Semper Reformanda in a Changing World: Calvin, Usury and Evangelical Moral Theology

Originally published in Sung Wook Chung (ed), Alister E McGrath and Evangelical Theology: A Dynamic Engagement, Paternoster Press, 2003, pp235-63. Reprinted here with the kind permission of Paternoster.

The notes in the text are hyperlinked into the end notes; to return to the text, click on the end note number

At the start of a new century it is clear that the Christian church and the growing and influential evangelical movement within it will face many challenges in the realm of moral theology. New issues will certainly arise which demand fresh serious thought and do not fit easily into traditional categories but it also likely that there will be calls for revision of the church's traditional ethical teaching in numerous areas. At one level this is nothing new. The church has constantly had to address new concerns and respond to changing culture. In the last half-century it faced the challenges of the sexual and technological revolutions in western society and how faithful disciples of Christ should respond to these will remain areas of controversy for many years to come.

Within modern evangelicalism a number of different responses to moral disagreement and the possibility of change in moral teaching and practice can be discerned. Although for much of the twentieth century (particularly in more fundamentalist circles) there were some well-established moral codes for personal holiness which demarcated evangelical culture from the wider church and the world, evangelicals have not generally made subscription to carefully defined moral positions central to their theological identity. There have, for instance, been long-standing differences among evangelicals on a wide range of important moral issues as varied as whether recourse to war is justifiable and Christians can fight in a just war and the legitimacy of remarriage during the lifetime of a former spouse.

Evangelicals have also shown themselves able to accept some changes in traditional Christian moral thinking with little or no serious dispute. We have seen, for example, the widespread privatisation of decisions about contraception and the acceptance of most forms of artificial birth control without any great disagreement or, indeed, much argument. While Roman Catholics are divided, "among Protestants, it is not simply that the overwhelming majority of them come down on the same side of the issue, but that for most of them there is no real issue here at all."[1]

Other radical changes to traditional ethical teaching have also been widely accepted but have caused major disagreements and continue to divide evangelicals. Perhaps most notable here are questions surrounding gender equality and the role of women in marriage, society and especially the church. In yet other areas, such as homosexuality, recent decades have seen changes in evangelical understanding but evangelicals as a whole have resisted (to my mind rightly) arguments undermining traditional teaching that all sexual conduct outside life-long heterosexual marriage is wrong.[2] Finally, faced with new moral questions for which Scripture and Christian tradition provide no immediate and obvious guidance evangelicals have tended to be cautious and conservative although they have, to varying degrees, tolerated those who advocate more open stances. For example, in an otherwise conservative book on reproductive technologies from an evangelical publisher, the author can write of surrogacy that "we cannot...say it is morally wrong in certain cases"[3] while D Gareth Jones has, in several works, argued for greater openness to the possible acceptability of various technologies which most evangelicals strongly oppose.

As these examples illustrate, evangelical responses vary when faced with new moral questions or demands to rethink traditional moral positions. There is, however, little serious thinking about the method of response in such situations and, as recent history has shown, this produces a number of risks. Unless there is more thought and care, evangelicals could fragment and splinter as they reach different conclusions on issues and leave some evangelicals feeling betrayed by changes in moral teaching they cannot accept. Alternatively, evangelical moral theology could lose coherence as conclusions are reached on each issue on a pragmatic and ad hoc basis by means of a "moral majority" and consensus (not evangelical theological principle and method) therefore defines evangelical thinking. These risks are likely to increase in the coming decades, especially if evangelical theology and ethics remains true to its calling and allows the church's missionary task to shape its agenda and theological method. In a rapidly changing and pluralist society where Christian influence is in historic decline and Christianity increasingly subjected to moral criticism, many new converts will be ignorant of Christian moral reasoning. The traditional practices of Christian discipleship which previously appeared "common sense" may be alien to them and questioned by them.

In such a context, it is vital that Christian identity and distinctiveness is maintained. As Alister McGrath has argued, "the rise of aggressively secular cultures in the west obliges communities of faith to distinguish themselves from the prevailing secular order, unless they are to be absorbed by it'.[4] McGrath is arguing here that this will make doctrine of continued, perhaps increasing, importance in the church. His argument is even more powerful in relation to the imperatives that are bound together with the indicatives of Christian doctrine. Jacques Ellul was right when, after the second world war, he wrote that what was most important for Christianity was "to create a new style of life". He continued,

There used to be a style of life peculiar to the Middle Ages. In the sixteenth century, there was a style of life carried on by Reformed Church Christians...There is a bourgeois style of life...there is the Communist style of life; there is no longer a Christian style of life....A doctrine only has power (apart from that which God gives it) to the extent in which it is adopted, believed, and accepted by men who have a style of life which is in harmony with it.[5]

On the other hand, while maintaining a distinctive style of life, Christians must also seriously consider whether traditional moral teaching has to be rethought and adapted in the light of new knowledge and a different context.[6] As just one among a variety of moral communities and viewpoints, when Christians enter public dialogue their own moral conclusions will rightly come under scrutiny. Although a critique of common moral understandings will be a central part of evangelical engagement with contemporary culture, [7] it cannot be denied that Christian morality can itself become blinded by a depraved and corrupt culture.[8] Christian mission must therefore also constantly ask where the church's moral teaching is in error and causes an unnecessary scandal, repelling outsiders and preventing them hearing the real scandal of the gospel of Christ and him crucified.

In the light of this challenge, serious thought must be given not only to how to respond to new ethical challenges but how to discern when traditional moral thinking needs to be revised and how to undertake such revision. Educated guesses could be made as to likely issues on the church's agenda in future years but rather than highlighting these and assessing each in turn it is better to develop a more general methodological framework which is of value whatever specific issue becomes the focus of challenge and controversy.

In asking how to evaluate criticism of the church's moral teaching and proposed revisions to it, two (surprisingly common) extremes in much popular Christian moral debate can be noted but summarily rejected.

At one extreme (broadly the more liberal), is a tendency to assume the worst about the church and its tradition and be rather uncritical of challenges to traditional moral teaching. This may be motivated by guilt for the church's evident past moral failings, by a simplistic hermeneutic which reduces the gospel to liberation from oppression and treats as valid all claims of oppression and all proposals for liberation from those who identify themselves as oppressed, or by any other number of factors. Despite its apparently powerful rhetorical force, the premise "Wrong on slavery, wrong on women"' (even if accepted) does not enable us to conclude that the church is wrong on some other issue (say homosexuality).

At its worst, this approach represents an historicist progressivist attitude which Wycliffe Hall's consultation on the Future of Anglicanism described as

a Western corruption of eschatology into a kind of doctrine of "progress", which is not truly hopeful but merely presumptious complacency because it defends the achieved position of the culture against any possible criticism out of the legacy of the past.

The response to moral critique is here determined by moral adaptation to the spirit of the age with the added tragedy that, given the pace of change, when the church marries herself to the latest trend she will now find herself widowed more often than the poor woman in the Sadduccees' parable.

At the other, conservative, extreme of reactions to pressure for rethinking (perhaps the stronger temptation for much evangelicalism) is a tendency simply to reassert what has always been said. Rather than serious listening, humble self-scrutiny, and a desire to be corrected where in error, there is a firm confidence not only in divine truth but in our current hold on that truth and hence the error of those advocating change. Here again one can discern an error that is in part due to eschatological corruption. There is a refusal to recognise the limits and fallibility of our contemporary knowledge and an apparent belief that we already see face to face and know as we are known. The words of Vanhoozer in relation to hermeneutics are applicable here

The truth of Christ is both gift and task. On the one hand, we have the Word written; on the other hand, we must interpret it. While its meaning has been fixed by the past, our grasp of that meaning is partial, and its significance is incomplete. There is an eschatological tension that must not be ignored, a tension that prohibits us from thinking that the truth - the single correct interpretation - is our present possession. It is a mistake, in other words, to confuse the content of tradition with any one moment of tradition. Truth...can neither be rushed nor coerced...Yes, it is difficult to wait, but it is worse to bring the quest for truth, for a final interpretive solution, to a premature conclusion.[9]

If evangelical moral theology rejects these two extremes where should it look for guidance on the way forward? There are few better resources in Christian history (especially in a Festschrift honouring Alister McGrath) than the Reformation and lessons from that period of church history. Among many possible insights for changes in moral teaching, two will be highlighted here, concentrating on the details of the second.

The first is a principle summing up the via media between the extremes outlined above: ecclesia reformata semper reformanda. The church, having been reformed, should always be open to further reformation. The opening clause reminds us that the test is not (as in the more liberal extreme) simply whether the church goes on being reformed. Future reformation must give due weight and recognition to the reform that took place in the sixteenth century. As David Wright puts it in his excellent article relating this to the contemporary homosexuality debate,

It would be subversive of the truth of this principle if semper reformanda were applied in such a way as to undermine the historic Reformation...Claims to be implementing semper reformanda along lines that do despite to the liberating principles of the sixteenth century - Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone - are bound to ring hollow. This does not assumption that the Reformers of that era always got things right, but rather, if reformata and semper reformanda are to hang together and mutually inform each other, that the continuing vocation of reform will be credible, especially if it seeks to reverse changes made at that time, only by entering more deeply into those sources of Reformation authority.[10]

The second clause reminds evangelicals that they cannot exempt themselves from the challenge of present reform. As Wright again comments, 'the church is always capable of falling into grave deformation so as to be in need of thorough reformation, and if that were true in the late medieval centuries there is no reason to believe that it may not be true in any age.'[11]

Although very important, this general principle provides little concrete guidance for the method of reforming moral teaching. To find this in the Reformation a concrete example is required and none is potentially more rich than that of John Calvin and his approach to the question of usury.[12] As our concern here is methodological rather than with the substantive issue, the details and validity of Calvin's arguments in relation to usury will not be closely examined. It is, however, vital to recognise what a radical change his work represented. In the words of John T Noonan,

Once upon a time, certainly from at least 1150 to 1550, seeking, receiving, or hoping for anything beyond one's principal - in other words, looking for 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 of usury governs Muslim countries today...The great central moral fact was that usury, understood as profit on a loan, was forbidden as contrary to the natural law, as contrary to the law of the church, and as contrary to the law of the gospel.[13]

It is also the case that this revision of moral teaching was not part of a wider Reformation trend. Luther, for example, famously stands in stark contrast to Calvin in his very negative attitude to usury[14] and 'it is generally acknowledged by those who have studied Calvin's economic and political views that he was the first of the Reformers to give a theological defence of the practice of lending money at interest'.[15]

Calvin's treatment of the subject is limited but appears in a number of places. Three of his commentaries discuss biblical texts which speak on the subject of usury[16] - his harmony of the four last books of the Pentateuch (1554) which discusses Ex 23.25; Lev 25.35-38 and Deut 23.19-20 with reference to the eighth commandment, his 1557 commentary on Ps 15.5, and his posthumously published commentary on Ezekiel 18.8-17. The most important text, however, to which reference is most often made below, is a personal letter on usury written in 1545 to his friend Claude de Sachin although only published (by Beza) in 1575.[17] These texts, rather than a wider account of Calvin's moral theology, form the basis for the discussion of ethical method that follows.

The aim now is to discern the lines of argument Calvin developed as he revised traditional church moral teaching on usury in order to see what guidance these give to evangelicals and others faced with new appeals for further changes in Christian moral teaching. Often such debates become heated not only because of the substantive issue over which there is disagreement but because of a lack of agreement as to how the church could faithfully revise its teaching on an issue. Often those opposing change and upholding tradition find the very form of arguments advanced by revisionists to be invalid and so the stakes are raised to encompass deeper issues such as authority in the church. If, however, there is to be constructive moral debate and dialogue on any issue then people on each side must 'take up the arguments that others have raised against them, and try to give serious answers' and 'to do that they must think their opponents mistaken, certainly, but not wholly foolish or malicious'.[18] Those involved must therefore discern 'a language in which to disagree rather than speaking two incompatible or mutually exclusive tongues'.[19] Some agreement as to what forms and structures of theological argument are legitimate patterns of Christian moral reasoning is therefore essential. Such agreement would enable us, when we reach different conclusions on any particular matter, to address the methodological question of how differences arose, where people have parted ways in their moral judgments, and whether a particular stance represents a fundamental deviation from orthodox Christian moral theology.

Given that the focus here is methodological, three limits need clearly to be stated. First, Calvin himself is most likely to prove an ally of traditionalists on the substance of our debates about moral change. So, for example, in relation to both the role of women in the church and homosexual behaviour - two examples to which we regularly return - his substantive views will legitimately be claimed on the side of those in the argument who oppose calls for change. Second, the simple fact that a claim for revising the church's moral teaching uses the forms of argument Calvin utilised in relation to usury does not in and of itself demonstrate the cogency or acceptability of that claim. It is false to assert that because certain forms of argument Calvin advanced in relation to usury are paralleled in recent arguments in favour of women's leadership or homosexuality then those arguments must be convincing. Third, despite the near universal contemporary Christian acceptance of lending money at interest, some may believe Calvin's move was a false step within the tradition and/or that his ethical method in making that step is a flawed precedent.


Before outlining the central features of Calvin's arguments for revising traditional moral teaching on usury it is helpful to examine some broader contextual features of the debate and Calvin's role within it. These shed light on how evangelicals today can best approach discussions about moral change.

First, although Calvin's thinking on this must be located in the context of the social and economic changes of his time and, in the opinion of some, proved to have a significant impact on the development of Western economic thought and practice, the issue is not particularly prominent in his writing or ministry as a whole. It arises and is addressed by him in an ecclesial context as he reads and expounds Scripture (his commentary discussions) and offers pastoral advice to Christians seeking to serve Christ in the world (his private letter on usury). This acts as an important reminder for all involved in often heated discussions about ethical matters. There is a need for Christians to keep a proper sense of proportion. Questioning of accepted moral teaching should be expected to arise primarily from the reading and applying of Scripture to the church's contemporary life and from the questions and struggles of Christian disciples as they seek to discern the will of God in their daily lives.[20]

This focus on the ecclesial context stands as a challenge to much contemporary church life. It is comparatively rare for serious, open and honest discussion (let alone disagreement) to be aired among evangelicals on moral issues. Often there is a simple trumpeting by leaders of a clear traditional position as an expected public standard which cannot be questioned and/or an effective privatisation of moral decision making in which little moral guidance or support is provided to Christians struggling with such issues as possible recourse to reproductive technologies, marriage after divorce, or cohabitation before marriage. Calvin's modes of addressing the issue of usury - clear public teaching of Scripture and private pastoral counsel - draw attention to these (rather than say political campaigning) as the best ecclesial context for developments in Christian moral thinking to arise and be tested and weighed by the Christian community.

Second, Calvin opens his letter with the words, 'I have not personally experienced this'. Such a confession is even more important in our contemporary context where pronouncements on moral issues from people apparently aloof from the concrete reality they are addressing are often felt to lack authority. It would, of course, be foolish to suggest that one can make sound and serious moral judgments on a subject only if in one's own life there has been personal deliberation on acting in that particular sphere. This would mean that only infertile couples can speak about the morality of IVF or divorcees about the rightness of remarriage after divorce or women who sense a call to ministry about the rightness or otherwise of limits on which church offices it is right for women to hold. As the rest of the letter makes clear, Calvin felt perfectly capable of offering clear moral counsel despite his opening disclaimer. Nevertheless, even if personal experience is not necessary before reaching moral judgments, a refusal to listen to and learn from those for whom the issue is a real, live and pressing one - and they are perhaps the most likely initial source of pressure for changes in traditional moral teaching - will seriously undermine, in some contexts even discredit, moral teaching.

In Acts 15 where the early church is considering changing the requirements to be made of Gentile converts, the testimony of Peter's experiences in mission to Gentiles is of crucial importance. This incident has recently been applied (often illegitimately) to contemporary discussions about revising church teaching on homosexuality,[21] but it does remind us of the limited but important role of Christian experience in moral deliberation. Stephen Fowl has drawn attention to the need to be able to read the Spirit at work in a situation in order to read Scripture aright and argues that one of the reasons we fail here is that we are not good at forming and nurturing the patterns of relationship and types of common life which enable us to perform this vital task. So, if we lack direct personal experience in an area of moral disagreement, it is important to seek out and learn from those Christians who have such experience. Fowl explains what this might mean in relation to the homosexuality debate,

Any analogous application of Acts 10-15 to issues of homosexual inclusion will need to be grounded in testimonies of "homosexual holiness"...It is crucial that Peter, Paul, and Barnabas were all circumcised Jews testifying about the work of the Spirit in the lives of uncircumcised Gentile believers...It should not, then, be the responsibility of homosexual Christians to provide "narratives of homosexual holiness"...The onus is on other Christians who may enter (or have already entered) into friendships with homosexual Christians out of which they might offer testimony of their friends' holiness. Alternatively, it may be the case that such friendships generate calls to repentance from one friend to another... Christians have no reason to think they understand how the Holy Spirit weighs in on the issue of homosexuality until they welcome homosexuals into their homes and sit down to eat with them.[22]

Third, issues of moral character are important in approaching moral disagreement and weighing arguments for changing moral teaching. Calvin speaks highly in his letter of its recipient's 'prudence and the moderation of your heart'. It is this which gives Calvin a great confidence in his correspondent's moral discernment and probity that is often lacking in others. As the recent revival of virtue ethics has reminded the church, the character of those engaging in moral evaluation must not be factored out of discussion as of no importance as if we best evaluate moral proposals and actions simply by abstract, supposedly objective, act-analysis. As Oliver O'Donovan reminds us, 'information about the agent's character is necessary for an evaluative process of moral thought in which the thinker stands at an observer's distance from the agent and her acts and assesses them'.[23]

In making moral judgments on actions and especially when considering possible reform of traditional teaching, the character of those proposing changes must be considered. Clearly personal virtue cannot be decisive as those who are virtuous can misconstrue the world and make wrong moral judgments. Nevertheless, a person's way of looking at the world and their considered moral judgments on contentious issues carry more weight when that person displays Christian virtue in their life.

Fourth, Calvin reveals a strong awareness of the dangers of church pronouncements on complex and disputed moral issues. After confessing his own personal inexperience, he continues,

I have learned from the example of others how perilous it is to respond to the question for which you seek my counsel. For if we should totally prohibit the practice of usury, we would restrain consciences more rigidly than God himself. But if we permit it, then some, under this guise, would be content to act with unbridled license, unable to abide any limits.

Towards the end of his letter, before delineating the limits he himself places on usury, he again reiterates the need to 'proceed with caution, as almost everyone is looking for some word to justify his intention'.

Calvin here implies (and his writing and practice elsewhere confirms) that there are situations where God himself clearly binds human conscience. In such situations the church can presumably speak with great confidence and boldness. There are, however, moral issues where the church in its public teaching must proceed with great care. In these, the church must walk a narrow tightrope, avoiding apparent encouragement of moral laxity while not falling into a rigorist legalism which demands more of Christ's disciples than God himself requires. As in relation to usury, most appeals to change Christian moral teaching seek to loosen traditionally strict prohibitions and argue that there are some situations and forms of action where what was previously considered wrong is, in fact, licit. Calvin's careful and cautious approach highlights the great care needed by the church in speaking on such issues. He warns those seeking change that they must define new clear limits while challenging defenders of the status quo that they must not always view any and every relaxation of long-standing norms as a sign that the church is rejecting God's will.

Fifth, Calvin takes an unashamedly theological approach to moral decision-making. Biéler, opening his study of Calvin's economic and social thought, reminds readers that

it is not possible to speak of Calvin's social and political thought without linking this to the theological premises on which it rests. To detach it from these foundations would quite simply betray its author. One runs the risk of understanding nothing of the practical morality of the reformer, of completely distorting the meaning of his thought, if one does not go back to the spiritual sources of his doctrine and action.[24]

So, in his commentary on the relevant texts in the Pentateuch, the discussion of usury, 'is not initially treated in terms of economics or even of general economic ethics, but the giving of interest free loans is based on "the rule of love"', for the sake of the poor'.[25] This again presents an important challenge to Christian ethicists and church leaders that in their preaching and pastoral counsel and their engagement on moral issues in wider public life, it is necessary to develop a theologically attuned mind and not simply approach questions in the terms of secular discourse and as defined by economists, sociologists or 'experts' in other disciplines.

The structure of Calvin's own theological engagement with the moral question of usury must now be examined in some detail in order to find guidance for contemporary evangelical moral theology as it proposes, weighs and passes judgment on moral issues and changes in traditional Christian teaching.


Turning to the detail of Calvin's treatment, it is important to reiterate that what follows is concerned with methodology. It is necessary to determine neither the persuasiveness of the specifics of Calvin's arguments for his view on usury nor the strength of the forms of argument advanced in that particular case. The aim is, through uncovering the structure and forms of Calvin's moral persuasion, to discover and map out some basic principles and rules which could guide evangelicals as they reach moral judgments, particularly when they assess the legitimacy of proposals to reform the Christian moral tradition. Although unable comprehensively to cover all Calvin's arguments across his writings on usury, the traditional three-fold division of Scripture, reasoned analysis and Christian tradition is easily discernible in his letter on the subject and provides a helpful framework for analysis of the structure of Calvin's moral reasoning. The first of these is by far the weightiest in Calvin's discussion and will be for all evangelicals and is therefore given much more extensive treatment.


In his moral theology as in his dogmatics, 'in the first place, it must be stressed that Calvin is a biblical theologian'.[26] In relation to usury as in other areas, Calvin gives clear primacy to Scripture as the means through which God speaks and as the locus of divine commandments. We have already seen the importance of biblical commentary in his writing on usury and, in his letter on the issue, after his preliminaries the substance of his argument begins, 'First, there is no scriptural passage that totally bans all usury'.[27] The first half of that letter is devoted to Scriptural exegesis and interpretation in which he makes it clear that the Holy Spirit speaks through Scripture which contains 'the clear commandment of God'.

The modern evangelical insistence that the Bible is the supreme authority in all matters of behaviour here finds support in Calvin and this belief must remain at the heart of evangelical moral theology. Closer study of his argument shows, however, that Calvin cannot be claimed for a simplistic, 'The Bible says...' approach to Christian moral reasoning. Eight features of his appeal to Scripture prove of great value to evangelicals struggling with how to relate Scripture to complex contemporary moral issues.

First, Calvin's bold assertion that 'no scriptural passage...totally bans all usury' is not obvious and so requires detailed explanation in both his letter and commentaries. On the surface it is a claim many would question and so specific passages are carefully studied in their own right and in the light of Scripture's teaching as a whole.

It is important to realise that implicit in this statement would appear to be a principle that were one to conclude that scriptural passages did totally ban all usury then the debate would effectively be closed. Whether or not to accept the teaching of God's Word is not something that should be open to debate among Christian ethicists. However, recalling the tightrope Calvin's letter identified him as self-consciously walking and his concern not to bind consciences more rigidly than God himself, the commentary on the Pentateuch makes clear that Scripture at times leaves matters open for further debate when it comes to moral discussion: 'I do not dare to pronounce upon so important a point more than God's words convey'. As his delineation of limits to usury and his appeal to Scriptural principles makes clear, the Bible's failure to categorically and comprehensively forbid something does not entail silence on the part of the church. However, those giving clear, firm and wide-ranging prohibitions must be confident that they derive from God's word and are not simply the traditions of men.

This leads, second, into Calvin's clear and vital distinction between the authority of Scripture and the authority of the Christian tradition's reading of Scripture. In relation to usury the central biblical text appealed to in support of the Christian prohibition was the words of Christ in Lk 6:35 calling on his followers to lend without expecting to get anything back. Calvin therefore begins with this text in his discussion of Scripture, immediately following his rejection of a Scriptural prohibition with the claim

For Christ's statement, which is commonly esteemed to manifest this [the total ban on all usury], but which has to do with lending, has been falsely applied to usury.

Here we are reminded of the simple but often neglected fact that just because Christians have (perhaps for centuries) related a saying of Scripture to discussion of a particular moral issue does not infallibly prove that such a text is being correctly interpreted or that it is right to appeal to it in their moral argument. From an evangelical perspective, tradition has authority but the authority of any tradition - even an evangelical tradition of reading Scripture in a certain way - is only and always subordinate to the authority of Scripture itself. One must be able to appeal to Scripture itself over and against the church's traditional interpretation of Scripture.[28]

So, in relation to one of the many contemporary debates where appeal to Scripture is vitally important, even most upholders of traditional views on homosexuality now acknowledge that the Sodom narrative in Genesis 19 gained a wholly unjustifiable prominence within the Christian tradition's understanding of homosexuality. While few have been convinced by arguments that seek to remove all references to illicit sexual conduct from the narrative, most view any relevance it has to contemporary discussions of same sex partnerships as comparatively small and even then only when this text is set within the wider biblical teaching concerning human sexuality.[29]

Third, in any appeal to Scripture, particularly an appeal which seeks to overturn traditional interpretations, close attention must be paid to the plain sense of the text in its original languages and in the original context of that text. Careful, close biblical exegesis is certainly not sufficient for good Christian moral reasoning[30] but it is necessary. Calvin's argument against a blanket prohibition on usury is therefore in part a careful study of key Hebrew terms showing that because the Hebrew word tok can generally mean "defraud", 'it can be translated otherwise than "usury" and that other terms refer to usury which "eats away at its victims"'.

Once again, there are obvious parallels here with contemporary discussions. Evangelical discussion about the role of women in marriage and the church has focussed on careful study of the Greek word kephale and the meaning of the man/husband as the head of the woman/wife.[31] A similar debate has arisen in recent years in relation to the scope of Paul's terms traditionally understood as referring to homosexuality.[32] Despite the tediousness of some of this work and the weariness such studies can evoke, they have a proper, if limited, role in evangelical discussions about what is faithful change in moral teaching.

Fourth, great care needs to be taken to avoid over-interpretation of biblical prohibitions, especially where strong negative language is used in Scripture. Calvin is quite frank about the strength of biblical opposition to usury, speaking in his letter of 'the Holy Spirit's anger against usurers' displayed in the prophets and psalms and even acknowledging that 'the Holy Spirit...advises all holy men, who praise and fear God, to abstain from usury'. His commentary on Ps 15.5 admits that David seems to condemn all kinds of usury in general, and without exception. Nevertheless, despite statements such as these his letter still maintains that 'we need not conclude that all usury is forbidden'.

Part of the explanation for this tension (even apparent contradiction) in Calvin's analysis is to be found in the careful exegetical study of terms which narrows their apparent scope and shows them to be less universal than they may initially appear to the naïve reader. However, four other more significant hermeneutical moves are made in reaching his conclusion which could disconcert some contemporary evangelicals due to the potential for their abuse but appeal to which could facilitate a dynamic evangelical approach to biblically based moral reasoning.

Fifth, attention must be paid not simply to Scripture's prohibitions but to Scripture's intention in issuing prohibitions. Following his admission about the apparent universality of Ps 15.5, Calvin's commentary turns to the rationale offered in Lev 25:35-36 to argue that 'the end for which the law was framed was that men should not cruelly oppress the poor'. This then qualifies Ezekiel who 'seems to condemn the taking of any interest whatever upon money lent; but he doubtless has an eye to the unjust and crafty art of gaining, by which the rich devoured the poor people'.

Calvin here follows a form of what Charles Cosgrove's recent work identifies as a basic hermeneutical rule found in much appeal to Scripture in moral debate - the rule of purpose. This Cosgrove states as 'the purpose (or justification) behind a biblical moral rule carries greater weight than the rule itself'.[33] Parallel forms of argument are easily discerned in other areas of contemporary moral disagreement. Those, for example, who do not see Jesus' words as prohibiting all forms of remarriage after divorce (except perhaps - the Matthean exception - on the grounds of porneia) include among their arguments the claim that Jesus' primary concern in the relevant sayings (Mk 10.2-12, Mt 19.3-12, Mt 5.31-2, Lk 16.18) is to criticise the inequalities of a male-dominated society and to protect the weaker partner in a system where Jewish men easily divorced and discarded their wives in order to marry other women.[34] Similarly, the texts limiting the roles of women in church leadership (e.g. 1 Cor 14. 34, 1 Tim 2.11-5) are often argued to have as their underlying rationale the prevention of false teaching or disruption of public worship and that the formulation of that concern in terms of limitations being placed on women teaching need not therefore be understood as a blanket rule. As these cases perhaps illustrate, problems can arise for those who wish to broaden traditional moral limits by appeal to this rule when either no rationale is explicitly offered in Scripture or the rationale itself appears to be one which, as with homosexuality, could be held to apply with equal force today.[35]

Sixth, despite a concern for careful and close exegesis of relevant passages in Scripture, Calvin ultimately does not focus his attention solely on these in reaching his conclusion about the specific issue of usury. He is far from being a literalist or legalist who derives his ethical judgments from a sophisticated form of biblical proof-texting. In words which perhaps stand out most starkly in his letter for most evangelicals, Calvin argues that 'we ought not to judge usury according to a few passages of scripture, but in accordance with the principle of equity'.[36] Similarly in his commentary on the Pentateuch, Calvin is adamant that 'if they object that usurers are absolutely condemned by David and Ezekiel I think that their declaration ought to be judged of by the rule of charity'. Although there is truth in the claim that 'methodologically, his argument is as much dependent on philosophical on biblical injunctions'[37] it would be wrong to say that Calvin here turns his back on Scripture and biblical authority. Rather, he has let Scripture shape his thinking at the level of moral and theological principles as shown by his letter's closing limits on usury. There he insists 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' and argues that what is lawful in regard to usury is to be based on 'a principle derived from the Word of God'.[38]

In a world where the spectre of liberal consequentialist situation ethics regularly rears its ugly head and appeals are frequently made to Christian love as the sole guide for Christian moral reasoning in each and every situation, statements such as 'our determination must be derived from nowhere else than...the declaration of Christ, on which hang the law and the prophets - Do not unto others what ye would not have done to thyself' normally set evangelical alarm bells ringing. That these are, in fact, the words of the great French reformer as he sets about rethinking (in a way we now accept almost 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.[39] Similar methods of moral persuasion are easily identifiable (and often critiqued) in two recent debates: the appeals to justice and equality (perhaps with reference to Gal 3.26) in relation to gender[40] and the appropriation of a range of biblical principles claimed to entail greater acceptance of homosexual practice.[41]

Seventh, due recognition needs to be given to differences between the world for which Scripture was first given and our own cultural situation. This is perhaps the most significant of Calvin's hermeneutical moves in reworking the tradition. The crucial paragraph in his letter follows his discussion of Ezekiel which concluded that 'the prophets only condemned usury as severely as they did because it was expressly prohibited for Jews to do'. It reads as follows,

Today, a similar objection against usury is raised by some who argue that since the Jews were prohibited from practicing it, we too, on the basis of our fraternal union, ought not to practice it. To that I respond that a political union is different. The situation in which God brought the Jews together, combined with other circumstances, made commerce without usury apt among them. Our situation is quite different. For that reason, I am unwilling to condemn it, so long as it is practiced with equity and charity.

At least two different senses can be given to Calvin's decisive argument, 'our situation is quite different'. On the one hand, it could represent a distinction based on a biblical theology of salvation history and progressive revelation in which earlier legal prohibitions within Israel are no longer binding on those in Christ.[42] Calvin's commentary on the Exodus text, where lending without interest is viewed as 'a political law...a part of the Jewish polity' now abrogated and replaced by Christian charity which was always its fundamental rationale, appears to appeal to this form of argument. Many evangelicals accept not only the long-standing theological hermeneutic which reads the Old Testament in this way but also now acknowledge wider dynamic developments within Scripture as a whole which can legitimately be extrapolated further into our contemporary cultural context in a way which goes beyond the strict letter of Scripture.[43]

There is also, however, a second and potentially much more wide-ranging meaning in this statement that 'our situation is different'. This would enable such judgments on the relevance and applicability of biblical material to be made on the basis of changing culture and our understanding of the contemporary form of moral problems. So Biéler comments that, more aware of economic realities than many of his predecessors, Calvin 'realised very quickly that these biblical texts are not able to be properly applied to certain new realities of financial life'.[44] It is, in other words, partly Calvin's understanding of the new phenomenon in question which leads him to conclude that the practice of usury in ancient Israel is different from the practice of usury in his own time and so enables a greater freedom in interpretation of the relevant biblical texts than previous generations of Christians had permitted.

This whole method in moral argument is based on the need for appeals to Scripture in contemporary moral reasoning to be analogical in form because 'we reason from like to like, not from identical to identical'.[45] Calvin here argues that social and economic change has made the issue of usury in his day less and not more like the phenomenon Scripture condemns and that as a result there needs to be change in the church's moral tradition. Most contemporary Christians, including probably a majority of evangelicals, now follow a similar hermeneutic in relation to biblical texts which place restrictions on women's ministry. They argue that in an egalitarian society with well-educated women, our situation is 'quite different' from that of the biblical world and so some if not all of the Pauline and other prohibitions are no longer absolutely binding.[46] Although they have convinced fewer, those arguing for changes in relation to homosexuality similarly argue either that the biblical prohibitions are not universal, moral laws and so no longer binding[47] or that homosexuality today is something so different from that found in the biblical world that we cannot treat it as requiring a similar response to that found in Scripture.[48]

It is vitally important to note that Calvin does not use another common but subtly different argument found in his appeal to rethink Christian moral judgments on usury. His argument is that he understands his current situation to be different from that of the biblical writers. This is not the same as an argument that he in his current situation knows better than the biblical writers. Calvin will use a form of the latter argument in his critique of the Christian tradition but his high view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture means that he will not simply dismiss its moral teaching on the grounds of a more enlightened understanding of the phenomena about which it speaks. Evangelicals today must also reject this method of superior judgment over God's word rather than subjecting oneself to the judgment of God's word.

Eighth, rather than simply focussing on prohibitions and warnings, it is necessary to develop a fully-rounded appreciation of Scripture which highlights its positive and distinctive theological perspective on the broad issue under discussion. Throughout his writing on the subject of usury Calvin is eager to set Scripture's specific and explicit teaching on usury within its broader understanding of riches and poverty and Christian responses to these. Only in the light of this biblical and theological interpretation of human economic life can the specific subject of usury be properly addressed. So his letter's rejection of the tradition's appeal to Lk 6.35 as referring to usury highlights Christ's command 'to lend to those from whom no hope of repayment is possible' and calls on Christians 'to help the poor' as 'Christ's words far more emphasize our remembering the poor than our remembering the rich'. His concluding limits on usury also stress this, insisting that nobody should take interest from the poor and those lending must not neglect their duties or disdain their poor brothers. As already noted, what is lawful for Christians in their monetary dealings is to be determined not by 'the common practice or the iniquity of the world' but rather 'a principle derived from the Word of God'.

This final characteristic of Calvin's method returns us to where this section began and the heart of Calvin's approach to moral questions that must remain the heart of any genuine evangelical approach to ethics - biblical and theological study. Calvin's own proposals for moral revision avoid wooden, naïve, and fundamentalistic appeals to biblical texts and so must contemporary evangelical responses to proposals to modify traditional Christian moral teaching. It is also clear that if Calvin's methods of arguing his case in relation to usury are held to be within the bounds of evangelical orthodoxy then care must be taken before rejecting out of hand and tout court those who use similar heremenutical tools in their appeal to Scripture in order to challenge long-held moral beliefs within the church today. Nevertheless, a clear boundary is set by Calvin and must remain a hallmark of evangelical ethics. In relation to ethics, as in relation to doctrine, the fundamental method he calls us to follow is the same

We must return to the word of God, in which we are furnished with the right rule of understanding. For Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit.[49]

All appeals to change moral teaching must therefore be brought under the authoritative witness of Scripture. Scripture as the norma normans must judge all proposals for reforming the reformed church for it (not evangelical tradition nor church authority nor contemporary consensus) is the final and supreme authority.

Reasoned analysis

The stress of Calvin and the wider Reformation on sola scriptura did not entail rejection of either careful moral reasoning or appeals to tradition. It simply held that 'the practices and beliefs of the church should be grounded in scripture. Nothing that could not be demonstrated to be grounded in scripture could be regarded as binding upon the believer'.[50] In discussing usury one of Calvin's recurring pleas is the need for careful, considered analysis of the actions being subjected to moral scrutiny. So, his letter requests his friend to 'always keep in mind that what we must bring under judgment are not words but deeds themselves'.

Calvin's argument in favour of certain forms of usury could be expressed in terms of a method common and important in thinking through moral questions: a reconceptualisation of the economic phenomenon in order to show that part of what was regularly universally categorised as forbidden usury is in fact significantly different in practice from Scripture's concerns and so cannot simply be subsumed in the standard moral descriptions and condemnations. This, he insists, is not simply changing the name of the practice in order to avoid the biblical teaching but rather a more careful reasoned analysis of the phenomenon under investigation.

Calvin's method highlights the importance of moral description and the dangers in establishing and applying loose, all-embracing prohibitions on certain forms of human conduct or too quickly subsuming new issues within older categories. In contemporary debates the significance of this is evident in relation to certain forms of contraception (Should the morning-after pill be classified as a licit form of contraception or as an illicit early abortion?) and in some of the debate over homosexual practice where the stronger arguments in favour of some modification and nuancing of the church's traditional prohibition are those which wish to argue that expressions of sexual love within quasi-marital same sex relationships are not to be included within the category of acts subject to biblical condemnations.[51]

Related to this insistence on careful analysis of the human actions being condemned or approved, Calvin reminds us that evidence of abuse and evil in conjunction with a certain form of life does not necessarily require total rejection of it. Seemingly weakening his argument, Calvin is astonishingly frank about his assessment of the general practice of usury which his letter acknowledges 'almost always travels with two inseparable companions: tyrannical cruelty and the art of deception' such that he considers it 'desirable if usurers were chased from every country'. His commentaries similarly do not seek to condone the general practice, admitting in relation to Ps 15 that 'it is scarcely possible to find in the world a usurer who is not at the same time an extortioner, and addicted to unlawful and dishonourable gain'. Nevertheless, despite these observations, Calvin concludes that reason does not suffer us to admit that all usury is to be condemned without exception. Good Christian moral reasoning needs to see beyond abuses in order to discern whether there is nevertheless a good use which is acceptable to a faithful disciple of Christ. Here the development of moral imagination can play an important role by presenting cases for reflection. Calvin's letter follows this method by presenting an example of what he considers to be a situation in which it would be perfectly acceptable to practise usury. In relation to one area of contemporary debate, Oliver O'Donovan's fairy tale about a childless woodman and his wife, entertainingly sheds light on important moral issues surrounding in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and illustrates why although many evangelicals object to IVF as currently commonly practised they could, unlike most Roman Catholic opponents of the procedure, approve certain forms of this technology, most notably if they did not lead to the discarding of spare embryos.[52]


Calvin is generally well-versed in and respectful of the Church Fathers, recognising the importance of engaging with the Christian tradition especially if one is seeking to revise it.[53] In relation to usury, however, his treatment of the tradition must be considered a very weak part of his argument. In his letter he refers to St Ambrose and Chrysostom but swiftly dismisses their argument about the non-productivity of money as 'too frivolous' and then lists a string of rhetorical questions caricaturing their understanding of economics.[54]

Sadly a similar lack of careful and sympathetic reading of Christian tradition often marks many contemporary debates where traditional teaching is being questioned.[55] Part of the reason for this might be found in the fact that those who are seeking change know the tradition is opposed to their conclusion (so they tend to dismiss or ignore its arguments) while, paradoxically, when the tradition is closely examined it can provide less support for its ostensible upholders than might be expected. So, to return to evangelical disagreements over gender, Kevin Giles has argued at some length that a recent defence of limiting women's roles represents a novel interpretation of Scripture.[56] He claims its authors disregard the traditional understanding of the text of 1 Tim 2 (that women were created second and are inherently more liable to deception and error than men) and defend the 'traditional' view of female subordination in a novel manner.[57] Similarly, those who defend the traditional prohibitions on homosexuality find many arguments defending this view in the tradition are less persuasive today. In contrast, a central contemporary argument in support of the tradition - the created order of humans as complementary sexual beings, male and female - is less prominent in much historical Christian discussion.[58]

Despite the limitations in Calvin's treatment of the Christian tradition, his fundamental perspective on tradition must not be forgotten. Evangelical moral theology must increase its knowledge of and respect for the Christian heritage of moral thinking and beware of assuming that simply repeating the conclusions of the tradition is sufficient. It must, however, always understand tradition to be subject to Scripture and so open to reform. This can be easy to acknowledge in relation to past changes so most accept that the distinguished nineteenth century evangelicals who defended slavery and condemned liberal, progressive Christians who opposed it were wrong to think and act as they did.[59] It is, perhaps more difficult to relate the corrigibility of tradition to contemporary debates such as homosexuality and so acknowledge (as Oliver O'Donovan does in his discussion of the important St. Andrew's Day Statement) that a central evangelical argument is in fact based on well-supported and biblically grounded tradition rather than the explicit teaching of Scripture.

The faithful homosexual Christian, however, is in a situation which the church cannot recognise as one of 'two forms or vocations' within which a 'life of faithful witness in chastity and holiness can be lived'. As it stands, the claim that there are two and only two such forms, though well supported, as the authors think, from Scripture, is not directly a biblical one but claims the authority of unbroken church tradition. If that tradition were shown to be essentially defective (ie without the supposed support of Scripture) or (less implausibly) to be more accommodating than has been thought (eg including homosexual unions as a valid variant of marriage), then, of course, there would be no general difficulty. But that supposes a radical development in the church's understanding of the tradition. The Statement does not rule such a development out a priori; in principle, no Anglican who believed, as Anglicans are supposed to believe, in the corrigibility of tradition could rule it out a priori. Yet the authors do not entertain the suggestion that such a development is in train or can be anticipated, and so they conclude: 'there is no place for the church to confer legitimacy upon alternatives', ie to marriage and singleness.[60]


That the world is likely to remain marked by continued, perhaps increasing, change appears as certain as any statement can be about the future. Among the theological sub-disciplines, moral theology is an area most likely to feel those 'winds of change' rushing through it. New issues will need to be addressed and old certainties will be challenged.

In some circles evangelicals and evangelical theology are understood as inherently conservative (even reactionary) with part of their popular appeal allegedly lying in the constancy and certainty they offer in a world of rapid change. Although there are elements of truth there, if evangelicals are serious about being heirs of the Reformation who seek to conform their lives and the life of the church to the voice of the living God, then mature evangelicalism should be a vital and dynamic theological movement neither resisting all challenges to its traditions (as if all challenges were a sign of unfaithfulness) nor adapting uncritically to trends in society. Rather, it must live out its conviction that ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.

In fact evangelicalism should go further and expect to find itself, as Calvin did, advocating reform in both church and world rather than simply responding to the agendas of others whether within or without the church. It should do this through bringing together reasoned reflection and respect for tradition but placing both under the supreme authority of Scripture. Above all it must be convinced that although care must be taken not to bind consciences more rigidly than God nor to evade difficult hermeneutical debates, God rules us through the Word of God in Scripture. Evangelicals must therefore not be afraid to confess in relation to their ethics, Scriptura sacra locuta, res decisa est.

End Notes

The notes in the text are hyperlinked into the end notes; to return to the text, click on the end note number

[1]James Nuechterlein, "Catholics, Protestants and Contraception', First Things 92 (April 1999), pp10-11. A helpful symposium had appeared earlier in First Things 88 (Dec 1998), pp17-29.

[2]Until relatively recently most evangelicals would have taken a strong condemnatory stance, rejecting anyone identifying as homosexual. Recent evangelical writers tend to embrace a more tolerant position such as found in Stanley Grenz, Welcoming but Not Affirming: An Evangelical Response to Homosexuality (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) or The Evangelical Alliance's report Faith, Hope & Homosexuality (Paternoster, 1999). Despite the attempts of significant evangelicals such as Michael Vasey, Lewis Smedes, and Roy Clements to be more affirming of some same sex partnerships this viewpoint has little wider support among evangelicals.

[3]Brendan McCarthy, Fertility & Faith: The ethics of human fertilization (IVP, 1997), p224.

[4]Alister E. McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundations of Doctrinal Criticism (Blackwells, 1990), p. 196.

[5]Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom (2nd end, Helmers& Howard, 1989; original French 1st edn, 1948), p120.

[6]Cyril S. Rodd, New Occasions Teach New Duties ?: Christian Ethics for Today (T&T Clark, 1995) addresses this question, taking its title from James Russell Lowell's hymn, "New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth'. Alister McGrath contributed a chapter on the Reformation (pp47-60).

[7]Alister McGrath has addressed some of these issues in his lecture "Understanding and responding to moral pluralism' published by the Center for Applied Christian Ethics.

[8]To cite just one of numerous examples, the refusal of many evangelical clergy in eighteenth century England to oppose draconian capital punishment would rightly now be seen as a moral failure on the part of otherwise godly and wise Christian leaders. See Timothy Gorringe, God's Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation (CUP, 1996) who gives the example of the great John Fletcher of Madeley (d. 1785) refusing to "meddle in the affair' of the nineteen year old brother of his servant girl sentenced to death for housebreaking and robbery by appealing to have the sentence commuted (pp1-3).

[9]Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There A Meaning in This Text ? (Apollos, 1998), p429. He later writes, "That the meaning and significance of a text are never a present possession, but a partially fulfilled promise, is perhaps sufficient antidote to the poison of prideful interpretation' (p465).

[10] David Wright, "The Homosexuality Debate and the Reform of the Church', Anvil Vol 15 No 1 (1998), pp22-33 (here p23).

[11]Ibid., p22.

[12]Alister McGrath has commented briefly on this in his A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture (Blackwells, 1990), chpt 11 and "Calvin and the Christian Calling', First Things 94, June/July 1999, pp31-5.

[13]John T. Noonan, Jr., "Development in Moral Doctrine' in James F. Keenan S.J.& Thomas A. Shannon (eds), The Context of Casuistry (Georgetown University Press, 1995), p.188. For a helpful recent study of the background to Calvin see Joan Lockwood O'Donovan, "The Theological Economics of Medieval Usury Theory', Studies in Christian Ethics Vol 14 No 1 (T&T Clark 2001), pp48-64. I am also very grateful to Michael Wykes for sharing with me his work on this subject “ "Devaluing the Scholastics: Calvin's ethics of usury' to be published in Calvin Theology Journal (Spring 2003).

[14]Joan Lockwood O'Donovan, op.cit., pp61-3 gives a sympathetic account of Luther while many, including McGrath, dismiss him here ("that Luther's economic thought “ if one can dignify it with such a title “ was hostile to any form of capitalism largely reflects his unfamiliarity with the sophisticated world of finance then emerging in the great free cities', Calvin, p231).

[15]Guenther H. Haas, The Concept of Equity in Calvin's Ethics (Paternoster Press, 1997), p117 in a chapter devoted to "Equity & Usury'. The best discussion of Calvin's economic thought remains André Biéler, La Pensée Economique et Sociale de Calvin (University of Geneva, 1959) where pp453-76 focus on the subject of usury.

[16]The Old Testament texts have been helpfully divided into three broad categories “ (a) those which prohibit usury in loans to the poor (e.g. Ex 22.25; Lev 25.35-8), (b) those which include all Jews (not just the poor) in their prohibition but exclude outsiders (e.g. Deut 23.19-20), and (c) those which condemn usury by relating it to avarice, greed and oppression (e.g. Ezek 18.5-18) - by T.F. Divine in his Interest: An Historical and Analytical Study in Economics and Modern Ethics (Marquette University Press, 1959), pp5-11. For a more recent discussion by an Old Testament scholar see "Lending at Interest' in Cyril S. Rodd, Glimpses of a Strange Land: Studies in Old Testament Ethics (T&T Clark, 2001), pp142-57.

[17]The original French text is found in OC 10.245-9 and reproduced in J.B. Sauer, Faithful Ethics according to John Calvin (Edwin Mellen Press, 1997), pp255-8. The translation cited here is in Mary Beaty & Benjamin W. Farley, Calvin's Ecclesiastical Advice (T&T Clark, 1991), pp139-43 and reproduced in Oliver O'Donovan & Joan Lockwood O'Donovan, From Irenaeus to Grotius (Eerdmans, 1999), pp682-4 where the editors justify inclusion "not only because it bears slightly on the monumental debate about the role of Calvinism in the advent of modern capitalism, but as demonstrating his ethical method' (p666).

[18]Oliver O'Donovan, "Homosexuality in the Church: Can there be a fruitful theological debate ?' in Timothy Bradshaw (ed), The Way Forward ?: Christian Voices on Homosexuality and the Church (Hodder & Stoughton, 1997), p20.

[19]Rowan Williams, "Knowing Myself in Christ' in ibid.,  p12.

[20]For a discussion of this in relation to the ordination of women see the sermon of R.T. France, " œIt seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" ?' Churchman Vol 108 No 3 (1994), pp234-41. France explains why he does not think his method here entails acceptance of homosexual practice in "A Slippery Slope? The Ordination of Women & Homosexual Practice”a Case Study in Biblical Interpretation' (Grove Biblical Series 16, 2000).

[21]I have discussed the parallels between Acts 15 and the contemporary gay debate in God, Gentiles and Gay Christians: Acts 15 and Change in the Church (Grove Ethics Booklet 121, 2001).

[22]Stephen Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation (Blackwells, 1998), pp121-2. A powerful example of this is the discussion of homosexuality in Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (T&T Clark, 1996), pp 379ff based on his friendship with Gary.

[23]Oliver O'Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An outline for evangelical ethics (IVP, 1986), p.211.

[24]Biéler, op.cit., xiii (own translation). Biéler begins his discussion on Calvin and usury by summarising his theology of money in society (pp453-4).

[25]T.H.L. Parker, Calvin's Old Testament Commentaries (T&T Clark, 1986), pp158-9.

[26]McGrath, Calvin, p150.

[27]Biéler comments, "As usual, Calvin turns in the very first place to the teaching of the holy Scriptures' (op.cit., p.457) having earlier made clear that "We must first of all note that Calvin, in order to justify the taking of interest, does not simply leave on one side the biblical texts used as a foundation by other Christian teachers to condemn it' (p.455).

[28]Some stimulating writings on the authority and interpretation of Scripture linked to the post-liberal school rightly draw attention to the ecclesial context and tradition-shaped pattern of our interpretation of Scripture but can become problematic to the extent they are unable to make sense of this fundamental principle that Scripture stands over and must correct the church. The work of Kevin Vanhoozer in Is There A Meaning in this text ? (Apollos, 1998) and First Theology: God, Scripture & Hermeneutics (Apollos, 2002) provides a helpful counterbalance to that tendency.

[29]Richard Hays, one of the best defenders of a traditionalist views, boldly asserts, "The notorious story of Sodom and Gommorah “ often cited in connection with homosexuality “ is actually irrelevant to the topic' (op.cit., p381). Even Gagnon, while not going so far as Hays, admits that, "to the extent that the story does not deal directly with consensual homosexual relationships, it is not an œideal" text to guide contemporary Christian sexual ethics' (Robert A.J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Abingdon Press, 2001, p71).

[30]Hays, op.cit., p3, cities a remark by Oliver O'Donovan in a 1987 Yale Divinity School lecture that 'interpreters who think that they can determine the proper ethical application of the Bible solely through more sophisticated exegesis are like people who believe that they can fly if only they flap their arms hard enough'.

[31]The kephale debate has tended to revolve around whether the term signifies leadership and authority (so most fully Grudem in various articles) or source/origin (as argued by Fee and Witherington). For a survey of the debate and a different proposal see Andrew Perriman, Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul (Apollos, 1998), especially chpt 1.

[32]In relation to arsenokoitai the major work is that of David Wright (references in op.cit., p23, n1). On both that term and malakoi see discussion in Gagnon, op.cit., pp303-39.

[33]Charles H. Cosgrove, Appealing to Scripture in Moral Debate: Five Hermeneutical Rules, p.12. The chapter includes a discussion of this in relation to interest (pp34-7) which although not referring to him argues in a similar vein to Calvin.

[34]So, for example, David Atkinson, To Have and To Hold (Collins, 1979), chpt 4 and Greg Forster, Healing Love's Wounds: A Pastoral Response to Divorce and to Remarriage (Marshall Pickering, 1995), chpt 4.

[35]Cosgrove shows (op. cit., pp37-44) that Romans 1 by providing a creation norm for rules against homosexual practice "warrants a blanket form of the rule' and so "the justification is therefore a reason (insofar as we grant authority to the Bible at the level of its rule justifications) in favour of our adopting a moral rule against homosexuality' (pp 42-3).

[36]Haas therefore rightly argues, "It is the principle of equity that allows Calvin to analyse the social and economic realities of his day, that transcends a rigid biblical literalism...Equity allows Calvin to read the Bible with new eyes' (Haas, op.cit., p121).

[37]O'Donovan & O'Donovan, op.cit., p666.

[38]In relation to Cosgrove's hermeneutical rules this would appear to be one possible form of his fifth rule of moral-theological adjudication, namely that "moral-theological considerations should guide hermeneutical choices between conflicting plausible interpretations' (Cosgrove, op.cit., p154).

[39]There are, of course, strong reasons why simply reducing Christian ethics to one single principle (whether love, equity, liberation or something else), although surprisingly common, both distorts Scripture (see Hays, op.cit., chpt 10) and limits and misunderstands Christian moral understanding and reasoning about human action (see Pinches, Theology and Action: After Theory in Christian Ethics (Eerdmans, 2002), especially chpt 2 on monism in Protestant ethics).

[40]One among many examples here is the work of Paul K. Jewett first in his Man as Male and Female (Eerdmans, 1975) and in his later Who We Are: Our Dignity as Human “ A Neo-Evangelical Theology (with Marguerite Schuster) (Eerdmans, 1996), especially pp166-72.

[41]Stanley Grenz, op.cit., critiques a number of these (covenant, love, justice and liberation) in a section headed "The Bible Versus the Texts' (pp90-5) while the revisionist queer theologian Elizabeth Stuart has recently offered a stinging critique of much liberal and liberationist gay and lesbian theology in her Gay and Lesbian Theologies (Ashgate, 2002).

[42]McGrath discusses Calvin's understanding of the relationship between Old and New Testaments in his discussion of Institutes Book II (Calvin, p.157ff).

[43]An interesting proposal here is the "redemptive movement hermeneutic' developed by William J. Webb in his recent study, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (IVP USA , 2001).

[44]Biéler, op.cit., p455.

[45]Cosgrove, op.cit., p53. His second chapter gives as his second hermeneutical rule, the rule of analogy “ "analogical reasoning is an appropriate and necessary method for applying scripture to contemporary moral issues' (p.51) “ and provides a helpful discussion of this form of reasoning.

[46]Even those who oppose some of these trends find themselves accepting others (e.g. few insist on head-coverings as required in 1 Cor 11.5ff while John Stott and others who uphold a view of female submission now permit women to teach despite 1 Tim 2.12) while the unavoidability of analogical reasoning is evident by the need for those who wish to uphold a view of male headship to discern which roles and functions today (bishops, presbyters, cell group leaders etc) are properly limited to men.

[47]This argument is most fully developed in William Countryman, Dirt, Greed and Sex (Fortress, 1988). A strong argument against his reading of Romans 1 is presented in Thomas E. Schmidt, Straight & Narrow ? Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate (IVP, 1995), chpt 4.

[48]Such a social constructionist understanding of homosexuality is an important element in Michael Vasey's arguments to his fellow evangelicals that they need to rethink this issue (Strangers and Friends, Hodder & Stoughton, 1995), summarised in his contribution to Bradshaw, op.cit., pp60-70.

[49]Institutes, III.xxi.3.

[50]McGrath, Calvin, p275.

[51]The two strongest advocates of such a view are Jeffrey John, "Permanent, Faithful, Stable': Christian Same Sex Partnerships (DLT, 1993 & 2000), summarised in Bradshaw op.cit., pp44-59 and Eugene F. Rogers Jr., Sexuality and the Christian Body (Blackwells, 1999).

[52]Oliver O'Donovan, Begotten or Made ? (OUP, 1984), chpt 5. Others have, less convincingly, argued that there may similarly be a limited licit role for human cloning as a therapy for infertile couples e.g. Gareth Jones, Clones: The Clowns of Technology? (Paternoster, 2001), chpt 3.

[53]For Calvin and the Fathers see Anthony N.S. Lane, John Calvin: Student of the Church Fathers (T&T Clark, 1999). McGrath's passion for this method is evident in, for example, "Engaging the Great Tradition: Evangelical Theology and the Role of Tradition' in John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Evangelical Futures: A Conversation on Theological Method (Apollos, 2000), pp139-58 which includes a discussion of Calvin.

[54]For better accounts of the much richer Christian tradition against usury see the articles of Lockwood O'Donovan and Wykes cited above in n??

[55]In contrast, one of the strengths of Gordon J. Wenham & William E, Heth, Jesus and Divorce (Paternoster, 1984 & 2002) is their opening critique of the well-established evangelical consensus allowing some remarriage after divorce through a careful study of the views of the early church.

[56]A J Köstenberger, T R Schreiner & H S Baldwin (eds), Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (Baker, 1995).

[57]"A Critique of the 'Novel' Contemporary Interpretation of 1 Tim 2:9-15 Given in the Book, Women in the Church" appeared in two parts in the Evangelical Quarterly during 2000 - EQ 72:2 (pp151-67) and EQ 72:3 (pp195-215). EQ 73:3 (2001) contains a reply from Köstenberger (pp205-24) and a final response from Giles (pp225-45).

[58]The recent work of Gagnon, op.cit., although flawed in a number of places and often unpleasant in tone, offers the most substantial argument yet for created order as the consistent underlying biblical rationale for the texts condemning homosexual conduct.

[59]Willard M. Swartley's important Slavery, Sabbath, War & Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Herald Press, 1983) summarises the pro-slavery arguments and includes among their advocates Charles B. Hodge. Those wondering how evangelicals could support such a position should see Kevin W. Giles' provocative piece, "The Biblical Argument for Slavery: Can the Bible Mislead ? A Case Study in Hermeneutics', EQ 66:1 (1994), pp3-17.

[60]Oliver O'Donovan, "Reading the St. Andrew's Day Statement' in Chris Sugden & Vinay Samuel (eds), Anglican Life and Witness (SPCK, 1997). Quotations from the St. Andrew's Day Statement published in Bradshaw, op.cit., pp5-11.

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