Part 1: Debt Forgiveness: Introducing the Issue

President Biden’s recent announcement regarding student loan relief has caused quite a stir on social media. While this is just the latest wildfire to burn across the social media landscape, it perked my interests largely due to the moral claims being made in some circles.

To be clear, I’m not a trained economist. I’ve done a lot of armchair reading in many of the most influential treatises on this subject, such as Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society,” Marx & Engels’ “Capital,” and Keynes’ “General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money,” to just name four. Yet, economics really isn’t my area. My formal training is in Biblical Theology, Second Temple Judaism, and Ethical Theory. Of course, most economic theories are rooted, in some way, in ethical theory. This is clearly seen in Thorstein Veblein’s “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” or Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” Ethical concerns also drive the historically influential volumes of Smith and Marx, albeit each with its own points of incongruity with biblical ethics. I say all this to clarify that my interests in this discussion are with the moral claims being made against President Biden’s program. I am not speaking about the program’s economic ‘soundness,’ or lack thereof.

A Few Biblical Presuppositions

Before I begin my assessment (PARTS 2, 3, and 4), it is important to note a couple presuppositions that guide my approach to understanding and applying the Bible’s ethical teachings.

First, applying biblical ethics to our contemporary situation is fraught with difficulties.

We are divorced from the world of the Bible by culture, language, and time. Many of the Old Testament’s moral codes were given in the context of an agrarian society and to a people whose customs, politics, and worldview were very different from ours. For example, how would one apply Leviticus 23:22 in our contemporary world? That verse says, “Do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you.” We know this was considered an essential command, as the sentence ends with “for I am the LORD your God.” God is rooting the necessity of this rule in his very existence and identity. How would a Christian police officer or dental hygienist obey this verse? Even you are a farmer, how exactly would a poor family benefit by gleaning from your hay or milo field? I haven’t seen very many cookbooks that use hay as an essential ingredient, nor do I see how this would help the contemporary low income families pay for rent, prescriptions, school bus fees, or gasoline for their work car. This isn’t to say that this verse has no direct relevance. It certainly does, but this does raise the point that when dealing with biblical ethics we often must search for the underlying principle involved rather than simply seeking to apply the words of the Bible in a wooden or rigidly-literal fashion.

It gets even more complicated. The above command was given to ancient Israel, which was a theocratic kingdom operating under the Mosaic covenant and (eventually) under a divinely-chosen king. Even in the world of the Old Testament, foreign nations surrounding Israel were never expected to follow the covenant code. That existed only for the Israelites. In what sense could, or should, this ethical command be applied to a modern-day, secular society? Even if a nation believed itself to be “Christian,” there still wouldn’t be a 1-to-1 equivalence (even a Christian nation isn’t ancient Israel). Again, this doesn’t mean there is no contemporary application. Certainly there is something here that should inform our ethical conduct on a personal level. The same likelihood exists on a societal level, especially a society that seeks to embrace at least some aspects of biblical ethics. Both those who dismiss these Scriptures as irreverent as well as those who apply them naively commit the same error: they ignore the voice of Scripture as an ethical standard that is intended to govern our lives and conduct.

Second, our view of biblical ethics is only “biblical” insofar as we have incorporated the whole counsel of God into our assessment.

It’s easy to pick a Bible verse and allow that to become the defacto Ruler to which all other Bible verses must submit. I remember a dear friend who was a passionate Calvinist. While we hold that particular theological system in common, he had a curious tendency to turn every Bible passage into a pro-Calvinist statement. Once, when preaching on John 3:16, he spent 20 minutes explaining why the phrase “God so loved the world” really meant that God only loved the Elect. For this pastor, Ephesians 1:5 loomed large in his mind. That verse reads, “in love, God predestined us for adoption as sons”. For whatever reason, Ephesians 1:5 had become his interpretive control, so much so that even John 3:16 (the very words of Christ!) was forced to bow before it. For him, God could not love the entire world because God only loved the elect, regardless of what God himself said to the contrary!

When it comes to the issue of applying biblical ethics in our contemporary world, this problem gets even worse. Our Capitalist friends love quoting the verse “he who doesn’t work should not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10) as if that is Scripture’s definitive and final statement repudiating social welfare programs. Likewise, my Democratic-Socialists comrades (I’m kidding) quote Deuteronomy 25:4 (“You shall not muzzle the ox when it treads grain”) as determinative proof that the Bible supports collective bargaining agreements. Years ago, in a public school board meeting, a friend gave a passionate appeal for the school to require all teachers to begin the school day in prayer, whether the teacher was a Christian or not. His biblical “proof” was Matthew 19:14, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them.” I sat silently listening to his proposal, but was curious why his view on school prayer included Matthew 19:14, which isn’t even about prayer, but excluded Matthew 6:5, which is precisely about public prayer. That verse says, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.” This isn’t to suggest that Scripture forbids prayer in public schools (there are many other passages we would still need to consider). But surely, for any view on public prayer to be truly “biblical,” it must incorporate all that Scripture says on the subject.

Scripture is multifaceted. It is having a different conversation than the one we are having. The Bible isn’t discussing school prayer, the A-bomb, welfare programs, Capitalism, Socialism, abortion, racism, pedophilia, or environmental policy. This doesn’t mean that what Scripture is discussing cannot be applied to these issues. I strongly maintain it can be applied to all of those examples, at least in some measure. But if we are to understand the richness of God’s ethical commands, we must do the hard work of digging into its pages and allow it to speak in its own voice.

When we make select verses our “interpretive control”, we run the risk of making the Bible contradict itself. I remember hearing a very passionate preacher thunder on in the pulpit about the wickedness of men having beards. He quoted a lot of Bible verses, though curiously, none of them said anything about beards. Rather, they were generic admonitions to avoid wordiness and to “come out from among” evildoers. His catchphrase, which he repeated with increasing intensity, was this: “No true follower of Jesus would ever be caught having a beard!” He actually conceded that Jesus had a beard, but scoffed that away as a “nonsense argument.” Very curious, indeed. As it happens, the biblical writers considered the Messiah’s beard so important that it is mentioned in biblical prophecy (see Isaiah 50:6).

We see the same tendency to establish “interpretive controls” when well-meaning believers make wide-ranging and all-encompassing declarations about “obeying” the Bible as it relates to a particular social issue. What they often mean is that they want us to agree with their understanding of a small set of Bible verses to the exclusion of all other biblical data. When a Christian’s entire approach to caring for the poor is built upon 2 Thessalonians 3:10 (if you don’t work, you shouldn’t eat), he most likely won’t even bother trying to incorporate Proverbs 14:21 (“Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor”), or the hundreds of other verses that speak into this issue. He has reduced God’s complex ethical framework to one isolated verse. While well-intended, these are still idiotic blunders that only serve to expose and spread biblical ignorance.

Third, what the Bible says matters.

While we can agree that the Federal government most likely didn’t glean their debt relief program from Deuteronomy or Leviticus, that is ultimately irrelevant. The issue isn’t why the government made its decision. I am under no allusion that any president in my lifetime has ever desired to be “biblical,” especially not in the full sense of that meaning.

The issue is how Christians should respond. For that reason, what the Bible says should be the only thing that really matters to the Christian whose ultimate desire is to walk humbly and obediently before the Lord. This is why most confessional statements include language similar to this: “The Bible is our only rule for faith and practice.” Christianity believe that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is our guide for what is right and wrong. It alone has the authority to dictate how we respond.

Fourth, our emotional reactions are not moral arguments.

As the biblical author James put it, “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Neither our anger against Biden’s program, nor our delight in it, is a sufficient basis to construct a moral argument. The prophet Jeremiah even warns us that “the heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9). Our hearts lure us into believing our own perspectives and desires constitute what is and what should be. The Christian who yearns to think biblically should certainly be aware of his emotional reactions, but he must also guard against allowing those emotions to play a larger role than God intended. For the Christian, God’s revealed truth is the only thing than can determine morality.

What is at Stake

David Bebbington famously said the four primary characteristics that define Evangelicalism are the Bible, the cross, the concept of being born again, and activism. In this introductory article, I am attempting to lay a foundation for the importance of that first characteristic: the Bible. Simply put, Christians are supposed to be the ones who allow themselves to be shaped by the teachings of Scripture. It is the Bible, not political or economic theory, which is supposed to influence our perspective.

Thus, when interpretive difficulties arise, we don’t solve the dilemma by interjecting some foreign philosophy. Rather, we allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. This was a foundational principle for the Reformers of the 16th century, but we also see it as far back as Augustine and other Church Fathers. This means that we are not convinced that our theological interpretations are truly “biblical” until they have factored in all God’s Word has to say about a subject.

Nevertheless, we all allow other ideologies and worldviews to cloud our thinking. We bring foreign ideas and perspectives to the biblical text and, unknowingly, read Scripture through those lenses. While this is unavoidable, one of the tell-tale signs that we’ve become beholden to those ideologies is our tendency to dismiss entire segments of Scripture from our theological interpretations.

Consider this example: a fellow pastor recently posted on social media his disgust at President Biden’s student debt forgiveness program. Of course, he has the right to disagree and even to be adamantly opposed to it (foreshadowing: I’m not a huge fan, either). What I found interesting, however, is the comments he made about Scripture. He complained about those “droning on and on about de-contextualized passages of Scripture” (i.e. passages of Scripture he believed they were taking out of context). He even listed the Scriptures he was sick of people citing, specifically those dealing with “debts forgiveness, Jubilee,…ad nauseum.” Ad nauseum is Latin for something repeated so often it becomes noxious or nauseating. Of course, he made no attempt to engage those Scripture or explain the context. Rather, he just made a sweeping statement that it made him sick to his stomach that they were even being referenced. As an alternative, citing Thomas Sowell (an economic theorist), he encouraged us to study passages about a strong work ethic and the biblical examples of the poor gleaning the fields. Those passages are certainly critical for a fully biblical theology of work and even debt relief. However, both work-teachings and debt relief-teachings were originally given to Moses at Mount Sinai. This pastor never explains why one set of passages are considered “nauseating” while the other set is deemed essential, though we can assume his preferred economic ideology has a lot to do with it. This is what we refer to as ideological bias, which is the a priori (i.e. beforehand) elimination of any data contrary to the presupposed “correct answer.” My Calvinist pastor friend, mentioned above, is another example of this phenomenon.

We bring foreign ideas and perspectives to the biblical text and, unknowingly, read Scripture through those lenses.

We see this same phenomenon at work with fundamentalist pastors who trip over themselves trying to explain away the teaching in Acts 2:44 that believers “shared all their possessions in common.” Many of these sermons sound more like an anti-Communism speech one would hear at a forum for Free Market Capitalism. Instead of entering into the world of the biblical text, these pastors are primarily concerned with defending an economic ideology. Conversely, I see the same problem with many politically progressive pastors. They embrace the Bible passages about stopping the oppressor and coming to the aid of the poor, but they quickly dismiss passages like Isaiah 24:2. This verse speaks about God’s coming judgment upon all classes of people: “It will be the same for priest as for people, for the master as for his servant, for the mistress as for her servant, for the seller as for buyer, for the borrower as for lender, for the debtor as for creditor.” While their economic scheme, with ideas borrowed from Marxism, allows them to understand a God who condemns the rich and powerful, they cannot comprehend a God who applies his standard of justice equally to all people.

The task of the committed interpreter of Scripture is to allow the whole counsel of God to speak with one voice. This means we must resist reductionistic, single-verse “theologies.” These are really little more than clubs wielded to protect the ideological systems we read into the biblical text. While none of us can completely avoid this tendency, the goal of biblical interpretation is to hear the voice of God, not our own ideologies being parroted back to us.


Josh Gelatt is a Ph.D. candidate at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the lead pastor of North Oak Community Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Hays, KS. He is currently working on his dissertation, tentatively titled “Justice and Conflict in Matthew’s Gospel: Intertextual Considerations Regarding a Messianic Theme.”

5 Comments

  1. It never ceases to amaze me when fellow conservative Christians love to quote Thomas Sowell when it comes to applying Christian social ethics especially since Sowell is an atheist with a worldview that that has little in common with Christians. If conservative Christians critically evaluated Sowell through the worldview lens of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and ReCreation with the same critical eye that they do with those whom they deem “Woke,” they wouldn’t be so blindly attached to him.

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