apologetics, The Bible

Description is not Prescription: A tale of interpretation

Imagine someone, let’s call him Jim, reading a chapter from a typical history book written on World War 2. In said chapter, one page says “Hitler was intent upon exterminating the Jews. The Nazis proposed a ‘final solution’ intended to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth.”

Jim stands up, indignant, and reacts to this text, “I can’t believe whoever wrote this book! They actually endorse the ‘final solution’! What evil person would dare to recommend such atrocities!?”

We would obviously be puzzled by Jim’s reaction. We would probably correct him by saying something like “Jim, the author isn’t recommending that course of action, they’re merely reporting what happened. It’s a history book. The author’s intent is not to tell you what to do, but to tell you what happened.”

Now imagine a similar scenario. This time, it’s Jessica reading the Bible. She reads that “Jephthah promised God that if he beat the Ammonites in battle he’d sacrifice the first living thing he saw at his house… He beat the ammonites and the first thing he saw was his daughter, whom he sacrificed after giving her time to grieve.” (A paraphrase of Judges 11. See my discussion of this passage here.)

Jessica immediately stands and shouts “How dare the Bible condone human sacrifice! God Himself told Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter!”

Our answer to Jessica is the same as it was to Jim: “Jessica, the Bible is reporting what happened, the author of Judges reports many horrific incidents and sins that God’s people committed, but that doesn’t mean the author is commending what happened or urging others to do likewise.”

Such reactions are similar to those of many who read the Bible. They read a passage which describes something that happened and jump to the conclusion that the Bible–or the God portrayed therein–is evil. The Bible is a collection of genres and writings from various authors, a point often overlooked by those unable–or unwilling–to fully engage the text. Yet often the Bible is merely describing what happened as opposed to prescribing something for God’s people.

Another problem is that people too often think of the Bible as being exclusively a “rulebook.” I think this really plays into the description/prescription fallacy because if the Bible were just a big rulebook, then everything in it would be taken prescriptively. Such people seem to think that every verse can be taken out of context and genre and used as a command. There isn’t much to say in answer to such people except to point out the obvious: there are different genres in the Bible, not all of it is a rulebook.

Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Geneva-bible-picture.jpg


The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation and provide a link to the original URL. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.


About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


6 thoughts on “Description is not Prescription: A tale of interpretation

  1. Thanks for this post, Joseph. I’ve been exactly these conversations for days on Twitter. (My head hurts.)

    Posted by Disciple | February 1, 2011, 8:17 PM
  2. To be fair, I think most critics of the Bible are citing reported “atrocities” which are passages where God Himself commands the destruction of a people and that the Israelites are commanded to kill even the women, children, and animals of a society.

    In these cases the record was prescriptive to the Israelite army.

    Posted by John Barron Jr. | February 1, 2011, 8:24 PM
    • I guess it depends who you mean by “most.” Most thoughtful critics focus on the passages you reference, but my experience has been that many people simply take anything in the Bible which is bad as showing the Bible itself is evil (see the folks over at Evil Bible for a wonderful example). The thought process seems to be: “The Bible said it, so it must be what God wants.” as opposed to “The Bible says it, so it is accurate/true/etc.”

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | February 2, 2011, 1:13 AM
  3. Do you know of a website that address prescription and description in depth? If one was trying to understand Jesus’ model of ministry, where would you draw the line? Or in Acts, when is what is described to be understood as prescriptive? Does it require a command?

    Posted by Tim | September 14, 2015, 10:20 AM


  1. Pingback: Jephthah, Human Sacrifice, and God: What should we make of Judges 11:29-40? « J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason" - November 30, 2011

Leave a Reply to Disciple Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,865 other subscribers


Like me on Facebook: Always Have a Reason
%d bloggers like this: