Is the book of Acts descriptive or prescriptive?


Acts tells the story of how His church began and how the message Christ spread. Christians who read the book of Acts are inspired by the explosive expansion of the early church. Thousands of people were coming to Christ, people were being miraculously healed, supernatural gifts like speaking in tongues were heard, and believers preached the gospel with boldness. Honestly, many desire this kind of outpouring of the Holy Spirit for the church today.

It is certain that Luke, a disciple of Christ, wrote the book of Acts. He writes the book as history in action,[1] particularly related to redemptive history and the spread of the message of salvation to the world.[2] Luke adds further details and personality sketches that help us understand what happened in the first century church.[3] He tells us the outcome of the story of Jesus contained in the Gospels and introduces the apostolic writings and their historical context, especially those of Paul.[4] He tells us what is happening during the early church days, but he rarely indicates what should happen today.

A Descriptive and Prescriptive View of Acts

Is the Books of Acts descriptive or prescriptive? In other words, are the facts in Acts for the church today? In Acts 6:1-6, Luke describes seven men who were chosen to wait on tables these men became the leaders of their churches. Then there are some amazing events like the extraordinary miracles God did through Paul (19:11-12), striking claims that caused people to perish (5:9-10), speaking in tongues after the filling of the Spirit (2:2-3), and so much more. Are we supposed to follow these orders within the church today? How are suppose to know if we are to follow them or not?

Much of the material in the New Testament falls into two categories: descriptive or prescriptive. Descriptive is a narration of what took place (i.e. Acts 10:45,46). Prescriptive are commands about how to live the Christian life through direct teaching on spiritual truths (i.e. 2 Timothy. 4:2; Colossians 2:9). Readers must be cautious to identify the type of passage they are reading, especially in the book of Acts. John Stott gives some great wisdom on how to deal with such texts:

What is described in Scripture as having happened to others is not necessarily intended for us, whereas what is promised to us we should appropriate, and what is commanded us we are to obey . . . What is descriptive is valuable (in determining what God intends for all Christians) only in so far as it is interpreted by what is didactic . . . We must derive our standards of belief and behavior from the teaching of the New Testament . . . rather than from the practices and experiences which it portrays.”[5]

A good principle is to interpret the descriptive in light of the prescriptive. We are not commanded to copycat what the Bible describes unless it is prescribed in direct teaching of timeless spiritual truth. In other words, we must interpret descriptions in the book of Acts in light of what the Gospels and Epistles prescribe and teach as timeless truths.[6] For example, Christians today cannot be witnesses in the same foundational sense that the apostles were (8:4; 11:19-21), but we can share in the task of testifying and witnessing Jesus’ redemptive message (1 Corinthians 15:15; 1 Thessalonians 2:10; 1 Peter 5:1; 1 John 1:2; 4:14).

The books of the Bible were written occasionally, which means they were written to particular people in particular places at particular times. Acts must be read as a history of God’s redemptive work in the early church, and only follow theological and doctrinal “patterns” that are clearly repeated and/or commanded within the text also appearing in the Gospels and Epistles. There is no one sentence of the Bible addressed to me today telling me what to do. However, this doesn’t mean they don’t apply to me today. This means that we must do theology with every book of the Bible, regardless of its descriptive or prescriptive character.

Since Acts is a narrative it is primarily descriptive telling us what the apostles did, and not necessarily prescriptive telling us what we should do.[7] There are numerous sermons in Acts, many of which record the basic message of the early church. Many of these sermons teach spiritual truth that transcends time. Just as Acts 1:8 gives a rough geographical preview of the book of Acts, so Luke gives us a preview of the theological message (Luke 24:46-49). Several sermons in Acts contain a portrayal of the gospel. These particular sermons argue that Jesus is the Messiah, that He fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, that God raised Him from the dead, and that He is the answer to Jewish and Gentile hope. These sermons are timeless truths placed within history.

Read the book of Acts Purposely

The purpose of Acts is not to serve as a model in every area of practice or experience for what individual believers or the church should do now. Acts is descriptive, not prescriptive—it is history, not law. However, there is much to learn from the experience and history of the early church. As Gordon Fee sates,

“We must not lose sight of the fact that Acts purports to narrate historical events such as: the founding and growth of the church, the career of Paul, and without Acts we would knowing nothing of the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost, Stephens martyrdom, the early Jerusalem church and how the gospel first came to the Gentiles.”[8]

What we read in Acts does serve as a model for us in areas that are mandated in the rest of the New Testament when it comes to such dogma as evangelism, missions, prayer, sacrificial giving, church leadership, ministry and more. Acts overarching purpose that the church today can take home is that we must be risk takers for the sake of Christ redemptive message.


[1] Graeme Goldworthy shares that “Acts is a highly selective history and the presentation is carefully controlled by the author’s summary statements and transitional notes. The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Intervarsity Press. Downers Grove, IL. 2000. 286.

[2] Frank Theilman. Theology of the New Testament. Zondervan Publishers, Grand Rapids, MI.  2005. 114.

[3] “Luke is probably writing in the manner of the Greek historians Xenophon and Plutarch. What this means is that a selection of the hero’s acts…, historical vignettes which set forth the hero’s character, are his major concern. The Book of Acts, then, is not a mere chronicle of events, but a portrayal of the kinds of people and kinds of things that were taking place in the early church” William H. Baker, Acts: Evangelical Commentary of the Bible, edited by Walter Elwell, page 884).

[4] Goldworthy, 290.

[5] John R. W. Stott, Baptism and Fullness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1975, pp. 15-17.

[6] Examples of interpreting the descriptive in light of the prescriptive:

Narrative: Acts 2:42 // Prescriptive:

Apostles’ teaching // Col. 3:16; 1 Pet. 2:2

Fellowship // Heb. 10:24,25

Breaking of bread // 1 Cor. 11:23-34

Prayer // Eph. 6:18; 1 Thess. 5:17

Narrative: Acts 2:43 Wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles (2 Cor. 12:12).

Prescriptive Scripture: The phrase “signs and wonders” is used in connection with the apostles and their close associates to validate the truth of their message.

Narrative: Acts 2:44,45 Those who believed were together and had all things in common. They began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.

Prescriptive Scripture: The New Testament never prescribes communal living. Rather it affirms the legitimacy of private property (1 Thess. 4:11,12; 2 Thess. 3:11,12) and teaches us to be generous (1 John 3:16,17).

[7] Gordon Fee. How to Interpret the Bible for All It’s Worth.

[8] D.A Carson. An Introduction to the New Testament. Zondervan Publishers, Grand Rapids, MI.  2005. 316-317.

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Great post, JT. Helpful hermeneutical principle! Thanks for sharing.

    1. JT Hutts says:

      Thanks Jonathan. My wife and I are currently enjoying a study of Acts. One of the questions we ask in our chapter-by-chapter study is: How is the church in Acts different or similar to the church today?

  2. Matt Brown says:

    Really appreciate this post! Best I could find on understanding the “descriptive/prescriptive” paradigm, and it didn’t leave me feeling that the application of this hermeneutic is subjective, as other posts have inadvertently implied. Thanks.

    1. JT Hutts says:

      Thanks for your encouragement Matt! Acts is an exciting book both then and now for the church.

  3. Mario López says:

    The descriptive interpretation has web challenged a lot. I Howard Marshall. Luke Historian and Theologian.

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