As we have seen in our previous posts, the road from text to application is a bit longer than, “The Bible says it, so I must do it”. To apply the Bible a helpful distinction to make in our journey is the difference between what in the Bible is Descriptive and what is Prescriptive. Descriptive passages tell us what was done. Prescriptive passages tell us what we must do. Both of them have direct relevance for the Christian life, both must be applied, but the road to application for each one is different.
With prescriptive passages, passages that tell us what to do, the leap to application is often very simple. There is however a filter we must apply. In the words of Martin Luther,
“One must deal cleanly with the Scriptures. From the very beginning the word has come to us in various ways. It is not enough simply to look and see whether this is God’s word, whether God has said it; rather we must look and see to whom it has been spoken, whether it fits us.”
There will be more about this in the next post, but for now the importance is to recognize that the Bible DOES contain passages of scripture that clearly require a response from us. They are God’s commands and are authoritative over our life.
Much of the Bible however is not prescriptive but descriptive. Instead speaking to us about what must be done, it speaks of what has been done. This is an important distinction. Some people are swift to criticize the Bible for what it endorses when in actuality it is just recording what was done. You don’t condemn the local newspaper as immoral for reporting a murder. There is a difference between an investigative report and an editorial. This is especially important with the Bible because it is brutally honest about the people it contains. Unlike many other religious texts that seem to have successfully sterilized its heroes, the Bible recognizes the full reality of human sin; that all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God, that none are righteous.
More importantly, The descriptive passages of the Bible are not written to give us examples of how to (or even how not to) live. Genesis isn’t (just) about Abraham’s life but God’s promises. Exodus isn’t (just) about the Beginning of the Nation of Israel it is about God the Redeemer. Ruth isn’t (just) a love story its about God providing a King. Acts isn’t a manual for the church it is a record of the Gospel going forth to the ends of the earth. Once again, this doesn’t mean the descriptive passages are not to be applied, remember 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says that ALL scripture is profitable for instruction in righteousness. It does mean however, that we filter the examples of scripture through the author’s intentions.
The examples that carry the most authority in the descriptive passages of the Bible are the ones that can be shown to be close to the intentions of the author. The book of Acts will serve as a good example. How do we know when Luke is just recording what the early church did or if he is presenting a model that we should (or even must) follow? We need to look for evidence that Luke’s intention in the passage is to provide a model.
More often than not, the application of descriptive passages focuses on us rightly responding to whom it reveals God to be. Because the Bible is ultimately God’s story and revelation, our application is found in living in light of who God is and what he’s done. Sometimes the human characters of scripture provide good examples of this response (Abraham) and bad (Gideon). Really all of this is just another way of saying that you must begin with what a passage means before you can discern what it means to you. Begin with what the Author is saying and then you can clearly and safely move to the response required.