How Do We Know If a Biblical Passage is Prescriptive or Descriptive?

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prescriptive passage of Scripture directs how we should live today. A good example is “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Jesus’ words are clear and relevant to every culture, time, and place.  

A descriptive passage describes an instruction given for a particular person, time, culture, or place, and it might not be a directive to perform that action today. One example is “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Tim. 5:23). 

How do we determine which passages are prescriptive and which are descriptive?

In Reformed circles, we ask this question: what would this have meant to the people who first heard or read it? The closer we get to that answer, the closer we get to how it applies to us today. We want to know who was writing this passage, to whom, why, in what genre, and when. We believe the more we know about the culture of the day, the more we can understand the core principle the biblical writer was addressing.  

Using the example above from 1 Timothy, we know Paul is writing a letter to encourage and instruct his mentee and friend, Timothy, who is serving in Ephesus. Paul knows Timothy well enough to give him personalized instructions on how to care for his health. Scholars of ancient culture tell us that wine was often used medicinally while water was often contaminated, so Paul’s instructions fit the relationship he has with Timothy, the context of a letter, and the best medical advice of the time.

We now know stomach issues can be caused by many things and can be healed in various ways (though usually not with wine). What we see here is a mentor caring well for his young friend—body and soul.  That’s the principle to take away. The passage demonstrates an intimacy and an attentiveness to care that can be emulated by all of us.  

Here’s another example, from Romans 14:2 (NRSV): “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” Paul isn’t insulting vegetarians in this verse. He is writing to a culture in which most of the meat available at the market was meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Some believers, not wanting to taint themselves with anything connected to pagan worship, refused to eat any meat. Because Paul’s emphasis in Romans is on God’s grace and learning to love people who have different ways of practicing Christian faith, he essentially says, “Eating meat doesn’t really matter for your salvation one way or another, but if you know people who find it offensive, don’t needlessly offend them.”  

A helpful tool for this type of Bible study is a Bible background commentary or a cultural backgrounds study Bible. These books allow us to get insight into the culture in which the passage was first written and allow us to better understand how those hearers would have first heard and implemented those words of Scripture.  

Thankfully, we never study Scripture alone. The Holy Spirit inspired the Scripture we read and is eager for us to understand it. We also are part of the church of Jesus Christ, and believers through the ages have written, taught, and preached about the passages we might find challenging. Praying for the Holy Spirit’s guidance and leaning on the saints of all times and places allows us to explore Scripture in the company of others. 

About the Author

Mary Hulst is university pastor for Calvin University and teaches at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Mich.

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