Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Is and Ought

The Bible tells it like it is, and most times it tells us what we should do about it. But not always at the same time, and not always in the same place.

Much of the Old Testament record is very dispassionate; very ‘just the facts, Jack’. Sure, from time to time an inspired author offers his editorial comment, but this is a rarity. Most of the time, we are simply getting a record of what happened. Those who need to find an application to their own lives beyond the obvious must in many instances look elsewhere in scripture to do so.

To fail to note the difference between the parts of scripture that are prescriptive and those that are merely descriptive is to invite confusion.

Side by Side

Sometimes description and prescription exist side by side. For instance, Genesis 2:18-23 tells us how God resolved Adam’s solitary status by making a partner for him. That’s description, or narrative. It tells us what happened: God took a rib from Adam while he slept, fashioned it into a woman, and brought her to the man, after which Adam made a little speech. These are the historical facts.

Then, right in the context, verse 24 tells us this:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
This editorial comment by the author of Genesis is at least partially prescriptive. It tells us what ought to happen. Men should leave father and mother. Men should hold fast to their wives. We might say at bare minimum that to prioritize one’s parents over one’s wife is a violation of God’s creative purpose. Other conclusions and extrapolations about marriage might legitimately be drawn as well.

A Long Time Later

Other times certain prescriptions are absent from the original narrative, a subtlety those of us who don’t like being bludgeoned at every turn with obvious moral implications may appreciate. For instance, Genesis 2 says nothing explicit about divorce. But thousands of years later, in Matthew 19, the Lord Jesus references these same historical facts and then adds this further prescriptive statement:
“I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
This truth is, of course, implicit in the Genesis account (“a man shall … hold fast to his wife”), but hard hearts (and heads) require such things to be spelled out unequivocally. The Lord Jesus therefore accommodates.

Nothing New Under the Sun

This evident distinction between prescription and description — between narrative and editorial commentary — is not unique to scripture. It’s a distinction we normally make automatically and mostly subconsciously.

I do not pick up a detective novel and assume its author wants me to rob a bank because the villains he has created do so, or that he’s recommending I sleep with my clients just because his protagonist does, or that he’s promoting vigilante justice because that’s what occurs in his book’s closing chapter.

Still less would I read a book of secular history looking for moral guidance. Most of us understand there is a difference between “is” and “ought”.

Feigned Confusion

I trouble to point that out, because the difference between prescription and description often confuses opponents of truth (or at least causes them to feign confusion). For instance, after the disciples respond to the Lord’s teaching about divorce by saying, “If such is the case … it is better not to marry”, the Lord points out that not everyone can manage being single:
“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”
Here Jesus describes three classes of individuals who CAN manage being single. There is not a prescriptive word to be found here. This is an “is” statement, not an “ought” statement.

However, what is obvious to you and me is completely lost on the Bible’s critics. So we get reactions to the passage like this one:
“Jesus also promoted the idea that all men should castrate themselves to go to heaven. I don’t know why anyone would follow the teachings of someone who literally tells all men to cut off their privates.”
Um, wow. I’d estimate the effort required to misread a sentence so comprehensively must be positively herculean.

Promoting Castration

First, the Lord is not talking about “all men” at all. His very next sentence reads, “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it”. Some are not able to receive it, as the Lord has already made clear.

Second, there’s every indication in the context that the Lord does not intend to limit the scope of “eunuchs” to literal castrati. The subject of eunuchs has only come up because the disciples suggested it might be preferable not to marry rather than bind yourself for life to the wrong person. In this context, “eunuchs” refers to both men who are chaste through circumstances outside their control and men who are chaste by choice (and I suspect the Lord’s words apply equally to women).

Third, the words “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” have nothing to do with salvation, as even the most cursory study of soteriology reveals. The Lord is speaking of individuals who voluntarily abstain from the pleasures of marriage in order to further God’s kingdom agenda more effectively and undistractedly in this life.

But most importantly (and most obviously), the Lord is not “promoting” anything. He’s making an “is” statement, not an “ought” statement. He’s describing how things are, not telling us what he prefers.

Getting “Ought” from “Is”

On the personal level, there may well be times when it is perfectly legitimate to deduce an “ought” from an “is”, particularly when we are seeking to emulate the character of God. For example, God causes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and “sends rain on the just and on the unjust”. That’s just how God is.

Observing God’s indiscriminate kindness, righteous men and women in Old Testament times (David, for one) came to the conclusion they should emulate it. They did so long before the Lord Jesus taught the same thing prescriptively and explicitly — even recognizing that showing love to their enemies is something their heavenly Father appreciates.

Good for them. Spiritual individuals do such things voluntarily out of love and respect for God. I’d be disinclined to try to talk them out of their attempts at pleasing him even if it were possible.

On the other hand, trying to deduce rules for Christian behavior (“oughts”) from descriptive passages with the intention of imposing them on others is a fool’s errand. “Is” passages simply do not have that kind of moral force.

I don’t think they were intended to.

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