who use the distinction as a way to identify what biblical teaching is applicable to Christians today. By "descriptive" these critics of evangelicalism mean anything that isn't an imperatival command. By "prescription," therefore, they mean anything that is an imperatival command. Hence, since some texts that are imperatival commands are not binding and other texts that are not imperatival commands ought to be binding (e.g., Proverbs, literary arguments through narrative description, etc.), this supposedly proves these evangelicals wrong in making the distinction.

Of course, that's not what evangelicals mean by the distinction. Context, not mood of the verb in the sentence or the genre through which a teaching is communicated, dictates what is prescriptive and descriptive, and the context includes the immediate, intermediate and canonical. So literary-theological arguments in narrative and proverbs are prescriptive by virtue of their immediate context, and then we have to look at whether they are applicable for all time within the canonical context, including taking the New Testament, which provides an interpretive grid for the whole, into consideration as the primary context for Christians to consider the Old. Likewise, many imperatives are descriptive for us, not prescriptive (e.g., Paul's commands to Timothy to drink a little wine, or to greet the brethren in a particular city with a kiss) by virtue of the limitations of their context. Hence, as always, context is king, and those critiquing others that use the distinction aren't really listening closely and being careful with the language. This has led, and will continue to lead, to further misunderstanding and a dismissal of evangelical critiques of poor exegesis practiced among certain people who want to interpret the Bible as absurd if all of the texts, without exception of whether they are descriptive or prescriptive for the modern Christian, were to be treated as prescription that is to be practiced today. These experiments are usually a failure, since, as many have pointed out, they fail to make the distinction that evangelicals so rightly make.

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