John Calvin’s Financial Ethic of Usury -- By: David W. Jones

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 18:3 (Summer 2001)
Article: John Calvin’s Financial Ethic of Usury
Author: David W. Jones


John Calvin’s Financial Ethic of Usury

David W. Jones

Ph.D. Student in Theological Studies (Christian Ethics)
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina 27587

Nearly all economic historians, and even church historians and theologians who have studied the issue, agree that John Calvin’s writings on the subject of usury1 —specifically his approval of the practice-resulted in a monumental change in the then developing European economy.2 For example, in his massive two-volume set, An Introduction to English Economic History and Theory, author William J. Ashley noted that Calvin’s writings on usury were a “turning point in the history of European thought.3 Similarly, theologian Andre Bieler asserted that Calvin’s sanctioning of usury was a “revolution in the history of theology.4 Likewise, in his study of Calvin, economist Henri Hauser concluded that Calvin’s writings on usury were the “turning point in the economic history of modern Europe.”5 While these citations seem to indicate, then, a general consensus among scholars that John Calvin’s approval of usury did indeed lead to sweeping changes in European financial theory and practice, there is no unanimity of thought as to why Calvin chose to break with the church’s nearly fifteen-hundred year tradition of prohibiting usurious lending. Some writers have suggested that Calvin’s turnabout was the result of a profound awareness of the changing world scene,6 while others have supposed that Calvin’s shift was a consequence of his desire to broach the usury question in terms of the structure of society.7 It is the contention of this work, however, that the reason John Calvin affirmed the practice of lending money at interest is that, unlike earlier theologians, Calvin assigned the individual believer a place of primacy within his financial ethic of usury. Through a study of Calvin’s writings on usury, this work will attempt to prove his emphasis on the individual believer and show that this emphasis is what led him both to reject the church’s traditional ban on usurious lending and to endorse a structured employment of the practice of usury.

The Church and Usury Prior to Calvin

Before evidence for Calvin’s suggested approach to usury is marshaled, it will be helpful to overview the church’s position on lending money at interest prior to Calvin. While this survey is...

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