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Pursuing further the topic discussed in the Library here.

The current (as of 10-14-2014) wording for one of the off-topic close options is

Questions regarding systematic theology are off-topic. For more information, see this meta post.

I understand (and agree) that questions based in theological terminology or theological assumptions should be generally off topic (such as "bad questions" noted in this answer). Though exceptions may still occur when particular passages warrant mention of a particular interpretation of that passage that leads to a particular theological concept.

For example, I would not mind a question having a proper verse and then asking something about why that verse is considered to support the Christian idea of "Trinity" in the Godhead. While Trinity is a theological topic, if the question is anchored in a specific text, asking about the interpretation of it regarding a Trinitarian understanding, I'm fine with that (perhaps others are not).

Additionally, since some hermeneutics give more weight to systematized approaches to understanding the text, a systematic answer is (in my view) fully allowed for any question about an interpretation of a passage (assuming one can construct an argument that others can follow). That seems to be the consensus from this meta answer.

But I do not think a question should be worded such that it requires a systematic answer, because then it is either "too broad," "without a specific Bible passage," or "searching for a text" (or texts). It also assumes a hermeneutic that recognizes unity within/across the writings, which not all would assume.

I do not like the broad (and somewhat unclear) dismissal using "systematic theology" (partly because to me, every interpretation of Scripture informs one's systematic theology, so all interpretation is related to that field), yet I do understand that starting from a theological idea, especially apart from a clear text, is not where questions should begin on BH.SE.

So the discussion here is whether or not the wording should be changed for this close option, and if so, what recommendations people have for changing it.

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  • Perhaps what would help is if a list of 10 unambiguously off-topic questions and similarish 10 unambiguously on-topic questions were listed here. – curiousdannii Oct 18 '14 at 7:23
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I'd love to see it go away altogether and be replaced with the following:

Exegetical questions that don't start from the text, but rather from a preconceived idea or framework, are off topic.

I don't care if the question starts from systematic theology, physics, or theoretical underwater basket-weaving — it's off topic if it doesn't essentially begin with the text and logically connect the dots from there.

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  • The only things that might need to be refined about this answer is (1) some exception for questions regarding "preconceived ideas or frameworks" that are hermeneutical approaches are on topic, and (2) would you not consider certain theological questions more directly related to the text on topic? For instance, "Does X verse support theological concept Y?" where there is a more obvious possibility that the "idea" might be supported by the language of the text (yet not directly "start" from there)? – ScottS Oct 17 '14 at 8:50
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    @ScottS re your first point, would prefixing the word 'exegetical' resolve that issue? I think you are absolutely right and that this really isn't intended to restrict questions on hermeneutical approaches. Re your second point I think would like those sort of questions strictly restricted to those that arise naturally from the text in question, which is what I think Dan means by 'essentially' - if the OP is really only interested in the idea and is shopping around for proof texts their questions are going to be detrimental to the site in my view. – Jack Douglas Oct 17 '14 at 13:03
  • @JackDouglas: Do you mean, "Exegetical questions that don't start from the text, but rather from a preconceived idea or framework, are off topic"? Yes, I think it would be clearer than the current close request (and eliminate the issue of #1). I think I agree with your analysis of my #2. – ScottS Oct 17 '14 at 14:02
  • @ScottS yes, that's exactly what I mean, how does that grab you Dan? – Jack Douglas Oct 17 '14 at 14:53
  • @JackDouglas great edit, thanks for helping me clarify. That is definitely the spirit of what I was going for :) – Dan Oct 19 '14 at 19:06
  • And @ScottS I agree with Jack that your example #2 is 'searching for a text' (another off topic reason). – Dan Oct 19 '14 at 19:08
  • Would it really be an "exegetical" question in this case? – Jas 3.1 Dec 1 '14 at 22:11
  • @Jas3.1 true, it would technically be eisegetical - but I think where Jack is coming from is that all questions are eisegetical to an extent, so this is an in essence explanation. But I'll let Jack clarify if I've missed the boat ;) – Dan Dec 2 '14 at 5:05
  • Perhaps "interpretation" would be better than "exegesis". As it stands it sounds contradictory to me. – Jas 3.1 Dec 2 '14 at 5:12
  • @JackDouglas any input? – Dan Dec 2 '14 at 6:44
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    @Jas3.1 I'm not sure what you mean, "what does the James say about faith" is not soliciting anything other than exegesis, but it's starting from an 'idea' not a text or verse so is off-topic - that's the idea we're trying to get accross. – Jack Douglas Dec 2 '14 at 7:12
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    @majnemɪzdæn how would the mods feels about adding this as a custom close reason and keeping the other close reason? :) – Jack Douglas Dec 2 '14 at 7:13
  • apparently I can't do grammar or spelling :( – Jack Douglas Dec 2 '14 at 9:12
  • @JackDouglas Would that involve getting rid of one of the others? My impression is that we're only allowed three custom close reasons. – Susan Dec 2 '14 at 15:29
  • @Susan I think you can request another – Jack Douglas Dec 2 '14 at 17:52
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I believe this current "close option" is should stand "as-is":

Questions regarding systematic theology are off-topic. For more information, see this meta post.

Rationale:

  • We need some terminological clarity here. One helpful differentiation comes from James Barr:1

    Doctrinal2 theology states, clarifies and illuminates the faith of the church today; biblical theology concerns itself with the theology of the Bible itself.

    BH.SE deals with the latter, not the former.

  • "Systematic theology" is a discipline with its own history, framework, questions, modes of argument, and so on. At points this overlaps with biblical interpretation, but the two are not co-terminous.
  • Questions "regarding systematic theology" have a home at Christianity.SE.

Nota bene!

Handling theological issues that arise in the interpretation of texts is very much part of what we do on BH.SE. But to confuse this with "questions regarding systematic theology" (as the "close" text has it) is to commit a category mistake.


Notes

  1. J. Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective (SCM, 1999), p. 15.
  2. Barr uses "systematic" and "doctrinal" interchangeably, although the latter is his preferred terminology in this work.
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    I could agree with this if people with close vote privileges were actually understanding what it means for a question to be "regarding systematic theology," but as I noted here, that apparently is not the case, as some recent questions were being flagged multiple times with this reason that should not have been, indicating to me something needs to change with the phrasing because those voting to close do not even understand what the reason means. – ScottS Oct 15 '14 at 12:10
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    Just to clarify, it seems people with close vote privileges are using this reason if a question solicits some type of "systematic" answer. If I read your answer correctly, you would not agree with using this reason for that purpose, but if a number of higher level users are thinking of it that way, then perhaps some change of language is needed to for clarity (not necessarily changed to what I proposed, but something different). – ScottS Oct 15 '14 at 12:32
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    I've been surveying a number of theologies, and the problem is one person's definition (such as Barr) simply does not come close to resolving the term "systematic theology". Rolland McCune in volume 1 of his Systematic Theology gives his and nine other definitions (Protestant influenced; p.3-4) that all are either quite different or subtly different in important ways. So while your answer has value for the discussion (+1 theoretically), I ultimately had to downvote it (-1 actually) because I do not agree with the conclusion to leave the wording as is. – ScottS Oct 17 '14 at 8:56
  • On reflection I think ScottS is right and I'd probably DV for that reason if I hadn't already upvoted - it's a judgement call but ultimately we are always going to struggle to communicate what we really mean to our audience if we use theological terms without widespread agreement on what they mean. – Jack Douglas Oct 18 '14 at 12:01
  • Neither do I think the answer is to have our own site-specific definitions because the terms are emotive (ie folk have an emotional attachment to their own definitions and the words themselves so will not happily set that aside). If we can communicate what we all probably basically agree on regarding topicality without using theological jargon at all we have a much better solution, and that's basically what Dan has done in his answer I think. – Jack Douglas Oct 18 '14 at 12:05
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Based on these examples I suggest this close reason. Suggestions welcome!

Questions should ask how a specific passage should be understood in its own right, rather than to determine the validity of a doctrinal belief. For more information, see this meta post.

Or

Questions should be asked in order to better understand the meaning of specific passages, not how they should be applied today or to determine the validity of doctrinal beliefs. For more information, see this meta post.

Or if 'application' isn't a good word to use, then

Questions should be asked in order to better understand the meaning of specific passages, not to determine what is moral or ethical today or to determine the validity of doctrinal beliefs. For more information, see this meta post.

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  • I don't think any wording that includes words such as 'doctrinal' will work in practice - there simply isn't any consensus on what they mean in practice. Every time I dig down in a conversation with someone, I find they have a different definition to everyone else. – Jack Douglas May 13 '15 at 6:17
  • @JackDouglas I thought the problem was with systematics, not doctrinal. Removing 'doctrinal' from these suggestions doesn't really change them. – curiousdannii May 13 '15 at 6:19
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I believe it should be changed.

Under "Off-topic" change the current "systematic theology" option to this:

Questions based primarily in or about theological terminology or concepts, rather than terms from the text itself, are off topic.

This fits with the other two options that focus on differing forms of questions that lack text, but gives the more specific reason that theological terminology and concepts is not technically part of the text (helping educate the questioner), and such terms and concepts have differing definitions and presuppositions behind them, and so are off-topic. This seems to fit with the answer given in this meta question (which at present is by no means a consensus at just 3 votes).

I think "too broad" can still be used for questions seeking systematic text readings to answer them, but perhaps we may want to consider sub-options under that to further clarify. Perhaps points that address asking a question that requires too much cross Scriptural attention, too much historical background, or too much grammatical attention (i.e. any of those types of things where a "book" on those topics would be needed to address the question well).

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    I think I understand the subtle distinction you are getting at, but I think the existing definition provides more clarity for new users without actually being a problem for the occasional edge case where a more refined definition might make a difference. Do you have specific instances of closures that you thing would have been better served with this reason? – Caleb Oct 15 '14 at 7:32
  • @Caleb: It's actually a case of potential closures that should never have been flagged with this reason, as it seems that the language does not have enough "clarity" for those with vote to close privileges. This question had been flagged with 3 (if I recall) votes to close based off this reason, and... – ScottS Oct 15 '14 at 12:03
  • this question still has 2 (did have 3) for that reason. Yet neither of those are "regarding systematic theology" but rather by nature elicit some systematic answers. So people are not using the close reason appropriately to what @Davïd has noted in his answer, which indicates to me that the language is not clearly understood. – ScottS Oct 15 '14 at 12:05
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I think a change in the language would help for the reasons you've given in comments on David's post.

I suggest changing the current wording:

Questions regarding systematic theology are off-topic. For more information, see this meta post.

To:

Questions rooted in systematic theology rather than biblical theology (the theology of the Bible itself) are off-topic.

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  • Hmmm. I'm glad you see that a change is validated, but from my perspective (my brand) of sys. theo., such is also "the theology of the Bible itself" (assuming one does not mean theology about the Bible, i.e. bibliology), only collating the concepts from across all of Scripture, not just one particular book or author, which is a more common definition of "biblical theology." This is partly why I phrased my answer as I did, because it seems what we do not want are questions directly about theological concepts such as Calvinism vs. Arminianism, traducianism vs. creationism of the soul, etc. – ScottS Oct 16 '14 at 14:12
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    Additionally, I am still struggling with the link used to support not having questions of "systematic theology", because I do not see "systematic theology" in that discussion at all. (P.S. I do not equate "doctrinal" theology with "systematic" theology as @Davïd noted Barr does—for me, all theology is doctrinal, it all has something it is teaching.) – ScottS Oct 16 '14 at 14:17
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    You'd be proud (maybe). :P – Dan Oct 17 '14 at 4:29
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    @ScottS how do you feel about Dan's suggestion (see link in comment above). It is similar to my answer on a related meta question. – Jack Douglas Oct 17 '14 at 5:22
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    @majnemɪzdæn awesome! – Jack Douglas Oct 17 '14 at 5:25
  • Downvoting because that definition of 'Biblical theology' is both out of step with how I've always heard it used (progressively revealed meta-narratives often based on covenants, à la Vos and Goldsworthy) and also because it's so vague that it's meaningless. Everyone thinks their theology is the theology of the Bible! – curiousdannii Oct 18 '14 at 7:15
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    @curiousdannii On reflection, I think I agree - and would probably have DV'd David's post it links to rather than UV had I realised earlier. – Jack Douglas Oct 18 '14 at 11:51

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