(noun) the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts.
Religious hermeneutics is a very important topic. We often don’t put too much thought into why a particular interpretation is good or bad — often abdicating that responsibility to the traditions or institutions of faith. But exploring, questioning, confirming, examining, and re-examining our scriptural interpretations and what force they have in our lives is important. Slavery was justified by an appeal to the Bible’s Old and New Testaments (source; see also Gen. 9:24–27; Gen. 21:9–10; Ex. 20:10, 17; Eph. 6:5–8; Philem. 12; Stringfellow’s, ‘A Scriptural defense of slavery’ (1856); and Harris’, ‘Scriptural researches on the licitness of the slave’ (1788)). Racism was taught and institutionalized in religion, including in the LDS faith (source and source). And misogyny has a long, tragic history in religion past and present (source). These and other problems have not all been overcome, and so our need to be discerning towards the popular interpretations of our day is critical.
But scriptures which can be used for ill can also be used for good. Jesus frequently cited Jewish scripture available in His day (often in ways challenging norms). Christians turned to the words of Joel (Joel 2:28-29) to interpret the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:16-18). Peter re-interpreted Levitical text in understanding how to preach to the gentiles (Acts 10). And Joseph Smith powerfully used James’ admonition to “ask of God” in the pursuit of ongoing revelation, initiating the emergence of the Mormon faith (James 1:5). So what makes the difference between scripture being used for good or evil?
I’ve often wondered, “How can we teach such a complex topic to children?” Certainly being honest to children about past (and present) ills is a start so they learn not all interpretations are good. But even that is reactionary and only focuses on the negative side. How can we instill in children (and adults) the ability to discern interpretations by the spirit with a focus on how they can reflect the Light of Christ into the world?
My wife and I have spent considerable time on this topic with our children in multiple Family Home Evenings, time spent studying the scriptures together with our children, exercises in memorizing and thinking about passages of scripture, and in one on one conversations — sometimes in response to them being exposed to poor or even damaging scriptural interpretations. I wanted to share some of what we’ve taught our children in Family Home Evenings. While we don’t always have the most effective Family Home Evenings (the kids’ attention spans and our patience aren’t always the best), we try to help our children develop a strong hermeneutic rooted in Christlike love.
In one Family Home Evening, we drew various things on the board like prophets, scripture, prayer, Holy Ghost, good books, etc. We then asked them what those have in common. Then we asked them how we can know whether things that are taught in them are good. We put up the “pray & study” answers but kept asking, “Well, how do you know what you feel in a prayer is good?” and “How do you know whether something in scripture is good or not?”
We read with them the following scriptures:
- Jesus tells us to “hang all the law and the prophets” on the two great commandments: love God and love thy neighbor (Mat. 22:37-40).
- Moroni said anything that inspires us to do good and believe in Christ comes from Christ (Moroni 7:14-16).
- Joseph Smith taught about the limits of priesthood authority (Doctrine and Covenants 121:36-37, 41-42).
- John said that we must overcome ignorance and fear and put love first as God has (1 John 4:18-19).
Afterwards we wrote up on the board the measures (hermeneutics) these scriptures present and went over with them how they can test whether or not what they hear, read, or feel is good:
- Does it lead you to love God and love your neighbor?
- Does it inspire you to do good and believe in Christ?
- Is it taught with long-suffering, kindness, meekness, and love?
- Does it help you overcome fear and ignorance or does it cause you to fear or remain in ignorance?
We then told them that if we find something in scripture, conference, church, fellow worshipers, leaders, or a feeling that fails these tests then we can be confident that we’re not experiencing God’s spirit and that we needn’t accept it. But we also underscored that we can choose to have charity towards others in our sustaining even when we disagree and feel differently about things.
In another Family Home Evening, we used an object lesson where we strung string between two nails nailed into a board. We read Matthew 22:37-40 and talked about the two great commandments on which “hang all the law and the prophets”. We then hung things representing different parts of our faith: prophets, scripture, commandments, temples, priesthood, church, etc. I then took one end of the string off one of the nails and asked, “What will happen if I let go of this end of the string?” As they anticipated, as I let go all the things we had carefully hung off the string fell to the ground. This object lesson is a poignant way to demonstrate the primacy of the two great commandments Jesus anchored His teachings to.
Christ-centered interpretations (hermeneutics) is a very important topic. It is key for children (and for adults) to develop a strong sense of right and wrong by the Spirit they feel within themselves. This creates courage to choose Christ-centered principles and interpretations even if it may be different from popular interpretations. I believe developing this strong, Christ-centered courage to approach scripture and interpretation is how the gospel can become a well from within (John 4:14) rather than a well we must depend on from others allowing us to better reflect the Light of Christ into the world.
For additional reading, a powerful, prophetic voice today on this topic comes from Dieter F. Uchtdorf.
From his address titled “The Pattern, the Path, and the Promise“:
To put it simply, having charity and caring for one another is not simply a good idea. It is not simply one more item in a seemingly infinite list of things we ought to consider doing. It is at the core of the gospel—an indispensable, essential, foundational element. Without this transformational work of caring for our fellowmen, the Church is but a facade of the organization God intends for His people. Without charity and compassion we are a mere shadow of who we are meant to be—both as individuals and as a Church. Without charity and compassion, we are neglecting our heritage and endangering our promise as children of God. No matter the outward appearance of our righteousness, if we look the other way when others are suffering, we cannot be justified.
And from his conference talk “Perfect Love Casteth Out Fear“:
Fear rarely has the power to change our hearts, and it will never transform us into people who love what is right and who want to obey Heavenly Father. People who are fearful may say and do the right things, but they do not feel the right things. They often feel helpless and resentful, even angry. Over time these feelings lead to mistrust, defiance, even rebellion… It grieves me to hear of Church members who exercise unrighteous dominion—whether in their homes, in their Church callings, at work, or in their daily interactions with others… They demand compliance with their own arbitrary rules… The Lord has said that “when we … exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, … the heavens withdraw themselves [and] the Spirit of the Lord is grieved.”… the Lord has made it clear that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, [and] temperance.”