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Thinking About Narrative

Posted by on Jun 22, 2010 in discipleship, scripture | 10 comments

Thinking About Narrative

There’s a huge discussion… long-running discussion… about interpreting narrative passages of Scripture like the Book of Acts. The question is: are the stories in Acts normative for the church today? This is the old descriptive vs. prescriptive discussion.

Certainly, the narrative parts of Scripture, including the Book of Acts, are descriptive. For example, in the Book of Acts, Luke describes what happened during the years following the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The fact that Acts is meant to be descriptive is rarely questioned.

But, did Luke also intend for the Book of Acts to be prescriptive? In other words, was he describing normative aspects of church life in the years following Jesus’ resurrection.

So, in reality, the descriptive vs. prescriptive question is this: Is Acts (and other narrative passages) descriptive only, or is the Book of Acts descriptive AND prescriptive.

As I’ve been thinking about this question, another set of questions came to mind:

1) If Luke only intended the Book of Acts to be descriptive, what benefit would the book be for his readers?

2) If Luke intended the Book of Acts to be descriptive and prescriptive, what benefit would the book be for his readers?


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  1. 6-22-2010


    Great questions! This has always been a struggle for me. Because as much as I want to think narratives are solely descriptive in nature, I also tend to think at the very least the authors of scripture are giving us examples (both good and bad) for us to grow in wisdom.


  2. 6-22-2010


    Great questions. These are certainly ones that are sitting at the forefront of my mind right now.

    On this issue, there almost seems to be a false dichotomy. Some people say that Acts (for example) is descriptive so we don’t have to follow what is described for church life. Others will say that it is prescriptive so we do have to follow what it indicates for the church. I wonder if there is a third option. A third option is to simply ask why we wouldn’t want to follow what is described (regardless of whether or not it is simply descriptive or is both descriptive and prescriptive). Why are we in such a rush to change what we see presented of church life in Acts? Do we really know better than they did?

  3. 6-22-2010

    Prescriptive and descriptive labels are helpful (I use them), but they can be misleading. When we talk about the Scriptures and take to heart such passages such as 2 Timothy 3:16 and 1 Corinthians 10:6, 11, we realize that in some sense all the Bible, including narratives, are relevant to us in some way. The prescriptive and descriptive categories, then, are categories of how they are relevant. In prescription we have a more-or-less straight line to application, for example, do this or don’t do that. For descriptive narratives the application more often takes an indirect line through principles and the like. Descriptive narratives are still relevant, but are relevant in different ways. Take the genealogies in 1 Chronicles 1–9 as an illustration. I would think that most everyone would say that these genealogies are descriptive. Or in other words, they are not meant to tell us how to construct a genealogy or that everyone should have a genealogy. But rather, these descriptive genealogies teach us about such things as the faithfulness of God over generations, the importance of family and community, that individual people matter to God, and perhaps even at a theological level that God is fulfilling his promise to Abraham to make his descendants a mighty nation, etc. I realize that the issues can be a bit more complicated and that things aren’t always as neat as what I have presented, but I have found this to be a helpful way of understanding the difference between description and prescription in narratives.

  4. 6-22-2010

    I’ve wrestled with a lot of things, but I’ve never given any serious consideration to the view that Acts was only descriptive of the formation of some fragile, incomplete, “primitive church,” and has nothing to offer our current highly intellectual, advanced society.

    If anything, the parallels of our day to the first century environment are startling, and if any generation ever should look to Acts for Prescription, it is ours (especially since they turned their world upside down and we’ve only managed to turn our world’s stomach).

  5. 6-22-2010

    For me, the term “descriptive,” in regard to a passage of Scripture, does not mean there is nothing practical for us as modern-day Christians to take from it. All of Scripture is useful for teaching, training, reproof, etc. In most all “descriptive” passages of Scripture, we find a record of God’s activity among human beings in certain contexts, and their response to His activity. A general rule of hermeneutics is that we have to look for the eternal principles behind the contextual specifics. This rule applies even in the case of passages normally regarded as “prescriptive,” such as the epistles. The classic example is “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” The passage in 1 Corinthians about head coverings is another that comes to mind.

    But, specifically regarding Acts, I think there is good warrant to ask if, in the case of specific incidences that are described, the context has changed in such a way as to make us question whether the responses of the people described therein should necessarily be regarded as normative for us in our particular context. If not, there is, no doubt, much prescriptive guidance we can gain from such passages. If the context has changed in this regard, though, we must be a little more careful, and look for the general principle behind the passage, along with more contextualized applications of that principle.

  6. 6-22-2010

    To me, if something is described and it demonstrates an application of a prescriptive instruction in the epistles, or from Jesus instructions, then it is an example of what I should be doing or something just like it with contextual adjustments.

    I find many people using the prescriptive / descriptive as an interpretive trick to ignore something that they would “prefer” not to have to do or to justify insisting that everyone do it. This principle does not stand alone as an interpretation quickie. Many good comments above on it’s proper use.

  7. 6-22-2010


    I’m enjoying the discussion here. The question of descriptive/prescriptive/normative is a big one. Thank you all for working through this with me.


  8. 6-23-2010

    Alan, do you think you could add “regulative” to that list to make it descriptive/prescriptive/normative/regulative? You know, the idea that we can’t do anything NOT found in scripture? I’m not advocating it, just adding it to the discussion.

  9. 6-23-2010


    I could be wrong, but I think “regulative” is a method of determining what is normative.


  10. 6-23-2010

    Hmm, you might be right.