Regarding: Is it possible to be unbiased when interpreting Scripture?

I voted to close as off-topic. Caleb kindly disagreed and invited a discussion here.

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    Thanks for taking the time and energy to write this up. I think I see your point of view now. I still think I disagree that it is an issue, but I'm at least see how the case could be made for off-topic. One more thing ... could you split 90% of this content out of the question and into an answer post to make the no case? Voting is a lot easier to interpret on meta when the question is one post and the for-against cases are answers. Thanks! – Caleb Jun 29 '17 at 19:05
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    Yeah, I'll do that. – user2910 Jun 29 '17 at 19:17

At first bluff I didn't see any reason at all for this to be "off topic". Having reviewed Mark's reasoning I have to admit there is some sound logic there. However I think still have to defend my original position that this question should get a pass.

Barely — it is marginal — but a pass none the less.

While it's true that you could easily substitute the Bible out of this question and replace it with something else, I don't think that makes it an invalid question for this site. Bias is a common problem to any kind of interpretation, but the flavors and manifestations of it vary by field. For example the Scifi site might deal with different biases between people relying on the book versions to interpret movie sequences. The IT security site regularly deals with issues of pragmatic analysis of specific implementations vs. purist theoretical concerns about the technologies used.

A similar question on those sites would look a bit different. Even if you could boil it's essence down to the same thing, the expertise in the specific field would bring a different flavor to the answers.

Is it possible to do a fair security audit on the code for a program without being biased by your previous experiences with the language it's written in?

Obviously you couldn't ask that on this site. Even though it's an issue experts in Biblical textual analysis and interpretation need to have thought about, they won't be as adept at applying their knowledge to a different field.

By Mark's argument, you couldn't ask that question anywhere on the network. Because the core question could be substituted for any other topic, it doesn't really belong to any field. Except maybe Philosophy ­— and honestly my experience with that site suggests anybody trying to break down what biases are involved in Biblical studies would have a hard time getting constructive responses there.

In short, while I understand the core topic is broader than Biblical Hermeneutics, I think actual experts in Biblical Studies would be able to provide answers to the question that are more applicable to the field and more useful to this site's readers than a generalized version with the field specific angle stripped out.

It's possible that the best answer will be primarily a pointer to the generalized issue, but it should also include some elements that help the reader apply the generalized issue to the specific topic. Correctly identifying the core issue is good, then translating that core issue to the specific field and giving examples specific to the Bible is exactly the kind of thing our expert answerers should be able to do. Other sites can do the same for their own field.

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    Thanks, I understand your perspective now. – user2910 Jul 2 '17 at 16:18

I think the topic is definitely on-topic.

That doesn't necessarily mean that the question is appropriate here. In addition to being on-topic, we require questions to be

  1. clear
  2. appropriately sized (not excessively broad)
  3. able to be answered with something approaching objectivity

For this question, the first two aren't a problem, but the third could be. Considering the huge range of hermeneutical approaches, is there disagreement over whether we can be unbiased?

In one sense this is a question that is always waiting for such a position to be made, in which case perhaps it should be closed. But in my experience, across the wide range of interpretive schools, even among those of a reader-response approach, I think everyone agrees that bias is a major issue, but that with care we can generally avoid it. I know of no prominent commentators who do reader-response grammatical analysis. Nor do I know of anyone who says that there can be no objective referent identifications, even if there are some cases we disagree over. So I think there is a broad consensus that bias can be avoided to a large extent when the effort is put in.

  • In this case if there is a widespread disagreement between different hermeneutical approaches as to whether an unbiased approach is even possible, wouldn't that information in itself and a quick note about the major points of the argument for and against make a fine objective answer? – Caleb Jul 3 '17 at 12:12
  • @Caleb That would depend on how much we consider questions like these to have an implicit "overview" nature to them... and how much the other answers play along too. – curiousdannii Jul 3 '17 at 15:25
  • Given the scope of expertise on this site I'm much more inclined to draw a fuzzy line between overview and non-overview questions here than I am on Christianity where I think they need to absolutely be either one way or the other. I think the topics here are more likely to sort themselves out with voting and the most useful answers will float without intervention more than they do in the softer end of things on C.SE. – Caleb Jul 3 '17 at 16:21


Questions that are Biblical in nature, and seeking hermeneutical answers, (appealing to those academic and spiritual disciplines), should be considered on topic.

Every other "standard" will (and should) change organically, over time.


As cited in the other answer, site guidelines very specifically expresses "hermeneutical approaches". Bias is certainly a hermeneutical approach, (even a valid form of "eisagesis" - especially when it comes to "Tradition").

Regardless, this community is about hermeneutics - and there are hermeneutical answers to the question.

These kinds of objections to supposed "improper questions" - to filter out "inconvenient" questions, are demonstrations of improper bias themselves - and has become very toxic in this community. These kinds of questions can easily be improved - while preserving their intent - when necessary, to better fit site guidelines. (We are getting into very weird areas of "Bias bias", vs. "Computational Bias".)

He has the right to criticize, who has the heart to help, (Abraham Lincoln).

Regardless - this site must grow "organically". As more users come, more will weigh in on what is on topic. The only thing that should be "set in stone", is that "Biblical Hermeneutics" is at the heart of each question.

Even the "guidelines" posted above are internally inconsistent, and not even coherent.

Off-Topic: "Jewish Life and Learning"; Christian Doctrine; Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew; Seriously???

So, perhaps help the OP understand those guidelines, (which do not seem consistent even to me). Although I understand the intent of the guidelines, it needs to be simplified - a lot - to actually be helpful, (and stop these endless debates).

So, what about proposing an improvement to the question instead? (Which can be done in discussion, for that question.)

  • If Mark's logic for why this should be off-topic is to be followed, there isn't any way to "fix" the question. Only a fundamentally different question would be considered topical. Either it should be closed or left open depending on how we want to define the site scope, but there isn't some band-aid that can be slapped on the current question to make it palatable. – Caleb Jul 2 '17 at 7:52
  • @caleb - I understand your opinion, but it is certainly untrue. The whole point of the comment/editing process is to improve content. What is "on-topic" changes over time. This particular question could easily be pivoted, to appeal to texts, or even begin from texts - accomplishing the same goal. – elika kohen Jul 2 '17 at 18:50
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    Not all questions should be "fixed" as you describe. In particular pivoting old established questions into some other shape to track changes in site scope is discouraged. We would close the existing one and ask a new one with the proper basis and scope—at this stage in the life cycle of a question only cosmetic changes should be made, not fundamental remakes. The question here on meta is: should this iteration of the question be closed as off topic or allowed in it's current form. – Caleb Jul 2 '17 at 18:59
  • @caleb - Many times the intent of the question is very clear, as it is here. When the intent is clear - when it is evident what underlying question is being asked - then fundamental changes should be made. I can't count the times people have changed my questions, fundamentally - but also managed to retain the intent. Regardless, if the question is Biblical in nature, and seeking a hermeneutical answer, it should be on-topic. Every other "standard" will (and should) change organically - over time. – elika kohen Jul 2 '17 at 19:18
  • Are you even reading what others are writing? The issue is not whether questions Biblical in nature should be on topic but whether this particular is even Biblical in nature. Mark suggested it is not and gave his reasons. This post doesn't even address the issue being raised. – Caleb Jul 2 '17 at 20:03
  • @caleb - Have you even read what was written in the question? "Is it possible to be unbiased when interpreting Scripture?" Setting aside any other content in the body of the question, it is impossible to interpret this as "unblblical" - as it is explicitly seeking an answer about "Scripture", and explicitly about "interpretation/hermeneutics". Look, we disagree. That's all there is to it. We can't just reinterpret the question, or reinterpret 2000 years of hermeneutic discipline, arbitrarily - to suit dogmatic/academic interpretations and definitions - which cannot be reasonably applied. – elika kohen Jul 2 '17 at 21:26

The reason I think this question is off-topic is because it does not seem to really fit any of the criteria we have for questions.

The Site Tour and Help Center provide this list of on-topic questions:

  • Interpretation of a specific Bible passage
  • Hermeneutical approaches
  • Translation of Biblical texts
  • Historical context (with regards to a particular text)
  • Source criticism

While designating the following as off-topic:

  • Jewish life & learning
  • Christian doctrine
  • arguments about whether God exists
  • the Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew languages
  • ancient history without reference to Biblical texts

These lists are not comprehensive, of course, but they give us a sense of direction for questions: exegesis of a biblical texts, a hermeneutical approach to biblical texts, criticism of biblical texts, translation of biblical texts, and the historical background for biblical texts.

All examples for on-topic questions revolve around the biblical text.

Ostensibly, the question under discussion may fall under 'hermeneutical approaches', and it is tagged as such. Yet, through the whole question only one word indicates it is a question about biblical hermeneutics.

Replace 'Scripture' in the title with 'literature', and the core question doesn't change.

If the same question could just as easily be posted on a Stack Exchange site about the Gathas, the Qur'an, the Talmud, any and all classical Greek and Roman literature, the Poetic and Prose Eddas, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Tolkien, or virtually any text, it's not a question specifically about Biblical Hermeneutics.

It is instead a question about hermeneutics as a general practice of literary criticism. (I can see it fitting well at the Academia site.)

Is it possible to be unbiased when interpreting [Any Text]?

Hermeneutics is not only concerned with the science of interpretation, but also with the philosophy of interpretation. One of the major questions under examination in modern discussions about hermeneutics is how one's presuppositions, framework, theology, biases, and agendas affect their interpretation. (To make things simple, I'll use the term "bias" to refer to all of these.)

I think everyone would agree that we all have bias. I think everyone would even agree that it is impossible to eliminate all bias. What is less clear is whether bias can be held tentatively by the interpreter so as to enable them to effectively assess an alternate perspective, and perhaps change their view as a result of this "unbiased" analysis. The technical term for this idea is "bracketing," and it basically refers to the capability to hold your view as tentative while entertaining another view, thereby enabling you to assess the relative merits of both your view and the view under examination.

So the question on the table is: Is it possible to "bracket" your bias during interpretation, enabling you to essentially approach the text in an "unbiased" manner, despite the bias that is technically present?

This is not to say it's a bad question. It is only to say that the question is only tangentially related to the topic this site is meant to focus on.

If the question is not off-topic for biblical hermeneutics, I do think it is at the very least too broad.

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