Isn’t theology supposed to be prescriptive?

Welcome to The Theology Whisperer,  a series of short blog posts on theology and theological education.

 

The task of theology has to begin somewhere, and a good starting point is description – or, as I noted in my last post, the task of clarifying the content and practical implications of the Christian faith. But most of us think of theology as a prescriptive enterprise: believe this, not that; do this, not that; those people are wrong, and here’s why. You get my drift.

As we begin to clarify the content and implications of theology, it becomes increasingly hard to remain a bystander. Theology – even in its descriptive form – invites us to develop opinions, and to take sides. The same is true of philosophy, and other sciences, grounded in the norms of their respective theory and praxis. While it may appear noble to maintain a dispassionate objectivity toward the content of theology, such an approach is arguably unhelpful.

This is the case because Christian scripture has a profoundly prescriptive dimension. The Bible is best thought of as a manual rather than an encyclopedia. While there are memorable accounts of people, places, and historical events, the Bible is also replete with clear commands, instructions, and moral expectations on how to live as people of faith in the world.

It’s also vital that we analyse and evaluate descriptive passages in the Bible as the authors intended, so far as this is possible, and resist the temptation to develop doctrines from descriptions. This happens most often in sermons.

For example, I recall a memorable sermon by Irish evangelist Andy Mitchell in Brisbane in the late 1980s, based on the shipwreck narrative in Acts 27:1-44. He observed that all of the 276 people on board the ship ate the bread Paul had blessed (v. 33-36) and, despite the destruction of the ship, safely reached the shore (v. 44).

He then mounted a passionate defence of the centrality of biblical preaching in the local church, on the basis that “there was bread in the ship.” His ecclesiological conviction was right, I think, but had nothing to do with Luke’s account of Paul’s shipwreck. Indeed, the metaphor could equally imply that good biblical preaching is no guarantee of the survival of a local church; or that so long as one has access to the Bible, one can make it to heaven without the help of a church.

While descriptive theology is essential, description alone is not enough. The critical, constructive, apologetic, and moral tasks of theology provide other important contributions to theology as a discipline. All the various tasks are our servants as we explore the world of theology, seek to make sense of our faith and the faith of others, and embody the adage “faith seeking understanding.”

What resources are available to help us engage with the descriptive task of theology? First, a word of explanation. As you read these posts, you’ll notice my preference for Protestant, evangelical, and Reformed theology. These biases, along with personal taste, mean that I often refer to books with a biblical and systematic emphasis. Part of the reason for this is that

Christians were a profoundly textual people from the beginning: their access to the unique history and unique Person by whom they were saved was above all textual. The Old Testament pointed to Christ; the New Testament told of him. Christian teachers and pastors therefore gave themselves to the study of these documents, wrote commentaries on them, and sought to commend and defend them.[1]

There are many other fine theological resources that take different approaches, and I encourage wide and critical reading. That said, here are five I recommend:

    • Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1981). Biblical basics on the source, nature and expression of the Christian life, by a pastor-theologian.
    • John H. Leith, Basic Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993). Another pastor-theologian, Leith defends the authenticity of the biblical message and shows how it speaks to “the facts of the world and of human life.”
    • Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (1963; trans. from the German by Grover Foley; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979). A pithy explanation of Christian faith by one of the towering theological intellects of the twentieth century.
    • Tremper Longman III & Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament (2nd edn; Nottingham: Apollos, 2007). An account of the historical background, literary analysis, and theological message of each OT book. See especially pp. 34-37.
    • D. A. Carson & Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005). Like the previous title, with a brief summary of recent studies on each NT book and the contribution of each to the canon. See especially pp. 23-76.

This post was written by Rod Benson. Leave a comment in the box below, or email theologywhisperer@gmail.com 


References

[1] D. A. Carson & Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (2nd edn; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 38.

Image source: Christianity Today

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