Logical Gal – ‘But it’s in the Bible!’

25 Mar

Polygamy in the bible

A discussion I overheard reminded me of a useful distinction, that of what is normative versus what is descriptive.  The term normative contains the concept of norms or prescribed ways of doing things.  Descriptive points to information, the way things are.

Logicians have a name for this error in reasoning, it’s called the Is-Ought Fallacy.  The thinking goes like this:

  • The way things ARE is the way they SHOULD be.

That’s just plain stupid. All one has to do is provide a counter-example.  Sex-trafficking is an unfortunate fact. Should that continue? Persecution of Christians is a fact….. genocide is a fact…bureaucratic waste is a fact.  Surely we don’t countenance those circumstances just because ‘that’s the way life is in 2015!’

An entire arena where these two concepts of what is descriptive (the way things are) versus what is normative (the way things ought to be) often gets muddled is the Bible.  Someone with an agenda of showing how the Bible is not relevant for contemporary culture might argue about one particular issue this way:

  • How come you’re so committed to marriage being a life-long covenant between one man and one woman?  Why even in the Bible some of those heroes of the faith were polygamous.  Didn’t the patriarch Abraham have multiply wives?  And what about his grandson Jacob?
  • Jesus didn’t own anything; therefore, neither should Christians!

If anything, the Bible unabashedly narrates shameful foibles, backsliding, and dysfunctional family sin.  And if that weren’t enough, we are served up accounts of evil kings and pompous religious leaders.  And on the other side, it IS true that the Bible gloriously showcases courageous acts of faith by men and women such as Gideon, Ruth, Paul and Mary as well as Jesus, the Son of God.  But does it necessarily follow that the Bible is telling us is ‘Be a Daniel, Be a Joshua, Be a Jesus’? Might the Bible through all these accounts be pointing to what God has done?  Yes, there are principles of righteous living that we can follow.  Nevertheless, we must be careful to sort out whom or what is being held up as part of the overall meta-narrative or grand story from actual commands that we are to follow.

A discerning reader will apply the correct lens when studying God’s Word.  Distinguishing whether a narrative is giving a rundown of what happened OR whether it is promoting a way of life or specific behavior is key.

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