Renz's Thesis No. 1 - “Commercial loans were known in antiquity.”

At a glance, this may seem quite an odd thesis to put forth as the first among 12 theses on the subject of usury, but in context of Thomas’s overall objective, it is a critical point of departure.

For his assertion, Thomas relies in part upon the book, Economic Structures of the Ancient Near East, by Morris Silver. However, the part of Silver’s book that is cited is presented as intending to overturn a long-accepted view, typified in Karl Polanyi. That is to say, Silver’s work is self-consciously controversial in that it acknowledges what Modern scholarship has been prone to accept concerning the economic realities of the Ancient world, and expressly challenges it. Silver is quite open about challenging the accepted view as an economist, not a historian. One of the very first things Silver says in his preface is to admit that, “…I am not now and never have been an antiquarian.”

M. I. Finley was Cambridge professor of Ancient History. The second edition of his book, The Ancient Economy, was published in 1985 [Berkeley:University of California Press], the same year as the copyright of Silver’s book. Finley endorsed the findings of Polanyi. His thesis pertains mainly to the Ancient Greco-Roman economies, and he explains quite extensively in his introduction why his analysis extends no earlier - into realms treated by Silver: “The Near Eastern economies were dominated by large palace- or temple-complexes, who owned the greater part of the arable, virtually monopolized anything that can be called ‘industrial production’ as well as foreign trade (which includes inter-city trade, not merely trade with foreign parts), and organized the economic, military, political and religious life of the society through a single complicated, bureaucratic, record-keeping operation for which the word ‘rationing’, taken very broadly, is as good a one-word description as I can think of.” [p. 28]

Finley sees nothing prior to Greek civilization that even remotely approximates what we know in our day as commercial activity. Clearly, the difference between Polanyi / Finley and Silver is a difference of interpretation, not one of fact. Silver does not contend that there are facts that Polanyi failed to consider, or only lately were uncovered. He rather objects to Polanyi’s interpretations.

As an exercise in interpretation, we may turn to Thomas’s appeal to an Ancient text known as The Edict of Ammisaduqa, from the 17th Century BC. Thomas claims this text documents the practice of commercial lending. But he has misunderstood the Edict. The general purpose and thrust of the Edict was to proclaim remission of debts. Thomas declares that it, “…excludes goods which have been loaned ‘either as merchandise for a commercial journey, or as a joint enterprise for the production of profit.’” The pertinent paragraph of the Edict reads (as annotated): “An Akkadian or an Amorite who has received barley, silver or (other) goods either as merchandise for a commercial journey, or as a joint enterprise for the production of profit, (5) his document is not voided (by the misharum act); he must repay in accordance with the stipulations of his agreements.” [Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975) Vol. II, p. 38] Also, Thomas claims that the Edict “…even includes a paragraph which specifies what happens to people who pretend that a loan was a commercial loan, when it was not.” The section to which he refers runs thus: “If anyone had given barley or silver as an interest-bearing loan and had a document executed, (ii 30) retaining the document in his own possession, and then stated: ‘I have certainly not given it to you as an interest-bearing loan or on the melqetum basis; the barley or sliver which I have given you, I have given (as an advance) for purchases, or for the production of profit, or for some other objective,’ the person who had received the barley or silver from the creditor shall produce his witnesses to the wording of the document which the lender had denied, and they shall speak (their testimony) before god.” [ibid]

The purpose of the Edict was to provide general relief from widespread and oppressive debt arising from loan by canceling all such debt across the board. It was not meant to cancel business contracts, and the clauses cited were included in order to prevent someone from evading business obligations by way of claiming that what he owed was a debt arising from a loan and therefore cancelled. The business agreements in view were “joint enterprise,” or “an advance for purchases,” or a deposit of consignment, or some such arrangement - not a loan. The second section cited addresses a case of a lender who attempts to construe the loan he extended as some kind of business agreement, so he can circumvent the Edict and persist in collecting.

As Thomas points out, cancellation of loans across the board via such Edicts was not unusual in the Ancient world. The reason for this is because failure to repay loans was met with severe penalties, such as slavery, and even death. If sufficiently large blocs of a population became hopelessly indebted, there was very little for such ones to lose in launching a debtors uprising. Cancellation of debts was a means of stabilizing a population. In such a world, becoming indebted was a desperate measure resorted to by men who were in desperate circumstances. It was not a common method of funding a commercial venture. One must consider also that virtually all commercial activity was conducted by those in political power, or their agents. A tiny minority of any Ancient population approximated what we might think of as free or middle-class, who might have the wherewithal or opportunity to launch into some kind of business. Even such cases were regulated by those holding power, and required their protection if the activity ranged over any significant distance, as transportation was exceedingly difficult and dangerous. It made very little sense for anyone to take on loans as a means of supplying a business venture in such a world.

Thomas adjures us: “A fundamental hermeneutical principle to remember in this discussion is this: repeating the same words in a different context is not saying the same thing.” [Boldface in the original.] Finley enunciates a similar exhortation: “If I have taken so long over this introduction, with perhaps an excess of lexicography [he points out, for example, that it is impossible to translate the word freedom or free man into any Ancient Near Eastern language], that is because there is a fundamental question of method. The economic language and concepts we are familiar with, even the laymen among us, the ‘principles’, whether they are Alfred Marshall’s or Paul Samuelson’s, the models we employ, tend to draw us into a false account.” [p. 23]

Our concepts of commercial lending and borrowing have no correspondence to any Ancient socio-political reality. Reading our ideas back into Ancient texts only leads to misinterpretations. Thomas relies on misinterpretations of Ancient texts and upon Silver’s interpretations, which by no means reflects any scholarly consensus. The Finley / Polanyi view is alive and well. Thomas’s first thesis thus is not well taken.

Renz's Thesis No. 2 - "Interest-bearing loans were prohibited within Israel's polity."

I affirm Thomas’s second Thesis as stated. However, his elaboration of the Thesis brings out nuances that I do not affirm. In the first place, his emphasis seems to be upon the phrase, “within Israel’s polity,” as though to imply that outside Israel’s polity another rule holds. Indeed, he refers the reader forward to a subsequent Thesis wherein this point is made more plainly. Secondly, while he admits that Deuteronomy 23:19 issues a blanket condemnation of usury, he regards this as an oddity that must be explained.

At the conclusion of his discussion of Thesis No. 1, Thomas quite helpfully cites Barry Gordon to the effect that, “…it is difficult to discover unambiguous differentiation of business and consumption loans in the literature of antiquity.” Thomas nevertheless would like to define “charitable” loans vs. “commercial” loans with sufficient precision to serve a point of law. He claims, for example, that in the Exodus and Leviticus prohibitions only “charitable” loans are in view. Thus, for Thomas, the blanket prohibition of usury on all loans without distinction in Deuteronomy becomes something to be explained.

It will be useful to survey Thomas’s proposed explanations, but the first thing to be noted is that he speaks of investment and loan as virtually synonymous. This confusion of concepts is the popular outlook in our day, and is nothing new or particular to Thomas. It is just this sort of confusion that makes discussion of usury difficult. For example, it was this confusion that led to Thomas’s misunderstanding of the Edict of Ammisaduqa, as explained above. Usury arises in a contract of loan. It is a fee that is imposed, which the borrower must pay in addition to the loan principal. Investment, properly understood, is not a loan. Investment is money or other property given by a party to a joint venture. His “return” on an investment is calculated by agreed terms, and may or may not exceed the amount of the original principal invested, depending upon the degree of success of the venture.

Thomas offers a number of possible explanations for the blanket prohibition of usury in Deuteronomy. He says, first, that “Opportunities for investment in an expanding business were likely rare in ancient Israel; a complete prohibition would not have a major effect on the economy, while protecting the weak from any attempts to dress up what should be interest-free charitable loans as commercial loans.” It will be necessary to assess this proposal allowing for the confusion of investment and loans, as explained above. What is immediately striking in this proposal is that it speaks of commercial lending in Ancient Israel as “likely rare,” whereas Thomas’s prior Thesis was concerned to establish such lending as a common practice. Also, Thomas implies that a prohibition of usury on commercial lending would be bad for “the economy,” and argues that such a prohibition might have worked in Ancient Israel just because commercial lending was rare. But a view that a prohibition of usury is bad for “the economy” is one that cannot simply be taken for granted when reading the Old Testament.

Next, Thomas proposes that, “It fits with the general ethos of the covenant community envisaged in the Torah that investment at a distance without partnership would be discouraged. Associates who share risks as well as opportunities form a closer-knit community than business ‘partners’ whose only link is the actual loan.” If he had not already demonstrated a confusion of the categories of investment and loan, this proposal might have been taken as an argument for doing business as an investor rather than as a lender. Indeed, a blanket prohibition of usury certainly would have the effect of promoting commercial investment and discouraging commercial lending. Once the proper distinction is observed between lending and investing, this proposed explanation of Thomas for a blanket prohibition amounts to stating only the perfectly obvious.

Finally, Thomas says, “It is possible that interest-bearing loans are considered wrong in itself. But this seems to me ruled out by the permission of such loans to a nokri.” Here he alludes to Deuteronomy 23:20, where the text states that “you may charge interest to a foreigner [nokri].” Thomas then promptly refers the reader to his Thesis No. 4. It is at this point that it becomes clear that Thomas’s acknowledgement of the blanket prohibition of usury “within Israel’s polity” stands in vivid contrast to a different rule he sees operating outside Israel’s polity. In keeping with the flow of the Theses as Thomas has laid them out, I too shall defer further comment to discussions that are to follow.

Renz's Thesis No. 3 - "Loans to a foreigner (nokri) were commercial loans"

Deuteronomy 23:20 states that usury may be taken of the “foreigner.” The first thing to note is that the exception enunciated here implies that there is no exception embodied in the general rule stated in 23:19. Indeed, following declaration of the exception, the general rule is reiterated, so that the exception is sandwiched, as it were, between two simple statements of a broad and general rule: you shall not take usury of your countryman, of a foreigner you may take usury, but of your countryman you shall not take usury.

The text quite plainly is staking the exception upon a distinction of borrowers - foreign vs. countryman. It equally is plain that a distinction of loans - commercial vs. charitable - nowhere is in view. In order to understand the exception properly, one must properly assess the distinction upon which it is predicated. Whether a loan is for commercial or charitable purposes makes no difference at all in the question of whether usury is justified. Whether usury is justified depends entirely upon whether the loan was extended to a foreigner (in Hebrew, nokri) or to a countryman, including the sojourner (in Hebrew, ger). In this light, Thomas’s third Thesis is at best uninteresting. Even if there were some way of knowing (which there is not) that the typical loan of Israel to nokri was for commercial purposes, it would have no bearing at all upon the usury debate, for the question of usury and the nature and pretext of the exception in Deuteronomy 23:20 has nothing at all to do with such a question. However, in terms of the issue as Thomas has misconstrued it, the question of “commercial loans” to nokri has quite a lot to do with the basic issues of usury. After all, that is how the matter came to be one of his twelve Theses on the subject. Therefore, it will prove instructive to examine whether Thomas’s third Thesis serves his own purposes, even though it serves no truly useful purpose in the usury question.

The idea that Israelite loans to nokri are “commercial” is pure conjecture. Thomas makes the case that nokri are distinguished from ger by the simple fact that the latter dwell within the polity of Israel and the former without it. That being the case - so the conjecture goes - there hardly is any reason why nokri should be traveling through Israel and have occasion to borrow except for commercial purposes. Indeed, Thomas conjectures that a Philistine might travel to Israel for the sole purpose of borrowing silver that he might return home with it and expand his olive oil production. However, such a notion ignores the fact that in the immediate context in which this law was given, it was Israel who were the travelers. It was following the giving of the law through Moses that Israel entered into the promised land, with the command to conquer, eradicate, and displace the inhabitants thereof. It was not nokri who entered into the land of Israel; Israel entered into the land of nokri. Israel traveled into the realm where nokri lived their everyday lives. Here they encountered the personal need of nokri, springing from hardship and misfortune, which provided the occasion for loans having nothing whatever to do with commerce.

Further, we might hearken back to Thesis No. 1, as its importance in Thomas’s overall position comes more fully into view. His little vignette of the Philistine olive oil producer from Ekron presents an example of what M. I. Finley meant by a false account of things arising from exporting our Modern ideas of commerce back onto the Ancient economic landscape. The very last thing that a Philistine businessman would do would be to travel to a foreign land to borrow. The very last thing that an Israelite with a surplus of silver would do would be to lend it to a Philistine, whom he never had seen before, and watch him ride off into the sunset with any expectation that he ever would see that Philistine, or his silver, again. These are insurmountable problems with Thomas’s vignette that arise even after we already have assumed that individuals in the Ancient world were free to launch into a business enterprise, free to roam about the world in search of a loan, and at liberty to travel long distances bearing valuable property without danger of plunder. Israel’s own episodes, as recounted in Numbers 20:13-21, and 21:21-24, provide an easily accessible account of the obstacles a Philistine businessman from Ekron might have faced in his quest to secure a loan of silver from Israel. It was consideration of such difficulties that led to dismissal of Thomas’s first Thesis, and whereas his first Thesis does not hold, therefore his third Thesis cannot gain any footing.

The true basis of the Deuteronomic exception lies not in a distinction of commercial vs. consumer borrowing, but of foreign vs. countryman borrowers. It remains therefore to expound upon this distinction of borrowers. As the law also required Israel to treat the sojourner charitably, the distinction reflected in the difference between the Hebrew terms nokri and ger becomes one of critical importance. Thomas considered this distinction, as mentioned, but found in it a difference only of those within (ger) and those without (nokri) Israel’s polity. This distinction by itself seems insufficient to account for a strict prohibition of usury in one case coincident with a particular permission of usury in the other case. Indeed, if that were all there was to the distinction, not a great deal could be hung upon it. This point hints at the next Thesis, and accordingly further discussion of the distinction shall, Lord willing, be resumed in my following reply.

Renz's Thesis No. 4 - The Deuteronomic permission implies that usury is not intrinsically immoral

Discussion of this Thesis is complicated by the manner of its expression. Thomas has cast the question as whether or not usury is “intrinsically immoral.” This is a question that might appeal to those of a Greek philosophical mindset, but really is not a matter of much concern for those devoted to Christian theology. Whereas Aquinas was influenced by Greek philosophy, he brought a Greek-like speculation into pursuit of Christian theology. Accordingly, I reserve discussion of the “intrinsic” nature of usury to my forthcoming (d.v.) reply to Thesis 8, where this matter more directly is under consideration. For present purposes, I wish only to argue that the Christian is interested in the requirements and prohibitions of God’s Law, and not in abstract and speculative issues such as whether a thing or an action is “intrinsically” wrong. It may or may not be valid to do so, but I wish to translate the current Thesis to hold that the Deuteronomic permission implies that usury cannot be regarded as generally unlawful.

Thomas surveys a number of proposed interpretations of the Deuteronomic permission that allow the conviction of the general unlawfulness of usury to stand. One idea (e.g. Aquinas) was that the permission was a concession to an evil disposition, but Thomas discards this on the strength that it is incompatible with the charge to Israel to treat the stranger charitably. Another idea (e.g. Calvin) was that Israel was permitted usury on loans to foreigners in reciprocation, as this put them on an equal footing since loans of foreigners to Israelites would bear usury. Thomas dismisses this notion for similar reasons.

A third proposal gets a little more of Thomas’s attention. This view (e.g. Ambrose) suggests that usury was permitted on loans to foreigners because they were enemies. Thomas rightly identifies myself as a modern proponent of this view. He objects to this view on three grounds. First, he complains that there is no hint of warfare in the text. But, this is simply the fallacy of begging the question. Whether or not there is a hint of warfare in the text depends upon whether or not nokri indicates enemy. Thomas utilizes the conclusion he wishes to reach (nokri does not indicate enemy) as its own basis on which to reach it. Second, he objects that the meaning of nokri cannot be restricted to Canaanite under the ban. I agree that the denotation of the term nokri certainly cannot be so restricted. However, the connotation and usage of the term in this text certainly might imply the Canaanites et al that Israel imminently were to encounter. That is, arguing that nokri cannot be restricted to a narrow meaning hardly proves that it cannot generally signify enemy. Third, Thomas states, “there is a difference between subjugating by usury and putting under the ban.” And so there is. The charge to destroy the Canaanite peoples utterly, and the charge to make no covenant with them, surely might have been understood as prohibiting loans to them on any terms. Thus, the specific permission of Deuteronomy 23:20 was useful in this regard. It already had been explained to Israel that God would drive out the nations before them “little by little,” so the land would not become desolate and overrun by wild animals before Israel could grow to occupy it (Dt. 7:22) The subjugation of usury in this interim was a fitting means of conquest in this sort of extended campaign.

Thomas argues for the explanation that nokri were simply foreigners who were outside of Israel’s polity (as opposed to ger, who were foreigners within Israel’s polity as sojourners). Says he, “It is thus eminently plausible that Deuteronomy’s distinction between a ger and a nokri is between resident (semi-assimilated ) and non-resident (non-assimilated).” He further argues that nokri “had not fallen on hard times,” but ”were seeking to expand economically.” In this view of things, the conclusion easily is reached that usury cannot be seen as generally oppressive, for, “… they [Israel] must not oppress a stranger, and yet might exact usury from him.” (Matthew Henry, c. 1720) However, such a view is completely speculative regarding the economic status of nokri, and does no justice at all to the distinction in Hebrew between nokri and ger.

J. A. Selbie, contributor to the Hastings Bible Dictionary, noted that the King James tended to translate ger and nokri both as “stranger,” and rued this convention “…because it obscures to the English reader the distinction between the foreigner and the ger, which in Hebrew is marked clearly enough, and on which not a little depends for the understanding of many passages.” (Vol. II, p. 49) In Hebrew ger has the meaning of sojourner. One who is ger is a “stranger” in the sense of originating from another people - a people other than the people among whom he dwells. Ger is simply “other.” In contrast to this, nokri means “strange” in a distinctly negative way. Nokri is a valuation. Nokri are not simply “other,” but are “odd.” Discussion of this sense is elaborated in Harris, Archer, Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. The oddness of nokri was not merely an item of curiosity. Their oddness consisted in their heathen gods and heathen ways. They were to be opposed. As Selbie put it, “foreigner and enemy were almost convertible terms.” There is an extended discussion that might be undertaking surveying the usage of nokri and ger in various texts. Such a survey bears out the points made above. Further debate of these points, and deliberation of various examples of usage, shall be reserved to the comment section.

The prohibition of oppressing ger, combined with the permission to exact usury of nokri, hardly proves that usury cannot be essentially oppressive. The status of usury taken of nokri is a completely separate question from that of usury taken of ger. The command not to oppress ger means that ger - people from other lands who are sojourners with Israel - are protected by the laws of Israel. The law prohibits usury, and so ger enjoy the protection of this prohibition. The permission to exact usury of nokri is speaking of a completely different sphere. The difference has nothing at all to do with nokri being people of means, or pursuing a profit. There is nothing in any text that would suggest such a thing. The difference involves the negative connotations of the term nokri. Permission to exact usury of nokri mitigates the immorality of usury no more than Numbers 35:30 mitigates the immorality of murder when it requires that the murderer (ratsach) shall be put to death (ratsach). Thus, Thomas’s Fourth Thesis is not affirmed.

Renz's Thesis No. 5 - "The Gospel compels us to be just and generous, equitable and charitable"

Thomas begins discussion of his Fifth Thesis by declaring that, “Christians are not under the Law which governed Israel’s polity.” He concludes with the case that, “ ‘as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them’ will preclude many forms of interest-taking but arguably not all.” Thus, he argues that it is not Old Testament Law, but the New Testament principle of charity that controls our thoughts and actions regarding usury. One wonders, then: what is the point of arguing about the economic history of the Ancient Near East - about the meaning of the Deuteronomic permission - or about the meaning of nokri?

Added to the controversy of usury is the controversy of the Law of God. Most Christians would agree that at least some of the Ten Commandments still are binding. Most also would agree that the Laws of Temple Sacrifice no longer are binding. It is necessary to find that point or that principle which will help us to discern between Laws that still bind us and Laws that do not. Much of the Christian controversy over usury has focused upon the requirement of God’s Law. Thomas’s next Thesis in order acknowledges that the church fathers categorically condemned usury. Surely, Thomas cannot be unaware that the basis for their condemnation was the firm conviction that usury was contrary to God’s Law. In the era of the Reformation, when the Christian teaching regarding usury began to be liberalized, the case for liberalization involved further scrutiny of the meaning of the Law. That is, liberalization was not done by way of dismissing Christians from obligation to the Law, but by way of arguing that the Law really did not require a strict prohibition. It was the world who began to argue that the church’s opinions regarding the Law of God were economically irrelevant.

However, Old Testament Law and New Testament charity are not contrasting principles. Jesus related them in their true integral unity. “Therefore, however you want people to treat you, so treat them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Mat. 7:12) A general principle of charity is fulfilled in the requirements of the Law. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law.” (Rom. 13:10) Focusing the discussion of usury on the New Testament principle of charity does not alleviate the need for us to discern the requirement of the Law.

Thomas observes a parallel in the construction of various principles of Jesus. He suggests that just as “turn the other cheek” does not mandate absolute pacifism, and “to one who takes your cloak, do not withhold your tunic” does not nullify the Eighth Commandment, so “lend, expecting nothing in return” does not preclude banking. The parallel is well taken up this point. But Thomas wishes to extend the principle so that it “…will preclude many forms of interest-taking but arguably not all.” This is a leap beyond the text. “Lend, expecting nothing in return” does not pertain to usury directly. In view is only the matter of repayment. The true parallel of principles is that just as “turn the other cheek” does not mandate absolute pacifism, and “to one who takes your cloak, do not withhold your tunic” does not nullify the Eighth Commandment, so “lend, expecting nothing in return” does not necessarily condemn one who requires repayment. The issue of whether usury is required along with repayment is nowhere in view in context of the principle as stated. The issue of usury is settled already in the Law, and cannot be overturned by appeal to a general concept of “equity.” Thus, Thomas’s invocation of “justice” and “equity” is spurious.

Renz's Thesis No. 6 - "The Church Fathers Categorically Condemned Usury"

In his Sixth Thesis, Thomas affirms that the early fathers of the church uniformly and categorically condemned usury. Following a simple and direct statement of the Thesis, he devotes the bulk of his remarks to explaining the emphasis of their condemnation and the context in which it occurred. His procedure seems to suggest to the reader that the early fathers’ condemnation of usury cannot be taken straightforwardly, but must be nuanced by various factors.

Thomas cites Gonzalez [though he has put “Gonzales”] “Faith & Wealth”, p. 175: “..the main business of usurers was not so much earning interest on their capital as it was expropriating lands and other property that had been offered as security against loans that could not possibly be paid.” What first must be noted is that expropriation of collateral, and even enslavement or imprisonment of the debtor, was the consequence of default in the Ancient world, usury or not. That is, it was not only loans upon usury in which default meant horrible consequences for the debtor. Even if one managed to negotiate a loan free of usury, still the consequences of default were very dire. Usury made loans more difficult to repay. However, it was not usury per se that led directly to expropriation and enslavement. These dire consequences were what the Ancient legal structure provided for default on loans in the nature of the case.

The next thing to note is that Gonzalez’s statement is open to misinterpretation. His statement is in the form of a contrast: Ancient lenders pursued not interest on capital, but expropriation of property under terms of default. This could be read as Gonzalez saying that the avenue of pursuing interest on capital was open to Ancient lenders, but that they uniformly chose the avenue of lending to destitute people instead, so they predictably could expropriate their property upon default. It seems that Thomas has read it in this way, as his Thesis No. 1 would prompt him to do. However, I believe that the contrast Gonzalez meant was between familiar Modern practice and Ancient practice. In contrast to Modern practice of pursuing interest on capital, the Ancient lender’s business was limited to lending to the destitute and gaining by expropriation of property upon default.

Thomas majors on the point that the early fathers mainly were concerned with the misery and poverty of borrowers, whose condition was exacerbated by usury. Conversely, he notes that, “Their sermons make it abundantly clear that they do not have business loans in view, neither condemning them nor commending them.” In other words, the early fathers were silent on the matter of “business loans.” With this assertion as stated I have no quarrel. However, the importance of such an assertion lies fully in its implications. The early fathers were silent. How shall we interpret this silence? It seems to be Thomas’s concern to establish that the early fathers reserved their passionate condemnation of usury for cases involving the misery and destitution of debtors in default. In this event, the early fathers’ silence on the matter of “business loans” is supposed to imply that such activity was not within the purview of their condemnation. Such is not stated in so many words in context of the present Thesis alone. However, if we look forward to Thomas’s conclusion, where he states that, “…I very much doubt that the church fathers would have put their finger on interest-bearing bank accounts,” the direction of his argument is made quite clear. But this is not a valid argument from silence.

The argument from silence is a minefield of fallacy. One must proceed with great care in an effort to discern valid implications of silence. There are only three possible explanations for the silence of the early church fathers on the matter of “business loans.”
1) The matter did not present itself since the practice of borrowing for commercial purposes was not common in Ancient times. 2) Borrowing for commercial purposes was common in Ancient times, but the early fathers were not aware of the practice and therefore neglected it. 3) Such borrowing was common, and the early fathers were aware of the practice, but uniformly felt that there was no need for them to comment on it. Right away, we see that a particular historical consideration narrows the field. Thomas’s argument from silence depends entirely upon the soundness of his Thesis No. 1. If affirmed, the Thesis requires the third of the enumerated possible explanations of the early father’s silence (explanation 2 is ruled out because it implies an incompetence that cannot be ascribed to early fathers as a whole). However, if Thesis No. 1 falls, then the first explanation is required. For reasons explained above, I have dismissed Thesis No. 1, and therefore argue here that the correct explanation of the silence of the early fathers is the first of those enumerated. They did not comment on the practice of borrowing and lending for commercial purposes because this was not done in their day. The explanation is quite well expressed by Patrick Cleary in his dissertation, “The Church and Usury”, “On the whole then we find the teachings of the Fathers crude and undeveloped, but the natural product of the times. The world itself was undeveloped and unprogressive. The age of commercial enterprise had not yet even begun to dawn.” (Cleary, p. 59) In the world as Thomas’s Thesis No. 1 would have it, we are required to suppose that the early fathers uniformly felt the matter of usury on “business loans” was settled and without need of comment. However, there are grave difficulties with such a supposition.

As I brought out above, dire consequences for debtors in default were imposed simply because of default, not specifically because of usury. Now, if loans for commercial purposes were common in the Ancient world, then we must confront the question of what would happen to a commercial debtor upon default. There are only two possibilities. 1) Regardless of the original purpose of the loan, if the debtor defaulted on the loan, then he was subject to expropriation of his property, or worse. 2) Debtors who borrowed for commercial purposes were not subject to miserable consequences in case of default; only consumptive borrowers were subject to miserable consequences. There is no historical ground on which anyone can seriously argue for the latter option. If there were any truth in it at all, the historical record would be full to the brim with cases of desperate debtors in default trying however they might to represent their loans as commercial in order to escape miserable consequences. But Ancient records bring us nothing of this sort. Practically speaking, there is only one possibility: if one borrowed for commercial purposes, and then failed to repay, he was subject to the same miserable consequences as anyone who borrowed. If, as Thomas suggests, the whole premise of the early fathers’ case against usury was the miserable poverty that resulted from defaulted loans, then “commercial loans” in default would have provided just as much occasion for their outrage as any other loan. Thus, even on the strength of his own Thesis No. 1, an argument from silence proves the exact opposite of what Thomas suggests. Far from implying that usury on “commercial loans” escaped their condemnation, their silence implies that they made no distinction such as “commercial” vs. “consumption” loans, just as the legal structures of the day made no such distinction. Here again, the reverse of Thomas’s Thesis No. 1 gives the proper outlook from which to gain a proper understanding of these things.

Renz's Thesis No. 7 - Ancient opposition to usury was related to a call to invest with God by helping the poor

Thomas’ seventh thesis is rather odd. As stated, the thesis does not embody a point, but instead advances a rather easily dissolved generalization: The early church’s opposition to usury was closely related to a call to invest money with God by helping the poor. It is not difficult to cite many cases where the early fathers’ expression of opposition to usury involves no such call. But, suppose the generality were to hold: one still is prompted to wonder: What is the point? We must jump ahead to Thomas’ concluding remarks, where the point is more directly spelled out:

“The condemnation of usage charges on loans in the past was most often connected with concern for the poor. The montes pietatis, non-profit making Christian credit institutions established in the fifteenth century for charitable loans, either went bankrupt once the bequest was used up (if they provided interest-free loans) or charged a small sum of interest to cover running costs and actually helped the poor. Those who condemned these latter institutions on the basis that they were charging interest, and without providing money for all the poor who made use of these loans, drove the poor into the hands of those who charged much, much higher interest rates.”

In other words, Thomas suggests that the Ancients did not oppose usury per se, but opposed oppression of the poor. He suggests that those who lend to the poor on terms of usury actually do a good thing, if they succeed thereby in helping the poor. But the hardships suffered by the borrower speak to only half of the case against usury. Usury constitutes a burden upon the debtor that he ought not to bear, and also constitutes a gain to the lender to which he is not entitled. If usurers find a way to alleviate the sensation of burden, so that debtors no longer undergo an experience of suffering as a result usury, this addresses only one half of the injustice. It remains the case - miserable, suffering debtors or not - that usurers collect gains to which they are not entitled.

The early fathers’ case against usury was more comprehensive than Thomas allows. Thomas sharpens his focus quite narrowly upon a treatise of Cyprian and a dozen or so pages of Gonzalez [Thomas continues to put “Gonzales”]. Certainly, the early fathers were ardent advocates of the poor, and energetically denounced the injustice of their sufferings. Equally certainly, they opposed usury simply because it was unlawful, and they equally energetically denounced the unjust gains of usurers. If we look at the early fathers more broadly, it is not difficult to cite many passages where the concern is not so much the hardship of the debtor as it is the unjust gain of the lender. Just for one example: in the letter of Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome (c. 5th Century, AD) “to all the bishops appointed in Campania, Picenum, Etruria, and all the provinces,” he complains about the practice of usury: “This point, too, we have thought must not be passed over, that certain possessed with the love of base gain lay out their money at interest, and wish to enrich themselves as usurers. For we are grieved that this is practiced not only by those who belong to the clergy, but also by laymen who desire to be called Christians. And we decree that those who have been convicted be punished sharply, that all occasion of sinning be removed.”

This exhortation of Leo the Great shows that Thomas’ generalization does not hold, and shows also that Ancient opposition to usury was in fact more comprehensive than simply a concern for the poor. Thus, Thomas’ seventh thesis is denied.

Renz's Thesis No. 8 - "Scholastic theologians developed the idea that usury is intrinsically wrong"

Several years ago I debated usury on an Internet Forum with a young Thomist. He challenged me to define why usury is wrong, and with his challenge he attached the condition that I was allowed no recourse to appealing to God’s Law. He spelled out in clear terms that “Because it is contrary to God’s Law” was not an acceptable answer. He wanted me to describe what was wrong with usury so that God did not approve of it and therefore would decree a law against it. As he expressed the question, “What according to usury’s nature causes it to be evil.” The Forum no longer exists on the Internet, otherwise I gladly would include here a link to the discussion. I quote from my reply to the question. “Goatskin” was the screen name of the young Thomist.

“Goatskin specifies that being contrary to God’s Law is not a sufficient explanation, but presses for an explanation of why it [usury] should be contrary to God’s Law. Here also we get directly into the Aristotelian speculation that characterizes Aquinas’ reasoning. In Pt. II-II, Q. 78, Art. 1 he brings his whole case to rest upon a principle of ‘justice.’ But the principle of ‘justice’ is derived through a process of analysis, i.e., it is not derived from the revelation of the Law. Aquinas states that usury is ‘unjust in itself.’ In the same way Goatskin wishes me to explain ‘what according to usury’s nature causes it to be evil,’ without recourse to the Law of God. This is the hallmark of Aristotelian thought, which seeks to ground everything of thought and life in ‘first principles’ that are above everything, including whatever ‘god’ we may posit. If at some subsequent time ‘god’ may speak and declare usury unlawful, he then would be affirming that which already was true by the nature of the case before he spoke.”

The ideas of “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” are useful in abstract discussions. Particularly in consideration of a philosophy of value it is useful to have these handy concepts, which provide a simplified means of expressing either that value is inherent or “intrinsic” in the thing, or else that it originates in the valuations of the valuer, and is “extrinsic” to the thing. However, in discussion of ultimate things and the Law of God, we are on quite shaky ground to insist that the distinction of “intrinsic” vs. “extrinsic” still provides any useful function. We cannot understand anything for what it truly is via contemplation of what it is “in itself,” for nothing of reality has any “intrinsic” being or attribute. This is the sine qua non of Christian metaphysics as opposed to non-Christian metaphysics: The Christian declares that nothing of “reality” exists “in itself,” or has any attributes “in itself.” All things first and finally are the creation of God. Nothing of reality can be known for what it truly is if knowledge is pursued independently of God; all things are what they are ultimately because of creation and the place they hold in God’s plan for creation. It is pure Aristotelianism to pursue the question of whether usury is “unjust in itself.” Contra Aristotle, Paul assured the Romans that, “…nothing is unclean in itself…” (Rom. 14:14).

If usury is thought to be unjust intrinsically rather than due to its being contrary to God’s Law, then immediately the mind focuses upon a quest to understand the injustice that is inherent in usury’s nature, rather than upon a quest to understand and to obey God’s Law. If the sin of usury is pegged soundly upon God’s Law, then issues of compliance are not so complex: if it is contrary to God’s Law, then it is sinful. However, if the matter is thought to rest upon a principle of “justice,” then compliance becomes exceedingly complex. Aquinas said that the main problem with usury was that it, “…evidently leads to inequality which is contrary to justice.” Such an emphasis shifts scrutiny from the nature of the contract to the nature of the results. In the Scholastic view of things, the question no longer is, “Does the contract stipulate that the borrower must repay the principal plus also some over and above?” but now has become, “Have the borrower and the lender achieved equality?” or “Is the purchasing power of what is repaid equal to the purchasing power of what was loaned?” or some such line. By this means contracts that are usurious on their face are justified. Scholastic opposition to usury was not really opposition to usury per se, but opposition to “injustice.” If the main problem with usury is said to be “injustice,” then main concern becomes, “Do the terms of the loan violate ‘justice’?” rather than, “Do the terms of the loan violate God’s Law?”

It was just this sort of approach to the matter that led to the Church’s liberalized position in the later Middle and early Modern Ages. In the Ancient and early Middle Ages, usury always manifestly aggravated the misery of debtors, and therefore it was quite easy to oppose it. The Church did not appear foolish to the world for opposing usury in that day, for the worldly leaders also opposed it. They opposed usury for different reasons: the world, because usury is socially destabilizing; the Church, because usury is contrary to God’s Law. But there was no pressure upon the Church to change her view. In the later Middle Ages, with the growth of industry and commerce, new occasions of lending and borrowing came into view and made usury seem reasonable and justified. There were many new business opportunities, and there arose great inducement to raise quick business capital by way of a loan. Now here was a challenge for the Church. What if a borrower arranged for a loan, not to meet some immediate need, but for the purpose of conducting some business? And what if the borrower earned a great profit in his use of the borrowed goods? Is not the lender justified in sharing in this profit by receiving back what was loaned plus a little more? The World answered with a resounding Yes! and the Church soon followed suit. The Scholastic idea of usury was primarily philosophical rather than biblical. They had based opposition to usury upon its being “intrinsically unjust” rather than upon its being contrary to God’s Law. When the World demonstrated to the Church that Modern contracts of usury satisfied the concerns of “justice,” the Church was in no position to maintain her opposition to usury. In his Thesis No. 8, Thomas demonstrates this quite clearly.

According to Thomas, “the encyclical Vix Pervenit (On Usury and Other Dishonest Profit) promulgated on 1 November 1745 by Pope Benedict XIV may be considered the apex of scholastic thinking on [usury].” He quotes from the encyclical, “The law governing loans consists necessarily in the equality of what is given and returned; once the equality has been established, whoever demands more than that violates the terms of the loan. Therefore if one receives interest, he must make restitution according to the commutative bond of justice; its function in human contracts is to assure equality for each one.” Of this statement Thomas declares, “This is about as full a condemnation of usury as one might get.” Actually, it is not. It is the Aristotelian concept of “commutative justice” that requires “equality.” The Law of God simply requires the borrower to repay to the lender what was loaned. If a man borrowed thirty pounds of seed corn, and a year later repaid thirty pounds of seed corn, then he has fulfilled the Law of God. If thirty pounds of seed corn in the year of repayment is not “worth” the same as thirty pounds of seed corn in the year it was borrowed, then the borrower may violate an Aristotelian concept of “justice,” but he has not violated God’s Law. In reality Pope Benedict XIV was waffling already in his supposed “full condemnation of usury.” It is no cause for surprise, then, that such waffling should be made crystal clear in subsequent passages of his encyclical. Thomas quotes the Pope as anticipating that, “entirely just and legitimate reasons arise to demand something over and above the amount due on the contract.” It is evident that Thomas wished to characterize the Pope’s earlier statement as “full condemnation of usury” in order to present a case that even those in the Church who fully condemned usury still allowed for the justice in some cases of demanding a greater amount repaid than was loaned. However, in reality we have no such case. In reality the liberal conclusion of the Church is built in to her Scholastic premises. Indeed, Thomas points out that some scholars argue that the liberal view of the Modern Roman Church does not really diverge in substance from its historic position. There is a good case to be made for a position that the Modern view does not diverge from what Aquinas taught, and that the Modern view really is the logical outworking of the foundation laid by Aquinas and the Scholastics.

But it was not only the Roman Church that turned to the liberal view. Via Calvin, a liberal view of usury also entered into the Protestant Church, which is a topic that we shall address more fully in discussion of Thomas’ next Thesis. In closing this article, it is worth relating more of my discussions with Goatskin on the Internet Forum. So pervasive was the influence of Aquinas and Aristotle upon him that he actually took the term “balance” in Proverbs 11:1 (“A false balance is an abomination to the Lord”) to mean the Aristotelian concept of “equality,” as though the text were saying that any transaction that does not “balance” in the sense of leaving all parties to it in a state of “equality” is an abomination to God. I actually had to explain to this fellow at great length that such a concept has nothing whatever to do with the text, and that the “balance” referred to was a physical device used for weighing out goods for trade, exactly as produce still is weighed for sale in grocery stores to this day. Such a gross misunderstanding of a simple text of Scripture by an ostensibly intelligent young man is eloquent testimony to the power of Scholasticism. It becomes a lens through which all of life and thought take on a distinctive hue. It colors even how seemingly plain and simple texts of Scripture are read. Scholasticism is what it is because of Aquinas, and Aquinas was who he was because of his devotion to Aristotle, and it was Greek Philosophy specifically that Paul meant when he warned the Colossians, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the traditions of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” (Col. 2:8)