NOTE: The following article is excerpted from, Usury in Christendom: The Mortal Sin that Was and Now is Not, 2013.
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.1 (Matthew 6:24)
Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy holy hill?…He that does not ask interest on his loan, and cannot be bribed to victimize the innocent. (Psalm 15:1, 5)
The upright man is law-abiding and honest…He never charges usury on loans, takes no interest, abstains from evil…It is Yahweh who speaks. (Ezekiel 18:5, 8-9)
“The natural form therefore, of the art of acquisition is always, and in all cases, acquisition from fruits and animals. That art, as we have said, has two forms: one which is connected with retail trade, and another which is connected with the management of the household. Of these two forms, the latter is necessary and laudable; the former is a method of exchange which is justly censured, because the gain in which it results is not naturally made, but is made at the expense of other men. The trade of the petty usurer is hated most, and with most reason: it makes a profit from currency itself, instead of making it from the process (i.e., of exchange) which currency was meant to serve. Currency came into existence merely as a means of exchange; usury tries to make it increase (as though it were an end in itself). This is the reason why usury is called by the word we commonly use (the word tokos, which in Greek also means breed or offspring); for as the offspring resembles its parent, so the interest bred by money is like the principal which breeds it and it may be called ‘currency the son of currency.’ Hence we understand why, of all modes of acquisition, usury is the most unnatural.” (Aristotle, Politics, Book I, Part 10, 350 BC)
To understand how extreme is usury, let us recall that God did not intend that His people would be indebted for ten or twenty years even if the loans were interest free. Under the Biblical concept of Jubilee, no indebtedness would last longer than the sabbatical seventh year. In the year after the last of seven such sabbatical years (7 x 7 = 49 years + 1), a Jubilee was to be declared and all debts cancelled. Jesus Christ declared that He came to proclaim the Jubilee (the “acceptable year”).
Usury is derived from the Latin word usura, defined as “a sum paid for the use of money” (Oxford Latin Dictionary). The Fathers are unanimous in regarding all interest as usury, and, therefore as a species of robbery: “Whatever exceeds the amount owed is usury” (St. Ambrose, De Tobia).The condemnation of interest taking was part of the unanimous consensus partum…It was not until the 16th century that ‘usury’ was redefined as high interest rates.
USURY AND THE FATHERS OF THE EARLY CHURCH
St. Clement of Alexandria: The issue of usury made its first appearance in Christian literature in Clement’s Paidagogos (circa 197 AD), an instruction for new converts on Christian conduct in daily matters. Concerning the ‘just man,’ Clement quotes Ezekiel: ‘His money he will not give on usury, and he will not take interest.’ This subject is taken up again some years laeter in the second book of his major work Stromateis.2
Tertullian: He considers the subject of interest in his treatise on the theology of the New testament, Adversus Marcionem, where he teaches that the Gospel does not abolish the law of the Old Testament, it exceeds it. Tertullian writes of the just man, “He hath not…put out his money at interest, and will not accept any increase—meaning the excess amount due to interest, which is usury.”3
St. Cyprian of Carthage: Offers proofs in his Testimoniorum (Ad Quirinum) that interest taking is prohibited by the law of God.4
Council of Elvira: In the early fourth century, Canon 20 of this Council prohibited all clerics and laymen from participating in the sin of taking interest on loans, under penalty of excommunication.5
St. Jerome: In his Commentaria in Ezechielem he stated that the prohibition against usury among the Israelites had been made universal by the New Testament. He affirmed that all interest on money is forbidden. “One should never receive more than the amount loaned.”6
St. Hilary of Poitiers: In his Tractatus in Psalm XIV: “If you are a Christian, why do you scheme to have your idle money (otiosam pecuniam) bear a return and make the need of your brother, for whom Christ died, the source of your enrichment?”7
St. Basil the Great: In his second Homily on Psalm 15 (LXX): “This sin is denounced in many places in Scripture. Ezekiel accounts the taking of interest and receiving back more than one gave as being among the greatest evils,8 and the Law specifically forbids this practise: ‘You shall not charge interest to your relative or your neighbor.’9 And again the Scripture says, ‘Guile upon guile, and interest upon interest.’10 A certain Psalm says, regarding a city that prospers amidst a multitude of evils, ‘Interest-taking and guile are never absent from its snares.’11 And now the prophet identifies this very thing as the characteristic of human perfection, saying, ‘They do not lend money at interest.’
“…for those who set rates of interest, their money is loaned and bears interest and produces even more…It is from this tendency to multiply that this kind of greed derives its name …loans are said to ‘bear’ interest on account of the great fecundity of evil…The offspring of interest one might even call a ‘brood of vipers’…you should have nothing to do with this monstrous creature.”12
St. Basil then launches into an extended admonition against borrowing money, on the responsibility to repay a loan, and the virtues of frugality and living within one’s means. He further states: “Listen, you rich people, to the kind of counsel I am giving…on account of your inhumanity…If you must seek a return on your investment, be satisfied with what comes from the Lord…You should expect the characteristics of philanthropy from the true Philanthropist. As it is, the interest you receive back shows every characteristic of extreme misanthropy…”
“Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you,’ and ‘do not lend your money at interest;’ these commandments from the Old and New Testaments13 were given so that you might learn what is for your benefit, and thus depart to the Lord with a good hope, receiving there the interest upon your good works, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and dominion forever and forever.”14
St. Gregory of Nyssa: In Contra usurarios (ca. 379 AD), he calls down on him who lends money at interest the vengeance of the Almighty. He further states, “…lending at interest can be called ‘another kind of robbery or bloodshed…since there is no difference in getting someone else’s property by seizing it through covert housebreaking and acquiring what is not one’s own by exacting interest.” St. Grgeory describes the lender at interest as a “poisonous serpent” and an evil, beast-like spirit. Referring to the words of the Pater Noster prayer of Jesus Christ—“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”—Gregory asks, “How can you pray like this, oh usurer? How can you make a request from God in good conscience since he has everything and you do not know how to give?”
In De beneficentia, St. Gregory excoriates evil-doers who hypocritically practice outward acts of piety such as fasting. In doing so he employs terms associated with usurers: “Renounce dishonest profits! Starve to death your greed for Mammon! Let there be nothing in your house that has been acquired by violence or theft. What good is it to keep meat out of your mouth if you bite your brother with wickedness…What kind of piety teaches you to drink water while you hatch plots and drink the blood of a man you have shamefully cheated?”
St. Gregory of Nazianzus: For this saint, the usurer is a sinful parasite, “gathering where he had not sowed and reaping where he has not strawed” (Oratio). Cataloguing a list of mortal sins, Gregory of Nazianzus states, “One of us has oppressed the poor, and wrested from him his portion of land, and wrongly encroached upon his landmark by fraud and violence, and joined house to house, and field to field, to rob his neighbor of something, and been eager to have no neighbor, so as to dwell alone the earth. Another has defiled the land with usury and interest, gathering where he had not sowed…” (Oration 16)
St. Ambrose of Milan: In his aforementioned work De Tobia, written in 380 AD, he declared that the taking of interest on loans of money is equivalent to murder. He declared usury to be a mortal sin in De officiis ministrorum and De Nabuthe. In De bono mortis Ambrose stated that usurers will suffer eternal damnation. In De Tobia Ambrose described the usurer as a “monster” and “devil” even when lending at 1% interest (“the hundredth”): “Money is given, it is called a loan; it is termed money at interest, it is designated capital; it is written down as debt; this huge monster of many heads causes frequent executions; the usurer names the bond, he speaks of the signature, he demands security, he talks of a pledge, he calls for sureties; he claims the legal obligation, he boasts of the interest, he praises the hundredth…The devil is a usurer…the Savior owed nothing but He paid for all…The usurer of money…exacts his hundredth…the Redeemer came to save the hundredth sheep, not to destroy it.”
This “devil” epithet is etymologically justified. As we have noted, in Old Testament Hebrew Neshek, from the root NShK means to “bite” and signifies usury; Nahash, from the root NkHSh denotes serpent.
St. John Chrysostom: The saint taught that usury was shameless: “What can be more unreasonable than to sow without land, without rain, without plows? All those who give themselves up to this damnable culture shall reap only tares. Let us cut off these monstrous births of gold and silver, let us stop this execrable fecundity.”
St. Leo the Great: In his encyclical Ut nobis gratulationem, of 444 AD: “Some people put out their money at usury in order to become wealthy. We have to complain of this, not only with regard to those in clerical office, but we likewise grieve to see that it holds true of lay people who wish to be called Christians. We decree that those who are found guilty of receiving this turpe lucrum (shameful gain) should be severely punished.”
St. Augustine of Hippo: The saint denounced the sin of interest on money in De consensus evangelistarum.
Charlemagne: In 789AD, Charlemagne in his Admonitio Generalis prohibited usury by all people, laymen as well as clerics, throughout the lands of the Holy Roman Empire, citing the following authorities: “(1) the Council of Nicea, (2) the above mentioned letter of Pope Leo, (3) the Canones Apostollorum, and (4) Scripture.” The Catholic Council of Aix-la-Chapelle promulgated Charlemagne’s Admonitio Generalis as church doctrine.
In Charlemagne’s Capitulary of Nijmegen of March, 806, he defines usury in clause 11 as “claiming back more than you give; for instance, if someone has given 10 solidi and asks for more than 10 in return, that is usury.” Clause 16: “Lending (foenus) consists in providing something; the loan is fair and just when one demands no more than what he provided.”
Charlemagne imposed heavy fines for usury.
King Alfred the Great: He ordered that the charging of interest on loans of money was illegal throughout England. Those who received revenue from usurious loans were to forfeit their property. Christian burial was denied to them.
St. Edward the Confessor, King of England: “Usury is the root of all evil”15 As monarch, St. Edward (ca. 1003-1066), the last Saxon King of England, banished all who charged interest on loans. Usurers who remained in England were subject to the confiscation of their property and declared to be outside the protection of the law (i.e., outlaws).16
Unanimous Teachings of Popes and Councils Before 1500
The unanimity of the Early Church Fathers brought about a crystallization of hostility to interest-bearing loans into numberless decrees of popes, councils, monarchs and legislatures throughout Christendom. The Canon law was shaped in accordance with these prohibitions, which were enforced by the Council of Arles in 314 and the Council of Nicea in 325: “Because many of the Ecclesiastical Order, being led away by covetousness and desire of base gain, have forgotten the Holy Scripture which saith, ‘He gave not his money upon usury,’ do exercise usury, so as to demand every month a hundredth part of the principal and one half of the principal for interest, or contrive any other fraud for filthy lucre’s sake, let him be deposed from the clergy and struck out of the list”17 (Council of Nicea, Canon XVII).18
Although it is claimed ny apologists for usury that the Nicean Council only condemned usury among clerics and not the laity, Canon XVII also quoted Psalm 15: “Lord, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle? He that hath not put out his money to usury.” Psalm 15 does not qualify God’s criterion for who shall dwell with Him. Anyone who practices usury will not be admitted. It was not by accident that the Council of Nicea referenced Psalm 15’s total rejection of any usury practiced by anyone.
The 12th Canon of the Council of Carthage (345) and the 36th Canon of the Council of Aix (789) declared it to be sinful for anyone to charge any interest on money. Every great assembly of the Church, from the Council of Elvira in 306 to that of Vienne in 1311, condemned lending money at interest. The fount of Canon Law in the Middle Ages totally banned all interest on loans.
A few months before his death, Edward’s usury-free England, “was a rich and prosperous kingdom… Later generations did right to appeal to the good old laws of life which refused to die…” King Edward was canonized in 1161. His feast day on the traditional Roman Catholic calendar is October 13.
- “Mammon is derived from the Aramaic word for riches (mamona) occurring in the Greek text of Matt. vi. 24 and Luke xvi. 9-13, and retained in the Vulgate. Owing to the quasi-personification in these passages, the word was taken by medieval writers as the proper name of the devil of covetousness…From the 16th century onwards it has been current in English, usually with more or less of personification, as a term of opprobrium for wealth regarded as an idol or as an evil influence” (Oxford English Dictionary).
- Ante-Nicene Fathers 2, pp. 233, 366.
- Ante-Nicene Fathers 3, pp. 372-373.
- Ante-Nicene Fathers 5 p. 546.
- “If any clergy are found engaged in usury, let them be censured and dismissed. If a layman is caught practicing usury, he may be pardoned if he promises to stop the practice. If he continues this evil practice, let him be expelled from the church.” http://faculty.cua.edu/pennington/Canon%20Law/ElviraCanons.htm
- Commentary on Ezekiel, Translation by Thomas P. Scheck
- NPNF 02-09
- Ezekiel 22:12
- Deuteronomy 23:20
- Jeremiah 9:6 (Septuagint)
- Psalm 55:12 (Septuagint)
- On Social Justice: St. Basil the Great (SVS Press, 2009), pp. 89-90; 95 (emphasis added).
- Matthew 5:42; Psalm 15:5 (Septuagint).
- On Social Justice: St. Basil the Great (op. cit.), pp. 97-99.
- Leges ecclesiasticae.
- Leges Edwardi Confessoris (ca. 1130), cap. 37, De usaraiis.
- The phrase “a hundredth part of the principal” connotes a 1% interest rate.
- In The Rudder, Nikodemos the Hagiorite interprets this Canon: “Various Canons prohibit the charging of interest on money, but the present one expressly ordains this, to wit: Since many canonics, or clergymen, being fond of greed and shameful profits, have forgotten the saying in the Psalm of David which says that the chosen man is one “who hath not lent out his money at interest,” meaning the righteous man who is destined to dwell in the holy mountain of the Lord, or, in other words, in the heavenly kingdom, and in lending money have been exacting a percentage charge from their debtors, consisting, for example, of twelve cents, or pennies, say, per hundred (or per dollar), which was an excessive interest — because, I say, clergymen were actually doing this, this holy and great Council deemed it right and just that if hereafter any clergyman should be found to be charging interest, or treating the matter as a commercial proposition, or turning it to his own advantage in any other way (while pretending not to charge interest, that is to say, when lending his money to those in need of it, yet agreeing with them that he too is to receive some part of the interest and profit accruing from the money, thus calling himself, not a lender, but a sharetaker or partner), and be caught doing this, or demanding a commission (or half the percentage, which would amount, in this case, to six cents, or six pennies, instead of the twelve comprised in the full amount of total interest, i.e., of interest at 12%), or should invent any similar means of making a shameful profit, any such person shall be deposed from the clergy and shall be estranged from the canonical order. Read also Ap. c. XLIV.”