On Usury, Scripture, Tradition, and the Modern Church

Saturn Devouring One Of His Sons, by Francisco Goya

Saturn Devouring One Of His Sons
by Francisco Goya

On Usury as Lending at Interest

“The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender” (Pr 22:7)
“He that by usury and unjust gain increaseth his substance, he shall gather it for him that will pity the poor” (Pr 28:8)

In the scriptures, usury is narrowly defined as lending money at interest. The modern sense of lending at exorbitant interest is not in view; rather, nearly all lending of money at interest is forbidden. The Pentateuch describes usury as lending money at interest to the poor, but permits lending at interest to foreigners (Ex 22:25; Lev 25:35-38; Deu 23:19-20). In the later writings this definition is seems to be expanded to cover all lending of money at interest (Ps 15:1,5). Justin Martyr, in the “Dialogue of Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew”, translates Ps 72:12-14 this way: “For He has delivered the poor from the man of power, and the needy that hath no helper. He shall spare the poor and needy, and shall save the souls of the needy: He shall redeem their souls from usury and injustice, and His name shall be honourable before them.” [1] (Schaff, ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus 1884, 335) Proverbs connects usury with unjust gain (Pr 28:8). Ezekiel describes usury as an abomination and as extortion (Eze 8:8, 13, 17; 22:12). Nehemiah contains an extended passage in which the people were forced to mortgage their property and possessions to purchase food and pay their taxes. Nehemiah forced the mortgage holders to restore everything they had taken, along with the interest (Neh 5:1-13).

The tradition of the church has been from the very beginning to forbid the lending of money at interest, which was considered the same as theft. Henry Percival, in his book “The Seven Ecumenical Councils”, provides the following information in his “Excursus on Usury”.

The famous canonist Van Espen defines usury thus:   “Usura definitur lucrum ex mutuo exactum aut speratum;” [the anticipated gain from each loan] and then goes on to defend the proposition that, “Usury is forbidden by natural, by divine, and by human law.   The first is proved thus. Natural law, as far as its first principles are concerned, is contained in the decalogue; but usury is prohibited in the decalogue, inasmuch as theft is prohibited; and this is the opinion of the Master of the Sentences, of St. Bonaventura, of St. Thomas and of a host of others: or by the name of theft in the Law all unlawful taking of another’s goods is prohibited; but usury is an unlawful, etc.” For a proof of usury’s being contrary to divine law he cites Ex. xxii. 25, and Deut. xxiii. 29; and from the New Testament Luke vi. 34. “The third assertion is proved thus. Usury is forbidden by human law: The First Council of Nice in Canon VII. deposed from the clergy and from all ecclesiastical rank, clerics who took usury; and the same thing is the case with an infinite number of councils, in fact with nearly all e.g. Elvira, ij, Arles j, Carthage iij, Tours iij, etc. Nay, even the pagans themselves formerly forbid it by their laws.” He then quotes Tacitus (Annal. lib. v.), and adds, “with what severe laws the French Kings coerced usurers is evident from the edicts of St. Louis, Philip IV., Charles IX., Henry III., etc.”[2] (Percival 2013, 106, 107)


Usury and Modernity

If this be the case, as is difficult to deny, then what accounts for the attitude of modern Christianity towards the subject of lending money at interest? Henry Percival, in his book “The Seven Ecumenical Councils”, makes the case that the distinction between interest and usury is Calvinist in origin.

The glory of inventing the new moral code on the subject, by which that which before was looked upon as mortal sin has been transfigured into innocence, if not virtue, belongs to John Calvin! He made the modern distinction between “interest” and “usury,” and was the first to write in defence of this then new-fangled refinement of casuistry. [98] Luther violently opposed him, and Melancthon also kept to the old doctrine, though less violently (as was to be expected); today the whole Christian West, Protestant and Catholic alike, stake their salvation upon the truth of Calvin’s distinction! (Percival 2013, 107)

It is interesting to read what some say about this. Merrill F. Unger describes usury as money loaned to aid the struggling poor. (Unger 1966, 1129) This idea is often thought to have been Jesus’ view as well, for he tells people to give to everyone who asks, and not require it again, and not to lend hoping for a return (Luk 6:30, 35). Although some read the Lukan text as “an exhortation to general and disinterested benevolence”, the text does not support this presumption, for this is not Jesus’ only mention of the subject. (Vermeersch 1912) In the parable of the unjust steward, the steward is entrusted with a sum of money; the steward thinks his master a hard and austere man, and hides the money rather than risk it. The master, condemns the unjust steward, for if he thought the master a hard and austere man, he should have lent the money out at interest (Matthew 25:26-27; Luke 19:22-23). The clear implication is that only a hard and austere man would lend money at interest.

After describing the particular social situation that gave rise to the prohibition of usury in the Old Testament and after describing the Luke 6 passage as being in the same vein, Unger indicates that the practice of lending money for commercial purposes was unknown, and therefore not prohibited. (Unger 1966) The Catholic Encyclopedia expands upon this idea when it describes how usury has been viewed over the centuries—from being barely mentioned in the early church, to being prohibited to clerics, to being to all Christians, to being absolutely prohibited by Jew and Christian alike in the medieval church, and from there to the modern view that acceptance of interest on loans is not absolutely prohibited. The modern argument proceeds from the idea of justice: it is unjust to expect a lender to risk his capital and forgo the use of same in other money-making ventures with no expectation of return. (Vermeersch 1912)

This discussion of the development of doctrine in this area seemingly explains away the church fathers and fails to take into account insight derived from apocryphal literature, including some writings that were of use in the early church. For example, the Apocalypse of Peter, likely composed prior to the middle of the second century, contains the following: “And in another great lake, full of pitch and blood and mire bubbling up, there stood men and women up to their knees: and these were the usurers and those who take interest on interest” (Apocalypse of Peter, 30). (Schaff, ANF09. 2004, 276) The so-called “Vision of Paul”, ostensibly an account of what he saw when he was taken up into heaven, was generally rejected by the church, and specifically mentioned by Augustine as being spurious. Yet the Vision of Paul was in use among the monks, and contains the following passage: “And I saw another multitude of pits in the same place, and in the midst of it a river full of a multitude of men and women, and worms consumed them. But I lamented and sighing asked the angel and said: Sir, who are these? And he said to me: These are those who exacted interest on interest and trusted in their riches and did not hope in God that He was their helper” (Vision of Paul, 37). (Schaff, ANF09. 2004, 293)

From the great Clement of Alexandria (writing in The Stromata), we find confirmation regarding interpretation of the Old Testament teaching regarding usury. As Clement rightly points out, “The law prohibits a brother from taking usury: designating as a brother not only him who is born of the same parents, but also one of the same race and sentiments, and a participator in the same word.” (Schaff, ANF02. 2004, 601) But we are not under law, but under grace (Rom 6:14); and under grace, our responsibilities to our neighbor are greater. Jesus, in answer to the question “Who is my neighbor”, gives us the parable of the Good Samaritan. A certain man is fell among thieves, and is grievously wounded. A priest and a Levite pass him by, but a Samaritan helps him. Jesus then asks: “Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?” The reply came: “He that shewed mercy on him.” Jesus then gave his universal charge: “Go, and do thou likewise” (Luk 10:25-37).

Under law, a person was restricted from lending money at interest to someone the law defined as a brother, someone who fell under the protections of the old covenant. Under grace, we are constrained to show mercy to all, for all mankind may partake of the new covenant. Therefore the whole world is our neighbor. While a Jew could lend at interest to someone outside the covenant, for the Christian no one is outside covenant protections. As the whole world is out neighbor, we are therefore constrained from lending money at interest.

Am I my Brother’s Keeper: The Theological Rationale Against Usury

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9) This, the answer of Cain following his murder of his brother Abel, is the first recorded question asked of God in the Holy Scriptures. It is ultimately the same question asked of Jesus by the lawyer when he sought to justify himself: “And who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29). This spirit of self-justification is the opposite of the spirit enjoyed by Adam and Eve in the state of original righteousness, a state in which they were naked, and not ashamed (Gen 2:25).

Prior to the fall of mankind, we see Adam created in solitude, of which God said it was “not good” (Gen 2:18). Once woman is created, man is no longer alone. Mankind is both iss and issa, both male and female. Although the first five days of creation were called “good”, only after the creation of mankind does our Maker look at His creation and call it “very good” (Gen 1:31). Mankind is created in the image of God and, as we see in the second creation account, is created with a full “communion of persons” (John Paul II 2006, 162ff). Because of this communion of persons, as “one flesh” created as male and female, mankind is a typological representation of the communion of persons within the trinity. What we see after the fall is a broken communion—not only with God, but with each other.

The questions “Am I my brother’s keeper” and “Who is my neighbor” are only possible after the fall. They are humanity’s expressions of Satan’s fivefold “I wills” (Isa 14:12-14), through which Lucifer expressed the broken communion between himself and the most High. Thus the question “Am I my brother’s keeper” is an expression of the self and shame, and a denial of the very essence of humanity. This self-justifying question is an expression of the pride that came before the fall. The question is a fig leaf designed to cover one’s essential nakedness before God, before humanity, and even before one’s own self.

The original creation of mankind as male and female was “very good”. Adam and Eve were created in communion with each other, in the image of God, and as a typological representation of the communion within the trinity. Thus the meaning of “naked, and not ashamed” is not an expression of sexuality, but is the essence of humanity created in original righteousness. “Naked, and not ashamed” is an anthropological statement, a description of what it means to be human. “Naked, and not ashamed” is also an ontological statement, a description of mankind’s original order of being. In the state of original righteousness, the question of “am I my brother’s keeper” has no meaning. The question only makes sense after the fall, as a description and consequence of an anthropological and ontological change in the nature of humanity.

After the fall, God pronounced a curse not only upon humanity, but upon the earth, for we were created “of the dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7), and unto dust we shall return (Gen 3:17). The curse passed upon the entire earth: “all flesh shall perish together” (Job 34:15). Adam’s sin not only passed upon all humanity (I Cor 15:22), but upon the entire creation, which “groaneth and travaileth in pain together”. Thus the communion of persons, by which we were intended to be “naked, and not ashamed”, has become a communion in suffering, a sharing of the curse.

James, the brother of our Lord, described humanity’s lot in this manner: “For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away” (Jas 4:14). Isaiah likewise says: “All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth” (Isa 40:6-7). But Isaiah does not leave us comfortless, but describes God’s provision in the midst of suffering: “O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God! Behold, the Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young” (Isa 40:9-11).

In this manner Isaiah describes God’s providential, merciful care for his people.

Thus saith the LORD, In an acceptable time have I heard thee, and in a day of salvation have I helped thee: and I will preserve thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, to establish the earth, to cause to inherit the desolate heritages; That thou mayest say to the prisoners, Go forth; to them that are in darkness, Shew yourselves. They shall feed in the ways, and their pastures shall be in all high places. They shall not hunger nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor sun smite them: for he that hath mercy on them shall lead them, even by the springs of water shall he guide them. (Isa 49:8-10)

God’s gracious provision for mankind, His active involvement in the fate of individuals, is the characteristic of mercy. After holiness, mercy is God’s most important characteristic. We, being made after the image and likeness of God, are called to show mercy to our neighbor. And in showing mercy, we lend without expectation of reward.


John Paul II. Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006.

Percival, Henry R. The Seven Ecumenical Councils. Kindle. Edited by Sr. Paul A. Böer. Veratitis Splendor Publications, 2013.

Schaff, Philip. ANF01. Edited by Alexander Roberts, & James Donaldson. Vol. 1. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1884.

—. ANF02. Edited by Phillip Schaff. Vol. 2. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2004.

—. ANF09. Edited by Phillip Schaff. Vol. 9. 10 vols.Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2004.

Unger, Merrill F. Unger’s Bible Dictionary. Third Edition. Chicago: Moody Press, 1966.

Vermeersch, Arthur. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912.


[1] Justin Martyr seems to be following the Vulgate for Ps 72:12-14, in which the word usuries is the Latin translation of the Hebrew תך (tok), translated in the AV as deceit.

[2] That the student may be able to find the resources for him or herself, Henry Percival provides the following information:

Although the conditions of the mercantile community in the East and the West differed materially in some respects, the fathers of the two churches are equally explicit and systematic in their condemnation of the practice of usury.   Among those belonging to the Greek church we find Athanasius (Expos. in Ps. xiv); Basil the Great (Hom. in Ps. xiv). Gregory of Nazianzum (Orat. xiv. in Patrem tacentem). Gregory of Nyssa (Orat. cont. Usurarios); Cyril of Jerusalem (Catech. iv. c. 37), Epiphanius (adv. Haeres. Epilog. c. 24), Chrysostom (Hom. xli. in Genes), and Theodoret (Interpr. in Ps. xiv. 5, and liv. 11).   Among those belonging to the Latin church, Hilary of Poitiers (in Ps. xiv); Ambrose (de Tobia liber unus). Jerome (in Ezech. vi. 18); Augustine de Baptismo contr. Donatistas, iv. 19); Leo the Great (Epist. iii. 4), and Cassiodorus (in Ps. xiv. 10). (Percival 2013, 108)