I'm feeling some dissonance between the stated policy of not-so-much-doctrine and the content of questions I see. To begin with, every time I see the term 'OT', I cringe. I appreciate that not all Christians are even aware of the insult implied, but it's there nonetheless.

I appreciate that it's not reasonable to ask that no one ever use the term OT, let alone to go on an editing spree eliminating it.

Then, consider, for example: a question about 'sensus plenior'.

This is a fundamentally Christian approach to the text. The question is sort of a meta-question to a number of questions which start from the assumption that the Hebrew Bible contains prophetic references to Jesus. Which, of course, is a mainstay of Christian doctrinal interpretation.

I haven't found any examples of conflicts going in the other direction. I could, for example, imagine someone getting upset over quotations from "Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic" by Frank Moore Cross.

Or, in another direction, I spotted a bit of comment dialog (which I can't find again) about being careful to avoid offending some people's sensibilities with profane language. I wonder, then, what would happen if Job 31:10 came up? (This might be a whole other question.)

One might imagine an alternative: a question framed explicitly as 'Do Christians read verse X to say Y?'. Would that be on-topic here? Or does it belong over there?

After reading Caleb's extensive answer, I wanted to explain a bit more about why I'm writing this.

I start from a hypothesis: I'm a member of a category of persons whom you would like to have around here. I'm an amateur scholar of Biblical Hebrew / Hebrew Bible. My tradition is Jewish, but my studies are primarily text-critical/modern.

Without descending into a pit of political correctness, I'll merely remind you that people are comfortable when they don't feel invisible. Some things that I see around here make me feel more visible/comfortable. Some less. There's a tipping point out there at which people like me won't feel inclined to show up. 'OT' is a negative. Explicitly owning ones assumptions is a positive. I'm not proposing that you 'solve' this 'problem' by imposing any particular rules on anyone. I'm just trying to communicate some sense of how the different flavors of content strike me.

I think that this is a very hard problem, since the people who show up to ask are not, reliably, going to be very sensitive to this topic. Chasing people away because they enter questions that have unstated doctrinal assumptions doesn't feel very friendly, but a front page entirely composed of questions about how the Hebrew Bible prophesies Jesus isn't going to keep people like me around, either.

Re Job 31:10: We have had a question on Onan's sin and also on an earlier part of that passage. To be honest, if it's in the text, we can't be too squeamish about it. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Jan 7 '13 at 7:54
On the sensus plenior posts, I've actually come to appreciate both it and the answer more than I did when they first were posted. It's an example of a somewhat rare category of question: the hermeneutical-approach. (I see that it's missing that tag, however.) They are somewhat akin to questions on denominations on Christianity or (perhaps) questions asking for an overview of a particular language on Stack Overflow. (I don't spend much time over there anymore. I don't imagine language overview questions will fly these days. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Jan 7 '13 at 8:04
If I were you, I'd put the phrase people are comfortable when they don't feel invisible in bold type. –  TRiG Jan 7 '13 at 11:05
I don't have anything to add to Caleb's answer except "My tradition is Jewish, but my studies are primarily text-critical/modern." indicates to me that you are a perfect match for the site even if not all our questions are ;) We would be delighted for you to join us in The Library from time to time where you will find folk from a variety of traditions including your own. –  Jack Douglas Jan 7 '13 at 13:21
I'm really glad to see that you are still participating on the site: I'd very much value your input at some point on whether your feelings/views about the site evolve over time—would you be willing to feed back here again after a period of time to that effect? –  Jack Douglas Jan 16 '13 at 17:38
@JackDouglas of course. It seems best to see how things go over a period of time. –  user947 Jan 16 '13 at 17:40
@bmargulies, I'd be interested in learning how this is working for you now that a couple months have passed. –  Gone Quiet Mar 21 '13 at 3:07
@GoneQuiet well, I'm finding that the questions here more or less sort themselves out into those that ask lead to discussions that I'd care to participare in, and some others that I'm just as happy not to join in. Occasionally a 'text' question attracts a 'doctrine' answer, and I just let that go by. –  user947 Mar 21 '13 at 15:12

2 Answers 2

Your question strikes at a sensitive issue that's still being hashed out on this site. I don't have time at the moment to fully answer your question, but reading your post does leave me with several thoughts you might find useful. These won't resolve this issue, but I hope they help lay groundwork for finding an answer.

  • Any question that starts "Do Christians" is almost certainly off topic here and much better suited for Christianity.SE. If you want to know what a specific Christian sect thinks about a passage or doctrinal issue, that would be the place to ask, not here.

  • Here, if you ask "Does verse X say Y", you are almost bound to get more than one answer. Maybe one says 'yes' and one says 'no' based on their respective doctrinal background and other presuppositions brought to the interpretive process. It is the very availability of these multiple perspectives in interpretation is part of what makes this site what it is. The Bible is used by more than one faith and is interpreted in more than one way. If you only wanted to know how one tradition deals with an issue, you should probably ask on a more religious specific site. If you want a broader view of what can be understood from a passage or how different groups come up with interpretations, this would be the correct place.

  • The process of interpreting any text always involves presuppositions. The makeup of this site specifically allows for a broad mix of these. In order for such a multi-faith site to be productive at all, folks are going to have to set aside some of the sensitivities they might otherwise have in their respective traditions. In the example you raised: if this is going to be Hermeneutics.SE rather than Judaism.SE, one must allow that the term 'Old Testament', when used by a Christian, is in no way insulting. You may speak of the same text in other terms (in fact please do use the terms appropriate for your doctrinal background), but a Christian must identify which half of the Bible they are referring to. The term "Hebrew Bible", in the context of a Christian background, is not commonly used, nor do most Christians have any other moniker by which to refer to the OT. There are of course terms that could be used, but one must not read in insults where none are intended, otherwise this will never work.

  • There will be questions here that will be off topic for some religious backgrounds. Sensus Plenior may be an obvious choice to pick on, but even a basic one about how the Historical Gramantical approach to hermeneutics is going to be naturally better addressed by those that use the approach, typically Christians. Likewise questions about how Rabbis comment on or how Jewish tradition plays into textual understanding are going to be focused on a subset of this site's audience. This is similar to their being both C++ and Python questions on StackOverflow: same general set of experts but very different backgrounds and biases. You don't have to be interested in or agree with every question and answer for the site to be useful.

  • I would be impossible to rule out anybody bringing their "fundamentally __" approaches. There simply wouldn't be anything left if we started scratching out specific approaches. Approaches to interpretation is exactly what we are about in the first place.

Obviously this doesn't resolve the doctrine vs no doctrine debate. There have been reams of words spilled on that already, but generally we know at least this: questions really need to start with a text, be specific, and leave the door open for answers to take the text wherever specific interpretive frameworks take it.

If that isn't a 'full answer' I hesitate to contemplate the alternative! Edit coming. –  user947 Jan 6 '13 at 22:18
+1 this is just what I wanted to say but said much better than I ever could :) –  Jack Douglas Jan 7 '13 at 13:22
If use of terms like "old testament" is through ignorance of better terms, do you see a problem with edits to improve that language? That people don't know the term "Hebrew bible" doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to use neutral terms, right? –  Gone Quiet Jan 9 '13 at 14:06
@Monica "Hebrew Bible" is not neutral imo—do you think it is? –  Jack Douglas Jan 9 '13 at 15:20
@JackDouglas, I think it is; what am I missing? That said, if we're going to teach a term the term I would choose is Tanakh, but I was using the language from the answer. –  Gone Quiet Jan 9 '13 at 15:23
@Monica I'd recognize both as Jewish terms (perhaps erroneously?). To be neutral I think you'd have to mandate a longer term like 'Tanakh/OT' but I'd rather everyone just translated (as of course I do when I see the term Tanakh, now that I know what it means) –  Jack Douglas Jan 9 '13 at 15:42
@JackDouglas, I think you're confusing origin with meaning. Yes, the Jews invented "Tanakh" (I wouldn't be surprised if academics invented "Hebrew bible"), but it's not a term that conveys a particular doctrine so far as I can tell. It's an abbreviation. Contrast with "old testament", which implies there's a newer one -- no one ever uses the word "old* to refer to the latest of something. That's why "OT" is inherently offensive to many Jews. We know at least some people don't mean it (others do), but it's bothersome and, here, unnecessary -- people can learn Tanakh like you did. –  Gone Quiet Jan 9 '13 at 15:55
Back to the answer: Caleb suggests that people use terms that some find problematic (in which we shouldn't read insult) because they don't know better; I'm saying "let's do better about knowing better". @JackDouglas, Caleb, do you agree? –  Gone Quiet Jan 9 '13 at 15:56
@Monica I think meaning depends on the perception of the person reading: I suspect many folk perceive 'Tanakh' as a Jewish term, so that is what it 'means' to them. –  Jack Douglas Jan 9 '13 at 16:19
@Monica it is interesting to read the Wikipedia articles on the various terms btw –  Jack Douglas Jan 9 '13 at 16:21
On "Hebrew Bible" Wikipedia says: "The term is an attempt to provide specificity with respect to contents, while avoiding allusion to any particular interpretative tradition or theological school of thought. It is widely used in academic writing and interfaith discussion in relatively neutral contexts meant to include dialogue among all religious traditions, but not widely in the inner discourse of the religions which use its text." –  Gone Quiet Jan 9 '13 at 16:55
In reading this comment thread, I think I need to update my post to make my argument more clear. I am all for educating people on the proper use of terms, but not at all for forcing one set of terms over another. I would specifically advocate allowing people to use whatever termonology was common in their respective circles and letting the reader interpret. Editing or otherwise imposing terms foreign to their vocabulary would ipso facto endow this site with its' own doctrinal stand: just the thing we are trying to avoid! –  Caleb Jan 9 '13 at 18:01
We are not trying to come to an ecumenical middle here, we're trying to clearly represent a diversity of views. As such let the Christians use their terms, let the Jews use theirs. While I personally have no qualms about using the terms Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, forcing other Christians to do so is perhaps more offensive than hearing them say Old Testament when in their world there is in fact a New Testament to compliment it. This is a reasonable use of language, nor do they mean any disrespect to the volume: both old and new being fully inspired and relevant to Christian doctrine. –  Caleb Jan 9 '13 at 18:04
The gist of my post was to put the burden of responsibility for not taking offence and showing temperance towards one anothers' use of language squarely on the reader as we learn from each other. I have learned much from Jewish schollars, but have had to learn a lot of foreign termonology (much of it, like "Tanakh" not even English) in order to benefit. The same must be true the other direction, if Jewish folk want to learn anything from (or even just about) Christian hermeneutics they will have to bear with their terminology. –  Caleb Jan 9 '13 at 18:08
I have difficulty with the phrase one must not read in insults where none are intended, but it's complicated, so I'll just drop in a reference to the term "privilege blindness" and move on. –  TRiG May 18 '13 at 20:57

What constitutes doctrine is really calling for a definition, something none of us seem to agree on here. I've heard someone in the past say that we are OK with doctrine but not dogma, but this is also undefined.

Why Programmer Examples Fail

It seems that a favorite analogy being used in this discussion is that having competing doctrinal approaches to the text is no different than having questions about problems posted in different programming languages or operating systems. In other words, if someone asks how to implement a cipher of some sort, it is fine to give an answer in Python, C++, or Java that answers the question. Or an alternative analogy I've heard is that if someone asks for a C++ example but folks answer using different operating systems (Windows, Linux, Mac, etc.), that is the same kind of diversity we're looking for here.

But these are not good analogies here. As Monica recently pointed out in chat, the folks who answer from a Windows example (for example) are not arguing that Linux is "misguided or deprecated by their platforms or outright wrong;" they're just explaining the Windows parts.

Doctrine is a different matter altogether because it involves assertions of absolute truth. Programming languages and operating systems are tools. The use of one tool doesn't exclude the use of another.

On Towards a Working Definition

Doctrine is "a set of ideas or beliefs that are taught or believed to be true" (Merriam Webster Dictionary, emphasis mine). Claiming that Isaiah 53 truly points to Jesus means that the Jews are wrong and missed the Messiah. Claiming that it truly does not point to Jesus and refers to the nation of Israel means that Christians are wrong and the verse does not apply to them nor to their so-called Messiah.

We can't avoid these truth assertions on a site about the Bible. That is not my contention. We can avoid needless assertions, however, and we can ask that controversial assertions are stated as opinion or cited properly (this is my opinion). However that is an entirely different conversation that I won't further intermingle with a definition of doctrine (although the practical way of handling doctrine is an important issue, for now I'll be happy if we all mean the same thing when we use the term).

So there it is: Doctrine is a set of ideas or beliefs that are taught or believed to be true.

Doctrine is any set of ideas or beliefs that are taught or believed to be true whether or not you realise it: and this is why the term has almost no usefulness in any sort of conversation about the site! It is incredibly broad encompassing almost anything, and worse, in practice it is often used pejoratively because folk call everyone else's ideas and beliefs 'doctrine' and their own 'fact'. –  Jack Douglas Sep 13 '13 at 7:27
@Jack, will you please stop trying to play semantic games to dodge the very real problem of what to do about dogmatic/doctrinal/truth assertions on this site? (Note: "assertion" means presented as fact without support; showing your work mitigates. We have a show-your-work guideline.) What Dan says about why programming analogies fail is spot-on. I don't care what you call it; if "doctrine" is a dirty word that doesn't mean there's no problem here. Think bigger. –  Gone Quiet Sep 13 '13 at 13:19
@Monica I think you and I have a fairly good idea of each other's opinion on this don't we? I'm not sure that is the case with Dan and I which is why I'm really keen to have this conversation (among others). My comment to Dan is to question whether defining the word 'doctrine' really helps us with site guidelines not to undermine his definition: in other words I share your concern that we carefully deal with the real underlying issues and not let semantics trip us up. –  Jack Douglas Sep 13 '13 at 13:31
@Jack, since we have guidelines about "doctrine" and related problems calling for more guidelines, how in the world could defining the term be a bad thing? What issues do you have with his proposed definition for this site? It looks correct to me. And whatever understandings you and I may or may not have of each other (I don't think it's as clear as you do) don't affect site-wide discussions; clearly these supposed understandings have not led to any positive action, so there is work to be done yet. I'm really glad that Dan is trying to get through to you since I have obviously failed. –  Gone Quiet Sep 13 '13 at 13:49
@Monica, by Dan's (correct) definition of 'doctrine', your comment is doctrinal, so your 'doctrine' that the action you want is positive is an outworking of "a set of ideas or beliefs that are taught or believed to be true": because the term is so broad, I contend that it is not useful in defining site guidelines at all: I've often argued the term always be qualified, such as 'bald doctrinal statements' etc. –  Jack Douglas Sep 13 '13 at 13:58
Surely you understand that meta is largely about opinion so we can be looser in our statements than would ever be appropriate on main. And by sticking to "bald doctrinal statements" (which you haven't defined either!) you get to conveniently skip most of the problems. That's not constructive. (There, I made another assertion.) –  Gone Quiet Sep 13 '13 at 14:17
Please note that I'm not trying to argue for or against allowing doctrinal statements here, I was just trying to get a definition. Broadness was intended. In fact, I highlighted in bold: "We can't avoid these truth assertions on a site about the Bible." And yes Jack, I agree with you that it does encompass any ... whether or not you realize it. Fully agree. –  Dan Sep 13 '13 at 15:29
And @GoneQuiet I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I don't think Jack was trying to play a semantic game in his first argument (in fact, if anyone could be accused of this it would be me). I think he was reiterating a point that pretty much all of our participation here is doctrinal (and he's right). More to follow in meta. I don't think doctrine itself can be off topic by Jack's definition, which I understand (even the absence of Christian or Jewish doctrine is a form of doctrine). The issue is the application of doctrine and unnecessary assertions of it. –  Dan Sep 13 '13 at 15:31
I'm still thinking through this, though. There are some good points on all sides of the fence (there are four competing, yet often overlapping, views here in my estimate). –  Dan Sep 13 '13 at 15:32

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