This is in response to an attempt I made at an edit and discussion that ensued, which in turn lead to a Meta question. We know that this site focuses on meaning of the text, and stops short of application. It appears there is a generally accepted understanding that we will seek to avoid questions that pertain to applying the text and that the bottom line is whether intent of the questioner to understand the text.. That seems notably subjective. Can we agree upon some guidelines as to what constitutes applying the text?

  • Those are clear and helpful. Dan has been endeavoring to demonstrate that the question I suggest--"What textual/contextual indications of do we have to determine if Hades in, Luke 16:19-31, is literal or figurative?"--is off topic. I am just not seeing it. I am wondering if I am missing something, or if Dan's perspective does not reflect that of the forum. – user2027 Jan 31 '14 at 15:39

I've been giving this a little thought, and it is a difficult question. But some word-pairs started forming, and they seemed to provide a helpful diagnostic. I'm not sure how helpful this will be but ... FWIW, then (n.b. ALL of these assume textually-based questions -- that's a given):

|       On-topic        |       Off-topic       |
| - what the text meant | - what the text means |
| - text production     | - text consumption    |
| - descriptive         | - prescriptive        |

(1) Meant/Means: This is, of course Krister Stendahl's (in)famous distinction that has been much discussed and criticized, and each of my three word-pairs relates to it. Essentially, though, as a diagnostic tool, if any given Q&A is attending to the linguistic, literary, or theological dimensions of the text as it was understood by its authors and reading community in antiquity (what it "meant", past tense), we'll be on safe ground.

(2) Production/Consumption: This might simply be another way of saying (1), but this shifts the perspective from "meaning" (as in (1)), to the activity around or processes in the text. If the Q&A is orientated towards processes and actions of textual "production" (authorship, editing, transmission), rather than "consumption", i.e., the text's use and adoption by recent or contemporary reading communities, then we'll be on safe ground.1

(3) Descriptive/Prescriptive: This is sometime stated in terms of "descriptive" versus "normative", especially in Brevard Childs's well-known essay on theological commentary. If something is being prescribed for readers of BH.SE, or if the Q&A in some measure is implying norms binding on readers here ... that's a problem. On the other hand, if a Q&A is describing the linguistic, literary, or theological dimensions of the text as it was understood by its authors and reading community in antiquity, then we'll be on safe ground.

Would these diagnostic word-pairs have helped in the cases of contentious questions in the past? I'm not sure, but these might be helpful tools for the discussions that ensue.

Any other word-pairs that could flesh this out? Or has this already been hashed through in some other meta-post that I haven't yet found?


  1. Of course, we might be interested in "consumption" by reading communities in antiquity -- that's part of (1), after all.
  • I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this post from a while back. The logic there is the kind of reasoning that convinces me that the distinctions you are drawing here are largely artificial. – Jack Douglas Feb 2 '14 at 10:41
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    @JackDouglas : read the post you linked slowly and carefully; needs more than 600 characters to reply! In brief, note my (1) above includes "theological"; it is inherent in the text. My attempt here, which you're finding "artificial", is to root BH.SE discussions in the world of the text and its earliest readers in a descriptive mode. What I'm resisting (here! there are other places where it is right) is making normative or prescriptive claims arising from contemporary faith communities. My sense is that it's not a difficult (or artificial :) distinction to draw. ... /2 (cont'd) – Dɑvïd Feb 2 '14 at 13:18
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    ... (cont'd) Take, for example, an answer instanced in the post you linked. My judgement here is that it is simply bad Christian theology, and actually adds nothing to understanding Ecclesiastes (note the context in Eccl 4!). The further trinitarian reflections incline towards the Christian heresy of tri-theism, actually. And my typical experience in bumping into such here (on the Christian side) is that the grasp on Christian doctrine itself is so shallow that not only do we "theology", we're getting "bad theology"! Can dig out examples, but need to run just now. – Dɑvïd Feb 2 '14 at 13:26
  • I really want to emphasize that I appreciate your input here on meta as much as I do on the main site (which is a lot). This is the perfect place to hash things out and of course no two of us will always agree on everything! In that context I hope you'll take what I say in the right spirit :) On the subject of 'good' vs 'bad' theology, the problem (as I see it) is that it requires an objective human judge on the site to distinguish between the two, and we don't have one. It's fine to judge by the non-religious standards of clarity, comprehensibility or just community approval measured by... – Jack Douglas Feb 2 '14 at 13:39
  • ...votes, but I've come to think that it isn't helpful to call one theology 'good' and another 'bad'. Of course we all think we are right, but I try hard to vote according to how clear the logic is in a post: whether I can understand your steps, and not whether I agree with your framework. If a post is clear I often find there are ideas that I can assimilate even if I fundamentally disagree with the conclusions: in other words, I don't have to agree with what you are writing to find your posts useful. (In your particular case I think... – Jack Douglas Feb 2 '14 at 13:45
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    @JackDouglas Thanks for this! Three (I think) quick replies. (1) "Right spirit": affirmed and understood. :) (2) "Good v. bad theology": this isn't a personal judgment call. My definition of "bad theology" is that which is excluded by the historic seven ecumenical church councils and excluded as heretical by Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches. Not so subjective. :) There are standards. (3) "Artificial = essentially theological": no, the line is essentially historical. This is the discourse problem: religious orthopraxy != history! :) – Dɑvïd Feb 2 '14 at 14:17
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    @Davïd I think this post is brilliant, and this is exactly the direction I believe this site should be going in. You may have noticed that not all of us agree here, and that's OK! We are all free to express our opinions on meta. But FYI, I fully agree with this post and believe this is where the site needs to be heading. – Dan Feb 2 '14 at 15:37
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    You may be interested in reading this meta post where I make the case that using first person plural language in reference to the audience of a text applies it (in the way we don't want here, at least in my view) and also imposes the OP's beliefs upon the reader. – Dan Feb 2 '14 at 15:51
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    @JackDouglas Perhaps I've misunderstood you. In your earlier post you wrote: "I disagree with those who think his answer is diminished in quality because he reads the passage through a Christian lens". So you seem are welcoming "Christian doctrine" in BH.SE answers (which I take it is the drift of that earlier post). I intended in my comments here "about good/bad theology" to appeal to criteria applicable to the entire Christian spectrum, which seems right IF you're welcoming Christian doctrine in BH.SE answers. ... /2 (cont'd) – Dɑvïd Feb 2 '14 at 20:03
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    ... (cont'd) But then you go on, above: "The problem with (2) is that this site has nothing (directly) to do with Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant churches". Which was my point in this post to begin with! I see an inconsistency here, and I don't think you can have it both ways. Either you welcome "doctrine", and relevant standards apply to it; or you banish "doctrine" (as this post attempts to make a case for) and have done with it. Trying to do both isn't to sit on the fence ... it's to sit on a razor blade! (Ouch!) – Dɑvïd Feb 2 '14 at 20:04
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    @Daи - re: 1st person plurals : yes, a very helpful diagnostic. I've seen it in academic writing, too, and it's usually a tell-tale sign of imposing a group mentality, often when least warranted. (Sometimes used "rhetorically", but that's not what we're [ahem!] talking about at the moment.) – Dɑvïd Feb 2 '14 at 20:07
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    OK, I have misunderstood you (though I wasn't the author of that earlier post I linked, that's Soldarnal, the no. 2 user on the site by all-time rep). You are seeking to apply that standard to those who's answers are identifiably Christian and not to Jews, atheist and others then? I am consistently opposed to any attempt to define what is allowed here in any religious terms, including the use of the word "doctrine" at all! I don't welcome "doctrine" because we can't even agree what the word means. To me, banishing doctrine would be an oxymoron – Jack Douglas Feb 2 '14 at 20:24
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    I'm all for relevant standards (eg: 1. respect the text, 2. start from the text, 3. show your work upwards from the text), but I want the standards to be focused on the texts that are our subject, and not on the religions that hold them to be true. – Jack Douglas Feb 2 '14 at 20:26
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    @JackDouglas So it looks like I was a tad muddled then - apologies! I'm not sure I've gained clarity yet, but then ... BH.SE has been 852 days in beta, so I shouldn't expect to suss it in a month! ;) – Dɑvïd Feb 3 '14 at 7:42
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    @All Boy, I guess I missed it! I thought this was a 'settled' issue, that questions which start from the text and can be answered by the text are "on topic". "Assuming neutrality" is a non-starter, it might suffice when explaining Heisenberg's Principle, but not when we actually believe what we are talking about. God is NOT neutral, neither are those who believe in Him. We come together to discuss the Scriptures, therefore, let the text be our framework for discussion. – Tau May 28 '14 at 2:36

Can we define as a forum what it means to “apply the text”?

This is an interesting question and I'm going to suggest the answer is "No".

I'll explain my reasoning but first I'll list in general terms what I think we do have clearly defined and explain why I think what we have is superior to the alternative. I'm limiting my scope here to textual/exegetical questions/answers that are the source of most debate (rather than historical questions or those about specific hermeneutics):

  1. Respect the text
  2. Start from the text
  3. Work upwards from the text joining the dots

The interesting thing to note about these guidelines is that the words used are relatively easy to understand and agree on. There are indeed debates about what "the text" is but it's incredibly rare for that esoteric debate to make any practical difference to the site. Dan made a heroic attempt to exhaustively list and categorize the exact texts, but in practice we pretty much all knew what texts were on-topic. There are occasionally difficulties in deciding whether a question really starts from a text, or merely quotes a convenient text in lip-service to the guidelines and focuses on an 'idea' instead: I think we've been pretty successful in shutting these down. In short these guidelines are broadly understood, even by newcomers

At the other end of the spectrum we have words like 'doctrine', 'truth', 'Truth' and 'neutral', the understanding of which is heavily influenced by the framework you start from: even high-rep and highly respected regulars on the site commonly disagree on the definitions of these words. If we can't agree on them, how can we hope to usefully define the scope of the site using them?.

Back to the question, I think that the word "application" broadly fits into the latter category (as evidenced here for example). It's not that useful for defining site scope because we all use it to mean something subtly different, it is a religiously loaded word, and this is the nub of my point, it is better to define site guidelines without using religiously loaded words, not least because our raison d'être is the text, and not religion:

We welcome Jewish, Christian, Atheist and other viewpoints as long as they take seriously the process of understanding the Biblical texts. The answers we rate most highly stem from and work up from the text.

Finally, we don't need to use or 'define' the word 'application', because the (good part of the) aim of doing so is already achieved using better understood words and in a more flexible way. It's generally impossible to start from the text showing your work all the way up to your conclusions and also have your answer loaded with 'application' (understood as the last stage of the interpretive process), simply because that is usually a very long way away from the text.

  • "Respect the text" is not so "relatively easy to understand and agree on." For me, if on does not consider it God's word, then it is disrespected (so many do not start there). You realize issues with that wording. I think the descriptive/prescriptive of @Davïd is the "best" formulation. Some texts are naturally "commands," and also the whole text we are commanded to "believe," so it is by nature a "prescriptive" set of documents. ... – ScottS Apr 25 '14 at 19:43
  • ... but I agree that a big point is as @Daи notes regarding the first person plural, and really any 2nd person reference to the reader is language of "you" or "we" need to.... A less prescriptive "tone" is through using third person, or generic terms "believers," "people," etc. I believe Truth (hehehe :-) ) will find application by the Spirit simply by its statement/explanation, without necessarily turning it into a command. – ScottS Apr 25 '14 at 19:48
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    So in short, I generally agree with your position, though I think "application" is almost immediate upon having an interpretation, and is not really "a very long way away from the text" at all. – ScottS Apr 25 '14 at 19:49
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    Thanks @Scott, btw when I said "respect the text" is "relatively easy to understand and agree on" I did not mean we would all agree what the definition should be, just that the definition we have here (which is something like a loose concept of 'caring' about the text rather than 'sneering' at it) isn't ambiguous and it is easy to agree what the definition means (not what it 'should' be). Does that makes sense? – Jack Douglas Apr 26 '14 at 5:09

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