(Third post on same-sex relationships.)
In later society ‘usury’ came to mean the action or practice of lending money at unreasonably high rates of interest, but in many historical societies including ancient Christian, Jewish, and Islamic societies, usury meant the charging of interest of any kind, and this was considered wrong, and even in some situations it was made illegal. The texts of the Old Testament are clear:
If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them (Exod. 22:25).
If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you (Leviticus 25:36–37).
You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent. On loans to a foreigner you may charge interest, but on loans to another Israelite you may not charge interest, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings in the land that you are about to enter and possess (Deut. 23:19–20).
O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
… who do not lend money at interest (Ps. 15:1, 5).
If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right… does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not take advance or accrued interest… such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God (Ezek. 18:5-9; see also 18:13, 17 and 22:12; apologies for the male language, such was the culture and the language of the day).
Interest was not allowed among the covenant community, which allowed space for Jews to loan money in a later period when they were dispersed throughout Europe. They became the money-lenders, to the Gentiles.
This prohibition to charge interest continued to carry weight within the Christian community. The most recent and relatively complete papal discussion of usury occurred in Pope Benedict XIV’s encyclical of 1745,
The nature of the sin called usury has its proper place and origin in a loan contract … [which] demands, by its very nature, that one return to another only as much as he has received. The sin rests on the fact that sometimes the creditor desires more than he has given…, but any gain which exceeds the amount he gave is illicit and usurious.
One cannot condone the sin of usury by arguing that the gain is not great or excessive, but rather moderate or small; neither can it be condoned by arguing that the borrower is rich; nor even by arguing that the money borrowed is not left idle, but is spent usefully…
As can be read in this encyclical there is a ban on interest, with the only legitimate return being that of receiving back as much as was loaned.
If we apply the law, what we read, as being the guideline for us in our society we could argue the following:
A: Money lending that charges interest is wrong.
B: Mortgages that enable a person to buy a property fit the above criterion of money lending.
C: (Therefore) mortgages are evil and are to be condemned, and anyone with a mortgage is in defiance of God’s law.
That would indeed be a-not-inappropriate application of the law, but one that would condemn many who seek to follow Jesus! We have an appropriate application of the law if B and A are in the same category; if the prohibition of A also includes what is listed in B. Understandably the prohibitions against charging of interest came to be understood as a restriction on exorbitant rates of interest, or of using money to oppress those who could resort to no other option but to borrow money.1 The understanding of the money-lending prohibitions went beyond a literal reading of the text where the texts were not applied to every money-lending scenario.
I suggest in the sub-title of this section that the consideration of money-lending was an ‘important aside’ within the discussion of same-sex expression. The clear texts prohibiting money lending seem no longer to apply as they formerly did. One could push back against the direction I am implicitly proposing, with the point that usury is commented on within the OT, but there is a lack of NT texts on the matter and that this is unlike the same-sex situation where we have Scriptures suggesting a prohibition in both testaments. I acknowledge this to be the case but the early church writers understood the continuance of the principle, the ‘prohibitive law’ against usury. These include: Apollonius, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and John Chrysostom. In addition, the Apostolic Canons, dating in their final form to around 380, in their 44th canon prohibit the taking of usury by the clergy, as do the Council of Arles in 314 (12th canon) and the First Council of Nicaea in 325 (17th canon), while the Council of Elvira, 305 or 306, the First Council of Carthage in 345 (12th canon) and the Council of Aix in 789 (36th canon) prohibit it to the laity also.
Law ends with Jesus, for Torah law was what was given to the people of Israel, but none of the principles within the law are simply cancelled. They all are nailed to the cross as law, but that which continues as ‘Jesus shaped principle’ remains, often in intensified form (‘adultery’ is re-defined as ‘lust’; ‘murder’ as ‘anger’).
Helpfully, tradition has helped us to see the ongoing principle of the prohibition against money-lending with interest as being a restriction against unbridled use of money in a money-lending context, of money being used to make money through oppression and excessive interest rates.
It appears that it was John Calvin who pushed back against a blanket restriction on charging interest. (Martin Luther condemned charging interest, and if it was found that a Christian had been involved in charging interest they were not given a ‘Christian’ burial.) Calvin replied in a letter to a question posed to him asking if it was ever right to charge interest that pushed back against the text as being the final word, arguing that the context of the biblical texts and the context of the 16th Century were different; he argued that the purpose of the text was to prohibit that which was oppressive, and had to be read in that light. Perhaps the letter did not become public until after Calvin’s death as it was so explosive?
When we come to the texts that we have to consider on same-sex expression2 we need to approach them with some caution if we seek to learn from the above example.
A: The Bible condemns money lending that charges interest / the Bible condemns homosexuality.
B: Mortgages are money lending examples that charge interest / same-sex committed relationships are an example of homosexual practice.
C: Mortgages are evil and all who have them are to be condemned / all those…
The important area is whether B & A are referring to the same; that there is a direct 1-1 relationship between the two examples. In the case of the money-lending / mortgages the consensus of opinion is that they are not; that we are not comparing like with like. This scrutiny regarding the texts on homosexuality has to be applied to them in the same way; we have to consider if we are comparing like with like.
None of what has been written thus far is presented as a conclusive argument, but the various principles that proceed should caution us somewhat as we come to look at some of the pertinent texts.
There is an overarching story that we live under. That story is from Creation through Redemption to New Creation. We cannot simply take texts and force them to be applicable to any and every situation, regardless of culture and context. This overarching story will enable us to understand the word of God but we cannot reduce the word of God to a text, or even a combination of texts; ultimately the truths of God are not simply textual or propositional but revealed in and through the Person of Jesus.
Any understanding of Scripture will be informed by the stories that people bring, those stories will involve God’s activity and acceptance with the stories often coming from the marginalised whose voice has been previously silenced.
Our understanding of Scripture will be challenged in the same way as the prohibition on money-lending has been challenged. We will have to ask what is being addressed in the Scriptures, what practices are being forbidden and how do we apply them into our culture. The money-lending example illustrated those principles that will be important for us.
1. Such an understanding should carry redemptive weight into our economic structures, where money makes money, often simply enriching those who already have resources and enslaving those who lack resources.
2. I will use the term ‘homosexuality’ in the sentences that follow, but it is important to acknowledge that our current understanding of homosexuality is not that which was understood in the biblical period, nor indeed for centuries thereafter.
In writing these posts I do not have a great library to refer to (and would I understand what is in those erudite books anyway??) but did read quite widely when I wrote the original paper (24 years ago!). I acknowledge the help I have found in my thinking by Dr. Jonathan Tallon whose YouTube channel is very informative:
Dr. James Brownson has a book ‘Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships’ that seeks do just that. Of course just because a person has the term ‘Dr’ in front of their name does not make them right. Andrew Perriman (who is a ‘Dr’ but does not use it as far as I can tell) has a good review and of the book and pushes back against it:
There are other posts on Andrew’s site that review the book – the above is just one; make a search ‘Brownson’ and you will find others. There are also posts by Andrew on same-sex relationships and he also has a book that is available (‘End of Story?: Same-Sex Relationships and the Narratives of Evangelical Mission’).