Economics 101 & Theology 101

Conclusion: An Overview of Usury in the Bible

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This is the final blog in our series on usury. Today we have the task of what John Stott calls bringing two worlds together: the world of biblical revelation and the contemporary culture. The task of bringing those two worlds together so that modern people are impacted by the pure message of Scripture is part science and part artistic craft, and all of it is a lot of hard work. 

Usury Then & Now 

As Jay Richards has observed, laws prohibiting interest on personal loans made sense in the historical context of the Old Testament. “The Old Testament passages were all written when the Israelites had a static, agrarian, semi-nomadic society. In other words, they were written when not much new wealth was being created beyond what could be coaxed from the fields, and were written to people who didn’t have much surplus money.” That is not today’s world. 

The world has moved over the last 3,500 years (from about Moses’ time) from: 

  • agrarian economies (ancient world) 
  • to economies based largely on slave labor (Roman Empire) 
  • to economic systems based on feudal and manorial relationships (Western Europe and England from about AD 800) 
  • to mercantile systems based on the notion that wealth consisted in precious metals (beginning around the Crusades and continuing into the eighteenth century) 
  • to the world of free markets today.

(Of course, this brief list is not exhaustive. There have been many hybrids and heresies over the years.)

In the course of this transition, the nature of “money” was transformed. Seen by the ancients as something “sterile, functioning only as a means of exchange,” it became through the process of the economic transformation of the Western world a dynamic force that could be used for the good of society. One would not expect that moral instructions given largely due to a specific economic reality would hold the same force given a very different economic context. No case is to be made for moral relativism. This kind of argument could not justifiably be made, say, to defend gay marriage or unmarried cohabitation, just because today offers a different cultural context. Those two issues are rooted in creation and in specific moral teachings found throughout Scripture, and there is no reason, redemptive-historically or otherwise, to imagine that they could reasonably be under debate by people committed to the inerrancy of Scripture

An Overview of Usury in the Bible

In the Old Testament, those who were able were instructed to be generous to needy Israelites, but they were not to expect to receive anything in return more than what they had lent: no interest, no usury. It was absolutely forbidden. In the New Testament, the truly poor were generally to be helped from within their local church. In the New Testament, the instructions about charity were congregationally focused, not governmentally focused. For many centuries Christian teachers assumed that usury principles should be literally applied to the loaning of money. By the time of the Reformation, however, some began to recognize the need to understand and apply Scripture in a redemptive-historical manner, and also to recognize that on some moral issues, historical contexts need to be taken into consideration when applying moral principles to the modern world. Because of the fact that the nature of “money” is seen so differently today, it would be inappropriate to apply the usury laws of the Old Testament in a straightforward and literal manner in today’s world. 

In the Western world of today, there are mortgages, retirement investments, car loans, credit cards, and various other situations in which a lender places financial resources into the hands of people who might not pay it back, and situations where people place their money with institutions that use it for investment, with the promise that investors will receive it back with interest. That is today’s world. With some exceptions (for instance, Amish communities) people do not live in covenanted enclaves like the people of ancient Israel. This is a place and time in which paying and receiving interest is not only a fact of life but acceptable to most people. This series has demonstrated that there is nothing unbiblical or un-Christian about that. Everyone wants to borrow money at the lowest interest rates, of course, and everyone wishes to receive the highest return on investments. So people shop and invest as wisely as possible. Along with that, Christian people will wish to be generous with those who are in need. The principle “love your neighbor” and its implication for financial matters (“give generously”) never have an end. 

Here is an overview of the articles in this series, if you wish to revisit any of these areas in more detail.

Understanding What God Commanded Moses About Usury

Part 1 explains the definition of usury, my thesis on usury in the Old Testament, and excerpts from Exodus about this topic. Read the first article here.

Usury & The Israelites: Leviticus & Deuteronomy

Part 2 continues examining my theory that the Old Testament universally condemns usury on money or property loaned out to fellow Israelites by exploring a passage from Leviticus and another from Deuteronomy. Read the second article here.

Usury in Psalms & Ezekiel

Part 3 delves beyond the writings of Moses by the topics of bribery, interest, and profits within the Psalms and Ezekial. Read the third article here.

Usury in Nehemiah

Part 4 uncovers a final Old Testament passage about usury in the post-exilic period of Nehemiah, particularly focusing on interest, repayments, and the cancellation of debt. Read the fourth article here

Usury in the Gospels

Part 5 brings us to the New Testament, which does not address the issue of “usury” in the same way as the Old Testament. The topic of earning “interest” comes up twice in the parables of Jesus. Read the fifth article here

Usury in the New Testament & the Early Church

Part 6 elaborates further on what Paul, John, James, and the early church leaders write about the poor and how they are to be treated. Read the sixth article here

Editor’s Note: This series is adapted from the IFWE research paper, Usury in Scripture, by Dr. Chad Brand. Read the full paper here.

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