Description Versus Prescription

Not everything described in the Bible is being prescribed:

To properly understand and apply the Word of God to our lives, we need to be aware of the basic rules of biblical interpretation. These include things like: reading a passage in context; comparing Scripture with Scripture; being aware of various genres; knowing when figures of speech and the like are being used. See more on these basics here: billmuehlenberg.com/2019/07/14/general-principles-of-biblical-interpretation/

Another important principle worth keeping in mind is that description does not always equal prescription. That is, just because the Bible describes something does not necessarily mean that it approves of it and is prescribing it for others. There are plenty of things we have descriptions of in Scripture that clearly are NOT meant to be emulated, copied, followed or pursued.

Just the opposite: we read about certain things, activities and the like and they certainly are wrong, and we are not to go and do likewise. For example, we have a detailed description of David committing adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah. That was of course sinful and not something any of us should do.

Or take another example of this. Often in the Old Testament we read about great men of God who had more than one wife. So is polygamy fully acceptable for believers today? Um, no. Again, we often find descriptions of this sort of behaviour, but they are hardly ringing endorsements of it. But see more on this matter here: billmuehlenberg.com/2011/12/19/polygamy-and-scripture/

We have plenty of such activities described in the Bible. We have the accounts of the terrible actions committed in Sodom, of various Israelite kings worshipping pagan gods, of Peter denying Jesus, and of Judas betraying Jesus, and so on. The fact that the Bible discusses such matters is not meant to spur us on to go and follow suit.

And there are some other things that may not be wrong in themselves, but just because some biblical character does them does not mean we can or should. Not everything that might be morally neutral that is described in the Bible is meant to serve as a template for us to go and do likewise.

For example, in Acts 28:1-6 we read about how a viper bit and hung on to the hand of the Apostle Paul. But he shook it off and suffered no ill effects. That was a description, not a prescription. We need to take caution when around snakes – especially poisonous ones. As to a related passage about picking up snakes and drinking poison, see my remarks here: billmuehlenberg.com/2012/06/02/difficult-bible-passages-mark-1617-18/

Consider another such thing that I just read about again in my daily reading. We find this in 2 Kings 14:20-21: “Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.”

That is a description of some miraculous occurrence (one of many) associated with Elisha the prophet. It seems to have been a one-off activity. It was not the norm, and was not in any way discussed so that we would seek to do the same. And yet that is exactly what some Christians have done today. They have held this up as some sort of example to follow.

Thus we have what has been called grave sucking or grave soaking. It is also sometimes called mantle grabbing. It is a feature of some hyper-charismatic groups and it involves this: Christians will lie on or hug the grave of some departed Christian in the hopes of getting their power or their anointing or whatever. They think they will receive spiritual power and/or giftings by just lying on these graves.

This is foolish for so many reasons. First of all, as already stated, this was a description of a unique activity – it was NOT a prescription for all believers to follow. And obviously if we want the Holy Spirit and his empowering, we get it not from dead saints but from the Holy Spirit himself.

And of course the biblical warnings about necromancy (communicating with the dead) and the like also arise here. Recall the sin of King Saul as he tried to make contact with a departed saint as recorded in 1 Samuel 28. This is something clearly condemned in Scripture. See more on this episode here: billmuehlenberg.com/2014/04/03/difficult-bible-passages-1-samuel-28/

Indeed, there are numerous such activities described in the Bible, but they are certainly not prescribed. See this piece for example on the dangers of the occult and various New Age practices: billmuehlenberg.com/2022/01/08/the-bible-and-witchcraft/

Grave sucking is simply cultic. There is no biblical warrant nor command for it. It is something we read about once and once only in the Bible, and it was never meant to serve as a template for all believers for all times. Thankfully numerous Pentecostal and charismatic leaders and organisations have distanced themselves from such practices and teachings, if not condemned them outright.

So we need to learn the difference between biblical descriptions and biblical prescriptions. If we do not learn this lesson, we will open ourselves up to all sorts of foolish, dangerous and cultic outcomes. As one humorous but serious example (in regard to getting divine guidance by just opening the Bible, putting down your finger, and following whatever you find), consider what I wrote elsewhere:

A person tried this method and came up with Matt. 27:5: “Judas went out and hanged himself”. A bit troubled, he tried again, and got this: Luke 10:37: “go and do likewise”. Now he was really rattled, so he did it one more time, only to get this: John 13:27: “and what thou doest, do quickly”! billmuehlenberg.com/2011/05/20/on-finding-god%e2%80%99s-will-part-two/

We all need to be good students of the Word of God. And that involves learning the basics of hermeneutics, or biblical interpretation. And that includes learning to discern when Scripture is simply discussing and describing something, or when it is commanding and prescribing something.

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4 Replies to “Description Versus Prescription”

  1. Thanks Bill, there is certainly some cultic religion going on in Christian circles. I am finding what appears to be a competition going on about perceived spirituality or perceived righteousness. I can easily think of five examples in my own circle;

    A misplaced fondness for things Jewish and this can be seen in those who put great weight on celebrating the feasts of Israel. Now the feast of Israel can teach us much about Jesus, our relationship to God, and perhaps the prophetic, but going the further step and insisting that the feasts be “literally” celebrated is a step too far.

    Similarly there are quite a few people who love saying “Yeshua” e.g. in their prayers, and even though I haven’t asked them, I suspect there is a search for some extra power or integrity in it.

    There is also a fetish about ‘the blood’. We should all agree that the shedding of the blood of Jesus is a supremely powerful spiritual, theological and legal action and symbol. “..without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins”. The fetish is displayed by those wanting to anoint or cover everything with the blood. But even though we are a kingdom of priests we are not required to follow the OT commands about such.

    Just now that we have finished celebrating “Easter”, there are those who choose not to join with their church at this time because of the perceived links to pagan religions, cultures, and timings.

    Then the hoary chestnut; “follow the money” – the discussion about ‘Christian tithing’, which rightly has been discussed in many places. No need to discuss it here except to tell the story that I went to two Christian conferences probably only a few months apart where one speaker spoke at length about how we are cursed if we tithe, and another spoke at length about how we are cursed if we don’t tithe. Both had their scriptures lined up of course.

    It is too easy to be tempted into religious observance which goes beyond a means of grace into a law to be observed.

  2. Hi Bill- You probably know this but didn’t say it, but the story of Elisha is probably where the Roman Catholic belief in the power of relics comes from. At least I’ve heard one Catholic theologian make that claim.

  3. Hi Edgar,
    For Catholics (of which I am one), the story of Elisha is an example rather than a reason for our veneration of relics. Another thing to add is that we do not believe that relics have power of their own; all power comes from God.

    Bill, your comment above (“…that is another reason…”) seems to be saying you must avoid such practices in case you become Catholic! Probably you mean you must avoid practices that do not appear to be Biblical. As to the article, I agree with it, and thanks for writing it.

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