This question asked about doctrine-based questions (and remains unresolved). My question is about answers. Are answers that assume a particular doctrinal stance acceptable here? If someone asks a Tanakh question, is "that means Jesus" or "that's a reference to Mary's perpetual virginity" valid as a response? If someone asks a NT question, is "that's an allusion to Muhammad" a valid answer?

I can see three approaches:

  1. Not acceptable; doctrine belongs on Christianity.SE, Mi Yodeya, Islam.SE, Skeptics.SE, etc.

  2. Doctrine is an inherent part of interpretation, but be explicit.

  3. No problem; we're all adults here and it's up to the reader to evaluate the answers from his own perspective.

Is this site about the text, or about the text augmented by doctrine? Is doctrine so entangled that it's impossible to be text-only?

(Prompted by the discussion here.)

I wanted to let you know that I'm thinking about this question. What do you think of my criteria that we require answerers to "1. Document your sources. 2. Be persuasive."? –  Jon Ericson Jul 10 '12 at 19:31
@JonEricson, welcome back (you were on vacation, yes?). I think those are good criteria, but wonder if there is an on-topic/off-topic component too. What are the limits of doctrine before we declare it off-topic? ("None", my #3, might be the answer, mind. I don't know and don't think we have consensus, which is why I ask.) –  Gone Quiet Jul 11 '12 at 0:18
Yep. I'm back to sunny Southern California (from Hawaii). Are you back from Israel? At any rate, I guess the other thing I would add is that an answer needs to answer the question. I lean toward your #2, I think. –  Jon Ericson Jul 11 '12 at 0:52
@JonEricson, I got back Friday (a day late; there's a saga there). And yeah, an answer does need to actually answer the question! –  Gone Quiet Jul 11 '12 at 1:06

6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Before answering the direct question, I want to point out the tools regular users can employ to handle sub-par answers:

  1. Vote.

    Downvoting in particular can be very powerful.

  2. Comment.

    Be civil, but firm. Point out problems with answers.

  3. Edit.

    Even better than pointing out problems: fixing them!

  4. Flag.

    Moderators have a broad range of tools to deal with problem answers and flagging is the most effective way bring us into the fray.

  5. Do nothing!

    To quote Shog9:

    A couple years ago now, we did some analysis of new user retention on Stack Overflow. Some forms of feedback tended to result in folks coming back more than others, but the single biggest way to keep someone away was to just ignore them. Don't vote—up or down. Don't comment. Don't answer. Don't close. Just... ignore. While you're busy walking on eggshells in fear of offending someone, they're seeing a blank page, an empty inbox, and they're walking away.

These are the same tools available for questions with one significant omission: voting to close. Particularly, we don't have a tool to mark an answer as off-topic. That's because site policy governs the topicality of questions and questions govern the topicality of their answers. So we really need to nail down our doctrine topicality policy in the other question first.

That said, here are my criteria for an on-topic answer to a question:

  1. It has to actually answer the question.

    Seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how often people (including myself) never get around to answering the question. Please use the above tools to address this problem when you see it. (We can encourage people to to ask a self-answered questions if they can't hammer their answer into shape.) In particular, if the question asks for answers from the text or from a particular interpretative tradition, answers that don't do that are off-topic.

  2. It needs to be persuasive.

    Intuitively we know that answers should at least try to persuade a neutral party of their position, but we don't always demand it. There's a huge difference between an answer that simply asserts something is true and one that show why something is true, even if neither ultimately changes any opinions. When someone answers purely from a particular doctrinal point of view, the answer is automatically less persuasive than it would be if it started from some sort of first principles. We should strongly prefer answers to guide the reader through a persuasive argument.

    Generally speaking, the way to gauge the persuasiveness of an answer is to look at the voting. Persuasive answers tend to get voted up. Unpersuasive answers tend to either get downvoted (if there are obvious problems) or hover around a score of zero (if they leave people scratching their heads). As a community, we probably need to vote more aggressively on incomprehensible answers—heroic edits tend to be less helpful here.

  3. It should document any sources.

    In the end, I believe that some answers will inevitably require an appeal to doctrinal (or other outside) authority. In these cases, we need to encourage answers to document their sources so that readers can evaluate their merit. In a sense, this point is a subset or consequence of the previous point; answers that don't start from the text are not persuasive if they don't document their sources.

    Encourage means to either edit in sources we know about or comment along the lines of:

    It's interesting that you say X. Can you point me to your source or help me understand?

    In my tradition, we have a motto: "Where is it written?" I understand that not all hermeneutical approaches follow that principle, but it doesn't hurt to ask in the comments. (As long as we ask from a place of genuine curiosity and not to gain leverage to knock the other guy down.)


I think I most strongly agree with your option:

2. Doctrine is an inherent part of interpretation, but be explicit.
I think that doctrine/theology is permissible only insofar as it is required to advance one's understanding of the meaning of the text in question - and should be clearly noted by the answerer. My understanding is that theology and doctrine are the necessary product of hermeneutics and one runs the risk of undermining the application of hermeneutics (namely, eisegesis) to that text if doctrine and theology are leveraged for explanation too early in the process. That said, I know that there are times when extant theology is needed to help resolve current exegetical issues. –  swasheck Sep 27 '12 at 17:20
incidentally, users with high enough rep can "vote to delete" answers (you probably know that but you don't mention it) –  Jack Douglas Sep 28 '12 at 6:27
I now downvote doctrine-asserting answers regardless of any other merits they may have, and vote to delete if there are no other merits. (I am often alone in this, alas.) It's not clear that most answerers care, as they can easily pick up multiple offsetting upvotes from people who share their doctrine, but oh well. –  Gone Quiet Jan 24 '14 at 15:55

I think we have clear and sensible guidelines about what is on-topic - basically summed up as both of the following:

  • Questions about hermeneutics
  • Questions that start from one or more Bible texts (ie do not start from an idea or doctrine - summed up well here

Note that a question may contain doctrine, it may refer to doctrine, it may lend it self to answers full of doctrine but may not start from doctrine - that is one of the vital distinguishing features of our site.

However you have asked about answers, not questions. I believe I understand where you are coming from - you are concerned about the definition of the site - but in the context of the entire Stack Exchange network, I believe it is universally true the there is no such thing as an off-topic answer.

Answers are simply not judged by that measure - as Jon has already alluded to, there is certainly such a thing as a 'bad' answer - the guidelines here are neatly spelled out the the 'flag' button on an answer (emphasis mine):

  • it needs ♦ moderator attention
    • not an answer
      This was posted as an answer, but it does not answer the question. It should possibly be an edit, a comment, another question, or deleted altogether.
    • very low quality
      This answer has severe formatting or content problems. This answer is unlikely to be salvageable through editing, and might need to be removed.
    • other
      Something not quite right? Let us know about it, and please provide relevant links if possible.
  • it is spam
    This answer is effectively an advertisement with no disclosure. It is not useful or relevant, but promotional.
  • it is not welcome in our community
    This answer contains content that a reasonable person would consider offensive, abusive, or hate speech.

I would like to see all good quality answers (by the above metrics) welcomed on the site, whatever the perspective they contain. In addition as a community we will continue to grow if we continue to work with each other and new users to help each other write good quality answers - using the tools Jon mentions of voting, editing, commenting etc as well as engaging, welcoming, encouraging and so on.

Good answer. The distinction between "starting" and "incorporating" is fundamental to how one approaches hermeneutics. –  swasheck Sep 27 '12 at 17:27

The Legitamacy of Doctrine in Answers

I consider our site to be aimed at experts in biblical studies. In terms of the academy, both biblical theology and the theological interpretation of scripture are budding areas of study today. So if we're trying to draw experts in biblical studies it makes little sense to set a policy that would exclude research from some of the most flourishing areas of study.

Of course, these areas themselves have had to defend their place in the academy. Here is a short summary of arguments proffered by Vanhoozer et al for the place of theology/doctrine in biblical studies:

Is biblical studies a theological discipline? By and large, the resounding answer, at least in the setting of the modern university, has been Nein! Modern biblical scholars insist that biblical studies must be autonomous in order to be critical (Barr). Yet some degree of involvement with theology seems to be inevitable, for three reasons. First, biblical scholars must have recourse to theology in order to make sense of the text’s claims (Jeanrond). Readings that remain on the historical, literary, or sociological levels cannot ultimately do justice to the subject matter of the texts. Second, biblical studies needs theology (especially the latter’s analysis of contemporary culture) in order to be aware of the aims, intentions, and presuppositions that readers invariably bring to the biblical text (Wright). Third, biblical studies needs theology in order to provide a sufficient reason for the academy’s continued engagement with the biblical text. Only the assumption that these texts say something of unique importance can ultimately justify the depth of the exegete's engagement (Levenson).

Dictionary for theological interpretation of the Bible. 2005 (K. J. Vanhoozer, C. G. Bartholomew, D. J. Treier & N. T. Wright, Ed.) (21). London; Grand Rapids, MI: SPCK; Baker Academic.

While not everyone will agree with an answer like Kazark's reflections on Ecclesiates 4:12 it is still helpful to some, and so I disagree with those who think his answer is diminished in quality because he reads the passage through a Christian lens. Another answer might give a feminist reading of the text or a Jewish reading, etc... While these readings don't match my own presuppositions about the world, I am still appreciative of the insights they do offer, and I feel the utility of this site is greatly diminished if any of these positions are disallowed. (I would go so far as to agree with Levenson above that this site would essentially lose its raison d'etre.)

One mistake I think people commonly make is to miss the subtlety of their own use of doctrine. It's not uncommon, for instance, for a poster to refer to God in an answer, even though the text under examination doesn't use the word "God" but rather uses the Tetragrammaton. Of course even using "God" as a referent for the god of Israel is doctrinal. The dispute in 1 Kings 17-18 is over which god is God: is Yahweh God (so Elijah) or is Ba'al God (so Jezebel and the prophets)?

A less subtle example would be the use of "Christ" as a referent for Jesus. If someone's post referred to Jesus as Christ some will complain and ask that the statement be qualified. Yet in both these examples, I could not support a policy where we edit out every "God" and every "Christ" from answers on this site. Not only would this be tedious and contentious, but doing so also presumes that there is some privileged position from which we can objectively interpret a text - in other words, doing so itself stakes out a doctrinal position.

Nor do I think doctrinal opinions ought to be necessarily qualified as such. I agree with Jeff Atwood: "writing without a strong voice, writing filled with second guessing and disclaimers, is tedious and difficult to slog through." This is not to say it should never be used here. Indeed, it can be quite helpful to know that such and such an interpretation is held by the church fathers, by certain rabbis, or by Karl Barth, etc... Specifying these things can certainly be helpful when trying to follow up, almost like a micro bibliography. But for me personally, qualifications like "I believe,..." only seem to clutter the text, in my opinion, and, to me anyway, interrupt the flow of thought, as far as I'm concerned.

If theology is so entwined with interpretation, should this site be merged with Christianity.SE?

I have attempted to explain elsewhere why I view this site as separate from Christianity.SE. But perhaps a fuller explanation is warranted here.

First, I think they concern different, though somewhat overlapping, disciplines. Princeton Theological Seminary, for instance, divides out it's Ph.D programs like so:

  • Biblical Studies (Old Testament, New Testament)
  • History and Ecumenics (Church History and History of Doctrine; Mission, Ecumenics, and History of Religions)
  • Theology (Systematic Theology, Philosophy and Theology, Christian Ethics, History of Doctrine)
  • Religion and Society
  • Practical Theology (Christian Education, Pastoral Theology, Homiletics)

While they are all part of the same "school" they are different departments within that school. I would match up BH.SE here with Biblical Studies, while all our "sister sites" (Mi Yodeya, Christianity.SE, and Islam.SE) concern more the latter four.

It's a similar to the relationship between StackOverflow and Programmers.SE. A site like Christianity.SE is more concerned with implementation details, while BH.SE is concerned with the raw material. A question on a particular translation of a phrase in Numbers 19:2 seems off-topic for Christianity.SE. That פרה אדמה means "red heifer" instead of "heifer of the soil" is pretty removed from having much to do with Christianity. Yet I think we can all agree that while maybe this question is not the most important one ever discussed on BH.SE, it is definitely on topic here.

One might object that, "Yes, this kind of translation question which only requires a doctrine-agnostic answer is exactly the only sort of thing we should have on this site." But even translation isn't always so straight forward as looking at the grammar. Translation inevitably involves doctrine. Not only do we have the problem of a plurality of interpretive communinities, but even when we try to read the Bible through first century eyes, we inevitably bring into it our beliefs about first century beliefs. "Does this interpretation of the genitive correspond to what we know about Paul's theology?"

And now I'm probably just talking in circles (though hopefully spirals), which is probably fitting. For anyone who accepts these scriptures as sacred text, biblical studies will always inform theology and vice-versa. That doesn't mean, however, that we cannot create some kind of separation of the two as an aim of study.

If, from your and Kazark's point of view, biblical hermeneutics is inherently bound up with theology, then why should this site remain distinct from Christianity.SE? –  Gone Quiet Dec 24 '12 at 14:58
@GoneQuiet I have another answer where I tried to address that question, but the short answer is the questions. Questions on this site are about the biblical text and methods for interpreting the biblical text. I just surveyed the recent questions on and there is some overlap (which makes sense since part of any religion is the interpretation of one's sacred texts), but there are a lot of questions that scholars in biblical studies would have no interest in as well, but are on topic over there. –  Soldarnal Dec 24 '12 at 15:45
Question on your update: I don't understand the point you're making about the use of the word "God". Are you saying it's ambiguous and we should say YHVH when we mean YHVH and Elohim when we mean Elohim and so on? Or do you mean something else? Thanks. –  Gone Quiet Dec 28 '12 at 5:12
@GoneQuiet Thanks for asking for a clarification. What I was trying to convey is that the capital 'G' is polemical. It says, "Whatever gods there might be, this god is God." So N.T. Wright: "This usage, which sometimes amounts to regarding 'God' as the proper name of the Deity, rather than as essentially a common noun, implies that all users of the word are monotheists and, within that, that all monotheists believe in the same god." –  Soldarnal Dec 28 '12 at 6:52
First, "God" is an English word that is used for several Hebrew (and I assume Greek) words. That's why I thought your issue was precision, and now that you point it out I don't know why we aren't all more careful about that. But I don't think rendering a proper noun with a capital letter is polemical, any more than it is for a human name. In the context of the text there is an actor named (in translation) "God"; that doesn't mean it's the same being anyone else would call "God". There are obviously differences among religions (e.g. the whole trinity thing). How can we be more clear? –  Gone Quiet Dec 28 '12 at 15:10
@GoneQuiet The issue isn't so much the rendering, as the designation (which is given by the rendering). "God" isn't like "Bob" - while both are names, "God" is also a title. If I referred to "the President" you would know I meant Barrack Obama. If I referred, however, to Jefferson Davis as "the President", suddenly in a certain context what I've written is highly controversial. Similarly, if Ba'al worship were around today, their community might object to the use of "God" for YHVH, since by their doctrine Ba'al is God. –  Soldarnal Dec 28 '12 at 18:33
I'm actually okay with the way you wrote your answer. That's even my point. I don't think attempting to add precision by using alternatives such as "the god of Israel" would make the answer more clear, just more tedious to read. And I don't think an attempt to remove even these subtle doctrinal views is a plausible (or worthy) goal. –  Soldarnal Dec 28 '12 at 18:36

If someone asks a Tanakh question, is "that means Jesus" or "that's a reference to Mary's perpetual virginity" valid as a response? If someone asks a NT question, is "that's an allusion to Muhammad" a valid answer?

An answer that brings "out-of-context" doctrine, like a Christian answer to a Tanakh question, is a poor answer, like answering a Perl question on StackOverflow with "use Python instead". If we were a reasonably well-balanced site I would say "let voting take care of it", but with a vast majority of the users here sharing a paricular set of doctrine, answers espousing that doctrine out of context have tended to get up-voted anyway even though they are bad answers to those questions. If we want minority participation here, we should develop a cultural norm of respect for context, not look for a big stick. We've already determined that doctrinal questions are off-topic; we should be very careful about bringing doctrine, especially misplaced doctrine, into answers.

Explicitly-labelled, sourced doctrine can add an additional layer of information to an answer, so I'm not saying to never use doctrine. But use it carefully, as secondary information. It's ok to answer a Psalms question in its context and then add "by the way, Augustine understands this as an allusion to Mary"; it's not in keeping with our community standards for that to be the answer.

To be clear, by 'a Tanakh question' do you mean any question on Genesis-Malachi, or only those where the OP has indicated in some way that they are averse to a Christian perspective? –  Jack Douglas Nov 19 '12 at 18:13
@JackDouglas, any question on the tanakh texts (I'm not actually sure what's latest, Malachi or some of the writings like Esther), except where the OP has asked for a Christian (or Muslim) perspective. We allow the questioner to set those kinds of parameters, so it should be opt-in, not opt-out. –  Gone Quiet Nov 19 '12 at 18:16
In which case, I feel I should vote this down (but please don't take it in any way personally, I have a lot of respect for your contributions, your opinions and you yourself). However, I can't agree that a well-thought-out, sourced, reference "Christian answer to a Tanakh question, is a poor answer" unless the OP has explicitly indicated that he is opposed to that. Googlers might arrive at the question from either tradition and answers from both Jewish and Christian perspectives are therefore potentially valuable. –  Jack Douglas Nov 19 '12 at 18:23
@JackDouglas, understood and no offense taken. The goal is consensus, not to be the owner of the winning answer. –  Gone Quiet Nov 20 '12 at 0:08
@JackDouglas if you want to attract expert answerers from the textual-critical academic space, you might want to consider agreeing with Monica. Or, maybe we could find some more common ground by asking more questions about the question; the more the question is a 'what do the words mean' question, the more I'd recommend discouraging doctrinal answers. –  user947 Jan 21 '13 at 14:03
@bmargulies our target as I see it is to attract the experts but benefit the masses (or at least some of them!): I agree it is a fine line to tread and I'm open to persuasion personally on this, I think the best way of achieving this is via rules about what is asked rather than how questions are answered. –  Jack Douglas Jan 21 '13 at 14:23
The experts I know, whatever their personal beliefs, tend to want to work on one problem at a time; 'hebrew language and textual analysis', or 'higher level' (and typically doctrinal) analysis and interpretation. They would find it incongruous to see a discussion of a grammatical point check-by-jowl with a 'well, the purpose of all of scripture is to ...' as per Bob Jones here and there. We'll all see how things develop. –  user947 Jan 21 '13 at 14:41
The masses will evaluate us based on all the content they read. Since we hope that questions will attract several long answers, the questions (in a mature site) are probably only about 10-15% of the total volume. So regulating questions without also regulating answers doesn't do much for the reader impression. –  Gone Quiet Jan 21 '13 at 15:08

I would suggest an additional point, based on the discussion of this answer:

If the doctrinal point builds on the answer, but is not an essential part of it, put the additional point in a comment to the answer. (The linked answer combines a doctrine-neutral part, explaining the metaphor of a three-ply twisted cord for strength, with a doctrine-specific linkage to the Christian trinity.)

I do think doctrine-specific are entirely appropriate, so long as they are so marked—many of my answers assume orthodox Jewish interpretations, for example.

Do folks think this is an appropriate use of comments? I’m not sure it’s consistent with other SE sites—but then, we’re here to establish convention for this site.

ETA: The comments below have convinced me that this is not a great idea. May I amend this to a suggestion that doctrine-specific parts be clearly separated from the rest of the answer.

1. This isn't an abuse of comments or out of line, but recall that comments are second-class citizens (at best) on Stack Exchange. As a moderator, I have no problem wiping out comments if they are a cause of problems and there's no way for the author to recover them. This stands in sharp contrast to answers, which retain full revision histories. I'd rather see content moving in the other direction, actually. –  Jon Ericson Sep 10 '12 at 23:28
2. I won't tell you how to vote but I think answers are strongest when they contain multiple arguments. Separating the doctrine-specific portions of an answer into a different section or into footnotes seems a better choice. That way, it's possible to upvote for most of an answer and comment on the section(s) that one disagrees with. In light of #1, does that seem reasonable? –  Jon Ericson Sep 10 '12 at 23:31
3. @GoneQuiet: I know you didn't mean this, but it sounds like your approach is to bully the answerer into changing their answer by withholding your vote. It reminds me a bit of the comments on people's accept rate on Stack Overflow. Let's not go there! –  Jon Ericson Sep 10 '12 at 23:36
@JonEricson, oh dear, not what I intended. I'm going to delete that comment and try again. I think it's appropriate to use comments to separate doctrine from core answer, though I see your point about durability and auditing. I think an answer that is based on doctrinal assumptions is inherently weaker than one that is not, and especially if the doctrine is not that of the text being discussed. An answer about a psalm that sticks to tanakh applies broadly; one that assumes Christian doctrine is weaker, and one that assumes Islam doctrine is weaker still. Stronger answers are more vote-worthy. –  Gone Quiet Sep 11 '12 at 2:02
An answer that first addresses the basic, doctrine-free reading and then adds well-labelled doctrinal layers of interpretation ("be explicit" in my option 2) is fine. The doctrinal answers that motivated me to ask this question have not been in that category. (And BTW, while I comment on what makes an answer weak or what would make it stronger, I don't tend to comment explicitly about my voting habits.) –  Gone Quiet Sep 11 '12 at 2:04
@J.C. if you have a moment please review this meta post. It's pretty critical for the site's future direction so we want to encourage folks to weigh in. Thanks. –  Gone Quiet Oct 4 '13 at 20:07

There is an inherent tension in a site that seeks to exegete a body of texts without a common ground. The main participants at this site seem to be Jews and Christians, but an atheist or a Buddhist or a Muslim could participate here too if they were interested in hermeneutics of ancient texts.

We then run into the problem of either housing strongly stated opinions of deeply various natures on one site, or of relativizing all the opinions. Let's face it. Jews and Christians do not agree on the most fundamental questions on life. The Triune God is the most important thing in my life. If you deny his Trinity, I will work hard to treat you (as he has instructed me) with civility and love, but I cannot but recognize that we disagree in the most fundamental of ways.

And here's where I'm going to start offending a lot of people. So be it.

"From a Christian perspective, Jesus is the Messiah." No. Jesus is the Messiah. "I believe that Isaiah 53 is prophesying Jesus Christ." No. Isaiah 53 is prophesying Jesus Christ.

I am called first of all to serve the King of Kings, Jesus Christ. I desire to be civil and kind towards all the participants at this site, and I have been helped by answers from some of our Jewish participants, such as Monica. But I am not willing to switch into perspectivalism to talk about Christ. I might as well stop talking about him on this site. I don't want to give you "a Christian perspective". I want to give you the truth.

Sure, there are some passages I am more sure about my exegesis then others, and in those cases I qualify my answers. But bottom line is this. Christ is what the Scriptures are about. Christ is what I'm in this for. I am not willing to add qualifying statements to that.

I don't think I have an inherent right to participate in this site. If you have a problem with this, downvote this answer to signify your disagreement (typical meta practice) and if it gets downvoted enough I will resign my membership here without a grudge against you guys and spend my time speaking about Christ in other venues.

Conclusion: If doctrine is not allowed in exegesis, I have no interest in exegesis (what is there left to exegete?). If this doctrine my be qualified by a stated perspective on every occasion, we have embraced perspectivalism in order to reduce the fundamental tension of our massive disagreements.

Thank you for this answer. One question: how do you see the inevitable disagreement playing out? "From a Jewish perspective Isaiah 53 is not talking about Jesus." No Isaiah is not talking about Jesus. When anyone makes a doctrinal answer like this, those who disagree have to either ignore it or respond. Responding isn't going to persuade anyone, but letting it stand leads to broken windows. How can we provide a good environment for everybody? (And no, I don't want you to resign.) –  Gone Quiet Sep 28 '12 at 12:53
@GoneQuiet Thank you. As I see it, there is no way humanly to remove the inherent discomfort of the situation. I think we can make it a good environment by each making an effort to display the kind of civility that you have shown me. I'm going to be avoiding "An idiotic Jewish perspective would say..." at least as much if not more than I'm going to be avoiding, "From a Christian perspective..." Firmness without name-calling. Also, for me, part of it is recognizing that I can learn some things from your knowledge of Hebrew, the Tanakh, and rabbinical commentary, etc. –  Kazark Sep 28 '12 at 22:55
You may like to know this question has come up again in a different guise: I'd be interested to know your take on it. Also, I've used an answer of yours in my answer. If it isn't clear already, I'd like you and your style of answers to continue to be very welcome on this site! –  Jack Douglas Apr 6 '13 at 18:08

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