The ethics of usury
Showing more interest?
THE ETHICS OF USURY
By Ben Cooper
The Latimer Trust. 39 pages. £3.99
ISBN 978 1 906 327 064
Charging interest is one of the fundamentals of our capitalist society. But what does the Bible say on the subject? Is it right to charge interest? This is the central question addressed by the author.
The author starts by explaining that both Latimer and Luther condemned any form of usury (the charging of interest). But something has happened in Christian thought between now and then, so that now Christians commonly take out mortgages and happily place funds on deposit expecting a rate of interest to be paid in return.
Ben takes an honest look at both the Old and New Testaments and seeks not to justify the position that general evangelical thought has come to, but to see if we are right as Christians to get involved in the world of interest payment and receipt.
Along the way he helpfully lays the background for the interpretation and application of the OT laws as ‘wisdom for living’ but no longer as ‘law’. He also brings to play two helpful tools for use in dealing with the topic. Firstly, John Schneider’s concept of ‘moral proximity’. If I know someone or have some other sort of personal contact with them, I have a high level of obligation towards them in terms of love and service. Secondly, what John Frame calls ‘the doctrine of carefulness’. When applied to the current topic, even if charging interest is permissible, there is still a need to be careful that no harm is caused by doing so.
With these tools in hand the author seeks to apply various passages of Scripture and draw conclusions. The conclusions drawn are entirely consistent and practical, showing how the wisdom of God’s word applies just as much today as it did when originally penned by the prophets and apostles.
To whose advantage?
He concludes that the payment of interest is morally reprehensible according to Scripture when it is only to the advantage of the lender and seeks to exploit the poor. For example, the charging of excessive interest on loans to those who are economically vulnerable. But Scripture does not say the charging of interest is wrong per se as there are circumstances where Scripture allows interest to be charged, indeed there are circumstances when it may be beneficial to both parties.
Ben further concludes that charging interest to those in close ‘moral proximity’ is also inappropriate. For more distant, non-neighbour transactions it can be appropriate to charge or receive interest, but with the overriding principal of carefulness, making sure that the poor are not exploited by the interest charged and generosity is in our hearts.
This is a helpful little book on a subject very relevant to today. The author introduces the tools needed and then proceeds to use them effectively to come to conclusions that are aligned with the Scriptures.
Chartered Financial Planner, a Fellow of the Chartered Insurance Institute and Associate Member of the Pensions Management Institute, with over 25 years’ experience in the world of finance