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The dangers that flow from usury

19 July 2013

This study of money-lending serves us all, declares Peter Selby

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 centuries.

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 time.

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 poorest.

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.

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