Friday, August 31, 2012

Descriptive or Prescriptive: Who Decides?

Yesterday in Bible study I learned that Christians should not attend funerals. Well, not really. We discussed Luke 9:57-62, a passage in which three men approach Jesus expressing the desire to follow him. Jesus challenges them all and clearly rebukes two of them for having a higher priority than following him, including one of them wanting to bury his father. Our study leader took our discussion in an unusual but intriguing direction by raising the question of whether Jesus' words here are descriptive or prescriptive. He argued, correctly I believe, that things written in the Bible are not all written prescriptively. Prescriptive texts tell us not only how something happened in a given context but define (prescribe) how we should live in all contexts. Descriptive texts, on the other hand, merely tell us about events in a context. We may glean principles and illustrations from them, but they are not intended to apply as a rule of life for all time.

The leader argued that the words of Jesus in this passage are to be understood descriptively, not prescriptively. He said that a prescriptive reading of this passage would preclude Christians from attending funerals because obviously Jesus is telling one man that to do so instead of following after himself would be a failure to live in discipleship. Instead, he argued, we need to look at what Jesus' words here tell us about following as his disciple. We tossed this around a bit but ran out of time before reaching any definite conclusions.

I don't know whether I agree with the idea that this text should be read descriptively. Probably it should, but I have this nagging sense that we do so because to read it prescriptively would be too difficult for us. I think that too often evangelical Americans want to read every text prescriptively. We hold too tightly to our idea of what it means to read the text literally that we end up applying things inappropriately. We would do well to better understand this distinction between prescriptive and descriptive texts.

However, this leads me to a fundamental question concerning biblical interpretation, a question that I think haunts Protestants in general: How do we determine which texts are prescriptive and which are descriptive? What authority do we appeal to in making this determination? What happens if one person or church decides that a certain text should be read one way and another person or church choose to read it the other? Who decides?

As Protestants we don't really have a good answer to this question. By denying the authority of the church, we left ourselves open to a plurality of interpretation without a way to reach consensus. This need not be a problem, except if you believe that biblical texts do have a single clear meaning that we can all arrive at through careful study of the Scriptures. I often hear appeals to the “clear meaning” of Scripture, but such appeals rarely acknowledge that Christians – and I am thinking of Christians who whole-heartedly and unreservedly affirm the authority of the Bible – often disagree over the interpretation of texts. I could point to several contemporary hot issues, but we needn't go to such lengths when we can simply point to such matters as how we understand and interpret baptism and the event referred to as the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist or Communion.

We have to either acknowledge that biblical texts can in fact be interpreted in multiple ways (without discarding the idea that some interpretations really do violence to the text) or else we have to assert that our particular interpretation is in fact THE only correct one. This seems to be the way various branches of the Church seem to go, but it doesn't seem to provide a helpful way forward.

I regret that I didn't raise this question in our study yesterday. I would have liked to hear what the other participants had to say. Perhaps I shall opportunity to come back to it next week, although we will have a different leader so the topic will seem somewhat out of context. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

No comments:

Post a Comment