by Anthony Crockett
for the NW region day conference, Nov 2006

Some of you will know that at the beginning of the year, I was embroiled in an argument on the Fulcrum website with the Revd Dr Andrew Goddard of Wycliffe Hall, about the current debate regarding the rights of homosexual people.

This was in the light of two statements of the Bench of Bishops of the Church in Wales on the subject. I was delighted when, as part of his contribution to the conversation, Dr Goddard published on the website his very erudite article Semper Reformanda in a Changing World: Calvin, Usury and Evangelical Moral Theology.

Amongst Evangelicals, Calvin enjoys something of the status of Thomas Aquinas amongst Roman Catholics - he is an authority to whom appeal can be made, for a knock-down argument. As Goddard makes plain, in the 1550s Calvin began a process amongst Protestants which quickly succeeded in overturning the Christian tradition against lending money on interest, which had lasted for a millennium and half, a tradition based, of course, on the consistent teaching of the Old Testament. (I am still surprised that Goddard does not point out that the process had been started forty years earlier amongst Roman Catholics by Johann Eck of the University of Ingolstadt.) It was a complete volte-face. Goddard quotes John Noonan:

Once upon a time... seeking, receiving, or hoping for anything beyond one's principal - in other words, looking for a profit - on a loan constituted the mortal sin of usury. The doctrine was enunciated by popes, expressed by three ecumenical councils, proclaimed by bishops, and taught unanimously by theologians. The doctrine was not some obscure, hole-in-the-corner affection, but stood astride the European credit markets, at least as much as the parallel Islamic ban on usury governs Moslem countries today... The great central moral fact was that usury, understood as profit on a loan, was forbidden as contrary to natural law, as contrary to the law of the church, as contrary to the law of the gospel. (p4)

But by the sixteenth century, Europe was changing rapidly into a 'sophisticated world of finance (which was) then emerging in the great free cities', as Alister McGrath puts it. Goddard quotes Andre Bieler, and says that 'Calvin realised very quickly that these biblical texts are not able to be properly applied to certain new realities of financial life' (p11). It was, in fact, a world when people realised that, on this subject, 'the centre cannot hold', to adopt W B Yeats' words. In the minds of some of us, we are living in the same kind of world vis a vis the traditional teaching on homosexuality in this century, in much the same way as the traditional teaching against artificial contraception could not hold in last century - but more of that later.

Calvin claimed that 'social and economic change have made the issue of usury in his day less not more like the phenomenon Scripture condemns, and that as a result there needs to be change in the church's moral teaching.' (p11) Goddard then uses Guenther Haas's analysis of Calvin's method, where he identifies two strands to his argument. He appeals to the principle of equity and to the Golden Rule. The first strand I take to mean the principle of treating equals equally, which by application means that in the sixteenth century, financial transactions between equal partners were not to be compared with the rich lending money to the poor in the Old Testament context. The second strand is, of course, the dominical commandment. What Calvin does is not to abandon the Scriptures, but to insist that 'everything should be examined in the light of Christ's precept: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This precept is applicable every time' (p10). He has let the Scripture shape his thinking at the level of moral and theological principles.' (p10) Goddard is forced to add that this kind or reasoning will 'set evangelical alarm bells ringing. That these are, in fact, the words of the great French reformer as he set about rethinking (in a way we now accept without thinking) the tradition's longstanding ban on usury should remind us that within the right context such a form of moral argumentation and appeal to scripture may have a certain place and a level of validity within evangelical moral reasoning and revision of tradition' (p10). One is tempted to say Quod erat demonstrandum!

I cannot hope to expound fully Goddard's learned article in ten minutes. It's worth reading on the Fulcrum website. All I want to argue for is a measure of hermeneutical consistency. For if a millennium and a half of utterly consistent Christian tradition can be overturned because the times have changed, because financiers are now all equals and because we should treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves, then perhaps in our society, we could agree that 'biblical texts are not able to be properly applied to certain new realities of social life', to misquote Bieler, and the same revisionist hermeneutic can indeed enable us to change our traditional moral and theological stance.

By a cruel irony, Dante places usurers and homosexuals in the same circle of the Inferno. If Calvin, in his day, was able to rescue the former from hell by his revisionism, then perhaps we can do the same for the latter in our day. A consistent application of his hermeneutic will enable us to do just that

I hold out little hope, however, that our evangelical brethren and sisters will be able to abandon what appears to be their institutional homophobia, whilst so many of them remain blind to the excesses of modern capitalism and its very inequitable effect on the poor, especially in the developing world - a situation which even the revisionist John Calvin could not justify.

Anthony Crockett was the Bishop of Bangor.