the weblog of Alan Knox

What is normative?

Posted by on Sep 8, 2008 in discipleship, scripture | 16 comments

A friend in the PhD seminar in Hermeneutics is writing a paper about determining normative principles from biblical narrative in the New Testament. He is planning to use Acts 20:28-35 as a case study:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” (Acts 20:28-35 ESV)

He plans to look at various methods of determining what is normative for us today in New Testament narrative. In the above example given by Paul to the elders of the church in Ephesus, the ideas of shepherding and protecting people are usually considered to be normative, while the idea of working in order to provide support for yourselves and others is not considered to be normative. (By the way, my friend is a paid pastor, and I’m looking forward to hearing about his conclusions.)

Another passage from a few lines earlier in Acts gives another interesting example of normative principles:

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. (Acts 20:7 ESV)

In this passage, gathering on the first day of the way is usually taken as normative, while gathering in order to eat (“break bread”) is not considered normative. Also, gathering to hear a “talk” or “speech” is considered normative, while gathering for a “discussion” (the literal and more common translation of “talk”) is not considered normative.

So, when reading biblical narrative like we find in Acts and the Gospels, how do we decide what is normative and what is not normative? Furthermore, when we read passages that we consider to be more “propositional” – like we find in Paul’s letters, for instance – how do we decide what is normative and what is cultural?

These are questions in which I am very interested. In fact, I’m hoping to write a paper on this subject later in the semester – perhaps tacking the discussion surrounding the terms “descriptive” and “prescriptive”.

It seems, in general, that if someone finds a “descriptive” or “narrative” section of Scripture that aligns with what they already believe or what they already practice, then they consider it to be normative. However, if someone reads a passage that does not align with what they already believe or practice – even if that passage is in a “propositional” statement – then that passage is considered “descriptive” or “culture”. Thus, it seems – again, in general – that methods of hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) play a very small role in determining what is normative for most believers.

But, is this the way that we should approach Scripture? To be honest, I don’t know. I can tell you that I don’t like it because it is so subjective. Of course, anything that we decide will be subjective to some extent. But, I do believe there are ways to remove some subjectivity.

So, as I’m thinking about these questions, I thought that I would ask you, my readers, for your answers. How do you determine what, if anything, in a narrative passage is normative for today? How do you decide that something is either descriptive (or culture) or prescriptive?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 9-8-2008

    Hi Alan
    I think you have hit the THE key area which is fundamental to a lot of the subjects you blog about – how we DO church, what we tend to separate over, etc.
    I have been thinking about this issue for a long time and have concluded the same as you – that people decide what is ‘prescriptive’ and what is ‘descriptive’ on a ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ basis according to their preconceptions or what backs up what they want the text to say. My conclusion so far is to say that neither ‘prescriptive’ or ‘descriptive’ are entirely correct, but rather that NT practices are ‘indicative’. What do I mean? I mean that it is possible to determine the very important principles behind EVERY practice described in the NT and that Paul replicated these principles in every church he established. It may be that certain cultural outworkings may be inappropriate for us today, but we must make sure we don’t reject the underlying principle. An example – the NT chirstians obviously met in houses. Does this mean we MUST only meet in houses so as to copy what they did? Not necessarily. BUT the underlying principles include that the visble church should function like a family unit, of a size which facilitates ‘breaking bread’ and sharing meals together, with a level of inter-relationships which allow mutual edification, mutual pastoring and ‘one anothering’. That can realistically only be done within a limited sized group, typical of that which could comfortably meet in a 1st century home.
    I’m not sure if I’ve explained this very well, but I’d make a strong case for ALL NT practices to be indicative of what we should do today. Follow the NT example unless totally inappropriate, but then find a cultural expression which doesn’t lose the reasons behind the NT example.

  2. 9-8-2008

    This is how I think: In the narrative portions of scripture are important and underestimated. Narrative is a more fundamental category of the scriptures than speaches for example. The gospels (the story about Jesus) is more central than Romans (dare I say…).

    In the narrative portions, we have to find out how to evaluate what is described. I think we should do this evaluation with the help of the author/redactor of the passage and above all from themes and tendencies of the over-arching narrative. The next step is to read our world with the help of these stories. As to Luke, I think for example that community of goods is to be considered an extremely good thing, since Luke clearly describes this as the result of the gift of the Spirit, a result totally in line with the teachings Jesus gives earlier in Luke.

    As to Acts 20 this is an interesting case, and I would go along with your opinions, Alan, as to what is normative in the text.
    /Jonas Lundström

  3. 9-8-2008

    I understand that there are normative and non-normative parts of the Bible. I agree with you that we pick passages that align with our own thinking and then label them which way we want.

    The thing is, I look at the Bible and I see these huge amount of unlikely events… Daniel in the Lions den, Noah building a “ship”, David becoming king, Deborah being a judge, lame people from birth walking, leprasy healed, and so forth. People during Biblical times would have called these events ALL the will of God AND miracles. They really didn’t use the terms “normative” or “non-normative”.

    Today we are so stuck on classifying everything between those two classes that we leave out the blessings of miracles and Gods will in our lives. We turn a blind eye to what could be the will of God in todays time because we look at the Bible and say that was non-normative then, and so it can’t possibly happen, or be correct now.

    Just as the non-normatives took great faith and action in Biblical days, it takes the same thing now. Some things haven’t changed though… even from our Christian brothers we are laughed at and scoffed. For many of us, our faith doesn’t endure that… sad, but true!

  4. 9-8-2008


    I think you’re right about determining important principles and applying those to our practices. I’ve often used the same example of meeting in houses. And, many of the options that I choose when meeting with other believers is based on the principle of mutual edification. Of course, we now have to ask, “How do we determine those important principles?”


    I agree that narrative is much more important than it is usually considered. I also like the idea of comparing different sections of Scripture (i.e. “community of goods” in Acts with the teachings of Jesus). Of course, that still leaves us with a tremendous amount of narrative material that is not “backed up” by other passages.


    I agree that God often acts “outside” the norm. We can and should expect God to do this. He shows us constantly that he acts in ways that we may not expect.


  5. 9-8-2008


    In some cases I think it is possible to tell if a passage of scripture is normative or subjective, by using scripture to interpret scripture, when done in its proper context.

    I think this is just part of rightly dividing the Word. Although I realize that it doesn’t always work. Especially in the normative vs. subjective realm.


  6. 9-8-2008


    Yeah, there always has to be those cases where our methods don’t work. I wonder why that is…


  7. 9-8-2008


    Just off of the top of my head, I wonder if the Lord sometimes intends to use these circumstances to help us learn better how to follow His Spirit.

    In other circumstances I sometimes wonder if we just have a lot of leeway. In that we just cannot go outside of His will in that particular situation, so to speak.


  8. 9-9-2008

    Alan. Yeah, but my point was also that often the passage shows how the author views what is described? Is it a good thing? How good? Are their other alternatives? In the case of Acts 20 I think the best way to read this is that Luke embraces what Paul says, and therefore we should take it seriously.

  9. 9-9-2008


    I agree. I think Scripture is very important. But, Scripture is not God. We are to trust God, even, or especially, in areas or aspects of life where he has not communicated to us through Scripture.


    Yes, I agree. We can learn alot from the author’s perspective about a certain narrative event.


  10. 9-9-2008


    I agree that w need to trust Him in areas where particular aspects/situations about life are not addressed. That is what I was getting at when I said that we have to follow His Spirit.

    But, wouldn’t you say that scripture is the divine extension of who God is? Especially in light of The Gospel of John chapter 1 where he wrote that the Word was made flesh and dwelt amoung us? Also, in First John 5:6 where John once again wrote “there are three that bear record the Father the Word and the Holy Spirit?

    I’m just curious as to your thoughts?


  11. 9-9-2008


    I’m not sure what you mean by “Scripture is the divine extension of who God is”. I don’t think Jesus as the word of God equates to Scripture as the word of God. God reveals himself in many different ways. He revealed himself (and continues to reveal himself in Scripture), but like the author of Hebrews says (1:1-4), his revelation in Jesus was a completely different and unique thing.


  12. 9-9-2008


    What I was trying to say is, scripture is the sum total of all that God wanted to tell us about Himself in written form. I hope this makes more sense.

    You said,”I don’t think Jesus as the word of God equates to Scripture as the word of God”.

    Are you referring to the Logos Word vs. the Rhema Word, here?


  13. 9-9-2008


    Thanks for explaining. I usually don’t make a distinction between “logos” and “rhema”. The two are usually synonymous.


  14. 1-3-2010

    Hey Alan,

    I realize that this is a pretty old post, but I’ve recently been trying to get a handle on this whole “descriptive” and “prescriptive” issue and was wondering if you had written that paper you mentioned saying…

    “These are questions in which I am very interested. In fact, I’m hoping to write a paper on this subject later in the semester – perhaps tacking the discussion surrounding the terms “descriptive” and “prescriptive”.”

    I was simply wondering if you had come across any good sources or findings that you might share dealing with this aspect of hermeneutics and ecclesiology.


  15. 1-4-2010


    Thanks for the comment. I haven’t written a particular post on the descriptive/prescriptive dilemma. I wrote a paper on normativity in narrative, and I found there are very few good sources (in my opinion) out there. It seems that for most Christians what is prescriptive and what is merely descriptive is determined by their theological system or tradition as opposed to a hermeneutical method.


  16. 11-14-2013

    ookay-so this is THREE YEARS LATER but I wanted to see if anyone would respond to this-is it possible that all of the commands to the church and all of the narrative is simply the fruit or outworking of one grand underlying principle? The principle that Christ gave in his life, death, and resurrection. The principle of living for the other. Was Paul simply taking the truth of Christ’s life which was alive in him and in the church and applying it to everyday situations and problems? As an illustration take 1-a few containers, 2-the components of water, and 3-the form that water takes to fill its container. Allow the church to be the container and their separate cultural issues and situational issues give them their different container shape. The life principle of Christ is the structural component of the water that never changes though it might change its form. All of the rituals and commands and lifestyles that a church comes up with to find solutions to its specific issues through the life principle of Christ is the form that the water takes in order to fill the form of its specific container.
    Bad illustration? Where does this breakdown?