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.