An Early Christian View of Usury
In a lecture on the Christian and finances not long ago, the lecturer informed the listeners, of whom I was one, that a Christian is perfectly free to engage in usury. This statement was one I took serious issue with, but out of respect for the lecturer and collegiate forum in which this lecture was delivered, kept my reaction to myself. What follows then is my response to that statement and my reasoning. My opinion is that usury is a grave sin, and I believe my opinion conforms to that of both Biblical theology and early Christian belief on the subject.
Now, many modern theologians have changed this definition to read "charging unreasonable interest on loans." However, as we shall see, this is not how the church has historically understood the topic. Allow me to define usury then. Usury is "the making of loans at interest."
Interestingly, The New Testament is silent on the topic, except for the words of Christ.
"And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to get back the same amount. ......lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great..."- Luke 6:34-35
If, as Christ says, we should lend without any thought of receiving anything in return, this implicitly demands we not expect interest on a loan either! So with just this statement alone Christ has not left the door open to us for practicing usury. Nor has the common consensus of the church left that door open. For example, the Council of Arles (314 A.D.) condemned the loaning of money at interest, as did the 17th canon of the 1st Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.). Likewise the 12th canon of the Council of Carthage (345 A.D.) and the 36th canon of the Council of Aix (789 A.D.) declared it a reprehensible act to lend at interest. In later church history the 3rd Lateran Council (1179 A.D.) the 2nd Council of Lyons (1274 A.D.), and the Council of Vienna (1311 A.D.) all condemned loaning money at interest. In fact, the Council of Vienna declared that anyone denying that loaning at interest is sinful should be condemned as a heretic. I could go on and on listing various councils of the church condemning the practice, but this suffices for our examination of the topic. Why? It demonstrates that there is a long standing dogmatic position of the church condemning the practice that stretches back into the Ante-Nicene era of the Christian faith.
How do we know this to be the case? We can examine the writings of various Church Fathers and clearly see this spelled out.
"Let it suffice to remark that the Law prohibits a brother from taking usury."- Clement of Alexandria
"You have lent on usury, taking twenty four percent! Yet, now you wish to bestow charity that you may purge yourself....The Almighty absolutely rejects such works as these."- Commodianus
"We must not take usury!"- Cyprian
"If a Christian has lent any money, he will not receive interest-so that the benefit that relieved necessity may be unimpaired...For it is his duty in other respects not to be sparing of his property, in order that he may do good. But to receive more than he has given is unjust!"- Lactantius
I think it is pretty clear that the historic dogma of the church is that charging interest on loans, the practice of usury, is forbidden and considered a grave sin. This is because it places an undue burden on the needy and poor, it removes the good done in lending by adding profit and greed to the equation, and is not something our Lord did, condoned or would do.