What Does the Bible Say About Student Loan Forgiveness?

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In the days following the announcement of President Biden’s student loan cancellation plan, its legion demerits—from driving up tuition and unfair wealth transfer to the creation of a moral hazard for future students—have been well documented. And yet, strikingly, the public conversation has been rife with Christian appeals to the Bible in support of the plan. Unsurprisingly, none of the appeals have been persuasive. But such armchair theology does serve as a cautionary tale about the follies of Bible text-proofing in favor of one’s policy preferences and the dangers of immanentization.

Among the most frequent biblical justifications offered on social media has been an invocation of the Old Testament practice of Jubilee.  

The Jubilee, as described in Leviticus 26, was to be celebrated every fiftieth year. Liberty would be proclaimed throughout Israel and slaves were to be freed and lands returned to their owners. In other words, debts were discharged. The divine prescription had the practical effect of checking the rich and benefitting the poor.  

The biblical Jubilee was explicitly coupled with a privileged status for the Israelites in contrast with resident aliens. This underscored the covenantal relationship that Israel had with God, who, in the course of the Jubilean prescriptions, reminded Israel that “the land is mine” (v. 23) and three times reminded them, “I am the Lord your God.” The Jubilee thus sought to reinforce the teaching of the first commandment. Creation is not God but belongs to God. Accordingly, no creature is to be idolized, which human beings would be wont to do if property were held in absolute dominion. Rather, land and servants were possessed in the mode of participation in the Eternal Law, which is to say, God’s providential governance of the universe for the common good of all.

In short, the Jubilee was practiced within a sacral agrarian society in a covenantal relationship with Yahweh. It was one of the judicial precepts of the Old Law, which no longer bind under the New Law of Christ. Yet, it did prefigure Christ’s atonement and spiritual liberation of man from the debt of sin. And it prefigured the Year of Jubilee, first instituted by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300, a venerable practice of making indulgences available to the faithful that the successors of Peter have continued to this day. In the Christian tradition, the jubilee concerns the spiritual economy of sin and grace, not the visible economy of debt and credit.

Hence, Christians who honor Biden’s decree as a biblical-style jubilee badly misunderstand the Christian tradition. Even if one accepted the idea that America is or was the new Jerusalem in a covenantal relationship with God (itself a theologically contestable claim, and dubious to the Augustinian Christian), we no longer live in John Winthrop’s America. Nothing in Biden’s decree calls for or operates to generate a general thanksgiving and return to God and remembrance of His sovereignty over our lives and creation.  

The truth is quite the opposite. Inasmuch as the decree subsidizes higher education with no meaningful call for education reform attached to it, it effectively propagates with taxpayer dollars the immanentist, neopagan faith that animates much of secular academia. In this respect, the policy works as a demonic mock-imitation of the Jubilee by directing the forgiven to channel their thanks not to God but toward the idols of government and party.  

The United States Government, who creates money ex nihilo and originates over 90 percent of college student loans, is presented as a lord who giveth and taketh away. That is, this god taketh the taxes away from such citizens as the bitter gun-and-Bible-clingers in rural rust belt America (who disproportionately lack Bachelor’s degrees) and giveth to the disproportionately secular, liberal, and higher earning college-educated urbanites. Even sympathetic analysts admit that the policy is a naked attempt to buy off such voters. Another way to put the point is that the student loan cancellation is the patronage of a god to its faithful.

Far from a biblical Jubilee, Biden’s decree is a pagan jamboree.

Another biblical trope has been to leverage Christ’s teachings and practice of liberality and forgiveness in the Gospels to allege that conservative Christians are hypocritical if they oppose the Biden jamboree. As one meme put it, “Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand was a slap in the face to everyone who brought their own lunch.”  

Of course, God’s mercy to the penitent sinner should not be begrudged by faithful sons and daughters. The sin of the brother of the prodigal son was to resent his father’s mercy. But all of this is on the plane of the spiritual economy.

The same point generally applies to Jesus’ teachings and parables about the kingdom of God, which often use the imagery of debtors and creditors. Such material imagery is used to teach a spiritual lesson. Consider, for example, the parable of the talents, in which a master entrusts three servants with five, two, and one talent, respectively. The first two double their principal through investment. The last buries his talent in the ground. When the master returns, he praises the first two and condemns the last for his sloth.  

Thomas Aquinas, in tune with various Patristic commenters, interprets the talents as spiritual graces, or gifts that God bestows. Or, the talents could refer to God’s word, which is given according to the recipient’s capacity to understand. Either way, the recipient multiplies the spiritual gifts received through acts of charity. Meanwhile, the one who buries the talent in the earth, Aquinas says, can be interpreted as the man who turns his efforts toward earthly things. 

In contrast with the steady hand of the Patristic and Medieval masters, social media armchair theologians who try to leverage the Gospel in service of the latest social justice fad risk immanentizing the eschaton. This has been a feature of liberal Protestantism (and later, liberal Catholicism) at least since the Social Gospel movement.  

A leading proponent of the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch, thought that the “essential purpose of Christianity” was to “transform society into the kingdom of God,” which meant instituting a socialist order in which man “puts at the service of the community all that a man is and can.” Rauschenbusch thus interpreted the first steward of Matthew 25 as a greedy tyrant who lords over his subordinates in order to “fatten his paunch.” More recently, some theologians in this vein have suggested that the third servant is actually praiseworthy for his refusal to participate in a corrupt system of gain. Such “anti-capitalist” interpretations of the Bible badly distort our Lord’s teaching by conscripting Christ’s spiritual teachings for temporal political ends.

Because the Bible by itself is insufficient to generate a comprehensive political theory (and thus needs to be supplemented by natural law philosophy), Christians should be leery of biblical “proof-texting” in public policy debates. Still, if Christians want to meditate on biblical passages that are relevant to contemporary policy debates over student loan forgiveness and otherwise, allow me to make a suggestion. They should go read Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2, which lay out transcendent principles for Christian citizenship. 

Then they should go read the United States Constitution, specifically Article 1, Section 1 and Article 2, Section 2, which lay out the principles which American children were supposed to have learned in Schoolhouse Rock! And, for good measure, they should read the 2003 HEROES Act (and reflect upon which group of citizens it was intended to cover, which obviously is non-identical with those deemed eligible for debt cancellation).

Perhaps then they will see that Sts. Peter and Paul teach that Christians have a presumptive obligation to uphold civil authority within their polity. In our case, a constitutional republic, we (are supposed to) enjoy the rule of law, not men. The highest civil authority is the expression of the popular sovereign, the United States Constitution, and all laws made by the People’s representatives in accordance with it. When United States officials, whose very authority flows from the Constitution itself, take actions that flagrantly violate it in the mode of ultra vires, it is the biblical duty of Christians to publicly oppose them—or, at the very least, maintain prudent silence about things that are beyond the talents that have been entrusted to them.

[Photo Credit: Getty Images for We the 45m]

Kody Cooper

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Kody W. Cooper is UC Foundation Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is the author of Thomas Hobbes and the Natural Law (University of Notre Dame Press, 2018) and coauthor of the forthcoming book The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics: Political Theology, Natural Law, and the American Founding (Cambridge University Press).

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