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?