Posted by: Johnold Strey | July 8, 2008

Descriptive and Prescriptive

Some recent incidents, conversations, and observations have led me to appreciate even more than before how important it is to interpret the Bible correctly. I’m not going to talk about the specific incidents that have brought this thought to my mind, but I do want to use these incidents as a springboard to talk about one very important principle for proper biblical interpretation.

If the top three rules in real estate are “location, location, location,” then the time three rules of biblical interpretation need to be “context, context, context” (which is really just another way of saying, “location, location, location”). Don’t rip a verse out of its context so that it says something it was never meant to say. At the same rate, don’t ignore the context of the verse so that someone is led to think that it’s not saying what it actually is saying.

One important factor for keeping a verse in its context is whether or not you are reading a descriptive section or a prescriptive section. This is often the key for determining a verse’s proper meaning. A descriptive section of Scripture tells you what happened in a particular circumstance, but it doesn’t make any sort of command or exhortation to the reader. A prescriptive section of Scripture makes a general principle, command, or exhortation to the reader. Perhaps someone may want to sharpen the definitions I’ve given here, but permit a few examples that will clarify the concept.

In 2 Samuel, as the ark of of the covenant is brought back into Jerusalem, “David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might, while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets” (2 Samuel 6:14-15). I’ve heard people use this verse as a sort of divine stamp of approval on dancing in church. But all the verse does is tell us what David did (which, by the way, caused a pretty big marriage argument, cf. 2 Samuel 6:16-23!). It doesn’t suggest that we should do the same today. It doesn’t forbid it, either. It’s really a cultural question (cultural, but not pop culture). In Africa, dancing in worship is considered normal and culturally respectful; it is ritual dance. But no one can convince me that importing a Saturday night social dancing style into Sunday morning worship is the same thing as what David may have done centuries ago or what Africans do today. When someone tries to take the 2 Samuel 6 reference, a descriptive verse, and use it almost as if it’s a prescriptive, “It’s okay to dance in church” statement, they’re missing the fact that this is not some sort of command to follow, nor a statement of God’s permission, but only an account of what happened.

The civil law given to Israel called for use of the death penalty far more liberally than it is used today. That’s descriptive; we don’t have to set up our civil government and laws that way. The kosher laws given to Israel forbade certain types of foods; we don’t have to follow that, and most Christians realize that. The Sabbath Day was given as a worship and rest day for Israel; the New Testament specifically tells us that this is not an issue anymore for Christians (Colossians 2:16-17). Paul told the Corinthians that women should wear head coverings in their worship assemblies as an expression that they acknowledged God’s different roles for men and women. Yet there aren’t too many Christians today who require that practice, because we realize that Paul was speaking about a custom that was particular to Corinth (“If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” – a slightly better rendering than the NIV for 1 Corinthians 11:16). There was a prescriptive issue behind the descriptive command, that of God’s intent for the genders. But the custom of women wearing head coverings was the unique way in which the Corinthians showed that they acknowledged God’s design.

Then there are prescriptive statements in Scripture. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). From the larger context of the New Testament, it is clear that there was no “sunset clause” in this command after the apostles died. The Scriptures’ repeated encouragements toward teaching, baptism, and evangelizing show that Jesus’ Great Commission is a prescriptive exhortation. The same can be said for the Lord’s Supper. “Do this…in remembrance of me.” 1 Corinthians 11 makes it clear that Jesus’ command was not just to the disciples in the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday, but to the whole church for all times and places. It is not only descriptive but also prescriptive. Proponents of homosexuality suggest that the Bible’s prohibition against such behavior was due to the fact that it was connected to idolatrous, pagan practices. While that may have been the case in some situations, the all-encompassing statements of Romans 1:24ff. don’t give any indication that the Bible’s prohibition against homosexuality is limited for a particular time and place.

I’ve given examples that are quite varied here – everything from dancing to eating to the church’s mission to human sexuality. The thread that brings all these topics together is the descriptive vs. prescriptive discussion. Perhaps this discussion seems a bit theoretical at this point. I have specifically chosen examples that do not relate to the previous incidents that brought this issue to mind for me. But if you understand the principle here and keep it in mind as you read through Scripture, you’ll find this distinction helpful for understanding the Bible and for not misinterpreting it.

Finally, if this subject interests you, here’s a link for a book with further reading:

“Biblical Interpretation: The Only Right Way” by David P. Kuske

May the Holy Spirit bless and guide your study of his Word!



  1. So I’m assuming you still haven’t converted your narthex into a mosh pit? You are soooo Lutheran 🙂
    But real question is, how do you define what commands are “passing” and which have a “sunset clause”? For example, why are the OT ceremonial laws obsolete, but the ten commandments not, when the NT makes no such distinction between the two (you’d think they’d have been very concerned with this)?

  2. This is a response to “westendorf7″ (who, for blog readers not “in the know,” is a friend of my wife)…

    No mosh pits. No praise band. No head banging (except those who bang their heads against the law). To tweak and paraphrase an old car commercial, “This is your grandfather’s church.” We just gave it a paint job (literally and metaphorically).

    Your question is good, and others are probably thinking the same thing. But I don’t define the criteria. Scripture does, e.g. Colossians 2 and Galatians 3 & 5. In fact, the whole law, including the moral law, is kept and fulfilled in Christ. But the essential content of the moral law (summarized in the Ten Commandments) is repeated throughout the New Testament (e.g. Mt. 19:18, Rom. 13:8-10, Gal. 5:19). More on that in a moment.

    One has to be careful not to say too much. For example, the Sabbath laws (Third Commandment) were intended with an Old Testament foreshadowing purpose in mind (Col. 2:17). The command to gather for worship is there (Heb. 10:25), but days and particular rituals are not prescribed (Col. 2:16). So even the Third Commandment is not repeated exactly the same in the New Testament.

    Sometimes people can be a little confused when, in an attempt to simplify things, pastors or teachers say that the civil and ceremonial laws are not applicable in the New Testament, but the moral laws (Ten Commandments) still apply. That is true in a sense, but in another sense it’s a slight oversimplification. A pastor might teach his youth Catechism class that way, because he may feel that explaining the specific details would go over the heads of his students. When he teaches his adult Bible classes, he’ll need to clarify the simpler explanation that he offered in youth Catechism class.

    And here’s the clarification. Jesus really fulfilled the whole law (cf. Galatians 3:23-25 and NIV footnote, which deserves an entire essay unto itself), and this fulfillment of the whole law does not distinguish between moral, civil, and ceremonial. The essential content of the moral law is repeated throughout the New Testament, and that’s why the distinction between different types of Old Testament laws are often made.

    It would be more precise to say that Jesus fulfilled the whole law, and that the content of the moral law is repeated in the New Testament as God’s will for all people of all times. But for simplicity’s sake, it is often said that the civil and ceremonial laws don’t apply anymore, but the moral law does.

    Clear as mud?

  3. So why not teach the commands “repeated” in the NT rather than the Ten Commandments, and avoid the confusion? Why does Luther’s Small Catechism begin with the Ten Commandments rather than the Sermon on the Mount? The NT commands go so far above and beyond those in the OT (as the New Covenant is so far above and beyond the Old Covenant), and Paul is so hard on those that put themselves back under the Law, that it’s surprising Christians still teach that way, “simpler” though it may seem.

  4. The Ten Commandments provide a nice, simple, concise summary of the moral law. It really is an easy way to teach the law. Having kids memorize the Ten Commandments with short explanations that draw thoughts from other related Bible verses together (which Luther’s Small Catechism does) is a much easier way to teach children than trying to explain all the linguistic and cultural nuances in the Sermon on the Mount. And while I can’t speak for all Lutheran pastors, I know that when I teach the Ten Commandments, I always do so with a wide variety of additional Bible verses, not just the Decalogue. So, for example, when I teach the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not murder,” I not only cover murder, but also physical harm, abuse, abortion, hatred, the death penalty, etc. The commandment becomes the springboard to cover all related moral commands.

    I’m not so sure I’m comfortable saying that NT (New Testament) commands go above and beyond the OT (Old Testament). The same high standards of the NT are in the OT, but most Christians have more acquaintance with the overall content of the NT than the OT. As a result, we’re may not always be aware of the equally high standards throughout the latter as we are of the former.


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