I often hear from people commenting on Romans 13, the portion concerning the civil magistrate, that this passage is descriptive and not prescriptive. This thinking is then used to justify that the civil magistrate has no obligation to enforce the (revealed) law of God. Naturally, there are several problems with this interpretation from the vantage points of basic logic, and presuppositional epistemology.
When people use this argument that Rom 13 is "descriptive", they are using that term defined as such: "factually grounded or informative rather than normative, prescriptive, or emotive." Using this definition of "descriptive" for Rom 13, it can therefore be easy to see how the conclusion can be drawn that the civil magistrate is not under any obligation to enforce the law of God ("revealed" law). If Rom 13 is simply a description without any normative obligation, then the magistrate is under no obligation to enforce the law of God.
"Prescriptive" on the other hand, is generally understood as: "acquired by, founded on, or determined by prescription or by long-standing custom." I think that this definition is generally agreed upon by all Christians. In the specific Christian context, "... determined by biblical mandate...."
A priori, those who advocate for this usage of "descriptive" automatically are using this definition to denote no normative obligation. By what basis is this usage justified? Regardless of the modern definition of the word "descriptive", the fact that one regards something as "descriptive", this does not ***necessarily*** mean that it does not entail any normative obligation.
How is this so? An analogous situation could be: Christians are loved by God. This clearly is a descriptive statement. Would not the fact that Christians are loved by God imply that we are obligated to obey His commands? Of course, it does. This is so because of what is entailed with being loved by God. However, by the "descriptive" logic, the Christian is under no obligation for anything since the "Christians are loved by God" is a descriptive statement.
Therefore, one cannot make a logical conclusion about a subject's particular normative obligation/duty on the basis of a grammatical rule. In other words, the justification that the civil magistrate has or has no duty to execute God's law cannot be logically derived by understanding a particular point of grammar concerning a descriptive statement in the Bible. One must look at what is entailed by the descriptive statement.
In other words, what must be considered in Rom 13 should be similar to what is being implied about our obligation because of our being loved by God.
What is implied by being a minister of God in the civil sense? A minister of God in the ecclesiastical sense has obligations due to his status as a minister. This should be obvious. There is a corresponding obligation for the minister of God in the "civil realm" as well. Why would a man designated as a minister of God in the ecclesiastical sense have obligations but not for a minister of God in the civil sense?
This usage of "prescriptive" vs. "descriptive" in the context of Rom 13 also breaks down because the axiom being used in this debate is the definition of "descriptive" as opposed to starting from the presupposition of ultimate authority. Taking the logic train down further, ultimately of course, the issue of authority ends up dealing with the presupposition of the (moral, logical, ultimate, epistemological, metaphysical) truth of God and its expression as revealed in Scripture.
What are the implications of the axiomatic point being a particular definition as opposed to starting with the presupposition of God?
One of the implications is that an axiom (usage of the term "descriptive") that does not properly start with God can easily be manipulated, artificially parsed to make it whatever you want it to be, because you are now **functionally** no longer referencing any subsequent premise in accordance with the standard of God's truth, but simply using that axiom as the (ultimate) basis for your subsequent arguments concerning the obligation (or lack thereof) of the civil magistrate. In other words, when Christians use this idea that Rom 13 is "descriptive", this is their automatic starting point, taking as "fact" without proof or exegesis.
While this seems like an esoteric point, it actually has enormous implications for the structural framework of this debate and it flies in the face of a consistent presuppositional epistemology. Whenever we are dealing with issues of what one is morally obligated or not obligated to do (in this case of the civil magistrate's duty), this issue ultimately must be a discussion based ultimate truth and authority, not based on a grammatical construct.
One cannot have ultimate certainty of what is (or isnt) a moral obligation or what (civil) authority exactly means when the starting point is a grammar rule and not on the presupposition of God. Therefore, when one starts with a "definition" as a presupposition, this can never provide any sort of real conclusion of what the civil magistrate's obligation is or any real conclusion on the issue of authority and moral obligation. Only when one starts with the presupposition of God can an argument have a conclusion that can be certain.
Whenever an argument is made, the entire English language is reduced to only 4 different propositions.
(1) All "A" is "B"
(2) No "A" is "B"
(3) Some "A" is "B"
(4) Some "A" is not "B".
There is a general recognition that there is a literary/grammatical form of a sentence vs. the philosophical/logical form of a sentence. For instance, the grammatical form of a proposition would be: There are no smokers. A possible logical form would be: No smokers are instantiated.
Another one could be: I doubt. The logical form would be: doubt is instantiated, or perhaps: doubt is occurring.
The point behind this is that formal logic necessitates the use of these 4 forms and these 4 forms only, when making arguments. Regardless of whether the proposition is in a grammatical or logical form, in a sense, either form can be thought of as "descriptive". The problem is that the fact that a premise is descriptive (which is what it can only be in any of the 4 forms above) this has no bearing on the actual meaning (proposition) of the premise itself. In other words, simply because something is thought to be descriptive, this in no way dictates a particular conclusion because that is not the nature of how logical argumentation actually works.
The form of the premise (one of the 4 forms) is needed in order for an argument to be valid (premise logically leading towards conclusion), but that is not what makes the argument sound (true or false). In other words, the premise in the proper format helps ensure that the mechanics and the structure of the argument are correct, but this actually has no bearing on whether the conclusion is actually **true**. Whether a conclusion is true or not is based on the truth of the premise. If you have false premises in the proper form, you will get false conclusions in the proper form.
In the Rom 13 case, the truth of whether the civil magistrate is obligated to follow the law of God cannot be based on whether the premise is "descriptive" or not (since all premises are "descriptive" when put in one of the 4 forms). The reliance on this issue of "description" does not logically entail a true conclusion, only a premise based on truth leads to a true conclusion, not on grammatical construct.
This issue of "descriptive" generally is used by those in the R2K camp when discussing Rom 13. R2K advocates will say that this Scriptural description (and to a certain extent, their general observations of what the civil magistrate is) entails absolutely no obligation (or prescription).. "Rom 13 is descriptive, and not prescriptive".
This line of reasoning is also very curious and ultimately, very arbitrary when one considers that one of the central tenets of R2K is insisting upon drawing together obligations (or oughtness) from the what is. For example,
Rom 13:1-7: Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
From this passage above, we can see that the descriptions made of the civil magistrate:
(1) Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.
(2) He is God's servant (ministers of God) for your good.
(3) He is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.
It is these descriptions that are touted simply as.... descriptions, and not prescriptions. This is rather curious since they insist that functionally we can appeal to the non-Christian to say that we can appeal to their reasoning about the world around them without referencing God. If what R2K is saying is true, then, we can derive moral obligation from simply what "is" without using the Bible... Example, R2K will say that you have a mother and father. Through "nature" they have obligation to take care of us and we as children have obligation to obey them. As far as this goes, this is true. But, epistemologically, if we dont use the Bible to them, we have no consistent basis for telling them that parents have an obligation to take care of their kids.
Yet in a blindingly obvious (yet somehow unnoticed) about-face, they are willing to say that Rom 13 is descriptive, and has no prescriptive elements.... How much sense does this make? This is rather arbitrary. They insist that these statements from Rom 13 are descriptive and carry no obligation, and yet they will describe what is in "nature" to say that there are things in the natural order that indicates what "ought" to be (obligation).
Natural law considerations
If the magistrate is obligated to enforce "natural law" and not revealed law, what exactly is the content of that natural law? Where can we have the non-Christian find it if we cannot show them the Bible? What can we use to tell us whether it is fair to let a murderer go and execute someone who steals a loaf of bread? If we cannot reference an eternal standard, how can we tell the person that is executing the bread stealer that he is wrong???
How can we bind the heart of the magistrate to let him know the content of natural law? How can we describe to him what true justice is if not for the revealed law of God? What basis do we have if not the Bible to disagree with his standard of justice?
What is the point behind all of this?
The point is that this kind of analysis of determining moral obligations can only be based on the argument and presupposition of authority given to us from God. Any other starting point can be twisted and massaged and manipulated to however we see fit. How can we derive any sense of obligation for the civil magistrate from a rule of grammar?
Being salt of the earth is a descriptive statement. However, it will take mental gymnastics of the highest order to willfully refuse to understand that there is no obligation to follow the law of God in order to be that salt of the earth. Let's be consistent in understanding Rom 13 must be understood in the same way, and that we must bring to it to bear upon the magistrate to enforce true justice based on the Bible.