There have been a lot of meta discussions in the last 18 months about specific aspects of, or handling of, answers (annotations, voting, editing, doctrine, etc). It was pointed out by the Community team that all of that kind of hinges on the question of what a good answer is (and isn't), so this question is that. My hope is that we can resolve this and then, using what we learn from this, address the many open issues that are leading to tensions on the site.

  1. On this site, what are the characteristics of a good answer? How should people be answering questions here? Please consider content, style, and assumptions (site axioms). If I've missed other important factors, please edit them in here.

  2. Considering the above factors, on this site, what are the characteristics of a bad answer (something we should try to fix)?

I'm calling these out separately here, but they're obviously pretty entwined with each other so it might make sense to talk about them together in answers.

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See also the follow up to this post: What does "show your work" mean in the context of exegesis? –  Caleb Apr 8 '13 at 11:15

5 Answers 5

up vote 11 down vote accepted

SE sites are primarily places for experts. Non experts are welcome in so far as they have an interest in becoming experts. Each site is scoped to a specific field of interest.

Our field is Biblical Hermeneutics: the field of study covering textual criticism of the Biblical canon1, the understanding of its original languages, the historical knowledge necessary to place them in context and the process of interpreting these texts to make sense in contemporary languages including solving references and making associations as necessary draw out the meaning of the text. At about that point, the scope of this field ends and the doctrinal frameworks of Christianity and Judaism pick up.2 They take the ball and run with it, putting the interpretations into practice.

I think questions on this site fall into two categories:

  1. Questions about the field of hermeneutics.3

  2. Questions calling for experts in that field to employ their knowledge and apply it to specific in-field problems. We've already settled that these must be limited to questions arising from the text.

Of these, type one is fairly unambiguous and non-controversial around here. I will not address what makes a good vs. a bad answer to type one questions. Type two is where we have issues right now. What follows are some factors that I think contribute to an answer being either good or bad.

  • Answers should show their work. Part of what will differentiate a good quality answer from a shoddy one is the ability of other experts to review -piece by piece- the train of reasoning that brought us from the text to its meaning. This serves both as a way to verify their quality and as a way for people new to the field to learn. If answers don't show their work, nobody will come away from our site with more knowledge about the field of hermeneutics.

  • The take away value from answers should be seeing hermeneutical knowledge put into practice against the text. This includes seeing a particular hermeneutical approach take shape through the early stages of exegesis. The historical background of the author and audience, the original languages and the process of putting these pieces together should be the primary focus of what an answer conveys, not a doctrinal conclusion. Answers may (optionally) take the process up to pointing towards and even assert a piece of doctrine, but any conclusions drawn must be limited to the scope of the initial question and rest on the groundwork of exegesis provided in the answer.4

  • Answers should stop short of prescribing a contemporary application. Doing so may be part of exegesis, but it is the far end of the spectrum away from the end we focus on. Taking the exegetical process all the way through to prescribing an practice or belief is the realm of experts in specific theological traditions. While the knowledge of our local experts almost universally crosses over into those fields, we should exercise our expertise to prescribe practice on the respective sites where our doctrinal conclusions are in scope. Our primary scope on this site should focus on the background knowledge and hermeneutical process and exclude explicit application. For more on this, see my thoughts on how to handle the cross over between sites.

  • Answers will differ considerably based on hermeneutical principles applied, the theological presuppositions behind those choices, the breadth of knowledge in history, language and culture, etc. Having several diverse answers to each question should be something we prize. Even in the context of specific theological frameworks, different hermeneutical methods might be more applicable to a given text, and part of the voting process will involve experts weighing in on which hermeneutic and which set of background facts are relevant to interpreting a specific passage. This will inevitably leave the door open pointing to conflicting doctrinal conclusions, but each answer should show enough of the exegetical threads used to have merit apart from any conclusions it draws. Since the primary take away value of an answer is in seeing how it applies hermeneutical principles, what background knowledge it applies and how it connects the pieces in exegesis, differing answers should have value independent of whether they draw a doctrinal conclusion you agree with.

  • Answers must start from the specific text raised in the question and only draw on other sources/points as specifically relevant to interpret the original text.

I've started repeating myself. I don't know if that's because it's 3 am or if ... no that's probably it. I'll stop now, but I think that covers my general vision for what makes really good answers here and a few things that would ruin them.


Footnotes:
  1. And some deuterocanonical works actually, but I'm trying to keep my answer readable.

  2. And possibly other religions, but the distinction is neither here nor there for this answer.

  3. 20 out of my 24 questions are of this type if that gives you any idea what I had in mind when I signed up for this site.

  4. I would go so far as to suggest that answers consisting of only raw doctrinal data points should be eventually removed as they are not answers inside the scope of hermeneutics. Show your exegetical ground work or go home.

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Wow and amen on every point!!! What you speak of here is what I expect from this site and what I love about the site when it really happens. –  user2027 Apr 5 '13 at 0:40
    
@GoneQuiet I made a proposal in 2011 for where to draw that line and I pretty much stand by that rendition. However, it's a fuzzy line and in the end a case by case judgement call will have to be made. I don't think giving examples will be helpful because the tendency would be to try to derive a formula. I don't think there can be one, but I also think drawing that line is not that important. –  Caleb Apr 5 '13 at 11:14
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@GoneQuiet The entire point of my answer here is that our conflict shouldn't be about where to draw that line and if we re-focus on what we are doing, the exact line won't be such an issue. The important issue is not the line in the sand where something goes to far, but the insistence that answers stem from and work up from the text rather than skipping ahead straight to the line, often filling in the blanks with doctrinal conclusions without showing how they got there. If we have a policy that requires showing the steps getting there, how far they get to "go" would be less of an issue. –  Caleb Apr 5 '13 at 11:14
    
I'm very tempted to upvote this answer along with Jon's and Sarah's which I also like: I think your main point is excellent. My only reason for holding back is that I think you go slightly too far. I think there is no need to explicitly discourage even application if it is clearly worked through from the text upwards. I doubt it will happen very often though but I'd like to leave the door open. –  Jack Douglas Apr 5 '13 at 14:29
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@Jack Douglas: I think the point is that there is a line between hermeneutics and theology. Theology is allowed if it springs from hermeneutics. There is also a line between theology and pastoral wisdom. Pastoral wisdom is a bridge too far for our site, but should be on-topic elsewhere if someone asks the question. Pastoral care ... here be dragons! The further we stray from the text, the greater the danger. –  Jon Ericson Apr 5 '13 at 15:08
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@Jon I agree up to a point, but from some texts the distance from the text to application is much shorter than others. "So, was Jesus implying that all his followers tithe?". Let's not allow application that isn't worked through starting from the text by all means. –  Jack Douglas Apr 5 '13 at 15:14
    
@Monica ^^^^^^^ –  Jack Douglas Apr 5 '13 at 15:15
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@JackDouglas. Your point about application is valid. For example, if the text says 'husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church' some sample applications of loving a wife based on high Christological doctrine would be just the right thing to open up the spirit of the text and provide the original mindset of the author. As the scripture puts weight on application some modern exegetical/critical commentaries obscure the meaning of scripture by forsaking it. I am guilty of this myself mostly because my sinful nature avoids the application. ;) –  Mike Apr 5 '13 at 17:08
    
thanks @Mike, that is helpful and better put than I could :) –  Jack Douglas Apr 5 '13 at 17:16
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@Mike: Well said. Particularly, "provide the original mindset of the author". The problem begins when folks start to extrapolate away from what the author was directly addressing. –  Jon Ericson Apr 5 '13 at 17:50
    
@GoneQuiet re your showing work proposal. Yes I agree (and that post already had my upvote). Which of my actions do you read as not helping to advance it? My lasts couple meta posts are basically me standing up waiving my arms saying that's the main issue here. –  Caleb Apr 6 '13 at 8:28
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@JackDouglas Yes, and I think he raised a great point. However I don't see a conflict here. My usage of "application" here was on a completely different tack. Mike's usage of "application" is part of what I was referring to as historical background, and basic hermeneutical process, determining the original mindset of the author and the immediate context of the passage. That might be a distinction worth raising for clarification in another post, but I don't think it undermines the agreement on the main issue here of good exegetical answers exhibiting hermeneutical process not just conclusions. –  Caleb Apr 8 '13 at 10:26
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@JackDouglas: I'm not sure I want to fiddle with this because as I commented to Monica my main point here is that I think the main issue we face is not "where to draw the line", but that we'd focused on entire the wrong end of the problem. After we get some guidelines in place for steps 1, 2, and 3, whether to draw the line at 7 or 8 will be much easier to work through. I don't think this answer is the best space to break down the different types of "application" that come into play. –  Caleb Apr 8 '13 at 10:41
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We are all probably commenting on your post not because we disagree, but it has a good strong set of arguments. The only thing I would highlight is one common hermeneutic is sometimes done well by those who have never even heard of the word 'hermeneutic' through the 'the analogy of faith' method. This, as I am sure you know, is simply where a person 'interprets a scripture in such a way that it does not seem to contradict all other known scriptures'. It naturally leans on a doctrinal framework, but what keeps it on the exegesis end of things is it generally follows the ideas set down here. –  Mike Apr 8 '13 at 12:13
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@Mike How to handle answers employing that hermeneutic probably fall in the grey zone that we don't know what to do with yet. More importantly, answers using primarily that method will probably not be from people who are experts in the field anyway and thus not what we want to target. Maybe we can accommodating them, but I don't think we need to cater to them. Questions that call primarily for that sort of thing are probably better dealt with on one of the religion sites. –  Caleb Apr 8 '13 at 17:00

Let's start with the bar as high as possible:

Fundamental changes to the way I think

When I think about my favorite answers across the network, the one thing they all share is that the answer changed the way I think about a question. For instance, I asked about a Python design decision that struck me as odd and the answer gave me a sudden burst of insight into the philosophy behind the language. Or an answer on Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem that completely reframed my understanding of the already strange and wonderful idea. Or (more locally) an answer that took a step back and examined a passage in a refreshingly straightforward manner.

There's no objective standard for this, of course, and every reader will identify different answers if only because we start from different places. But it doesn't take many of these sorts of answers to make this whole endeavor worthwhile. Since not all answers can achieve this level of greatness, the next thing I look for is:

Answers that teach

Our highest rated answer simply explains, very patiently, why the Bible didn't carry out the digits of π. As you go down the list, you see answers that don't just provide an answer, but actually try to help readers learn something about the topic. Answers like these are perfect candidates for being paradigm-shifting for some people. If the top answer to a question isn't in this category, I'm left deeply unsatisfied.

I really think we do a good job of upvoting these sorts of answers. If an answer is accepted, it's likely to be of this type. But some questions just don't lend themselves to these types of answers. We really dig deep into the texts and often there is no prior knowledge to draw on. This long tail is really the great promise of this site. In order to answer obscure questions, we may need to settle for:

Answers that demonstrate learning

Thankfully, most of our answers at least fall in this category. People are just giving questions their best shots with the tools they happen to have acquired. For me, I've read a lot of history, Christian commentators, and some non-Christian interpretations of the Bible. Throw in a few online language tools, many years of small-group studies, and innumerable sermons and I can take a crack at a lot of questions. But since I don't know the answer before I start writing, I'm likely to make errors. In fact, screwing up is the sign that you are really learning and not just repeating what someone else has said.

If you pick a handful of answers at random, it's likely that all of them will be trying to learn, but aren't really authoritative. But the beautiful thing about Stack Exchange is that there are lots of ways for people to help each other construct great answers out of merely adequate ones. If I make a bad assumption about Hebrew grammar, I know there are people who will leave comments or even edit my answers to fix the problems. Sometimes answers that fail to teach (but show the learning process) will prompt other people, who know better, to write authoritative answers.

Summary

For me, this site is all about learning the Bible and the philosophy of interpretation. I'm good with all types of answers that at least make a good faith effort to move our understanding from darkness into the light.

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What sets this forum apart from other forums is Hermeneutics.

Answers posted here should employ hermeneutics and those hermeneutics should be laid out for others to see. They do not need to be stated as such and such a method but they should be delineated (Scripture references, citations, some form of logic to connect them). Thus simple yes, no, one line answers would not be accepted unless they employ support, explanation and citation that briefly.

It should be understood that the answers are written from the author's perspective unless otherwise noted.

For the record, I cannot go along with NPOV as it seems it would play out here. It is too small a box for the targeted users ie. Christians, Jews, Atheists. This forum is based upon hermeneutics of agreed upon texts. Thus, it should allow users to use as "fact" the things stated within the texts. I do not think members should be expected to state as opinion what they believe to be fact or vice verse. Nor should faith be edited out. I am, however, one hundred percent behind avoiding and editing out phrases like, "we believe" or "our Savior," that presume faith upon the community, since this is not a Christian site. Such should be stated, "I believe" or "my Savior" to reflect the author's belief.

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Preach it sister! (I didn't review other entries before writing my answer, but it sounds like we're on roughly the same conceptual page here.) –  Caleb Apr 5 '13 at 0:24

This is an absolutely vital question! I've edited my answer with a slight change of position and an attempt to be clearer in terms of what we do about different kinds of answers and content within answers:

Improve

  • support (eg add links, references to the text or external sources)
  • formatting/English/grammer/clarity/communication
  • rude or offensive content (rephrase but respect author's meaning)
  • presumptuously inclusive language (eg change 'we believe' to 'I believe')

Remove

  • one-liners and other unsalvageable answers (comment and delete/flag VLQ the whole answer)
  • non-answers (tangential information or requests for clarification can be converted to comments, other posts deleted/flagged NAA)
  • ad-hominem attacks on other users or others who might take offence (remove the offending section)
  • bald statements of 'fact' where there is no logic shown bridging the 'text' in question to the doctrine and no obvious link for someone who knows the text reasonably well (so Kazark's trinitarian references here would stand, because the link is obvious even to those who consider it fanciful)
  • answers that do not respect the Biblical Texts

Approve (by voting and encouraging comments where appropriate)

  • reasoning that can be understood
  • comprehensiveness and detail
  • documented research if appropriate (eg showing working, focusing on the 'process' not just the 'truth')
  • thoughtful and interesting content
  • concise descriptions of the hermeneutic being applied if it is not widely understood (or links to comprehensible sources that do that)
  • a clear progression from the text the question springs from running through the answer

Disapprove (by not voting, perhaps down-voting and/or perhaps commenting with polite guidance)

  • poor, illogical or hard to understand reasoning
  • unhelpful tone (eg polemical or contentious language)
  • answers that major on application with no justification in the question
  • answers that in essence exist to promote a doctrine rather than answer the question asked even if they in some sense do answer the question

Be generally neutral on the POV of an answer eg:

  • theology
  • what hermeneutic it is shaped by
  • whether it is consciously NPOV or not (there is nothing wrong with an NPOV answer or a POV answer if it is otherwise excellent)
  • whether it contains doctrine, if it is clear how it is connected to the question and particularly to the text the question springs from
  • whether it uses non-neutral language such as Tanakh, 'Old Testament', 'Jesus Christ' or AD

This is in line with current text of the FAQ:

We welcome Jewish, Christian, Atheist and other viewpoints as long as they take seriously the process of understanding the Biblical texts.

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I've chosen carefully where I've put that: I don't want 'show your work' to be a 'rule' rather something we should encourage, with voting and/or gentle encouragement as appropriate. –  Jack Douglas Apr 5 '13 at 14:26
    
I've yet to see a case where I didn't think a comment, edit or outright deletion wasn't more appropriate than a post notice. I'm not a fan of the 'banners of shame' I'm afraid, though I'm sure they have their uses in edge cases (not frequently enough to mention here though). –  Jack Douglas Apr 5 '13 at 14:37
    
Can we put in a case for "remove" when the answer has such a high noise factor (i.e. has a -4) that it no longer fits the paradigm of "a severely downvoted answer serves as an example of what is not correct"? –  swasheck Apr 5 '13 at 14:42
    
@Monica I'm not so sure: I think mentioning Marting Luther's anti-semitism isn't the same kind of thing as attacking another active user. I don't mean to say all ad-hominems are fine as long as they aren't against our users either though. –  Jack Douglas Apr 5 '13 at 14:43
    
@Monica I don't want to get too prescriptive but I've made an edit to that section –  Jack Douglas Apr 5 '13 at 15:04
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@swasheck: I'm not sure you want to consider score when talking about this - the system allows sufficiently-trusted users to vote to delete anything at -1 or below (and mods can remove anything), but whether or not you should should be based more on your judgement as to whether or not the answer adds anything at all to the site - even something that is very wrong but clearly expressed might be worth keeping, while a "not even wrong" (very, very poorly-written) answer might be more of a distraction than anything. –  Shog9 Apr 5 '13 at 15:57
    
@Shog9 thanks. that's just a spitballed metric to associate with other factors (quality, etc.) that contribute to "noise." –  swasheck Apr 5 '13 at 16:10
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I don't agree with every detail, but most of this is good stuff. It seems like it would belong on a "what actions should we take when bad posts show up" meta question rather than one asking for an idea of what we are looking for in good ones. This identifies a lot of action, but one has to extrapolate from those actions -- basically read between the lines -- to figure out what your definition of a good answer. –  Caleb Apr 6 '13 at 8:29
    
@Caleb I agree, and I offered to delete it when Shog9 said much the same thing. He said no need to delete, just don't let the 'what to do' become a distraction until we are ready for it. The other question we'll need is 'what does show your work' mean or something like that first. –  Jack Douglas Apr 6 '13 at 8:40
    
A lot of good sense. –  Mike Apr 8 '13 at 12:14
    
@Monica if you read up 3 comments you'll find you aren't the first to say that (minus the irony bit). –  Jack Douglas Aug 21 '13 at 12:48

A few points of consideration:

  • As I've argued before, the worldview of this site is postmodern relativism. Perspectives here have "no absolute truth or validity, having only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration."1 This may exclude some participants who refuse to cooperate with this worldview, and that's OK. There are existing sites dedicated to specific religious worldviews. I can go to these sites if I want a precisely Christian, Jewish, or Islamic perspective on a biblical text. At the same time, even these sites have adopted a postmodern relativist worldview (for instance, Christianity.SE does not espouse nor agree on what constitutes a Christian worldview).
  • The interpretation of religious texts will necessarily involve the presentation of religious worldviews and will thus often consist of purely subjective responses. Attempting to only consider good answers to be those that attempt to objectively address questions with a broad treatment of perspectives is a pipe dream. Not only is it too burdensome for most responders, but it is also a logical fallacy. Every interpretation is subjective according to this site's worldview (postmodern relativism). Diversity of opinion comes from a multitude of responses, not from one broad answer.
  • Many religious traditions refuse to treat Scripture as they would any other work of classical literature. Some approach the text with the assumption that it is infallible, inerrant, and/or inspired by a religious deity (to varying degrees, whether full, partial, plenary, verbal, etc.). We must acknowledge this tension if honest dialogue is to occur. For instance, those who espouse some of these traditions will not accept an answer that casts doubt on the text itself. Since the interpretation of texts is on topic, we must realize that some will be unable to lay aside their religious worldview(s) when answering.
  • This is not a Christian site, and thus a certain measure of objectivity is to be expected here that cannot be found on sites that represent a specific religious perspective. But what measure of objectivity? I asked about this in chat on C.SE and was told that "BH.SE is about what the text says and C.SE is about what the text means." I believe this is somewhat of a false dichotomy. Granted, I understand the complaint that too often at BH.SE posters jump "straight to what the text means without working through what it says first," but because of this the two are virtually inseparable in most answers on this site.

So where do we go from here? Require answers to be supported in order to make this site more objective than other religious-specific sites. This would then incorporate the interpretation of texts, but it would need to ensure it does not overlap with other sites as well. I would propose a more academic approach to exegesis if we adopt this route. This will help distinguish us from the purely doctrinal hermeneutics (e.g. "everything in the Bible points to Jesus as the Messiah") that are seen on sites devoted to specific religious perspectives. If the answer would be a laughingstock in the Classics department of a reputable university, it wouldn't belong here. That's not to say that we can expect all participants to be scholars, but there would need to be some basic standards. I'd start with these:

  • Supported responses are required (i.e. show your work). This does not always have to be a source (but sources are preferred); it can also be a logical explanation of the grammar of a text or of explicit textual features. Contested assertions should have a source. Unsubstantiated claims would be grounds for downvotes or VLQ flags.
  • When sources are cited to make factual assertions, they must be verifiable and reliable. Questionable sources can be used but the claims should be presented as the opinion(s) of the author rather than as facts. We are looking for informed, well-supported answers.
  • Keep original research to a minimum. If you're the only person who posits your hermeneutic method or interpretation, this isn't the forum for your new ideas. Go publish it in a reliable publication, submit to the process of peer-review, then cite yourself here. At the same time, this isn't Wikipedia and we do encourage the treatment of primary sources for biblical texts when possible. But this is primarily for the purpose of translation or determining the best reading of a text, not for making controversial original assertions.
  • Answers should generally be presented from a neutral perspective. It's OK to share your opinions, but they should not be stated as facts (especially doctrinal assertions). Assertions that are known by the poster to be contested in reliable literature should not be presented as facts. On the flip side, uncontested factual assertions should not be stated as mere opinions. Nonjudgmental language should be used at all times, and prominent opposing views should always be mentioned if known (it is too great a burden to force posters to find all opposing arguments, but if they are familiar with a major opposing perspective already, they should at least mention it). Anyone can edit an answer in order to help it meet these requirements (and ideally leave a comment for the poster to explain why it was edited). There are times when necessary assumptions may need to be made, but these should not be primarily doctrinal in nature.

This would be a great start.

1 cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relativism

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Our worldview ought not discourage people from using the site; especially since the whole point of the world-view is inclusion! Postmodern relativism is not at all the same thing as neutrality and it's that very word (neutral) that I most strongly object to in your answer. A site full of neutral answers will be a site full of, well, Wikipedia articles. Now that might seem an improvement over some of our current answers, but I submit that we can (and have (and should)) do much better. I think Caleb's answer accomplishes your goals without sacrificing true diversity. –  Jon Ericson Apr 5 '13 at 15:16
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@JonEricson as I've been explaining in chat, good sources are far more important to me than NPOV. Although note how much I've modified the NPOV perspective from that presented by Wikipedia. It is hardly the same thing. –  Dan Apr 5 '13 at 15:22
    
@Dan how do we objectively decide what is a good source? Aren't you just shifting the difficulty of judging quality sideways? –  Jack Douglas Apr 5 '13 at 15:25
    
@JackDouglas here's a good guide: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Identifying_reliable_sources –  Dan Apr 5 '13 at 17:56
    
@JackDouglas but seriously, I think self-published material nd non-academic websites are questionable. But perhaps this is another meta question.... –  Dan Apr 5 '13 at 17:57
    
I agree that would be a sensible place to start if we went down this route, thanks for the link. –  Jack Douglas Apr 9 '13 at 15:30
    
The worldview of this site is not postmodern relativism. The day that it becomes clear that it is, my contributions stop. I have given this unpopular answer; when it becomes clear that I cannot say, "Jesus is the Christ" in an answer, I will not give any more answers, or ask any more questions. –  Kazark Apr 15 '13 at 23:11
    
@Kazark part of postmodern relativism means tolerating your freedom to say that, regardless of whether or not one agrees (so long as you 'show your work'). However, if a NPOV requirement is made, it would not be OK. Luckily for you, hardly anyone is in favor of that requirement. –  Dan Apr 16 '13 at 3:22
    
@DanO'Day I am someone claimed by Jesus Christ; I do not have the freedom to assume some other worldview that the Scriptures, particularly on a site about the Scriptures! I am going to raise the question if that is actually the view of this site. If it is, that's okay; enjoy the site without me. –  Kazark Apr 16 '13 at 3:37

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