Choosing truth rather than words

by
24 May 2007

Can equity trump scripture? The view is more traditional than some think, says Alan Billings

Radical: portrait of John Calvin by Albert Anker INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE REFORMATION

Radical: portrait of John Calvin by Albert Anker INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE REFORMATION

‘The Church needs someone who takes the Bible too seriously’

“HENCE, I conclude that we ought not to judge homosexuality according to a few passages of scripture, but in accordance with the principle of equity.”

Who said that? We can be sure it wasn’t the Bishop of Hereford. Could it be the Revd Dr Giles Fraser, or another shop steward of the liberal wing of the Church of England? After all, what is being said here — that passages of scripture should be disregarded in favour of something vaguer, “the principle of equity” — sounds pretty liberal.

Before I reveal the source, we should note that what is being said is of the utmost importance for moral debate within the Church.

First, there is the recognition that moral principles can be in conflict. This is an idea with which many Christians are uncomfortable. We would much prefer to live in a world where there is only ever one right course of action. This is an unfortunate legacy of both a certain sort of philosophy — Platonic — and a certain kind of Christianity — hegemonic.

As long as Europe was Christian, and the principle of “cuius regio, eius religio” (whose rule, his religion) held sway, it might have been possible to go on thinking like that; but it won’t do in the 21st century.

What we have come to understand over the past 200 years is that human beings have different visions of what it is to live ethically.

There is a world of difference between what the Amish communities of the United States look for as the realisation of God’s Kingdom on earth, and what the average member of the Church of England might envisage. There are different ideas about what constitutes appropriate behaviour as we prepare for the coming of that Kingdom. But, while we may have come to realise this, we are a long way from understanding the implications of it.

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Second, as well as the recognition that moral principles can be in conflict, there is the realisation that we need ways of understanding how and why some general moral principles can override narrower — even biblical — prescriptions.

So, who did say: “Hence, I conclude that we ought not to judge homosexuality according to a few passages of scripture, but in accordance with the principle of equity”?

IT WAS the Reformer John Calvin — although I have cheated a little. He didn’t say “homosexuality”, but “usury”. Even so, the dilemma he faced was similar to the one we face: can you set aside a biblical prohibition when it seems to stand in the way of people flourishing? For only the wilfully blind could deny that many homosexual relationships are good.

For Calvin, the issue was this: biblical texts about usury which were framed to stop the poor falling into debt-slavery were now preventing people from borrowing to finance enterprise. In a letter to a friend, he dealt with the matter in two ways.

First, he considered the historic circumstances in which usury was banned. He concluded that the relevant texts made sense in their original context, but not in the context of the 16th century: “Our situation is quite different. For that reason I am unwilling to condemn it, as long as it is practised with equity and charity.” Indeed, to oppose the practice would be to “play with God in a childish manner, preferring words over truth itself”.

This leads to a second point. Calvin invokes the idea of a hierarchy of moral values as a result of which the more general principle of equity finds against the narrower matter of a continuing prohibition of usury. Calvin’s overturning of an absolute ban on usury resulted in the economic development of Europe and prosperity on a previously unimagined scale.

WHAT we see in Calvin’s argument in favour of usury is the recognition that Christianity needs a mechanism for allowing moral development. If it does not, then it condemns itself to moral irrelevancy.

Calvin’s bold assertion — “Hence, I conclude that we ought not to judge usury according to a few passages of scripture, but in accordance with the principle of equity” — freed people to engage in a thorough debate about the real issues of usury. How do you safeguard the vulnerable from the predatory lender? What levels of interest are appropriate? What about the poor who are too poor even to borrow?

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Even if we thought that there was a biblical principle that prohibited same-sex relationships, it is not at all obvious that it has to be preferred over other principles when they conflict. In this case, the conflict is between that principle and human flourishing, and the judgement is that a society in which homosexual people are able to have stable, loving relationships recognised by all is more cohesive than one where such relationships are either forbidden or frowned upon.

The Church needs a latter-day Calvin, someone who takes the Bible too seriously to “play with God in a childish manner, preferring words over truth itself”, and who will make an equally bold declaration with regard to same-sex relations. The debate over homosexuality needs fresh expressions.

Canon Dr Alan Billings is director of the Centre for Ethics and Religion at Lancaster University.

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