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In response to Can we reverse the trend on low quality posts? we would like to propose the following thoughts on what defines a good supported answer.

In order to give a valid answer about Christianity, it will almost always be necessary to reference a specific doctrine, biblical passage, or other respected external support. The type of support required from an answer depends upon the type of answer being provided.

  • Answers may use Biblical support in the form of exegesis of a related text or direct quotations of verses. Biblical support alone is sufficient only when the question is asking for the biblical basis of a given doctrine, however, even in this circumstance outside references are suggested, as interpretation of some scriptures varies widely. Otherwise, the answer must also be supported by a given doctrine. In general, each point made must be properly supported.

  • Answers may use doctrinal support by citing the denomination or doctrinal tradition that they represent. Links or other references to doctrinal statements are encouraged, but not required (as long as the statements can be easily verified with research).

  • Answers may claim factual support by making references to respectable outside sources. To put this another way, no original research is allowed. Factual support inside of an answer is only valid for questions that are seeking facts. Examples of these types of questions include questions about the history of Christianity, culture during Biblical times, or Bible translations.

  • Answers that are not verifiable by using biblical, doctrinal or other factual references are no more useful than simple statements of opinion. These answers should not be allowed.

As a StackExchange site we want to encourage expert answers. Judging answers based on these guidelines will help foster an environment in which experts thrive. Experts will be those with a strong knowledge of biblical texts, doctrinal positions and factual sources. We believe these guidelines will be best met by expert answers!

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The core criteria for writing answers on the Stack Exchange model, not only on this site but across the entire network, is one of usefulness; this can be reflected simply by hovering over the vote buttons on the side of every post:

https://christianity.stackexchange.com/a/11621/914

Usefulness, unfortunately, is highly subjective. Unlike our progenitor Stack Overflow, where something merely needs to be correct to be useful (and this is often easily verifiable), Christianity is a multi-faceted religion, often with multiple equally viable viewpoints. And more often than not, these viewpoints require significant study and knowledge to either confirm or deny.

This issue has been around pretty much since Stack Exchange started expanding out of Information Technology and into a more general Q&A network. Robert Cartaino covers it in his blog post "Good Subjective, Bad Subjective," which is and remains highly recommended reading for anybody posting answers to this site.

However valuable the above blog post is, it only covers the general case of subjectivity across the network. In this post, I will attempt to focus on what makes an answer "useful" to Christianity.SE in particular.


Being correct is not the same as being useful.

One of the qualities of the internet, especially for a site like this, is the fact that we're all pretty much equal (some would call that an advantage). You could be Pope Benedict XVI or John MacArthur, or you could just be Joe Sixpack from Milwaukee, and we really couldn't tell the difference.

One effect of that is, when proclaiming an answer, we the community (and especially future users) have no way of knowing if the poster is speaking from experience, knowledge, or just mere opinion. Even if Joe Sixpack is an expert on all things Milwaukee, that doesn't give him the authority or expertise to write a theology textbook.

One key factor of Robert's above blog post is the concept of the "Back It Up! Principle", which he describes thus:

Back It Up! means that your answers must be based on either:

  • Something that happened to you personally
  • Something you can back up with a reference

While I have seen questions that can be (and have been) effectively answered by no more than the above criteria, I feel that there is one key factor missing in this description, at least as it pertains to our site:

  • Something you have the authority to say.

The simple fact is, anybody can claim anything as a fact. Obviously, that doesn't necessarily mean it is a fact; no matter how many times I say the sky is green, it won't change the fact that the sky actually is not green (at least not where I'm sitting). But whereas the color of the sky is easily verifiable by looking out the window, confirming the veracity of a lot of Christian information is not that easy.

What authority do we, as a community, have?

As a lot of questions on this site involve salvation, sin, events that happened over two thousand years ago, and so on, authority is a major concern. Presumably, none of us were around to personally sit at Jesus' feet and hear His teaching. In lieu of any personal authority, if we're going to answer such questions we need to establish upon what (or whose) authority we do speak.

And as mentioned above, since there's no real method to prove or disprove anybody's identity, the poster's own authority is negligible; all posts should be written as if by an average person on the street. If any post makes claims that this hypothetical average person does not have the authority to make, then Back It Up!. This means that even if N. T. Wright were to create an account, he would still be expected to provide evidence to support any of his claims.

Unless easily verifiable, making a claim without clear authority is never useful, regardless of whether or not it's right. What makes such a claim useful is either:

  • referring to reputable research with verifiable methodology
  • laying out the evidences in full

If the poster is not able to produce proofs for any claims made in the post, those claims are not persuasive. As Paul tells us, "test everything; hold fast what is good." (1st Thessalonians 5:21 ESV) Voting is our first line of defense.

What, then, is useful evidence?

There is no clear response to this. Some Christians will only accept evidence from Scripture. Others will only accept evidence from their own church's doctrine. Still others will only accept evidence from reason and observation.

In cases where the question explicitly requests particular evidences, or from the perspective of a particular denomination or tradition, usefulness is fairly easy to judge: Answers lacking the requested evidences are not useful.


In summary

Regardless of the methodology used, or the evidences cited, the usefulness of any claim (and thus answer) depends almost entirely on making clear the following two points:

  • It is not mere opinion
  • It comes from an authoritative source
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    I "borrowed" this post almost entirely from goldPseudo, a ♦ moderator on Islam. An mistakes or problems are my own responsibility, however. Dec 19 '12 at 22:30
  • Interesting to compare the two answers, and to see what you changed and what you left the same.
    – TRiG
    Dec 23 '12 at 19:55
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I want to point something out in response to @SteelyDan's answer, and many of his comments made elsewhere on the site.

I get the impression from many of Dan's comments that he feels marginalized by the majority. That his opinions are unjustly suppressed (or at least that there is an attempt to do so) by the majority (specifically the western evangelical majority) on this site.

And on the surface, his argument seem to at least be getting at a valid issue: The purpose of this site is not to censor any Christian faith, no matter how large or small.

The conclusion that I have seen Dan therefore support is that references should not be required, because he, and perhaps others, may have unique Christian views that are therefore "unreferencable."

I see at least three grave problems with this line of reasoning.

  1. This does not make Dan, nor anyone else, a minority. It actually makes them a part of the 100% majority. Everyone has unique Christian opinions, view points, and beliefs. (Well, everyone who's taken the time to even consider Christianity, that is.) This means that every single user of this site has "unreferencable" answers they could provide to some question. The choice of the community not to accept unreferencable answers is not discrimination against believers with minority opinions. It is simply a very reasonable (and really, low) bar to be placed on the quality of the answers.

  2. Such answers are too localized to be useful. They may be useful in an open discussion, where the goal is to bounce new ideas around. But this site is specifically not a discussion site. It is a Q&A site. If an answer describes a view held by exactly one person, it is, by definition, "too localized." A question that asked "What does John Doe believe about X?" would be closed as too localized, and likewise such an answer should be deleted. This is in no way a judgement against John Doe or his views; it's simply a judgement that such an answer is not helpful--it does not improve the quality of the Internet.

  3. Not requiring referenced answers encourages lazy and sloppy answers. It's very easy to throw together a half-baked answer to any question out there. By requiring references, we automatically improve the quality of answers, and at the same time, often educate those providing answers. I know that I have learned many new things while researching answers for this site--answers I thought I already knew the answer to. But searching for references forces me to learn more, and improves my answer as a result--and improves my knowledge at the same time.

    If your answer doesn't contain references, it's not only a sign that your answer is too-localized, it can also be a sign that your answer is incomplete, or not fully formed.

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  • If I were trying to argue that if a question asked, say, specifically about what Anabaptists believe, then it's appropriate to give an answer about what people other than Anabaptists believe, you'd have a point.
    – Steely Dan
    Feb 16 '12 at 19:43
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Do we want expert answers, or answers from experts?

I've heard a lot about trying to attract experts to take part in the site. If we want that, I'm not keen on saying "no original research is allowed". I know that's the Wikipedia policy, but as I've said before, we are not Wikipedia. An expert is, in and of themselves, knowledgeable about their subject. They can offer wisdom, advice and profound knowledge that perhaps you might not find elsewhere.

Wikipedia says,

An expert is someone widely recognized as a reliable source of technique or skill whose faculty for judging or deciding rightly, justly, or wisely is accorded authority and status by their peers or the public in a specific well-distinguished domain.

In other words an expert is a reliable source of information in and of themselves, they therefore don't have to provide references to other reliable sources of information to support everything they say. By being an expert and offering their expertise, this is by definition itself a reliable source. An expert's original research should, therefore, be permissible.

The problem we then have is identifying who is an expert. So I would argue that answers should indeed always reference reliable sources OR the answerer should explain how they are qualified to offer an answer without one.

I know I've been guilty of answering questions I know little about, prefacing them with "I'm no expert but...." - we certainly need to avoid this happening. But I think an answer along the lines of

I have A degrees in theology and B years of experience of working in field C, and my training and experience tells me D

should be acceptable. (Of course, verifying those credentials could be problematic).

If we want experts to engage with the site we need to make it easy for them to do so, and not expect them to trawl through their library looking for references every time they answer a question. If we expect that of them, they will not engage. Instead we'll have answers from non-experts with lots of time on their hands to research a subject in order to answer a question that they previously knew very little about. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it means this would be a site for people who like to (and have the time to) research rather than those who already have the expertise.

The thing is, a well researched and well referenced answer from a non-expert is often as good, if not better, than an unreferenced answer from an expert. On that basis, perhaps the emphasis on attracting "experts" is wrong. As the OP says we want "expert answers" but that's a different thing from "answers from experts". I think we do want "expert answers", so the OP is totally correct to use this wording - but I think it's important to make the distinction.

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    I think you mis-understand the intention here. Perhaps we can tune up our explanations -- but the point is not to have bibliographies in every post. References are encouraged but experts will be able to write good answers without referencing 20 books. The point is to draw the line between "My opinion is X" and "The Episcopal church doctrine on X is Y". Experts may be able to make the latter statement off the top of their head, but it is still inherently verifiable. Experts will already know the relevant doctrines; what we want to curb is non-experts making up new doctrines on the spot.
    – Caleb
    Oct 13 '11 at 11:00
  • The fact is there is no choice to make between these two issues. We can encourage both expert answers and answers from experts without them being in conflict because both will give answers that are referencable. Whether they take a lot of time to find the pages or not, or whether they just learned about that subject in researching that question or at seminary 10 years ago -- neither party will be making up stuff on the spot or giving opinion-as-answer.
    – Caleb
    Oct 13 '11 at 11:04
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    @Caleb Thanks, that's much clearer. I'd like to explore that last point a little more though, but I'll take that to chat.
    – Waggers
    Oct 13 '11 at 11:15
  • (That was in reply to the first comment by the way!)
    – Waggers
    Oct 13 '11 at 11:21
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Unless a posted answer is clearly representative of some well-known major doctrinal tradition, I think it is often worth quoting a published reference. It is rare that we are actually presenting an argument that we do not recall a published work first helping us to establish our view in, or having been recalled as a good clear representation of it.

To provide a published quotation also gives a link for other’s to more fully explore the view we represent. True, we can’t make it a law because the subject might not have a whole lot of published views, or we just can’t get a copy of an old paper book to refer to, but in general I think if we can’t provide a published reference then the quality of the answer is not something we should be fully satisfied with. Furthermore, synthesizing our view with a published one helps us to clarify our own position and the labor is valuable both to ourselves and to the quality of this site.

If we do not take up the disciple of quoting published references, there is also the danger that this whole site will degrade into a trashy waste bin supporting theological nausea, rather then providing clear answers to clear questions. The scriptures themselves are the best and most authoritative expert to quote, but as this is a secular site, our answers should be generally verifiable as representing an opinion larger then our own and be verifiable by an atheist against the public works within Christianity.

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