Prescriptive vs Descriptive
One topic that has been on my mind recently is that of prescriptions in Scripture and descriptions in Scripture. I feel Christians can be inconsistent with saying something in the Bible is descriptive, and therefore not relevant for contemporary believers, but may hold a different view that relies heavily on descriptions in Scripture all the same. We will define prescription and description, provide an example of a descriptive issue, discuss inconsistencies in using descriptive passages, and nuance different levels of descriptive support for a position.
What, you may be wondering, do I mean by prescriptive and descriptive sections of Scripture. A prescriptive section of Scripture is a set of verses containing a command. For example, the following section of Philippians is prescriptive,
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” – Philippians 2:3-4.
Here, we are given a command to obey. This is very much binding on believers today. On the other hand, a descriptive section of Scripture contains a description of people, actions, or events which Christians are not necessarily commanded to obey. The following section of Acts 2 is descriptive,
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” – Acts 2:42-45.
In this section of Scripture, we see an incredible description of the early church, but we are never commanded to emulate this lifestyle, either in Acts or elsewhere in the New Testament. So, prescriptive sections of Scripture contain commands or exhortations we are to obey – they are prescribed to us. Whereas descriptive sections of Scripture contain descriptions of various people, actions, or events, but Christians aren’t given an exhortation or command to obey.
A descriptive issue which is likely more familiar is that of the early church described in Acts 2, quoted above. In those verses, we see an incredible description of early church life characterized by a sharing and selling of property in order to meet the needs of those in the early church. A question that periodically arises is should contemporary churches be characterized by the same? Should we be selling and sharing property to meet the needs of all those in the local church? A common response is that those verses are a descriptive section of Scripture which we are not commanded in Acts or elsewhere in the New Testament to emulate. Additionally, no other church highlighted in the Bible is described in the same way. Therefore, the Acts 2 passage serves as an example of early church life, but it isn’t a binding command for contemporary Christians to follow.
Though I do agree that descriptive sections of Scripture, on their own, aren’t necessarily binding on contemporary Christians, I do feel that reformed churches still inconsistently hold beliefs that are founded on descriptive passages. I know I hold beliefs which are at least partially dependent on descriptive passages of Scripture. A good example is that of corporate worship. There is no prescriptive section of Scripture that states worship should include “X” topic and be accompanied by “Y” instrument. However, when we look at the Psalms in the Old Testament and look at heavenly worship described in Revelation, we can see worship should be God-centered and theologically robust. Take in this description of a heavenly song in Revelation 5:
"And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,
'Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.'" – Revelation 5:8-10
Heavenly worship described in Revelation is very much God-centered and theologically robust. Consequently, I would say it’s fair for us to want worship songs sung corporately to also be God-centered and theologically robust. However, since those passages aren’t overtly prescriptive, how strongly can we hold those convictions and commend others unto the same? I would say we are justified to strongly hold those convictions given that, elsewhere in Scripture, God clearly cares how he is worshiped and related to. After God had redeemed the Israelites out of Egypt in the Exodus, he gave various commands to the Israelites, through Moses, on Mount Sinai. Some of God’s commands concerned the Israelites’ worship of him and relating to him through sacrifices. In Leviticus 10 we read a description of two sons of Aaron who attempted to offer incense to the Lord in a means other than how He prescribed:
“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” – Leviticus 10:1-2
Even earlier in the Old Testament, when Moses speaks to God at the burning bush, we see than God cares how he is approached:
“And Moses said, 'I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.' When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, 'Moses, Moses!' And he said, 'Here I am.' Then he said, ‘Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’” – Exodus 3:3-5
The above passages are just two examples showcasing that God cares how people come into His presence and relate to Him. Therefore, since corporate worship involves Christians relating to God, we should strive to do it in a way He cares for. This is where the examples of worship in Scripture are key. What better place to take cues for our own corporate worship than to see how it’s done in Scripture and particularly in heaven itself. Consequently, though the worship examples in the Bible are descriptive, they should nevertheless be informative of our own corporate worship.
I feel it is important at this point to nuance how we use descriptive passages of Scripture in informing our Christian living. Descriptive verses relating to actions, events, and roles God has shown elsewhere in Scripture a preference for the performance of, such as the discussion of worship above, should be instructive for us. Descriptive verses related to institutions or beliefs God has stated are important in the New Covenant era, such as baptism, should be instructive. The descriptive verses in Scripture I would say are non-instructive for contemporary believers are those that don’t fall into the above categories, but, rather, concern themselves with historical or cultural description.
I hope this discussion of prescriptive and descriptive sections of Scripture has proven helpful. Prescriptive verses are instructive. Descriptive verses related to actions or beliefs important in the New Covenant era are instructive, and descriptive verses concerning subjects God has shown elsewhere in Scripture he cares how they are performed are instructive. Pure historical or cultural description isn’t instructive. Let us strive to grow in wisdom and Biblical knowledge in order to better assess which category various descriptive passages fall into.