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I am specifically discussing this answer. It is generally agreed that

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.

With that said, there shouldn't be any questions that ask for application of a Biblical text, as ones that do should be closed as off topic.

According to our site distinctives,

We stop short of application when answering questions about the Bible (which means we don't fully exegete the text in the religious sense of the practice).

However, there still seems to be dissonance on whether 'application' should be allowed in answers (and if so, how much). But before we address this, we need a definition of the term 'application.'

Working Definition of 'Application'

A great question was recently asked about what it means to 'apply' the text. Disagreement was expressed on whether or not the term 'application' has any clear meaning in these sorts of discussions. For this reason, a definition must be offered for 'application' before meaningful discussion can occur. One of the answers that I found extremely helpful gave three criteria for evaluating if a post is 'applying' the text:

  1. Does the content focus on what the text meant or on what it means?
  2. Is the content focused on the production (authorship, editing, transmission, etc.) of the text or its consumption (i.e. the text's use and adoption by recent or contemporary reading communities)?
  3. Is the content descriptive (i.e. describing the historical, linguistic, literary, or theological dimensions of the text as it was understood by its authors and reading community in antiquity) or prescriptive (i.e. implying norms that are expressed as binding on readers)?

The first option in each of these criteria were expressed as desirable in posts while the latter as undesirable. The first point is subtle, yet it is elucidated when combined with the remaining two criteria (individual criteria should not be used in isolation, but rather must be carefully discerned as a whole). They were also (helpfully) given as a chart:

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

On the basis of these criteria,1 this post primarily consists of undesirable content. The answer primarily focuses on the the text's use and adoption by recent or contemporary reading communities, in this case presumably a Christian community, and by these criteria could be said to be 'primarily focused on applying the text' (using the definitions and criteria given above).2

Is a post considered to be an answer if it focuses primarily on the application of the text (as defined)?

Here are what I believe are three possible answers to this question (as always, feel free to express another perspective altogether3):

  1. A post that applies the Biblical text must be edited to remove such application. If there is then no remaining content in the post that answers the question, it is Not An Answer.

  2. A post that primarily focuses on applying the Biblical text and offers little or no explanation of what the text meant, how it was produced, nor describes the historical, linguistic, literary, or theological dimensions of the text as it was understood by its authors and reading community in antiquity is Not An Answer.

  3. An answer is free to apply the text even when the question does not ask for this. Those who don't find this answer useful should merely downvote it; the answer does not need to be edited nor removed (even if the answer primarily focuses on applying the text, i.e. the text's use and adoption by recent or contemporary reading communities).

Our site distinctives (as quoted above) are in favor of option #1, but in practice we tend towards #2 or #3. This is an attempt to clarify what the community actually desires.


1 I'm not implying that these criteria are requirements for posts in any sense at this time, I merely found them helpful when thinking through this and useful for providing a working definition for the purpose of having this discussion.

2 And not only these criteria, but also by previously expressed criteria such as the use of third person plural language in reference to the audience of the text: "Using first person plural language when referencing the audiences of ancient texts moves from asking about the text itself to asking about the application of the text and imposes this application upon the reader."

3 Although I respectfully ask that you do not lodge a solely semantic argument on the basis of the term 'application' as I have given specific, well-defined criteria for determining whether the text is being 'applied' or not.

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  • @GoneQuiet I actually had considered dividing #3 into two choices, one that allows application but not its imposition upon the reader, and another that allows both. But I decided to leave that out of the discussion (except as a footnote) to not commingle the issue with another meta discussion. – Dan Feb 3 '14 at 18:12
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I wouldn't call your example "application".

In fact, I've upvoted the answer and find it useful to understanding the text. I don't even know what portion of the answer you consider to be application. I reject "what the text means" as application, off-topic, or not-an-answer. It either fails to explain a text to a modern reader or makes the unwarranted assumption that the interpreter is able to "channel" the ancient author. Attempting to decipher the "original meaning" is a necessary, but not sufficient step toward exegesis, in my opinion. (See my answer concerning the merging of horizons.)

Similarly, the "production"/"consumption" test fails to divide good, useful, and scholarly answers from poor, frivolous, and unstudied ones. I have less strong opinions on "descriptive" vs. "prescriptive", but the first two criteria make me suspect I won't like how this one is applied either.

An application answer that I prize greatly.

Remember that we are not creating a commentary on the Bible. We are answering questions by ordinary people who want to know what the text means. The Internet is full of places for finding out what learned people think the text meant. But it's nearly devoid of places for people to ask about things that puzzle them about the Bible and get answers other than the carefully vetted "party line" (whatever the party).

And so, when someone asks why "God" does not make an appearance in Esther, we ought not turn up our noses at an answer. We ought not judge a wise answer as foolish, even if it includes the words:

Personally, I take great comfort from the reminder that some of God's most thrilling work is done from "behind the curtain", so to speak. Often, it is when He seems most distant and invisible that I find He is most vitally active in my life and circumstances.

Removing the final paragraph would irreparably harm that answer. Or rather, it would harm the answer until I noticed and repaired it with a rollback.

Let voters do their job.

Stack Exchange works best when questions are subject to an editorial board and answers are ranked by vote. Even on sites where judging a correct answer is a matter of firing up a compiler, the results are hardly perfect. But the results are often and surprisingly good. My mobile analogy was badly misinterpreted, but even so I can't let it be:

Each one the the answers comes from a unique viewpoint and because the most general answers are voted up, the page seems very balanced. Reading from top to bottom by score, I come away with a sense of greater understanding of the broad answer to the question and the richness of interpretation traditions. The inclusion of the more specific answers don't hurt the broader answers at all. Instead they highlight, to a neutral reader, the strengths of the answers supported by scholarship.

Bottom-up voting, not top-down criteria, produce the best results on Stack Exchange sites. I respectfully submit that the collective judgement of our readers is a better tool than a mandate on meta for evaluating what is valuable to consumers of the site.

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  • 2
    "It either fails to explain a text to a modern reader or makes the unwarranted assumption that the interpreter is able to "channel" the ancient author." = both non sequiturs. Plenty of answers on this site make clear the meaning of the text without resorting to "application". | The "'production/consumption' test": not my favourite either. :) Might not be useful; I think the other two pairs are. | The "wise answer", Personally, I take great comfort...: actually, I like it too. But it uses 1st person singular language: rewrite it with "we", and it reads very differently. | FWIW! – Dɑvïd Feb 4 '14 at 0:05
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Option #2

A post that primarily focuses on applying the Biblical text and offers little or no explanation of what the text meant, how it was produced, nor describes the historical, linguistic, literary, or theological dimensions of the text as it was understood by its authors and reading community in antiquity is Not An Answer.

This position does not prevent an answer from applying the text, rather it requires this to be secondary (both in purpose and the amount / quantity of application present in the answer). This option coincides with our current practice of allowing minimal application in answers, often by asking that it be relegated to footnotes rather than being present in the main body of the answer.1

In other words, it's OK for an answer to apply the Biblical text, so long as doing so remains in the background and is not the foreground of the answer (and doesn't impose the application upon the reader).


1 At times application is also currently removed from posts, particularly when the application is not necessary for answering the question and detracts from an otherwise good answer. This would continue to be the practice under this way of handling things, with a preference for simply moving application to footnotes when feasible instead of removing it.

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  • What is the problem with our current narrow site scope and 'show your work' rules that you are trying to solve? This would drive yet more hermeneutics off-topic and favour even more the narrow set that are already favoured by the system. – Jack Douglas Feb 3 '14 at 7:43
  • My point in a nutshell is that one man's 'application' is another man's 'interpretation' and the finer points of distinguishing the two are by whatever arbitrary measure we choose are not going to be easily understood by the usual members of the site let alone newcomers. – Jack Douglas Feb 3 '14 at 7:47
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    @JackDouglas but if we apply specific criteria that elucidate precisely what is meant by application, this ambiguity goes away. Not to mention the highly-upvoted site distinctives which say, "We stop short of application when answering questions about the Bible (which means we don't fully exegete the text in the religious sense of the practice)." I'm trying to address this dissonance between what the community has voted for vs. what it practices. The goal here is clarity. – Dan Feb 3 '14 at 7:50
  • Yes, if we choose to favour the way one certain hermeneutic defines application and use that as the yardstick to judge all posts (remember NAA means mod deletion), then the problem 'goes away', as do many of our users and what I consider useful answers. You may be misreading votes on meta: I upvoted the post you link, that does not mean that I (or anyone else) agree with every word in it. – Jack Douglas Feb 3 '14 at 7:52
  • @JackDouglas it sounds like your position is option #3, and I encourage you to post this option as an answer (I will gladly go with whatever the community chooses here). Option #2 is my preference. – Dan Feb 3 '14 at 7:55
  • My position is that we should not further narrow our already narrow scope or use straw men like 'clarity' as an excuse for doing so: there is nothing unclear about 'show your work'. The edits that I know of that have moved portions of answers to footnotes have not done so with any idea that those bits are 'application'. It has always to my knowledge been portions that don't 'show their work' – Jack Douglas Feb 3 '14 at 7:56
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    @JackDouglas my position is that I could technically enforce #1 on the basis of our site distinctives, but I recognize that this is probably not what the community actually wants despite its high vote count. I am seeking clarity here, and I am arguing for the middle-of-the road position. I am aware of the implications of NAA, my use of italics and capitalization for that term was intentional. Even so, I am fine enforcing whichever the community clearly votes for (if a clear vote emerges at all, I suspect it may not). – Dan Feb 3 '14 at 7:58
  • enforce away: you'll end up with a very small site of like-minded folk to enforce on. – Jack Douglas Feb 3 '14 at 8:00
  • @JackDouglas note that I have not enforced it, nor am I arguing for option #1. And this is why I am deferring to community vote rather than making a unilateral decision. That's what meta is for, right? (among many other things) – Dan Feb 3 '14 at 8:02
  • You are trying to have your cake and eat it: All traditions are welcome on Biblical Hermeneutics presumably has your vote, but here even on your middle of the road option you are effectively opposing that principle in the name of clarity. A useful meta post would not discuss religious definitions of what an acceptable answer is divorced from the concept of whether we are discriminating again certain groups. To get clarity, we need those issues to be treated hand in hand. – Jack Douglas Feb 3 '14 at 8:12
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    @JackDouglas that meta post doesn't conflict with any of the options (1-3) here. I am dealing with specific behaviors and types of content within answers that the community has previously expressed strong (but conflicting) expectations for. Regardless of which option the community chooses here, all traditions/perspectives would continue to be welcomed. And these are not 'religious definitions.' Note that theological perspectives are specifically included as on topic and even desirable when describing the text. – Dan Feb 3 '14 at 8:23
  • The main issue here is that we have a meta post that is highly upvoted and used as representative of our site expectations that states, "We stop short of application when answering questions about the Bible (which means we don't fully exegete the text in the religious sense of the practice)." But we don't (and we do).... – Dan Feb 3 '14 at 8:29

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