Usury And Calvin: A Question

I have recently come across some writings that call into biblical question the whole framework of modern economics (re: interest-generating loans without which our current socio-economic structure could not exist). By way of example, this post, What Love Is This? A Renunciation of the Economics of Calvinism lays the problem of usury, interest, and the Church’s complicity in defying the clear commands of God and the position of the Church for 1600 years at the feet of Calvin.

Have any of my reformed brothers and sisters investigated this issue. The above posting seems to demonstrate that Calvin, for economic and societal reasons, apparently stepped around sola scriptura in this matter. What say my learned brethren? I am only beginning to dip into this deep pool, but I am very disturbed by what I have found so far. Anyone care to help?

4 thoughts on “Usury And Calvin: A Question

  1. While I am painfully unfamiliar with the history of Calvin’s history, I would like to point out two things that I am quite sure of.

    1. Calvin was a fallen human, saved by the grace of God. Whether or not some of his practices were sinful only underscores this point.
    2. Calvin is not the model that those who bear his name in their understanding of soteriology are to follow, Christ is. He did not create the doctrines of grace, his name was used to describe those who follow his example

    As long as these two points are emphasized, you can begin to delve into his life (or any theologian’s life, for that matter) with a proper understanding. Again allow me to say that I don’t know if that post was accurate or not.

    Exodus 22:25 (ESV)
    “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him.

    In the law of Moses, Israel was told that taking interest from one who is in need is not the proper way to love your neighbor. Calvin was more the theologian than I, so I don’t presume to be wiser than him. How, though, do you equate the mention of the master telling the wicked servant that he should have at least invested the talents given him so he could show interest in Matthew 25:14-30?

    The Law was very clear that no interest should be charged, but the master in the parable symbolizes God Himself. Just as Israel was told not to plow with an ox and a donkey together and they were not to muzzle an ox that was treading grain, I wonder if this command didn’t have a deeper meaning than just loaning money. This is pure speculation on my part, and again, I don’t know enough of Calvin’s history to be a definitive responder.

    All I know is that Calvin was a fallible human who did not introduce the soteriology that bears his name.

  2. Doug,

    In answer to the Matthew 25 passage. While I never studied it before, it always left me unsettled because what it seemed to say just didn’t sit right. Since starting this journey I have come across several good explanations of that passage that begin to move me to a more settled sense.

    For example, if you look at Vincent’s New Testament Word Studies you find that this passage:

    “His master replied, ‘You evil, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not planted? You knew that I gather crops where I have not scattered seed?

    should be interpreted as question, as the text shows with a question mark, but even more strongly in the sense, “If you really thought” I harvest…then you would have…

    It is not saying that gaining interest is what the evil servant should have done and thereby affriming the concept of interest. It is saying that even his explanation of why he failed is inconsistant because if he really believed that his master [God] was indeed these evil things he said (hard, taking what was not his) why then didn’t he at least do the evil usury thing and be consistant with how he viewed his master and give this evil master an evil return, kind for kind?

    It is like saying if you really thought your master was a thief, then why didn’t you at least go out and steal something yourself so you would then have something to give him when he returned.

    Another thing is that usury was not just forbidden when interacting with the poor. One interesing thing I found from the Anit-Nicene Fathers is two references to a vision of Peter that condemns usury.

    “And in another lake, full or pitch and blood and more bubbling up, there stood men and women on their knees: and these were usurers and those who had taken interest…” Antinicene Fathers, Vol. IX, p. 146

    The Apostle Paul, in telling his vision, said: “And I saw another multitude of men and women, and worms consumed them. But I lamented and sighing asked the angel and said, ‘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.” Antinicene Fathers, Vol. IX, p. 160.

    When one looks at the history of Israel in the Scriptures you see that they constantly fell down in keeping their covenant with God and were punished and the covenantal promises were withheld. It is why after only one short period of prosperity (end of David – beginning of Solomon) they spiraled into eventual captivity and dissolution.

    When I look at the history of the church I see the same thing. Rather than a spotless bride (Ephesians 5:27) what I see is captivity to the world and dissolution. Revivals bring in souls but due to the corruption of the Church as a whole they barely affect the culture around them for more than a short while. Usury and its general adoption during the Reformation and after blunted (in my opinion) the power of what God was doing and since then has married the Church to the world like nothing else in history. Most churches have loans or get money from endowments and interest bearing accounts directly convening the command of God.

    Sorry, didn’t mean to get on my soapbox in a comment. This needs to be developed in a series of postings. So much to do, so little time.

  3. Bill and Doug – good discussion, thanks for posting your thoughts.

    Bill – I seem to remember that R.C. Sproul Jr. wrote a book on economics and he’s pretty familiar with Calvin. I wonder if he would be a good resource for you to contact. This is a great topic. I was thinking exactly along the lines that Doug brought up, but you answered it well.

    I’ll be interested in seeing what else you come up with.

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