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Usury, Natural Law, and the Reformers
Benjamin Nelson Describes the Reformers' War on Biblical Law
Part Two

Economists and historians agree on the importance of Calvin 's contribution to economics, even if they do not agree as to what that contribution was! Many economists speak of "The Spirit of Capitalism," and some have suggested that Calvin's attack on certain of Aristotle's beliefs brought us into the "modern world." Nelson suggests that there is some truth to the theories of Weber, Ashley, Hauser, and others,

But no one has noticed that Calvin, self-consciously and hesitatingly, charted the path to the world of Universal Otherhood, where all become "brothers" in being equally "others."
(p. 73)

Calvin's repudiation of Theonomy, especially as advocated and practiced by the Anabaptists, is more significant than any previous theory:

In demolishing the inherited exegesis of Deuteronomy, Calvin departs even farther from the medieval morality than has been suspected.

How did Calvin demolish Deuteronomy?

Toward Brotherhood or Toward Otherhood?

To understand Calvin s use of the Law we have to understand the title of Nelson's book. What does be mean when he speaks of moving From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood?

In the Old Testament God's people generally were the Israelites. A distinction was made between fellow Israelites ("brothers") and those outside Israel ("strangers"). The Law of God goes to great length to preserve the distinction between Israel and Babylon. One such law is Deuteronomy 23:19-20:

Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of any thing that is lent upon usury:
Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury: that the LORD thy God 'nay bless thee in all that thou settest thine hand to in the land whither thou goest to possess it."

One commentator has made these remarks concerning this passage:

The Jews were prohibited by the law from taking usury or interest on money lent to their brethren but not on what was lent to strangers; that is, foreigners of other countries, (Deut. xxiii, 20.) The manifest design of this prohibition was, to promote humane and fraternal sentiments in the bosoms of the Israelites towards each other. A more remote end seems also to have been aimed at, viz . , to check the formation of a commercial character among the Jews, and to confine them as much as possible to those agricultural pursuits which would seclude them from intercourse with the surrounding nations, as it was not very likely that a practice of this nature would be extended much among foreigners which was prohibited at home."
Walford's New Translation of the Book of Psalms, cited by Anderson, editor, Calvin's Commentary on the Book of Psalms, at 15:5.)

The Anabaptists believed in doing good to all men, but "especially to the. that are of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10). They lived lives of self-reliance and eschewed covetousness. They upheld the abiding validity of God's Law as it pertained to interest (Psalm 15:5; Proverbs 28:8; Jeremiah 15:10; Ezekiel 18:8, 13, 17; 22:12). They weren't at all worried that without the use of commercial credit they would not be able to obtain the tinsel and glitter needed to impress their competitors; they were contented with God's culture, and nauseated by man's. Thus, they understood the purpose of God's Law in Deuteronomy 23:19,20.

This conception of society under God's' Law, which is still held in parts by modern Anabaptists, stands in stark contrast to the modern world of greed, indebtedness, survival-of-the-fittest business practices, and a toleration of state. regulation as a trade-off for receiving state plunder. The Mosaic Law stands against all of this, and the modern world stands against the Mosaic Law.

Calvin's overturning of Deuteronomy is the overturning of God's promises to make the Gentiles a part of the New Israel. This very basic postmillennial perspective is destroyed by Calvin's economics. As we have already seen, his economics and politics were formulated largely in response to the politicians of the day, and were not at all wholly dependent upon Scripture.

In the Old Testament God's people generally were the Israelites. But in the New Testament God's promises are extended to all nations, who now make up the New Israel (Galatians 6:16) His holy nation (I Peter 2:9). But Calvin utterly reverses this expansion of the Gospel, and, beginning with the Gentile church, moves to consider the Jews. No longer do we make the distinction between brothers and strangers, nor do we anticipate the day when all strangers shall become brothers in the faith (Psalm 87:4-6). Rather, we follow a course of eschatological pessimism and cultural impotence, all in the name of short-term profit.

.While the Bible moves from the church as the New Israel and envisions all men becoming members of the household of. faith (brothers), Calvin, far from seeing a growth of the Family of God, must assert that Christians, indeed, the whole world, are now "others," or "strangers." '

Those economists and theologians who defend the State system of commercial credit and, in general, social indebtedness, have. turned the meaning of Deuteronomy on its head, and have tossed brotherly love out the window, Enslaving a brother through debt and extracting usury from him is now permitted by these theologians, if done in the name of "business" or "the profit motive." The modern interpretation sees "brother" as referring to an indigent person, while "stranger" means not "foreigner," but "entrepreneur." In their eyes, the concern is no longer community in the household of faith, but social equity. Not the New Testament but "public utility" is the criterion by which we discard the Law in the Old Testament. Surprisingly, it was Calvin who charted this course.

"Equity" versus God's Law

Opponents of the application of God's Law in society and defenders of the debtor-slave economy have Calvin to thank for the modern economic world:

Trained as a jurist, he was able to lend precision to the notion crudely anticipated by Luther and Bucer, that the Mosaic and Gospel rules were to be translated in the light of the individual conscience, the equity of the Golden Rule, and the requirements of public utility.3

Calvin on Deuteronomy became a Gospel of the modern era. Everyone from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century who advocated a more liberal usury law turned to Calvin for support. Even those who would not or could not mention his name were compelled to speak his words. If today we do not appeal to his teachings, it is because we have learned his lessons too well. Religious or even ethical vocabulary is no longer needed to justify the moral and economic postulates which he helped to establish.

Of the four anti-theonomic fallacies we looked at in the beginning of this paper, Calvin employs at least two in his overturning of Deuteronomy: he confronts love ("charity") and the natural law of nations ("equity") against the Law of God and declares God's Law the loser. As he introduces the passage in his commentary, he says,

A precept is added as to lending without interest, which, although it is a political law, still depends on the rule of love. It is plain that this was a part of the Jewish polity, because it was lawful to lend at interest to the Gentiles, which distinction the spiritual law does not admit."

Calvin's thinking is difficult to follow, especially if one believes that he is a "Theonomist." He makes many good points, only to dismiss them with a consideration based on "equity" or "charity." Nelson summarizes one of Calvin's premises:

God has permitted many things "pour la police des Juifs" which are in themselves not good; therefore, He did not mean to legitimize the taking of usury from strangers. He merely left it unpunished. God showed this indulgence to the Jews, "since otherwise a just reciprocity would not have been preserved, without which one party must needs be injured." God had laid the Jews alone and not foreign nations under the obligation of the law against usury.9

This premise can be taken two ways, and regrettably, Calvin takes it the wrong way. Rejecting the promises of the expansion of the Church through the Gospel, Calvin asserts that the law was for an earlier dispensation. Modern economists know better than God's Law.

Calvin is the first religious leader to exploit the ambivalence of the Deuteronomic passage in such a fashion as to prove that it was permissible to take usury from one's brother. His exegesis spells the demise of Deuteronomy. (p. 73)

If the Biblical reasoning behind Calvin's arguments is not clear, the social motivation certainly is. Since the church is no longer obligated to obey the Law, the church is in debt, and paying hefty interest payments to Jews, who do obey (in parts) the Law. Calvin seeks to remove the (old) Israelites right to charge interest to the Gentile church by removing the authority of the Mosaic Law. Nelson helps us follow Calvin's argument:

Today, the Deuteronomic law must be applied to the profit of the Christians rather than be allowed to justify the exploitation of Christians by Jews. On a correct interpretation, the text can hardly give comfort to Jewish usurers. (Here, indeed, Calvin undertakes to show how the Deuteronomic discrimination, rightly understood, reacts against the Jews of his own age.) Modern Jews are wrong, he explains, to assume that everything is permitted them so long as they practice no extortion among themselves.

Indeed, they are doubly to be condemned. For they ought to be joined with us since God has opened the door to His church. But now the Jews have quit the place; they have been deprived and banished from the Kingdom of God, and, therefore, we [Christians] are reputed the Sons of Abraham, even though we be not descended according to the flesh of this race. Though then, the Jews anciently had the privilege to exercise usury against pagans, it does not mean that today they ought to burden and molest the children of God, even those who have been driven from His house and have been disowned in consequence of their rebellion and disobedience.11

Thus, the specific content of the judicial law which was given to the ancient people is abrogated. There remains as residue only what is dictated by the rules of charity, equity, and justice, from which, in the first place, the old law springs, namely, the injunction not to show harshness to our needy brethren.12

The law of Moses (Deut. xxiii :19) is political, and does not obligate us beyond what equity and the reason of humanity suggest. Surely, it should be desirable if usuries were driven from the whole world, indeed that the word be unknown. But since that is impossible, we must make concession to the common utility (utilité commune).13  

In order to maintain social position, credibility with politicians and scholars, and mortgaged "investments," the church has re-defined the Gospel (Galatians 3:8).

Some in our day have attempted to establish a distinction between " interest" and "usury," where the former is permitted but not the latter. This is another case where Calvin establishes a Biblical premise, only to destroy it with natural law and "equity" or "public utility." Calvin shows how God's Law denies the distinction between "interest" and "usury," but then asserts the latter to be permitted:


There was almost a similar mode of subterfuge among the Israelites. The name jwn, neschec, which is derived from biting, sounded badly ; since then no one chose to be likened to a hungry dog, who fed himself by biting others, some escape from the reproach was sought ; and they called whatever gain they received beyond the capital, tybrt, therbith, as being an increase. But God, in order to prevent such deception, unites the two words, (Lev. xxv. 36,) and condemns the increase as well as the biting. For, where He complains of their unjust modes of spoiling and thieving in Ezekiel,3 and uses both words as He does here by Moses, there is no doubt but that He designedly cuts off their empty excuses. (Ezek. xviii. 18.) Lest any, therefore, should reply, that although he derived advantage from his money, he was not on that account guilty of usury, God at once removes this pretence, and condemns in general any addition to the principal. Assuredly both passages clearly shew that those who invent new words in excuse of evil, do nothing but vainly trifle. I have, then, admonished men that the fact itself is simply to be considered, that all unjust gains are ever displeasing to God, whatever colour we endeavour to give to it . But if we would form an equitable judgment, reason does not suffer us to admit that all usury is to be condemned without exception.

However, Calvin admits, both Ezekiel xviii :5-914 and Psalms xv :515 seem to express universal opposition to usury, and what is more, to condemn the taking of tarbith as well as neshek. If, however, we take recourse to the infallible norm of justice, we discover that usury does not conflict with the law of God in every case. Hence, it follows that not all usury need be damned. There is a grave difference between taking usury in the course of business and setting up as a usurer. If a person takes profit on a loan on only one occasion, he is not called a usurer. This is not mere word play, Calvin insists. Men invent cavils, thinking to fool one another by the construction of "specious titles," but God does not admit such deceptions.

Calvin's ability to make "equitable" judgments on Biblical Law is frightening. But it is tied to his failure to see the Church as the New Israel, and his belief in a political "natural law" which replaces any instruction God gave to the state in the Old Testament.

Lastly, the crucial question: May it not be objected, Calvin asks, that usury ought to be outlawed today for the same reason that it was forbidden to Jews, "because among us there is a fraternal union (conjunction fraternelle) ?" His reply is epoch-making:

There is a difference in the political union, for the situation in which God placed the Jews and many other circumstances permitted them to trade conveniently among themselves with out usuries. Our union is entirely different. (Nostre conjunction n'a pointe de similitude Therefore I do not feel that usuries were forbidden to us simply, except in so far as they are opposed to equity or charity.17

Today, the "wall of partition which formerly separated Jew and Gentile is . . . broken down," the discrimination against the alien abrogated. "Nous sommes frères, voire sans aucune distinction." Yet, since it is abundantly clear that the prohibition of usury among the ancient peoples was merely a part of their political constitution, it follows that

usury is not now unlawful, except in so far as it contravenes equity and brotherly union. Let each one, then, place himself before God's judgment seat, and not do to his neighbor what he would not have done to himself, from whence a sure and infallible decision may be come to. Th exercise the trade of usury, since heathen writers counted it amongst disgraceful and base modes of gain, is much less tolerable among the children of God; but in what cases, and how far it may be lawful to receive usury upon loans, the law of equity will better prescribe than any lengthened discussions.18

18 Opera, XXIV (CR, LII), cols. 680-83, esp. at 683; tr. Bingham, III, 128-32. It will be recalled that a similar warning against applying the Gospel as an external secular rule in the matter of interest to the derogation of Christian liberty is to be found in Luther's letter of 1525 to the municipal council of Danzig. See above, p. 45, n. 38. But, Hyma clearly falls into excess when be writes that "Calvin's arguments resembled Luther's opinion in almost every word." Christianity, Capitalism, and Communism, 78. The summary of the evidence for this argument (ibid., 79-80 and ch. III, passim) though a helpful corrective of those writers who magnify the differences between the two Reformers goes to the opposite extreme of denying the novelty even of Calvin's authentically original contributions (such as the refutation of the so-called Aristotelian theory of sterility of money, his revolutionary exegesis of Deuteronomy, his systematic analysis of equity, etc.). Moreover, Luther's theories were for the most part concerned with one institution, the census contract. Calvin, however, treated of money loans in general, as they functioned in ordinary commerce. In any event, as we have indicated above, Calvin, rather than Luther, was the authority for subsequent critics of the medieval usury laws.

Nelson's focus is on Calvin's exegesis of only an isolated law in the Old Testament, yet it is representative and significant because the Biblical condemnation of debt-slavery and the state-spawned commercial credit systems present in every major empire since Babylon is most clearly externalized in the anti-usury legislation. One's view of the Usury Laws is representative of one's views of God's Law in general. You must side either with "Anabaptistic" interpretations of fraternity and anti-covetousness, or you will side with Plato, Cicero, Calvin, and the Rothschilds.

Accordingly, Calvin sets forth his view of which laws apply to the State in his Institutes. (iv.xx.14-16)

14. Old Testament law and the laws of nations

Next to the magistracy in the civil state come the laws, stoutest-sinews34 of the commonwealth, or, as Cicero, after Plato, calls them, the souls, without which the magistracy cannot stand, even as they themselves have no force apart from the magistracy. Accordingly, nothing truer could be said than that the law is a silent magistrate; the magistrate, a living law.35

But because I have undertaken to say with what laws a Christian state ought to be governed, this is no reason why anyone should expect a long discourse concerning the best kind of laws. This would be endless and would not pertain to the present purpose and place. I shall in but a few words, and as in passing, note what laws can piously be used before God, and be rightly administered among men.

I would have preferred to pass over this matter in utter silence if I were not aware that here many dangerously go astray. For there are some who deny that a commonwealth is duly framed which neglects the political system of Moses, and is ruled by the common laws of nations.36 Let other men consider how perilous and seditious this notion is; it will be enough for me to have proved it false and foolish . . . .       Therefore, as ceremonial laws could be abrogated while piety remained safe and unharmed, so too, when these judicial laws were taken away, the perpetual duties and precepts of love could still remain.

But it this is true, surely every nation is left free to make such laws as it foresees to be profitable for itself.

For the statement of some, that the law of God given through Moses is dishonored when it is abrogated and new laws preferred to it, is utterly vain.39 For others are not preferred to it when they are more approved, not by a simple comparison, but with regard to the condition of times, place, and nation; or when that law is abrogated which was never enacted for us. For the Lord through the hand of Moses did not give that law to be proclaimed among all nations and to be in force everywhere; but when he had taken the Jewish nation into his safekeeping, defense, and protection, he also willed to be a lawgiver especially to it; and -- as became a wise lawgiver -- he had special concern for it in making its laws.

36 Cf. Sec. 16 below. Calvin wholly rejects the notion of 3 theocracy based on the judicial laws of the Old Testament

39 Cf. sec. 14, note 36, above. The present Section emphasizes the point that positive law rightly relies on natural law and equity, and requires penalties adapted to nations and conditions, without dependence on Old Testament legislation.

40 In this and following sections, Calvin's familiarity with legal procedures reflects his early legal training. Cf. Cadier, Institution IV. 467.


We have seen in Calvin the continued use of the concept (if you can call it that) of "equity" and its use to overthrow the plain anti-statist teachings of Biblical Law. The Reformers had to choose between Biblical Law on the one hand and the power and credentials of the State, its universities and its money-lenders on the other. The Reformers, Calvin in particular, rejected Theonomy and put in its place The reason-defined subterfuge of "equity" or "public' utility."

Calvin ' s view of the Law and the State has been the dominant view of the churches in the Reformation tradition, which on the whole have given the State the right to legislate as they please, and have refused to challenge the seductive claims of Babylonian commerce.

Emerging "theonomic" groups now champion Calvin as a Theonomist. But we must not mistake a fascist use of State coercion and power for a Christian use of the Old Testament Law; the Mosaic Law was not designed to increase the power of the State, nor to condone the financing of a short-term, cheap industrialism and plastic merchandizing with work-less State credit. The Reformers "denounced God's Law in favor of Statist law" in order "to buttress the power of the State." "They uttered blasphemy and called it Reformation." And this "reformation" is embodied in the Westminster Standards.

We must leave this discussion to other papers, however, and rejoin Calvin and Plato as they fight against those Anabaptists and other Theonomists who by their obedience threatened the power of their respective States.

8. Hulse, p. 15. I

9. Schaff, Vol. VII, p. 545.

10. Benjamin Nelson, The Idea of Usury: From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood, Chicago: Univ. of Chi. Press, 1949, Enlgd. 2nd ed., 1969. p. 35.

11. Nelson, pp. 35-38.

12. Nelson, pp. 38-40.

13. Ibid, pp. 40-41.

  1. 14. R.J.Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, Nutley, N.J.: Craig Press, 1973, p. 1.
  2. 15. See his book, The One and the Many (Craig Press, 1970) in which he demonstrates that without complete adherence to God's Law, men and society inevitably tend either towards anarchy or totalitarianism. In this case, failure to preach against usury yields totalitarianism, and failure to preach against debt yields anarchy (in effect).

16. Nelson, pp. 42-45.

17. Ibid., pp. 29-30.

18. William R. McGrath, The Anabaptists: Neither Catholics Nor Protestants, Hartville Ohio: Sword and Trumpet (reprint) 1964, pp. 13-14.

18a. Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid, Wm. B. Eerdman's Publ. Co., 1976, pp. 189-190.

19. Cf. Yoder, p. 401, and Estep, pp. 12-13.

20. Peter Klaasen, "Anabaptists," The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Wilmington, Del: The National Foundation for Christian Education, 1964, Vol. I, p. 194.

August Lang | | R. J. Rushdoony | | Benjamin Nelson, pt 1