Objection: Descriptive, Not Prescriptive

Objection: The NT is Descriptive, not Prescriptive

Basil Howlett, a retired Baptist pastor and lecturer at London Theological Seminary, took a book with him on holidays called Biblical Church, A Challenge to Unscriptural Traditions and Practice, but judging from the tone of his review in the April 2009 edition of the newspaper Evangelicals Now, he was none too impressed.

Some of Howlett’s criticisms were legitimate, and it is only with one of his objections to the book that we need to concern ourselves here. Howlett wrote, ‘Yet another way in which we are ‘unbiblical’ is that we have church services, led from the front. These, we are told, were ‘entirely alien to the early church’. We should have meetings as described in 1 Corinthians 14.26-40, where all present actively participate. There are serious flaws in this argument. It assumes that 1 Corinthians 14.26 is prescriptive for all churches and not just descriptive of what the Corinthians were doing. It entirely overlooks the Lord’s Day meeting described in Acts 20.7-12, where one man spoke for some time. It also gives the impression that those who sing heartily and listen avidly are not actively participating’.

Notice particularly the line about the way the book ‘assumes that 1 Cor. 14:26 is prescriptive for all churches and not just descriptive of what the Corinthians were doing’.

There are probably many Christians who have not come across this expression ‘Descriptive, not Prescriptive’, and are maybe even unsure what it is saying. However, this catchy little line is quite a commonly-used expression (particularly in academic theological circles) and is often used to voice an objection to the idea that the New Testament holds authority over certain areas of the lives of believers today.

Thus, Millard Erickson writes, ‘Attempts to develop a structure of church government that adheres to the authority of the Bible encounter difficulty at two points … (Firstly), there is no prescriptive exposition of what the government of the church is to be like comparable to, say, Paul’s elucidation of the doctrines of human sinfulness and justification by faith. The churches are not commanded to to adopt a particular form of church order … When we turn to examine the descriptive passages, we find a second problem: there is no unitary pattern’ (Christian Theology, Baker Academic, 2nd Edition, p1094, emphasis added).

Put simply, the objection is saying that the New Testament only tells us what churches of the apostolic era did. The New Testament is not laying upon us binding commands nor teaching us that we should imitate the churches of the first century.

However, this objection (particularly as expressed by Howlett) contains three serious errors:

Firstly, the last clause of 1 Cor. 14:26 is clearly prescriptive (‘let all things be done to edification’), so it is wrong to say that verse 26 is not prescriptive, for the last part of it is so, at the very least.

That being so, it is important to notice that the imperative ‘let all things be done for edification’ is integrally tied to the words immediately preceding it. What are the ‘all things’ that must ‘be for edification’, if not the use of the gifts mentioned just before? Thus, the last clause of verse 26 is an imperative that states that the gifts mentioned before are commanded (or ‘prescribed’) to be done in ways which are to be ‘for edification’.

As to the objectionable idea of multiple participants with different spiritual contributions in the church service (which verse 26 describes), the verses following verse 26 clearly indicate that two or three prophets were allowed to participate, in addition to questioning and comments weighing up what had been said. Further, there are not many Christians today who object to hymns being sung in church (v26).

So, the commands in verses 27ff codify for a participatory nature of the church service that Paul was describing in verse 26. The commands in verses 27ff legislate for multiple contributions (within limits: 2 or 3) of differing spiritual gifts, not the one-man ministry of most denominational traditions.

So, firstly, the objection is characterised by sloppy and superficial exegesis of verse 26 and the verses which follow.

Secondly, this argument is a clear contradiction of 1 Cor. 14:37, which says that instructions regarding the participatory form of church life described in the preceding verses are the commandments of the Lord:

 ‘the things I write to you are the commandments of the Lord’ (1 Cor. 14:37).

1 Cor. 14:37 governs all of the instructions from verses 26 onwards, for verse 26 is an integral part of the passage that follows and the commands in verses 27ff.

How then can a passage like 1 Cor. 14:26-40 which deals with church order be ‘descriptive not prescriptive’ if Paul says that what he has written are ‘the commandments of the Lord’? Who has the right to dismiss the commandments of the Lord delivered by an apostle in an inspired epistle of Scripture?

It would appear to be totally inappropriate to say that 1 Cor. 14:26 is not prescriptive but only descriptive. 1 Cor 14:26 is descriptive, yes, but also prescriptive in that the things that happen in the church service (as described in verse 26) are to be so done in such a way (as specified in verses 27ff, not according to our own whims, imagination or human devising) that is to edification.

The ‘descriptive, not prescriptive’ cliche invites a reply along the same lines as the Lord himself used against the Pharisees: ‘have you never even read’ what the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 14:37?

Thirdly, and perhaps most seriously, the objection has all the appearance of denying the authority of Scripture. Whilst the ‘descriptive not prescriptive’ line has a certain superficial force about it, perhaps because of its rhyme, rhythm and appearance of learning, when it is measured against the New Testament, it has the effect of undermining what the New Testament epistles tell us about church life. The fact is that numerous things in the New Testament are commanded of God’s people, many of them in relation to their church life. There may perhaps be some parts of the New Testament that are ‘descriptive, not prescriptive’, but in view of 1 Cor. 14:37, participatory church gatherings would not appear to be among them.

In Matthew 5:19, Christ said: ‘Whoever therefore breaks the least of these commandments and teaches men so shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven’. It is a serious thing to reject the commandments of God.

However, the problem goes deeper than simply denying of the ‘commandments of the Lord’ in 1 Cor. 14. This objection leaves us with no way of knowing which parts of the Bible we should take as ‘authoritative and binding’ and which parts of the Bible we can dismiss if we happen to have a distaste for them. Who gets to choose which parts of the New Testament are simply descriptive, and which parts are authoritative? If we can just pick and choose which parts of the New Testament to obey, aren’t we just making up our own religion? If we can choose to override Scriptural commandments if they don’t happen to suit our church’s traditions, why can’t we add other human traditions or philosophies to Scripture in other areas, like sexual morality, the doctrine of salvation or the nature of God? Why is the doctrine of the church the only area where we are allowed to dismiss, with a wave of the hand, the commandments of God?

In short, the objection ‘descriptive not prescriptive’ is a cancer that eats away at the authority, sufficiency and profitability of Scripture.

Perhaps some Christians do not intend to deny the authority or profitability of Scripture or the commands of the Lord Jesus when they use the line ‘descriptive not prescriptive’. But that is often the end result of the unthinking repetition of the little rhyme. What is particularly worrying about its use is the fact that when it is trotted out it encourages others to parrot it also. Certain people, instead of ‘searching the scriptures’, end up considering themselves to be theologically sophisticated because they can mindlessly repeat simplistic slogans.


4 Responses to Objection: Descriptive, Not Prescriptive

  1. I’d say that ‘descriptive not prescriptive’ is too simplified. I am thinking that things are descriptive, but also prescriptive. Prescriptive in the sense that they prescribe principles. Maybe, maybe not? Help me out with this one.

  2. Hamish Denmead says:

    The descriptive/prescriptive split is just another way to promote your version of what the bible says. It is entirely dishonest to divide the Bible up into sections and say ” we do this because it is prescriptive”, or ” we don’t do this because it is descriptive”. 2 Tim 3:16 says “all scripture is given by God”. How deceitful is the heart of man to label and then ignore parts of the Bible because it doesn’t fit with our thinking or culture. Even descriptive passages in the Bible (such as stories) have something to teach us about behaviour (prescriptive).

  3. mike allen says:

    I just googled the quote and found this blog post. While I accept the danger of using this ad nauseum, I can’t agree with calling it a cancer, either. The other danger is seeing everything as prescriptive, for example condemning the abolition of slavery as eating away at the “authority” of slaves being submissive to their masters. In light of your commentary here, one might argue that any woman speaking in church is clearly unbiblical. Obviously, there must be portions of Scripture that are in fact advisory to the culture at the time rather than eternally prescriptive.

  4. Sol says:

    Thank you Mike and Hamish for the comments.

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