Usury FAQ, or, money on the Pill

November 10, 2014 § 113 Comments

[Note: this is a work in progress. I am still on a blog vacation of sorts, just commenting here and there, not planning to resume regular blogging until some time after the new year.  The need for an FAQ perma-post for folks new to the subject of usury came up in a thread at the Orthosphere, though, so I thought I’d at least get it started.]

1) What is Usury?

Usury is lending money for profitable interest.

2) What is “lending”?

“Lending” is a contract where the borrower is personally on the hook for return of the principal amount of the loan to the lender.  This is traditionally called a “mutuum”.

3) Is usury always morally wrong?

Yes. Usury is always morally wrong without exception.

4) What if the interest rate is reasonable?

Usury is always immoral no matter what interest rate is charged.  The idea that usury is only charging “unreasonable” interest is a modern fiction.

5) What is the key difference between a mutuum and other contracts?

With a mutuum, the borrower is on the hook for return of the full amount of the principal, no matter what is done with the money or with other specific assets tied up in the contract.  In the Christian tradition and under the natural law, it is never morally licit to lend money (as a mutuum) and expect a profit in return.

6) What if the borrower is an institution like a government or corporation rather than an individual?

“Lending” to an institution is not a mutuum loan, as long as the lender cannot go after individuals for recovery of the principal.  An institution is a collection of assets and can act as security on nonrecourse debt.

7) I don’t get it.  Why is charging interest on a loan always morally wrong?

St. Thomas Aquinas explains that usurious lending involves selling something which does not exist.  This is very counterintuitive to people indoctrinated in modernity, and yet obvious once you’ve set aside modern relativism about value. Aquinas compares it to attempting to sell wine and the consumption of the wine as two separate things.

Imagine that Bob lends Harry $100, Harry lends Fred $100, and Fred lends Bob $100. They each spend the money on beer, and charge 10% interest in the form of a deferred fee. The contracts attempt to entitle each of them to an additional $10 – for a total of $30. This $30 worth of new financial entitlements on the books is not connected to anything ontologically real. The 2008 financial crisis was the result of a usurious network of real estate loans and ultimately circular insurance-like schemes which created this kind of ‘fake’ wealth.  All usurious lending involves the creation of fake wealth.

8) But economic value is relative, isn’t it?  Isn’t value reducible to whatever people’s preferences happen to be?

No.  For example, a bunch of arsonists getting together and agreeing that burning property is valuable, and acting on that determination by burning property, don’t create economic value: they destroy economic value.

9) What if the loan is secured by collateral?

A mutuum secured by collateral is still usury, because if the collateral is destroyed the lender can still pursue the borrower for return of the principal amount of the loan. If the lender’s recourse is only to the collateral and not to the person of the borrower, it is not a mutuum loan and is not usury.

The difference between a mutuum and other contracts comes strongly into play when the loan goes into default. If the lender can go after the person of the borrower to recover principal, it is a mutuum loan.  If the lender has recourse only to ontologically real assets to recover principal and any profits, the contract is not a mutuum and the prohibition of usury does not apply.

10) Does collateral have to be physical?

No. There are all sorts of ontologically real financial assets which are not physical in nature.  For example, the loyalty and goodwill of regular patients of a dentist is a real asset which, along with the work of the dentist, produces regular income.  Said differently, a dentist’s practice is an ontologically real economic asset.

11) Aren’t lots of non-mutuum contracts unjust?

No doubt many are, but a contract is not usury strictly speaking unless it is a mutuum loan for profitable interest.

12) Why would I ever lend someone money if I can’t charge interest?

Mutuum contracts are only morally licit as charity.  Lending money to someone in need is a good deed.  If and when the borrower gets back on his feet and can afford to repay the loan, he owes the lender his money back as a matter of justice. In the middle ages, the Franciscans lent money to the poor as a way of keeping the poor out of the clutches of usury.

Furthermore, you can “lend” for profit under non-mutuum contracts.  Nonrecourse debt is not usury.

13) Didn’t the Church allow the Franciscans to collect “interest” above and beyond the principal on their mutuum loans to the poor?

Yes.  The medievals acknowledged (with the wide ranging of opinion typical of the human experience) that certain actual costs of lending (called “extrinsic titles”) could be recovered from borrowers who could afford to pay those costs, in addition to the principal amount of the loan. Borrowing money from the Franciscan credit agencies was often a way for the down-and-out to get back on their feet, and borrowers would sometimes default anyway — even after getting back on their feet. In addition, various real costs of administering the loans were incurred by the Franciscans, although they themselves lived under vows of poverty. “Extrinsic titles” were allowed because it is unjust to the poor for those who have already benefited from charitable lending to deplete the supply of capital available to lend to those still in need.

14) Hasn’t the Church approved charging interest to recover opportunity costs?

No.  One of the most controversial of the proposed “extrinsic titles” was lucrum cessans, which some interpret as a blanket license to recover opportunity costs (even though opportunity costs are not ontologically real).  But although the Magisterium has approved the concept of extrinsic titles generally speaking for mutuum loans to the poor, there is no Magisterial proclamation giving a detailed account of which “extrinsic titles” are and are not valid.

It has however been established that Magisterial silence on a moral or doctrinal question does not constitute approval.

15) Shouldn’t an investor be compensated for giving up the opportunity cost of investing his money in something else?

No. Opportunity costs are not ontologically real assets.

16) Doesn’t the future labor of a worker constitute a ‘real asset’ against which a loan can be collateralized?


17) Traditionalist scholastics claimed that you can’t sell time; progressive scholastics asserted that the worker’s wages are a counterexample. Weren’t the progressives right?

No. Time is just a convenient proxy for the worker’s actual productivity.  If time itself were a salable asset then the worker would be entitled to compensation even if he stayed home in bed and never came to work.

18) Traditionalist scholastics claimed that you can’t sell risk; progressive scholastics asserted that an insurance bond is a counterexample. Weren’t the progressives right?

No. If risk qua risk were a financially transferrable asset, gamblers would be entitled to a profit.  An insurance bond is just a pooling of financial assets in which one party benefits when things go according to plan, and the other party’s losses are mitigated by financial compensation if things don’t go according to plan.

19) Is a corporate bond usury?

No. Investors who lend money to corporations cannot pursue individual shareholders for return of principal.

20) Is a car loan usury?

Almost always.  It is usury unless it is nonrecourse loan.

21) Is a home loan usury?

A nonrecourse home loan is not usury, because the lender has recourse to the house and the house alone for recovery of principal and interest.  In practice most mortgages allow for a deficiency judgment against the borrower, though, and those mortgages are usurious.

22) Are credit cards usury?

Yes.  All interest-bearing unsecured loans to individuals are usury. Even secured loans are usury if they provide for a deficiency judgment against the borrower in a case of default.

23) Does this mean that I can’t take out a student loan without committing mortal sin?

Here is Aquinas’ answer (ST II-II, Q78, A4):

Accordingly we must also answer to the question in point that it is by no means lawful to induce a man to lend under a condition of usury: yet it is lawful to borrow for usury from a man who is ready to do so and is a usurer by profession; provided the borrower have a good end in view, such as the relief of his own or another’s need. Thus too it is lawful for a man who has fallen among thieves to point out his property to them (which they sin in taking) in order to save his life, after the example of the ten men who said to Ismahel (Jeremiah 41:8): “Kill us not: for we have stores in the field.”

Since borrowing at usury is inherently scandalous, it probably depends on the extent of the need. But you’ve got pretty wide moral discretion to hand over your property to thieves, so you’ve probably got similar prudential latitude here.

24) What is wrong with contracts between consenting adults?

That is a different but related subject.

25) Aren’t all unproductive loans usury?

This is a common misunderstanding of well-intentioned people who would like usury to be taken more seriously as a moral wrong. Usury is actually more clear and straightforward than they propose: all mutuum loans for profitable interest are usury, and other kinds of contracts are not usury.  (That doesn’t mean that other kinds of contracts are morally licit by definition: just that they are not usury.)

Furthermore, “unproductive” nonrecourse loans are not usury.  If I have equity in my home and I sell some of it to a nonrecourse “lender” to raise cash for a vacation, that is not usury.  The lender cannot come after me for recovery of his principal and interest: he can only go after the house that he and I now co-own; and the “interest” I pay is just a rental fee for the part of the house that he owns.  The focus on “productive” versus “nonproductive” arrangements is a distraction from the straightforward nature of usurious contracts, introducing unnecessary complexity and ambiguity.

26) Haven’t commerce and currency changed in such a way that usury is no longer much of a concern?

No. Usury and the creation of faux-wealth through usurious contracts is a pervasive problem in modern economies, and the nature of currency has not changed.

27) Isn’t the government the biggest violator of them all?


28) Who the heck are you to be lecturing us all on usury, anyway?

I’m just some guy. I have an MBA, I’ve started and run a few small companies, and I have quite a bit of experience as an investor.  I became interested in usury in 2008 during the financial crisis, and was surprised to find myself in perfect agreement (as best as I can tell) with St. Thomas Aquinas on the subject.  I’ve read every single Magisterial statement on the subject in Denzinger, everything I could find by Aquinas, a number of old books, some academic papers, and a bunch of stuff on the web.  I think I have it right, but I’m not some high-falutin authority.

29) I know that usury was traditionally considered an execrable mortal sin. But didn’t the Church change canon law and pastoral practice to remove the penalties and stigma associated with usury?  Haven’t most Catholic theologians accepted that the world has moved on from the time when the prohibition of usury made sense?

Yes. The progressive tactic of divorcing doctrine from pastoral and juridical practice is not a new Vatican II innovation targeted specifically at matters of sex and marriage. Earlier progressives were “successful” in leaving the doctrine on usury formally intact, as a kind of decoration that makes no important demands on anyone. Humanae Vitae could easily become the new Vix Pervenit.  Progressives think that money is inherently fecund and that sex isn’t inherently fecund.

Acceptance of usury and contraception are both products of denying that things have an objective nature independent of human preferences. Centuries of ‘pastoral’ acceptance and indoctrination of economic relativism paved the way for other expressions of moral relativism.

30) If the sovereign should decline to enforce usurious contracts, doesn’t it follow that the sovereign should decline to enforce any contract of exchange whatsoever which empowers one party to pursue a deficiency judgment against the other party personally, independent of any real assets posted as security?

Quite possibly the answer is yes.

31) I really don’t get it.  Why again do you say that fixed-income investments in (e.g.) corporations (corporate bonds) are not usury?

A (non-usurious) corporate bond is not secured by any personal guarantees: it is only secured by the corporation itself, which is an asset (something which can be owned and sold) not a person or persons.  A corporate bond is a kind of contract which used to be called a census. An example of a census is an investor paying for seed and supplies for a farmer in exchange for a fixed quota of the farm’s expected output, converted into a regular cash payment.  This is morally licit as long as it is guaranteed by the farm as a bundle of assets, not by the farmer personally.

Pope Pius V declared in the bull Cum Onus (January 19, 1569) that the difference between a licit census and usury was that in a licit census, the income and principal were guaranteed by the assets – the farm - and not personally guaranteed by the farmer.  Personally guaranteed census contracts were declared to be usury, as were census contracts where redemption of the principal could be forced by the buyer (“lender”) before the term of the census contract expired, as were census contracts which could not be redeemed at any time by the seller (“borrower”).

John de Lugo explains that the correct concept of the census is that:

… part of the usufruct of the field on which the census is constituted is bought.  Then, … by another contract, which is implicitly contained in the very constitution of a real census, it is agreed by the parties that, for the hope of the fruit which the buyer has from that usufruct, the seller binds himself to pay such an annual payment of money; — and in this way the prior contract is reduced to the obligation of paying only an annual sum, by which the seller redeems the partial usufruct of the field which he had sold; the field itself, however, remaining really obliged in the manner of a pledge for the payment of the promised money …

(Noonan, The Scholastic Analysis of Usury, Oxford University Press, 1957).

32) In question 16 you say that the value of future labor is not a real asset which can be used as collateral on a for-profit loan.  But wasn’t it relatively common before the modern era for people to be sold into slavery to pay off a debt?

Yes.  Both are true.

33) Doesn’t St. Paul tell slaves to obey their masters?

Yes, though that probably doesn’t have the implications that modern people presume it to have.  The language may not mean what they think it means, the relation between master and slave is (like the relation between usurer and borrower) morally asymmetrical, moral doctrine actually does develop as we gain a deeper understanding of eternal truths and encounter new situations, modern people generally have a distorted concept of property, and we also tend to view any sort of subjection to authority as dehumanizing.

It is true though that, at least in my understanding of the moral theology, rejection of chattel slavery and of usury are closely connected.


October 7, 2014 § 16 Comments

I’ll be taking a break from blogging for a while.

It isn’t ‘mercy’ to send someone down the road to Hell

October 6, 2014 § 19 Comments

As the Extraordinary Synod gets underway I expect to hear lots of Orwellian talk about ‘justice versus mercy’, as if they were opposites.  This is just a rhetorical trick, because it attempts to frame ‘pastorally’ sending vulnerable people down the road to Hell as ‘mercy’.  Even if we accepted the false dichotomy, deliberately leading souls to Hell by treating ignorance as the eighth sacrament isn’t ‘mercy’.  As soon as a person knows that his objectively adulterous acts are grave matter, he must seek the grace to cease choosing to engage in objectively adulterous acts. And the longer things go on without him learning the truth, the more difficult his situation becomes.

Pastoral ‘solutions’ which propose to reduce objectively adulterous acts to the status of venial sin (a prerequisite to receiving the Eucharist without that reception itself involving mortally sinful sacrilege) therefore depend on keeping people in difficult marital situations ignorant.  They necessarily involve hiding the truth, out of a fear that once told the truth these people will go away sad. Furthermore, to be sustainable this hiding of the truth must persist over time: as soon as the person actually learns the truth the game is up.  So the truth not only must remain unspoken: it must be actively hidden and suppressed.

These ‘pastoral solutions,’ then, are necessarily plans from the Father of Lies. It isn’t ‘mercy’ to send people down the path to eternal torment, or to pat them (and ourselves) on the back paternalistically while lying to them, telling them that they will be just fine even if they continue to choose gravely immoral behaviors.  Pastors will have to lie and persist in the lie - to actively hide the fact that objectively adulterous behaviors are grave matter – in order for this to ‘work’.

However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.

Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”(180)

Similarly, the respect due to the sacrament of Matrimony, to the couples themselves and their families, and also to the community of the faithful, forbids any pastor, for whatever reason or pretext even of a pastoral nature, to perform ceremonies of any kind for divorced people who remarry. Such ceremonies would give the impression of the celebration of a new sacramentally valid marriage, and would thus lead people into error concerning the indissolubility of a validly contracted marriage.

By acting in this way, the Church professes her own fidelity to Christ and to His truth. At the same time she shows motherly concern for these children of hers, especially those who, through no fault of their own, have been abandoned by their legitimate partner.

With firm confidence she believes that those who have rejected the Lord’s command and are still living in this state will be able to obtain from God the grace of conversion and salvation, provided that they have persevered in prayer, penance and charity.Familias Consortio

An annulment mill straw man, or, turning ignorance into the eighth sacrament redux

October 4, 2014 § 25 Comments

Catherine Harmon quotes Ed Peters:

No, the objections of the first group to the number of annulments being declared is, I suggest, not to the annulment process but to the people running that process. Tribunal officers are, it is alleged, too naive, too heterodox, or just too lazy to reach sound decisions on nullity petitions; they treat annulments as tickets to a second chance at happiness owed to people who care enough to fill out the forms. How exactly members of this first group can reach their conclusion without extended experience in tribunal work and without adverting to the cascade of evidence that five decades of social collapse in the West and a concomitant collapse of catechetical and canonical work in the Church is wreaking exactly the disastrous effects on real people trying to enter real marriages that the Church has always warned about, escapes me. Nevertheless that is essentially their claim: the process needs no major reform, processors do.

Peters in effect asserts a reverse ad hominem, suggesting that opponents of the annulment mill are attacking the character of the people carrying out the process rather than attacking the process itself.

There is a another view, which is that the process needs to be reformed because the ‘internal forum’ criteria for defective consent are inherently subjective. On this view, attempting to judge the majority of ‘internal forum’ annulments is like attempting to judge whether a particular confession was valid or not, based on the testimony of the penitent — who, by the time the issue comes up juridically years later, may not be certain himself.

In the case of a bad confession there is a simple sacramental solution: go make a good, valid confession and don’t leave anything involving ‘grave matter’ out, including the possible invalid confession.

In the case of uncertain consent to marriage there is also a simple sacramental solution: convalidation.  This is how the Church has always consistently treated epistemic doubt about the validity of sacraments, to wit, conditional baptism.  When in doubt because of inherently subjective factors or other uncertainties, the way forward is to insure that the sacrament is confected validly and licitly.

Modern annulment practice is unique in the history of the Church, inasmuch as it treats a possible sacramental irregularity – based on purely subjective considerations – as a two way street.  It doesn’t provide a way forward, it provides a way backward, in the name of a false ‘mercy’. This is terribly unfair in a way in which carrying out the death penalty without objective third-party evidence would be terribly unfair.  Errors in death penalty cases result in killing the innocent; errors in ‘internal forum’ annulment cases turn various people (including innocent ‘spouses’, past and future) into material adulterers.  This is just the very modern phenomenon of turning doubt or ignorance into an eighth sacrament: it pretends that mercy means letting people stew in objective evil with no real way out.

It is quite human for the sinner to acknowledge his weakness and to ask mercy for his failings; what is unacceptable is the attitude of one who makes his own weakness the criterion of the truth about the good, so that he can feel self-justified, without even the need to have recourse to God and his mercy. An attitude of this sort corrupts the morality of society as a whole, since it encourages doubt about the objectivity of the moral law in general and a rejection of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions regarding specific human acts, and it ends up by confusing all judgments about values. – Veritatis Splendour

I’ll cite the documents of one American diocese just to give flavor on the sort of criteria which are actually being employed in the actual current process to annul marriages.  Of course examples can be multiplied, and I’ve seen many more egregious examples than these.  If someone doubts that, we can hold a contest to come up with more examples.  This just happened to be what I grabbed with a quick Google:

Error Concerning a Quality of the Person: (canon 1097, §2) Defect of consent due to error concerning a quality of the other person, directly and principally intended in a spouse. If one party intended to marry someone who possessed a certain quality (perhaps of a moral, social, physical, religious, psychological or legal nature), and the primary reason for entering the marriage was the erroneous belief the intended spouse possessed that quality, the marriage may be invalid. The intended quality must be of such a magnitude that, without it, the person would not have married the other, and the discovery of the truth must have had a serious effect on the nature of the marriage.

Conditioned Consent – Past and Present Condition (c. 1101, §2) Defect of consent when a person entered a marriage based on a past or present condition of the existence or non-existence of a fact, typically concerning the spouse’s or his/her past (e.g., citizenship, criminality) or present state (e.g., pregnancy, a medical condition, career, a character or trait). Placing such a condition on the marriage raises serious questions, and it invalidates marriage when it is proven the condition, upon which the marriage decision depended, was not fulfilled at the time of marriage. This ground may be considered when one or both spouses entered the marriage with an expressed condition based on something from the past or present

Notice that, in addition to relying on wholly subjective testimony about peoples’ expectations going into marriage, these two criteria basically contradict each other. If you married expecting your spouse to have a certain quality and your spouse doesn’t turn out to have that quality, the marriage is null because your spouse didn’t have that quality. But if you married expecting your spouse to have a certain quality at all, that too casts doubt on the validity of the marriage.

This sort of jurisprudence makes the very idea of validly consenting to marriage into a joke.

Now reforming the process to basically close off the way backward represented by ‘internal forum’ annulments still leaves ‘external forum’ cases open to adjudication, and I would use the term broadly to include cases where objective third-party evidence of defective consent prior to the wedding is admissible: e.g. bragging to friends about the mistress at the bachelor party, as attested by third party witnesses.

But closing the door on all ‘purely subjective’ and even self-contradictory internal forum cases – whatever one thinks of it – would (contra Peters) be a process reform, would be consistent with the way the Church treats cases of possible invalidity when it comes to other sacraments, and would preach to the world by walking our talk – unlike current practice – that the Catholic Church is serious about the indissolubility of sacramental marriage.

We’ve all got babies to kill

September 27, 2014 § 145 Comments

I could be wrong, but in my understanding Augustine and Aquinas were primarily concerned with whether the Israelite conquest of Canaan was justifiable at all: with jus ad bellum. After all, on its face it was a war of conquest, and wars of conquest are morally wrong.

Just conduct during war, jus in bello, is clearly – and is formally recognized by the Church as – an entirely distinct subject.

At least one Church Father though has directly addressed accounts of killing infants in the Old Testament and how they are to be interpreted. Here is Origen on the “dashing of babies” in Psalm 137:

And in this way also the just give up to destruction all their vices, so that they do not spare even the children, that is, the early beginnings and promptings of evil. In this sense we understand the language of Psalm 137 … For, “the little ones of Babylon” (which signifies confusion) are those troublesome sinful thoughts that arise in the soul, and one who subdues them by striking, as it were, their heads against the firm and solid strength of reason and truth, is the person who “dashes the little ones against the stones”; and he is therefore truly blessed. – Origen, Contra Celsum, translated by Frederick Crombie, vol. 4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to AD 325, edited by Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1989)

So according to Origen, Old Testament accounts of killing infants refer metaphorically to destroying heresy and vice in ourselves in its infancy; and the weapons of destruction are reason and truth.

In that sense, we should all be dashing the heads of infants against the rocks.

(UPDATE: Made a minor tweak to my post-citation commentary)

Literal insanity

September 13, 2014 § 224 Comments

Biblical inerrancy is one thing.  It means that there exists a true (corresponds to reality) and correct (corresponds with what the author intends to say about God and salvation) meaning or interpretation of Biblical texts.  That is really all that it means, which is not enough to solve the ‘problem’ of interpretation. That a true and correct interpretation exists doesn’t imply that some specific interpretation is true and correct.

Note that inerrant meaning is ascribed to the author of the text, not the characters and people who are the subjects of the text. That the sacred author’s meaning is inerrant does not imply that King Saul, in his actions and words, was infallible. A true and correct history of the words and deeds of Thomas Jefferson does not imply that the words and deeds of Thomas Jefferson were infallible. Furthermore Scripture gives no list of characters to whom infallibility is to be attributed nor any criteria for determining when their actions or words are infallible.

So when it comes to Scriptural inerrancy there is much less there than meets the positivist eye.

Biblical ‘literalism’ is another thing entirely. It assumes (incoherently) that Scriptural text in itself completely determines meaning, and asserts that the putative ‘literal’ interpretation is true.  This isn’t just wrong: it is rationally incoherent, because any text of sufficient complexity always underdetermines theories of what the text means.

Biblical literalism has a long pedigree, probably because the great majority of human beings throughout the great majority of history have not understood the limitations of text and meaning.  Text and meaning are just things we take for granted and don’t think much about in themselves. The longest lasting institution in all of history, the Roman Catholic Church, however, has always implicitly functioned on an understanding that literalism is incoherent. One might be tempted to attribute this to supernatural grace.

Attempting to interpret the Bible ‘literally’, then, is not something which I take particularly seriously, nor do I think anyone should take it particularly seriously. On the other hand, when talking to a whole society of people in the grip of a basic epistemological error you have to sometimes speak in terms that they can understand.

If I attempt to interpret the book of Deuteronomy like a literalist – and start at the beginning so that I am not pulling things out of context – I find that Moses attributes some things to the Lord and many more things to himself. He doesn’t explicitly assert any claims of infallibility for himself. Here is the first bit (Douay-Rheims), into which I have inserted the referent (Moses or the LORD) in [square brackets] in a number of places:

[1] These are the words, which Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan, in the plain wilderness, over against the Red Sea, between Pharan and Thophel and Laban and Haseroth, where there is very much gold: [2] Eleven days’ journey from Horeb by the way of Mount Seir to Cadesbarne. [3] In the fortieth year, the eleventh month, the first day of the month, Moses spoke to the children of Israel all that the Lord had commanded him to say to them: [4] After that he had slain Sehon king of the Amorrhites, who dwelt in Hesebon: and Og king of Basan who abode in Astaroth, and in Edrai, [5] Beyond the Jordan in the land of Moab. And Moses began to expound the law, and to say:

[6] The Lord our God spoke to us in Horeb, saying: You have stayed long enough in this mountain: [7] Turn you, and come to the mountain of the Amorrhites, and to the other places that are next to it, the plains and the hills and the vales towards the south, and by the sea shore, the land of the Chanaanites, and of Libanus, as far as the great river Euphrates. [8] Behold, said he, I [The LORD] have delivered it to you: go in and possess it, concerning which the Lord swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that he would give it to them, and to their seed after them. [9] And I [Moses] said to you at that time: [10] I [Moses] alone am not able to bear you: for the Lord your God hath multiplied you, and you are this day as the stars of heaven, for multitude.

[11] (The Lord God of your fathers add to this number many thousands, and bless you as he hath spoken. [Moses speaks a blessing]) [12] I [Moses] alone am not able to bear your business, and the charge of you and your differences. [13] Let me have from among you wise and understanding men, and such whose conversation is approved among your tribes, that I [Moses] may appoint them your rulers. [14] Then you answered me: The thing is good which thou [Moses] meanest to do. [15] And I [Moses] took out of your tribes men wise and honourable, and appointed them rulers, tribunes, and centurions, and officers over fifties, and over tens, who might teach you all things.

[16] And I [Moses] commanded them, saying: Hear them, and judge that which is just: whether he be one of your country, or a stranger. [17] There shall be no difference of persons, you shall hear the little as well as the great: neither shall you respect any man’ s person, because it is the judgment of God. And if any thing seem hard to you, refer it to me [Moses], and I [Moses] will hear it. [18] And I [Moses] commanded you all things that you were to do. [19] And departing from Horeb, we passed through the terrible and vast wilderness, which you saw, by the way of the mountain of the Amorrhite, as the Lord our God had commanded us. And when we were come into Cadesbarne, [20] I [Moses] said to you: You are come to the mountain of the Amorrhite, which the Lord our God will give to us.

The entire book of Deuteronomy is like this, recounting the words and deeds of the man Moses, as spiritual and political leader of the Israelites, interspersed with specific things attributed by Moses to the LORD. We are given no recounting of how in particular the attribution is made, etc — whether it came in a dream or was recorded onto an SSD recorder at the site of the burning bush or whatever.

But in general it makes no sense in reading Deuteronomy to attribute things to God that Moses himself doesn’t attribute directly to God. (I am sure that God alone actually could ‘bear their business’ if He chose to).

Given that background we can look at the ‘offending’ passages in Deuteronomy 20 where Moses orders the genocide of the Canaanites.

[16] [Moses giving orders] But of those cities that shall be given thee, thou shalt suffer none at all to live: [17] But shalt kill them with the edge of the sword, to wit, the Hethite, and the Amorrhite, and the Chanaanite, the Pherezite, and the Hevite, and the Jebusite, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee: [After the colon, the command Moses attributes to the Lord] [18] Lest they teach you to do all the abominations which they have done to their gods: and you should sin against the Lord your God. [19] [Back to Moses giving orders] When thou hast besieged a city a long time, and hath compassed it with bulwarks to take it, thou shalt not cut down the trees that may be eaten of, neither shalt thou spoil the country round about with axes: for it is a tree, and not a man, neither can it increase the number of them that fight against thee. [20] But if there be any trees that are not fruitful, but wild, and fit for other uses, cut them down, and make engines, until thou take the city, which fighteth against thee.

As a literalist I had better not attribute things to God which are not explicitly attributed to Him.  The text doesn’t say that God was giving orders, it says that Moses was giving orders. This is clearly Moses speaking and commanding, much as he did when he told the Israelites that he (Moses) could not handle all the work of judging their disputes and appointed leaders to do that on his behalf.  God did not come down from the mountain and appoint the leaders, and it wasn’t God whose capacity to judge disputes was limited and required more manpower.  The thing Moses himself attributes to God is that the Israelites should not learn pagan ways and worship pagan gods. Moses himself doesn’t in any direct way attribute the means that he (Moses) chose to God.

Of course there are other ‘problemmatic’ passages which present different interpretive ‘difficulties’ for the literalist.

But if they are a problem for you, the problem arises not from Scripture or inerrancy but from the fact that you are a literalist.  A literalist is a kind of positivist, a person who is committed to the idea that text does not underdetermine meaning. But the way the world actually works, meaning actually is underdetermined by text.

So the thing to do isn’t to wrestle with conundrums like a literalist.  The thing to do is to stop being a literalist, because literalism rests on a false understanding of reality.

Hail Judas

September 8, 2014 § 16 Comments

Morality is the active aspect of holiness.

The resurrected Christ is Holy.

There had to be Good Friday in order for there to be Easter.

There had to be Judas and Pilate in order for there to be Good Friday.

There had to be Satan in the Garden in order for there to be Judas and Pilate.

Does it follow that Judas, Pilate, and Satan should be emulated as models of Christian holiness?


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