Descriptive or Prescriptive

This one is a bit inside baseball.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our doctrine and practice for the last 40 years or so. In conversations about what we should be doing, if you bring up our confessions (e.g. “The confessional standard is at least weekly celebration of the sacrament. Doing less does not match our confession.”) you will often hear someone say “But that is not prescriptive, it is descriptive.” And over the years I’ve heard a lot of really good explanations of why it is always both. I believed them. But this morning I woke up and realized something. The Augsburg confession is entirely descriptive, and nothing else. Nowhere does it say “You must do these things.” The entire document describes what is taught, believed, and practiced. It nowhere prescribes anything. That’s the nice thing about a voluntary confession like the Augustana. It just lays out, based on scripture, what we teach and do. We Baptize children. We commune under both kinds each week. We allow priests to marry. We teach that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, etc. There are certain practices/teaching that are also condemned by us. But we are just describing what we are doing there as well.

Usually, charges of “it’s only descriptive” are made by those who do not wish to do what it says. Those portions which do not match their own doctrine or practice are relegated to “descriptive.”

But here is the thing – the Augustana is descriptive of what Lutherans do. Insofar as you do what is described there, you are Lutheran. Insofar as you don’t, you fail to live up to your confession. You can not ignore part of it because it would be inconvenient. “But what about this thing that it says – surely you don’t do that!” And insofar as I don’t I fail in my commitment to the confession. Failure to keep private absolution, weekly celebration of the sacrament, reverent celebration of the Mass with an appropriate ordo are failures to live up to the confession that all pastors and congregations swear before the altar of God that they will uphold.

So let it be descriptive, not prescriptive. But then be honest about what you have sworn to do, and what you are actually doing.

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1 Response to Descriptive or Prescriptive

  1. Justin Walker says:

    Descriptive or prescriptive, doctrinal or not doctrinal, German version or Latin version…I see parallels in how Scripture is treated when what it says isn’t to our liking. This treatment of the Confessions can also lead to a lack of confidence in the Confessions, synod, churches, and pastors.

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