What should we do about questions that subtly seek application beyond the text itself by asking about the meaning of something that has a plain meaning?

For instance:

I think the distinction between a textual questions vs. a theological question is subtle in these cases, and I agree that the OP's intent plays a role. At the same time, the text in this instance is very clear. The real underlying question involves the application of this text, which is off topic (i.e. "Does it really mean what it says?"). This is evidenced by the fact that most of these questions merely attract answers that proof-text a theological concept from other Biblical texts to make a case about the text being inquired about - which is theological rather than working from the given text and explaining its 'apparent' meaning in context - without elaborating on the implications of the text for modern readers.

Luckily this is somewhat rare and most of these questions are good and can often be clarified with only slight edits (if needed at all). But this particular one and similar ones pop up on occasion and I've always been hesitant to act because the distinction is so subtle.

1 Answer 1


I'm going to disagree with you on this one, because often times "what the text appears to be saying" is not the same as "what the author was actually saying".

Example: Does this passage mean that there were an infinite number of camels?

Now the Midianites and the Amalekites and all the sons of the east were lying in the valley as numerous as locusts; and their camels were without number, as numerous as the sand on the seashore. -Judges 7:12

Example: Was the author of Acts intentionally teaching something contradictory to Jesus?

‘And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ -Acts 2:21

"Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven" -Jesus, in Matthew 7:21

Example: Does this passage mean that the earth sits on pillars?

It is God who removes the mountains, they know not how,
When He overturns them in His anger;
Who shakes the earth out of its place,
And its pillars tremble; -Job 9:5-6

The fact is, the whole reason we have this site is because "the plain and obvious meaning" is not always plain and obvious, nor is it always correct. Hermeneutics is complicated, and falling back on the classic argument for "literal" interpretation never gets you very far in an academic debate.

Conclusion: Let's be careful not to scoff at a question because the answer is obvious to us. It may not be obvious to everyone else out there.

  • Good points. And the examples I have no problems with because they are not clear - like most questions asked here. But there are subtle ones that fall in between like the one I referenced. I have no issues with the ones you mentioned being on topic.
    – Dan
    Commented Dec 7, 2013 at 7:12
  • @Dan I VTC'd the question you linked because I think it would be a better fit on Christianity.SE. However, I don't think that means 'Does [this passage] mean [what it says]?' Questions are bad here, even if the answer seems to be obvious. If the poster of the linked question had left out the "theological dilemma" the question would be fine (imo.) In fact, I might have answered "Not necessarily" because I think Jesus' intention in saying that was to exhort the hearers to forgive others, not to teach on Soteriology. (For another example, see Matt 18:9.)
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Dec 7, 2013 at 16:35
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    good points, thanks for taking the time to dialogue and help me think this through. Most of the questions I found on this site following this pattern I felt were on topic, so perhaps this is too subtle a distinction for too narrow a use case to bother putting in writing.
    – Dan
    Commented Dec 7, 2013 at 23:44
  • 1
    I found this really helpful, thanks. Some of this class of question are probably really stump the chumps but that's more to do with intent that the actual verse. I suspect we're all going to have to make a judgement call rather than have a rule on this. Commented Dec 8, 2013 at 13:07

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