They Who Give from Evil: The response of the Eastern
Church to moneylending in the early Christian era
Brenda Llewellyn Ihssen
James Clarke & Co £19.50 (978-0-227-17398-5)
DEBT and interest, as we have lately seen, are forms of
money-lending that profit the lender while impoverishing the
borrower, and do enormous damage to the world economic order in the
process. The range of biblical studies of usury has been growing in
recent years, but less attention has been given to the wisdom about
economic issues as it developed in the Church during its early
Brenda Llewellyn Ihssen performs a real service, therefore, in
producing, in a very accessible form, an examination of the Eastern
Church's response to money-lending.
Her opening chapter is a "brief historiography" of St Basil's
Sermon on Psalm 14, and the sermon against usurers of St
Gregory of Nyssa, the two texts that Ihssen focuses on later in the
book. The chapter is also a justification for bringing usury to the
top of the theological agenda, after the debt crises of the present
By way of background, chapters follow on usury in Greek and
Roman society, and in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, as well
as in the other Greek Fathers. These chapters display the general
consensus in the ancient world that usury was to be condemned, and
that usurers were captive to a form of greed that exploited the
The most important chapter follows, concerned with the two
sermons by Basil and Gregory, which are examples of how two of the
greatest theologians dealt with concrete and specific challenges to
the Cappadocian Church which faced them as bishops, by building on
the theological and philosophical foundations of Greek and Roman
society, and the teaching of scripture. Their message is that
making money out of money is fundamentally "infertile".
Reproduction is not the result of inert financial transactions, but
of the fertility of human relations. Quite apart from the effect of
usury on the poor, the practice endangers the salvation of those
who practise it.
The message of the Fathers is clear and consistent. For her
part, Ihssen shows at various points in the book her own passionate
commitment to laying bare the relation between money-lending and
the continuance of poverty in the present world.
In the process of transforming her doctoral thesis into a book,
it would have helped readers, perhaps, if the author had shown more
of the connection between Basil's and Gregory's theologically
rooted opposition to usury, and the systemic failures - the usury
on an uncontrolled scale - that have lately brought the world
economy near to collapse.
Dr Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester.