I am using my own answer in this question because it was easy to pick on my own issues than others (I'm trying to make a point, not go on a witch hunt). While I think good answers will also follow this, they could stand without doing so.

For instance, allow me to critique my own answer. In my last paragraph of the 'Grammar' section of my response, I wrote:

ἦρκεν (he has taken up/set aside) is a perfect active indicative verb, and thus our record of debt ("certificate of indebtedness") has indeed come to be set aside (or taken away).

I added emphasis on the word that illustrates the issue. I wrote in first person: 'our.' But Paul didn't write this letter to me or to the readers of this website (not to mention that this also assumes the reader is a Christian). He wrote it to Christians in first-century Colossae, a small Phrygian city.

Since I consider myself to be a Christian, I believe that I can rightly apply this text to myself. However, to do so is going beyond describing the text itself and prescribing it to a contemporary audience. I could easily defend this assertion by arguing that Paul is writing to Christians about topics that are applicable beyond the first century, but this site is not Christian. A Jewish or other non-Christian reader would not believe that this passage is talking about him/her. By using first person plural language, I am alienating this reader and subtly imposing my prescription of the text upon him or her.

From a scholarly perspective and from a site scope perspective, the question I answered is about the language in a specific text that was written to a particular audience at a fixed time in history. Applying the text to my readers is uncalled for and does not add to the answer. This is subtle, but it is also very important—and it happens all the time on this site.

Using first person plural language when referencing the audiences of ancient texts moves from describing the text itself to prescribing norms that are expressed as binding on readers and therefore imposes this application upon the reader.


Here is another example to clarify this, it was given on another meta question so I'll use it here:

  • Does Hebrews 6:4-6 imply that we can lose our salvation? There is an inherent imposition upon the reader of an assumption in this question, namely that the epistle of Hebrews is applicable to the reader today, who is presumably a Christian. Scholars don't agree on the audience of this text aside from (mostly) agreeing that it was written to Christians in the first century CE. But to apply it to your readers shifts the question from being being descriptive to being prescriptive (s/he is also assuming the reader is a Christian by the use of a first person plural pronoun). It could be reworded like so: "Does Hebrews 6:4-6 imply that the recipients could lose their salvation?"

Is the prescription of a given text to people beyond the text's author's original intended audience undesirable? I believe it is.

I'm afraid the edit changes nothing for me, though I appreciate the effort. I'd prefer not to use the word "application" at all to define site scope as it is religiously-loaded, plus I have no objection per se to what I think you mean by "application": if and only if it is clearly and logically linked to the text step by step (which of course would rarely be possible in a question but that would depend on the text). –  Jack Douglas Feb 1 at 8:08

3 Answers 3

Questions asking how to apply a text to our own lives are off-topic here. Either they're too localized or they're doctrinal; etiher way, they're not about the text and thus don't fit here.

These questions are more likely to be on topic at Christianity.SE, Mi Yodeya, Philosophy, Politics, and maybe others.

-I always get squirmy when I hear 'application of a text'. Does that mean unless I delete any possible usage of a text in which it's meaning is used in context w/ the author's point? Many passages of Scripture derive their meaning from application(the wise man who built his house upon a rock...Mt. 7:24). Or do you mean 'personalizing' the text(ie: this is what God said to me...) which is very subjective, unless you can get numerous other credible witnesses who heard God audibly say the same thing. The later, I totally agree, should be parsed out of questions. –  Tau Nov 15 '13 at 15:53
-There is a 'school' of hermeneutics, however, that discerns meaning based on the 'impressions' it makes on the hearer. If you 'screen' that out, then what sort of rulebook would you use on other 'methodologies' that don't skew the responses towards the answers you agree with? –  Tau Nov 15 '13 at 15:59
Questions shouldn't be "how should I live my life in light of this text"; that's a question for your clergy or other advisor. "What does this text mean?" or "what is the historical context?" or "what cultural meme is the author referring to" or the like, on the other hand, are answerable and generally applicable. I'm saying our questions should be like the latter, not the former. –  Gone Quiet Nov 15 '13 at 15:59
If your text interpretation depends on personal revelation, OTOH, that's not really a useful hermeneutic as nobody else can use your methods to reproduce your results. That can never come across as anything other than unsupported personal opinion and should be avoided in questions and answers. The "rule" is: is there a demonstrable method here? –  Gone Quiet Nov 15 '13 at 16:00
Related (everyone on this site should read this): meta.hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/778/208 –  Gone Quiet Nov 15 '13 at 21:03

It is undesirable to speak prescriptively about the text in such a way that it implies norms that are expressed as binding on readers. The OP can make the exact same points using first person singular language to make it clear that s/he is talking about him/herself without imposing beliefs upon the reader, or by using third person language (e.g. "Christians believe..."). Therefore I agree with the following:

Using first person plural language when referencing the audiences of ancient texts moves from describing the text itself to prescribing norms that are expressed as binding on readers and therefore imposes this application upon the reader.

I believe this should not be welcome in questions or answers. Describing one's own perspective or that of a contemporary reading community is fine, but prescribing it upon the reader is not desirable.

I think I'd agree with this if it was phrased differently: at one extreme, if the answer is essentially a self-righteous rant then it isn't welcome here, and if it is essentially not an overt attempt to ram your own doctrine down others' throats here then it is, but I don't think the think lacking is a legal standard about singular or plural to judge between the two. Its a matter of context and good judgement and trying to put ourselves in the shoes of the average reader. –  Jack Douglas Feb 5 at 9:14
I see your point on intent, and I feel I've relented a lot by being more OK with first person singular language, but when addressing the audience of an ancient text, the use of first person plural language imposes one's beliefs upon the reader (whether you intended to or not). And in every case, the same things can be stated just as well in first person singular or third person language. –  Dan Feb 5 at 10:16
Sorry for the misunderstanding, my comment wasn't about intent, but overall impression of a post rather than rules about particular words. For example the highest voted answer on the site uses the 'we' word multiple times. Sure the subject of the 'prescription' is fairly uncontroversial, but that's exactly my point: what matters is whether the post as a whole comes across as bigoted/presumptious, not whether a particular word is used. –  Jack Douglas Feb 5 at 14:18
@JackDouglas I'm following you (this is just our daily subjectivity vs. objectivity in moderation yoyo chat, ya know :P ) –  Dan Feb 5 at 14:28

I'm worried this question is effectively too broad to be answered in it's own right.

There are at least three distinct questions that overlap with this one:

  • Do we want NPOV?
  • Do we want 'academic' language?
  • Do we want doctrine/application (anywhere)?

The greatest focus is on the latter, but rather than trying to answer any one of those here (they have all been addressed elsewhere with a greater or lesser degree of agreement and finality), I'd like to make an effort to address what I see as the assumptions behind the question.

Does the author's intended audience matter?

Yes and no. In one sense the OP is the intended audience and this network is built on answering questions: not theoretical questions that could be asked, but real answerable questions that have been asked. In another sense this isn't a private conversation between the OP and those who answer, it is public and we want it to benefit others who have similar questions. We are trying to make the internet a better place! Rather than specifically asking who the OP's intended audience is, I think we just need to play to those two actual audiences.

Can we evacuate a question or answer of all doctrinal purpose or application

This question has also been addressed before in other ways, and again I argue that you can choose a philosophy or manner of understanding and analysing the texts and elevate that to the position of academic/correct/non-doctrinal but the very act of doing so is a doctrinal one. In so doing we are implicitly saying that those who don't, won't or can't are not experts.

Furthermore, if we decide this is what we want to do, we open up endless debate about exactly what constitutes doctrine, for example, from the question you link to:

Exegetically, without bringing theology to the text, is Paul stating that all their sins, including future sins were forgiven in Colossians 2:13-14?

Is the explicit suggestion that we can address any text without a framework or theology a doctrinal assumption? Is the OP equating transgression and sin an implicit theological/doctrinal assertion? (after all the word 'sin' isn't even present in his own quote of the text in question)

Jack, I am analyzing the objective reality that the question asks for application of doctrine merely by using first person (it becomes about me/my religion) rather than about the text - regardless of whether or not they intended to do so. If the shopper accidentally forgot to scan an item in her basket, she still stole it when she left the store. But let me propose something in meta that I think may help us move forward. So far I've mostly been just critiquing the poor logic. –  Dan Sep 13 '13 at 15:48
After rereading this, I believe you misunderstood my post. I am talking about the audience of the text itself, not the audience of the question. I.e. the audience of Paul's letter to Philemon is an actual dude named Philemon, not 'us'. If the OP uses 1st person singular language this is less problematic as it is merely a statement of opinion. But first person plural language applies the text to not only the OP but also the reader, thus assuming the reader shares the OP's beliefs. This is what I tried to communicate. I hope my edit clarifies this. –  Dan Feb 1 at 5:26
I significantly edited my post to where some of this may no longer be applicable. Notably, it is much more focused and does not commingle issues of NPOV, academic language, and doctrinal language anymore. Those were all valid critiques of my original post. –  Dan Feb 1 at 5:50
And... @JackDouglas I changed my post again. Thinking through the other one helped me clarify this a bit better. –  Dan Feb 3 at 18:28
@JackDouglas-+1 Again Jack. We have waded through this swamp before, and it is a given, if you have a discernible pulse, you have a POV. Is the evidence credible and does it support the answer is the best gauge of judging responses. –  Tau Feb 6 at 4:51
@user2479 thanks and yes, my boots are a bit muddy :) –  Jack Douglas Feb 6 at 15:24

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