Prescriptive vs. Descriptive

In this post, I’d like to look at one simple distinction that must be made when we are interpreting the Bible. It’s essential to understand the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive texts. I found a very helpful description from a site called Is My Bible Reliable? Here it is:
“Descriptive literature is that which describes what happened.
Narrative literature is basically descriptive. It is telling what happened, but not necessarily telling readers that they should do everything in the same manner.
Prescriptive literature commands the reader to a course of action.
Prescriptive literature instructs the reader to do something, to act in such and such a way. Prescriptive writing is characterized by lots of imperatives, i.e., commands.”
In other words…
Descriptive = “what happened.”
Prescriptive = “what to do.”
For example, let’s look at Judges 3:12-30. In this portion of Israel’s history—after they had wandered from God—Eglon the king of Moab had been ruling over Israel for 14 years (Jdg 3:13-14). Israel cries out to God so the Lord sends a Judge named Ehud to save them (Jdg 3:15). So, let’s look at a passage and see if it’s descriptive or prescriptive:
And Ehud came to [Eglon] as he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber. And Ehud said, “I have a message from God for you.” And [Eglon] arose from his seat. And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into [Eglon’s] belly. (Jdg 3:20-21)
Ehud brings a pointed message to Eglon.
So we have two options here; either
  1. This text is prescriptive and God commands all Christians to stab unrighteous people in the stomach. Or…
  2. This text is descriptive and this chapter of the Bible is telling us about a cycle of sin, repentance, and God’s faithful deliverance in the history of Israel.
This should be a no-brainer.
Here’s another one:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Ro 12:1-2, NIV84)
Once again, this should be an easy one. This one is prescriptive and it tells us that, in light of the love of God, we should live our lives for God. We should stop imitating the world around us and transform our minds so that we want the things that God wants.
This descriptive vs. prescriptive distinction may seem like a no-brainer, but I’ve heard pastors (even mega-church pastors) who have forgotten this difference. For example, once a friend of mine was asking a pastor how to balance his Air Force career obligations (specifically studying for promotion testing) with his desire to be involved in church. The pastor explained to him that his job was to fill the jars with water, and it was God’s job to turn the water into wine (John 2:7-10). Now, that might sound nice, but is the Gospel account of Jesus’ first miracle really about how we’re supposed to balance the different aspects of our lives? Is it a prescriptive account that serves as an allegory for how we bring the water to God and He turns it to wine? No. In fact, all of John 2 is descriptive.
So, be careful not to read into a verse of passage what isn’t there.
The other challenge is to dismissively make everything descriptive. There are many passages in the Bible that are prescriptive that I wish were descriptive. We can’t read Matthew 6:24 and just say it’s a descriptive text. It’s not descriptive; Jesus is really saying that we can’t serve both God and money. If you write everything off as descriptive and claim the Bible doesn’t challenge you to repent or grow, then you’re very clearly deceiving yourself.
So I guess the best way I can summarize this post is as follows:  If you’re never being challenged to grow, you’re making everything descriptive; if you’re being challenged to stab someone in the stomach until the dung falls out, you’re making everything prescriptive. Somewhere, in the middle, is where sweetness and light dwell.
  • Hamish Denmead

    The descriptive/prescriptive distinction is often not very helpful. When reading passages
    it sets us up for deception by creating these two categories which may or may not exist. It can be used to ignore obedience to the Word of God by creating an artificial split which the writers may not have intended. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” 2 Tim 3:16. The descriptive/prescriptive distinction is unnecessary.

    • daniel

      Hamish, you seem to have some pretty strong thoughts about the prescriptive vs. descriptive distinction. I can’t help but disagree with you. For example, when you read the account of Lot’s daughter’s getting him drunk and then getting pregnant from him, how else would you distinguish between what is normative for a community of faith and what is simply describing something that happened? It seems pretty clear that the author DID intended for there to be a pretty clear distinction between different literary genres. When we read the letters of Paul, those are primarily prescriptive and I think it’s pretty obvious that they are intended to be read as such. When we read some of the narrative portions of the Bible, such as Jesus cursing a fig tree, we need to be certain that we aren’t just reading everything as though all of it is intended to be imitated by us. For example, Jesus claims to be God; should we then imitate His example? Of course not.

      The verse you quoted says that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” Just from this verse alone, we find that Scripture has four potential uses: teaching, reproof, correction, and training. I would guess that much of the descriptive parts of Scripture fall into the first category.

      You do raise one area of concern, and that is ignoring obedience to the Word of God. I think that I’ve seen more people try to discredit the Bible because they DON’T know the difference between descriptive and prescriptive texts than the other way around. People who fail to make this distinction are the ones who say that the Bible encourages slavery, polygamy, genocide, etc. They read all those as prescriptive and thus think they have no reason to obey any of the Bible. If there is not a difference between descriptive and prescriptive, how would you answer the accusation that the Bible teaching genocide, slavery, and polygamy?

  • Janne

    Would you kindly instruct me, how do you comply with this obviously prescriptive verse:

    “But you, dear friends, must continue to build yourselves up on your most holy faith. Pray in the Holy Spirit,”

    So is praying in the Holy Spirit different than praying with your understanding/mind? How do you pray in the Holy Spirit yourself?

  • Cyndi

    I want to thank the person for this wonderful article, but can’t find their name. I didn’t have to re-read it like so many poorly (and not to the point) articles–he/she made it wonderfully easy to understand with great examples. I love the short mind tool to help remember Descriptive: What Happened Prescriptive: What to do.

  • Wildcat

    Excellent blog its so difficult for the fundamentalist, KJV only crowd that I was raised in to understand exegesis because these cults one of which I’ve been delivered discourage any thoughtful or educated approach to biblical understanding. After all, Pastor so-and-so who lives in the three-million dollar mansion has a special anointing and understanding that we can only receive if we are loyal sycophants!! I think that’s why most Christian cults are so opposed to modern translations they don’t want their followers to actually be able to understand what they reading. Blessings.