Have you ever had a disagreement with someone over what a particular part of the Bible meant? Maybe you were talking about the meaning of an Old Testament story. Perhaps it was one of the Apostle Paul’s passages in his letters. The funny thing is that good Christians who take the Bible seriously as God’s revelation to humanity can arrive at different understandings.
The different understandings of what the Bible means does not mean that one person is a “bad” Christian and one is “good.” In fact, there are some instances where both understandings are valid – they simply represent different perspectives; different lenses through which we see things.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing a blog series called “The Bible Does NOT Mean That!” The goal is not to tell you definitively what the Bible does or does not say. The goal is to talk about how we can look at the Bible with intentionality and understanding. Since it is God’s revelation to humanity it’s not supposed to be filled with secrets locked away to all but the elite. It’s designed to guide us ALL!
The problem is that many of us are simply never taught how to read it.
So here we are – Episode 1. The buzzwords for today are prescriptive and descriptive. These words cause a lot of fights between faithful Christians.
Simply put, a prescriptive interpretive lens looks at a passage and says, “This is the way things are SUPPOSED to be.” The story prescribes the behavior or life we’re supposed to live.
A descriptive interpretive lens looks at a passage and says, “This passage simply describes how things are then.” The story is not saying how things are always supposed to be.
Let’s take an example from the Bible, shall we? Look at Gideon.
In one of the most famous stories from Gideon’s life is that blasted fleece. You’ve heard it. God told Gideon to go defend Israel and Gideon says:
“Look, if you’re gonna do what you promised, I’ll put a wool fleece out overnight. If the fleece is wet with dew tomorrow morning but the ground is dry, I’ll know that you’ll keep your promise.”
SO GOD DOES IT! But Gideon says again:
“Look, this time I’ll put out the fleece and you make the fleece dry but the ground wet with dew tomorrow morning.”
SO GOD DOES IT!
A prescriptive reading of this passage might say:
When you’re going through troubled and puzzling times and you’re not sure what God is telling you to do, throw out a fleece and seek God’s direction.
A descriptive reading might say:
Gideon’s kind of a blockhead. God has made promises, spoken to Gideon through an angel, and Gideon still is fearful and doesn’t trust God to keep his promises. Gideon should have had faith to trust what God already told him. This passage doesn’t tell us to throw out fleeces before God.
See the difference?
One of the difficulties in understanding the Bible is that it takes discernment. We need to ask: is this story/passage simply describing something to me or is it trying to tell me how I need to do things?
When we can ask that question every time we approach the Bible we come a long way in getting down to a proper understanding of the meaning of the text.
Even still, there will be times when we disagree on which lens through which we ought to read a passage. In those cases, as always, I advocate love and grace. We can disagree and still love each other. After all, we serve the same Lord.
Until next time….
p.s. If you are interested in additional reading, check out “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” by Fee and Stuart.
– Related Posts:
– The Bible Does NOT Mean That! – Episode 2