Usury is often defined as taking or charging excessive interest on a loan. However, before the sixteenth century, it meant charging any kind of loan, whether for money or land.
So far through Moses, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, Psalms and Ezekial, Nehemiah, Matthew and Luke, I’ve discussed my thesis that the Old Testament universally condemns usury on money or property loaned out to fellow Israelites, and the context began to change in New Testament times through agrarian economies, mercantilism, and the free market.
There is still more biblical material to examine on this subject. What does the New Testament teach about the poor and how they are to be treated? If there is no specific instruction on usury, what does it say? It actually says a lot, but there is room here for only a brief summary.
Usury in the Gospels
Jesus spoke of “lending” to the needy and not expecting anything in return (Lk. 6:34-35); however, a glance at the context makes it clear that “lend” here means “give,” a teaching that can also be found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:40-42), where Jesus instructs his hearers to “give to him who asks of you” (5:42, NASB).
Usury in the Pauline Epistles
On several occasions in the Pauline epistles, the author addressed the need to take an offering for the poor in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8:8-11; 9:1-5; Rom. 15:27). To Timothy he wrote that Christians should always be ready to share (1 Tim. 6:18), and he often commended churches for their financial generosity, such as in Philippians 4:14-16.
Usury according to John
John wrote that if someone has the world’s goods, then sees a brother in financial need but does nothing to help, he cannot claim to have a heart of Christian love (1 Jn. 3:17-18).
Usury in James
James, in a very compact epistle, said a great deal about the rich and the poor. He instructed this church not to despise the poor man (Jas. 2:5-6), to give to the one who has neither food nor clothing (Jas. 2:14-17), not merely to use their resources for personal purpose but to aid those in need (Jas. 4:1-4), not to presume that riches will gain them anything truly important since material blessings are fleeting (Jas. 4:13-17), and for employers to pay those who work for them in a righteous manner (Jas. 5:1- 6).
Usury in the New Testament
Since these letters were all written to local churches, presumably those within a congregation should seek to help those within their congregation who are in need, though at times, offerings were taken from local churches to help another church or churches in their needs. The New Testament way to treat the truly poor is to help them, whether they can pay back the money or not.
Usury Before the Sixteenth Century
Before the sixteenth century, all Christian writers condemned the practice of charging interest on loans, appealing to the commonly accepted interpretation of “usury” as meaning just that. Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Basil the Great, and others could all be cited in this regard; but none was more specific in his denunciation of charging interest than Ambrose of Milan (AD 339-97). He wrote, “If a man has need of assistance because he has not enough of his own wherewith to repay a debt, is it not a wicked thing to demand under the guise of a kindly feeling a larger sum from him who has not the means to pay off a less amount?”
Similarly, Augustine (AD 354-430), though more enlightened than many of his contemporaries on many economic issues (such as profits in business transactions), condemned usury outright. “Lend not money at interest. One who does so will ‘go into the flame.’” This all came from a straightforward reading of the Old Testament texts with no consideration of the hermeneutical or contextual issues involved.
Similarly, the Council of Nicea (AD 325), the Council of Laodicea (AD 364), and the fourth Lateran Council (AD 1205), among others, all inveighed against usury. The universal position of ancient and medieval Roman Catholicism (though not of Eastern Orthodoxy after AD 1054) was that any interest charged on loans for any reason whatsoever was a violation of scriptural demands.
Calvin & Luther on Usury
John Calvin (AD 1509-64) taught and wrote, not as an economist or political theorist, but as a pastor and a theologian. For him, economic life was “part of the fallen world,” which meant that borrowers might default on their loans. Though Calvin recognized that usury was clearly subject to abuse in the form of exorbitant interest assessments, he contended, “We must hold that interest . . . is not altogether to be condemned.” This was his comment on Ezekiel 18, a text examined in my previous article at some length.
Make no mistake: Calvin knew well that professional moneylenders often extorted unjustifiable sums from unfortunate people. In his Commentary on the Psalms he noted, “It is also a very strange and shameful thing . . . that money-mongers should sit at their ease without doing anything, and receive tribute from the labor of all other people.” He also urged that there should be exceptions to the charging of interest. “It is always wrong to exact usury from a poor man.”
Like all activities in a Christian commonwealth (which Calvin sought to institute in Geneva), lending practices should be governed by love: “Now whether a Christian may from time to time make some profit on a loan . . . I have already shown that Christ only wished that the faithful in lending should go further than profane men.” Martin Luther (AD 1483-1546) did not share Calvin’s views; he opposed all forms of usury. Though both men lived in the sixteenth century, Cashill notes in Popes and Bankers: A Cultural History of Credit and Debt, from Aristotle to AIG, “Calvin was bridging to the seventeenth century, Luther to the fifteenth.” The future lay mostly with Calvin.