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Richard expressed a guideline for questions as follows:

Questions are on topic if they are focused on the text, rather than things to which the text may apply.... Questions that seem to be seeking to apply the Bible are off-topic.

However, he also said that the essence of his guideline is this:

Is the OP attempting to understand the Bible or apply the Bible? Application of the Bible is obviously doctrine, which we all agree is off-topic for this site.

The guideline itself was in bold font, while the essence of the guideline was reiterated in standard-weight font later in the post.

I illustrated what literally following this guideline would entail, and was informed that what most people voted for was actually the essence of the guideline, not the literal guideline itself (evidenced by Richard's examples, which I do not believe follow the guideline literally in all cases, nor the essence for that matter).

Let's Call a Duck a Duck

I don't think we are being true to the guideline itself nor the essence of it. If the OP is asking how the text applies to him/herself or his/her religious group, this is an application-of-doctrine question, plain and simple. So the reality is, we don't really follow this policy. It sounds nice, but if we logically think through what it means, we don't really follow it. So I'd like to ask for a reworded proposal that is closer to what we actually follow. It's admittedly not the direction I'd like to see for the site, but I like precise definitions and clearcut guidelines, so if nothing else I'd like to establish that. At least we're being honest at that point.

So here it goes:

Recognizing that doctrine is unavoidable, we seek questions that desire to understand the meaning of the text, even if that means applying doctrine to the OP or OP's religious group when such assumptions are inherent in the questions themselves.

However, questions should always start from a specific text and primarily be motivated by an attempt to understand the text. We recognize that at times the application of doctrine will be just as unavoidable as doctrine itself, but if the OP is primarily seeking to understand the text this will be tolerated.

Questions that begin with doctrinal assumptions about the text (all do) but primarily ask about the application of the text through a specific doctrinal lens are off topic, as are questions which seem to be primarily seeking to apply the Biblical text (rather than being primarily interested in merely understanding it).

Does that sound convoluted (and completely subjective)? That's because it is. But that's what we actually follow here. So let's clearly define it. I, on the other hand, would rather keep it simple:

Questions are on topic if they are focused on the text, rather than things to which the text may apply.... Questions that seem to be seeking to apply the Bible are off-topic.

However, if this latter guideline is our policy, then we should actually follow it.

So, what do you want? I'm open to clearer definitions. So long as they are consistent with what we actually want to practice.

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  • 1
    This is an excellent and lucid summary in my opinion. – Jack Douglas Sep 13 '13 at 17:08
  • @JackDouglas I've added voting options below as well – Dan Sep 13 '13 at 18:25
  • That's good, but I think I should add a third as I'm not sure I agree with your annotations – Jack Douglas Sep 13 '13 at 19:03
  • Regarding objectivity vs. subjectivity (I considered not saying that, and would be happy to remove them)? Or something else? – Dan Sep 13 '13 at 19:06
  • yes, that! I'd also like to have a go at a shorter summary of Option #1 if I can get you to agree it is still accurate (and maybe call it option 3 if it is not quite the status quo) – Jack Douglas Sep 13 '13 at 19:17
  • also we need to acknowledge that some Qs are on topic for different reasons, eg Qs about hermeneutical methods – Jack Douglas Sep 13 '13 at 19:20
  • @JackDouglas I made option #1 community wiki and have removed that statement from both - have at it! – Dan Sep 13 '13 at 19:21
  • Is my option basically the same or should it stand on it's own? – Jack Douglas Sep 13 '13 at 19:32
  • In my opinion, your option is essentially option #2 but not taken literally - which leads us back to the same problem. I think somehow it needs to acknowledge that the application of doctrine is acceptable in certain circumstances (and define those circumstances clearly). – Dan Sep 13 '13 at 19:36
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    I'm not a fan of equivocal and unclear guidelines. They are essentially meaningless. – Dan Sep 13 '13 at 19:43
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    conversely, we can kill the spirit of a guideline by trying to follow it to the letter – Jack Douglas Sep 14 '13 at 8:24
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    @JackDouglas yes and no, but in this case the way the guideline is currently written is clear. It's more a matter of principle. I'm just asking for a clear guideline, regardless of whether it agrees with what I'd like to see or not. Spirit vs. letter isn't the issue as much as inconsistency and confusion,m as well as the potential for abuse as the guidelines are purely subjective. – Dan Sep 14 '13 at 17:54
3

Option #3

Questions are on-topic if, in essence, they start from a text. Conversely, questions that, in essence, start from an idea/thought/doctrine/framework are off-topic even if they quote a text.

An ideal question would lend itself towards an answer that builds up from the text and the question, connecting the dots as it goes: if a question includes extended thinking based on the text, it should itself have connected the dots with the text. Huge logical/theological leaps in questions should be fixed.

By 'in essence' we mean that to a degree, the intention/motivation of the OP needs to be understood to judge topicality. This will sometimes mean we need to ask the OP for clarification of their intent or editing the question to remove unclear sections. This is primarily intended to give us leeway to close questions that really just use a loosely-related text as an excuse or springboard for a question fundamentally about ideas. In the converse case, where a question does not initially mention a text but it transpires that it was intended to be about a text, it can be put 'on hold' right away, and clarified with edits or communication with the OP.

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  • I would have the same argument with this approach that if they write in first person about a Biblical text, they are not beginning from the text. They are beginning by applying something to themselves or to their religious group. – Dan Sep 13 '13 at 19:25
  • To that I would say "perhaps". It is just one indication among several, and of course, once the intention is judged, an edit to make the intention clearer may well be very useful. – Jack Douglas Sep 13 '13 at 19:26
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    Whether they intend to or not is somewhat irrelevant - they either do or don't. The essence and intent language doesn't really advance this forward. It makes it less clear if anything. It leaves it open to highly subjective interpretation (If I like this question it stays, but if it tries to apply it in a way I don't like it is off topic). – Dan Sep 13 '13 at 19:38
  • You stated that my option #1 is lucid. Are you against clear statements? It seems you (and some other mods) like having lots of wiggle room. I'm looking for some clearcut guidelines as this will be most beneficial to new users (and some of us who have been around for awhile but see the inconsistencies - of which this option is a continuation as it is equivocal). – Dan Sep 13 '13 at 19:40
  • @Dan I've made an edit to tighten this up somewhat, but on you comment, I am leery of trying to codify too tightly and not leave room for discretion. In some cases I'd like us (ie you) to be able to give a borderline question some slack if other subjective criteria are met (eg it is likely to provoke interesting answers). In all of this I'm bearing in mind that good answers are the lifeblood of the site. – Jack Douglas Sep 14 '13 at 8:20
  • I removed my DV for this wording. I understand wanting to leave some subjectivity, and this does that nicely without being inconsistent. However, please note that the OP should connect the dots as to how they apply a Biblical text to themselves/their religion under this wording. It would be on topic this way, but they cannot merely make the presumption that a text is talking about them or their religion. They will need to connect these dots. – Dan Sep 14 '13 at 18:00
  • What is it that you object to in my wording of option #1? – Dan Sep 14 '13 at 18:09
  • Good question: I don't object to it (I upvoted) and I'm not 100% sure I'm proposing something different, but I think that's partly because it depends to a degree what you mean by 'doctrine': I think you are using the word the way I use it, but I'd rather avoid it altogether. It's also a bit verbose, probably because it tries hard to completely capture the status quo (which is always difficult: a clean new proposal always going to be shorter than the situation on the ground which has survived 'bugs' and evolved through unforeseen circumstances!) – Jack Douglas Sep 14 '13 at 18:17
  • I think we both agree that doctrine is pretty much a useless word because we all bring doctrine to our questions and answers. In my site viability post, I'm actually proposing a specific doctrinal stance that all posts would need to conform to in varying ways. But here I'm just trying to nail down how to handle application-of-doctrine questions and unjustified leaps from the text, keeping in mind that I consider applying thousands-year-old texts to oneself or one's religion to be an unjustified leap (unless it is covered in a guidelines as not being so, hence option 1). – Dan Sep 14 '13 at 19:22
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Option #1:

Recognizing that doctrine is unavoidable, we seek questions that desire to understand the meaning of the text, even if that means applying doctrine to the OP or OP's religious group when such assumptions are inherent in the questions themselves.

However, questions should always start from a specific text and primarily be motivated by an attempt to understand the text. We recognize that at times the application of doctrine will be just as unavoidable as doctrine itself, but if the OP is primarily seeking to understand the text this will be tolerated.

Questions that begin with doctrinal assumptions about the text (all do) but primarily ask about the application of the text through a specific doctrinal lens are off topic, as are questions which seem to be primarily seeking to apply the Biblical text (rather than being primarily interested in merely understanding it).

A vote for this option is a vote for the status quo.

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I would say what we mean is this: systematic theology

If you look at the well accepted answer given by blundin, you'll see that the question proposed as off topic are really questions about systematic theology. This includes application of the text. While systematic theology draws on the Bible it is a second order process in the interpretation of the Bible. Our site is aimed at the process of determining what a text means, rather than what it means for me.


I actually don't think Richard's example questions are very careful in the post you linked. His question, "Does Hebrews 6:4-6 imply that we can lose our salvation?" assumes the application of Hebrews to the modern reader. And I don't see a difference between his last pair of questions. But I think he gets his idea across.

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Option #2:

Questions are on topic if they are focused on the text, rather than things to which the text may apply.... Questions that seem to be seeking to apply the Bible are off-topic.

A vote for this option is a shift in our current trajectory. This should be followed literally if voted for.

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