Is Acts Descriptive or Prescriptive? Here’s How to Read It For All Its Worth

Jeremy Bouma on July 15th, 2014. Tagged under ,.

Jeremy Bouma

Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) has pastored on Capitol Hill and with the Evangelical Covenant Church in Michigan. He founded THEOKLESIA, which connects the 21st century Church to the vintage Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and makes the vintage faith relevant at jeremybouma.com.

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People come to the book of Acts for a variety of reasons. Some come for history. Others for apologetics. Many, though, come seeking a model for Christian devotion and practice.

But is this latter reason even appropriate?

Does Acts describe or prescribe such diverse practices as baptism, church polity, frequency of observing the Lord’s Supper, method of choosing deacons, and selling and sharing possessions?

This is the primary question Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart address in their chapter on Acts in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, the newly revised fourth edition of this standard-bearer of evangelical biblical interpretation.

Here’s Fee and Stuart's concern:

How do the individual narratives in Acts…function as precedents for the later church, or do they? Or put another way, does the book of Acts provide information that not only describes the primitive church but speaks as a norm to the church at all times?

What they ultimately determine is “Unless Scripture explicitly tells us we must do something, what is only narratives or described does not function in a normative way.” (124)

The authors provide six hermeneutical principles for historical narratives generally and outline Luke’s intent to help us read Acts for all it's worth.

6 Hermeneutical Principles for Interpreting Acts for All Its Worth

“It is a general maxim of hermeneutics that God’s word is to be found in the intent of the Scripture. This is an especially crucial matter to the hermeneutics of the historical narratives,” (126) like the book of Acts.

Fee and Stuart helpfully outline six general principles for interpreting historical narratives in order to get at whether Luke is describing or prescribing. Their first set of principles cycle back to whether God’s word for us in any given narrative is primarily related to what it was intended to teach: (127)

  1. Determining what is normative for Christians is related primarily to what the narrative was intended to teach.
  2. What is incidental to the intent must not become primary.
  3. For historical precedent to have normative value it must be related to intent.

Furthermore, three specific principles should govern biblical precedents themselves to help determine whether a narrative in Acts functions descriptively or prescriptively: (129-130) 

  1. It is probably never valid to use an analogy based on biblical precedent to give biblical authority to present-day actions.
  2. Biblical narratives can have illustrative and ‘pattern value,’ even if it may not have been the author’s primary purpose.
  3. Regarding Christian experience and practice, biblical precedents may be considered repeatable patterns, even if they aren’t normative. But it is moot to argue all Christians must repeat the pattern or they are disobeying God’s Word.

Since almost all Christians tend to treat precedent as having some normative authority, Fee and Stuart hope these principles will help you come to grips with the hermeneutical problems in order to get at Luke’s original intent. 

Luke’s Intent for Acts: Description or Prescription?

Now onto Luke’s intent. Is he describing what the early church did or prescribing patterns for the ongoing church?

First, Fee and Stuart note the primary reason for writing was not church history, per se. Luke has little to no interest in church organization and polity. He also never explains how any local church was organization in terms of leadership. He has no interest in the biographical lives of the apostles, either. And there is no word on geographical expansion other than tracing a direct line from Jerusalem to Rome.

Second, Luke does not seem interested in fostering uniformity. For instance, when it comes to conversions several details conflict: while the gift of the Spirit and baptism accompany it, their order can be reversed; it can happen with or without the laying on of hands; it occurs with or without tongues; and surprisingly repentance is never mentioned. Likewise, the communal life of Gentile churches is never reconciled with Jerusalem, suggesting no single model of church life is established.

What then is Luke’s intent? Is he prescribing or describing. Well, both, but not in a way you might think: "much of Acts is intended by Luke to serve as a model. But the model is not so much in the specifics as in the over all picture." (119) 

The model isn’t a specific church structure or gathering day, it isn’t modes of baptism or methods of sacrament administration. It’s this:

[T]his triumphant, joyful, forward-moving expansion of the gospel into the Gentile world, empowered by the Holy Spirit and resulting in changed lives and local communities [is] God’s intent for the continuing church. (119)

What Luke is prescribing in Acts, then, was “gospeling.” That’s the precedent.

Luke’s purpose for Acts was to describe the acts of the apostolic church to encourage the ongoing church to model the larger sense of proclaiming the good news to the entire world, not by modeling specific examples.

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Jb_headshotJeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and makes the vintage faith relevant at www.jeremybouma.com.

  • Derek Greer 3 years ago

    Good insights, but I would set forth that it’s actually a little more complicated than just asking whether Acts was prescriptive or descriptive when determining whether anything we read therein should serve as a basis for church practice today.

    To explain, we must first look at Paul’s letters which most would argue comprises the bulk of explicit instruction concerning ecclesiology. In several of Paul’s letters, we find expectations of uniformity for at least some aspects of church practice beyond spreading the Gospel. Several times, Paul appeals to what the other churches are doing to buttress his teaching on certain matters (e.g. “.. as in all the churches …”). Additionally, he writes to the church at Philippi: “The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things” and to the church at Thessalonica: “Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.”

    So, there were certain practices that were intended to be uniform across all churches and the early church received a explicit command given to hold to the traditions they were taught. That is to say, the early church was given an explicit command to hold to certain practices which were themselves not taught through explicit command, but through the establishing of patterns to follow.

    So then, our task is to find out what patterns and practices were common within the early church and which of these we believe were intentional (water baptisms, meeting on the first day of the week) vs cultural (wearing togas, studying by candlelight). This is where the narrative of Acts becomes relevant. While Acts itself may not have been written prescriptively, it contains valuable information about the early formation of the church and what traditions they eventually settled around. If we conclude the commonality of what we see churches doing within Acts was the result of patterns intentionally established by the Apostles for the churches to follow then while they may not have been written prescriptively, they are prescriptive by extension.

  • Dave Kinsella 3 years ago

    I like the idea of prescriptive and descriptive and I also like Derek Greer’s point. I halfway through a course in hermeneutics using Fee’s and Stuart’s book.

    So, is what we see then a development within the Canon from less organized to more organized?

    I find it very helpful to think that Luke’s intention was different than Paul’s. his letters are written at different times during Acts, so we see Paul writing, as Derek Greer pointed out, in one of his earliest letters, his letter to the Thessalonians “Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.”

    Do we know what those traditions were? Is it valid to look to outside sources (i.e The Didache) for help? Are we still “Biblical” if we do not know what they were or are not holing to them all? Some questions I’m pondering.