The following article was published in Der Lutheraner V. 25. Issue. 19, June 1, 1869, at a time when the St. Louis Seminary faculty assumed temporary editorship.
Is the Commandment about Usury a Specifically Jewish Law, as Professor Fritschel Thinks, or does it belong to the Moral Law Binding All Men?
In deciding the question whether taking interest on borrowed money is sinful, much depends on whether the Old Testament commandment: “Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother,” Deut. 23:19 and other passages, belongs to the moral law binding all men, which God wrote into the heart of man from the beginning, or whether it is a specifically Jewish law, which only binds the Jews. If it is clear that this commandment, Thou shalt not lend at interest, belongs to the natural law which binds all men, then the question is also decided whether the taking of interest on borrowed money is sinful or not. Prof. S. Fritschel recently asserted in Brobst’s Monthly Paper that this Old Testament commandment did not belong to the moral law binding on all men, but was a specifically Jewish law binding only on the Jews. We maintain the opposite, namely, that this Old Testament commandment belongs to the the law of nature that is binding on all people, which God wrote in the heart of mankind from the beginning and which therefore unites all people.
How then can one be sure whether something in the Old Testament belongs to the moral law binding all people or only to the specifically Jewish law binding only the Jews? Note the following. If there is a dispute about any commandment in the Old Testament, whether it belongs to the moral law or not, observe 1) whether it is not already contained in the general commandment: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, and: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If it is already contained in this general commandment, then it undoubtedly belongs to the moral law; or 2) see whether the transgression of such a commandment is also punished by the prophets against the Gentiles; if this is the case, then it also undoubtedly belongs to the moral law; or 3) see whether such a commandment is also taught in the New Testament by Christ or the apostles; if this is the case, then it also undoubtedly belongs to the same law.
We will now prove that the commandment: Thou shalt not lend upon usury (usury means to demand interest on borrowed capital), 1) is already contained in the general commandment of love; and 2) that it was also taught by Christ in the New Testament.
Borrowing on interest is a contract, where someone hands over a certain sum of money to his neighbor with the condition that this sum will be paid back to him again at a certain time and, in addition, a certain sum of money as a reward for the fact that he has been allowed to use the money for so long. The lender thus hands over a certain sum of money to the borrower and stipulates: Here you have a sum of money; go and do what you want with it, do business with it, trade with it. At a certain time you will give me back the whole sum and a certain sum in addition for having given you the money for so long. In return you get something quite uncertain, namely what you can still acquire over and above what I get; if it is a lot, then it is good, if it is nothing, then it is also good. In addition, you have to take care of the capital; if you lose everything, it is lost to you. And finally, you must also do all the work that is necessary to gain with the capital.
All this lies in the contract in which money is given out at interest. We hereby challenge Fritschel and all those who defend usury to say whether this is not so. Look the figure in the face, gentlemen, as it stands there unvarnished and unveiled; do not cover it up, do not adorn it. If you look into the unveiled, unadorned face, you will lose the courage to defend her.
But let’s take a closer look. It is not wrong to lend money. We should not turn away from the one who wants to lend us money, Matt. 5:42 [Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.] It is also not wrong to want to get back the borrowed money at the right time. “The wicked borroweth, and payeth not again,” Ps. 37:21. It would also not be wrong to claim a part of the profit that the neighbor has made with my money, if only the contract were such that the neighbor could “live” with it, since profit and loss would be equal. But this is the highest injustice, to demand of the neighbor that he should not only be accountable for the capital, but also for a secure profit, but that he should do all the work, have an uncertain profit, and on top of that be in danger of having to lose everything! Such a contract is in itself unjust, contrary to love and thus contrary to natural law. The very desire that the neighbor should enter into such a contract is sinful on the part of the one who lends.
From this it follows that the commandment: Thou shalt not lend at interest, is not a specifically Jewish law, but a moral law binding all men, which God wrote into the hearts of all men from the beginning. For, to repeat it once more, it is sinful in itself if I expect my neighbor to take over all work and worries, an uncertain profit and the danger of losing everything in a contract, but I should have all security, no worries, no danger and, in addition, a secure profit, which must become mine under all circumstances. Do not say that your neighbor wants to enter into such a contract. But one should not encourage him in such a desire. Jacob also agreed to serve Laban; is the shameful Laban therefore to be excused for taking advantage of Jacob? He who keeps a tavern does not force the drunkard to drink, but does that excuse his tavern?
However, the commandment of the Old Testament, “Thou shalt not lend at interest,” also belongs to the moral law that is binding on all people, because it is taught by Christ in the New Testament as belonging to this law. I refer here to the well-known passage Luke 6:35: “lend, hoping for nothing again”. No great exegetical apparatus and far-fetched arguments are needed in order to understand this word of Christ correctly. Just approach the words impartially, they are clear and easy to understand. Christ says here that we should lend. To lend means to leave the use of a thing to my neighbor for a time without payment. This is what we Christians should do, even where we cannot expect any service in return, even to the “ungrateful and wicked”. And with this, Christ not only gives good advice to the more perfect, as the Pope thinks, but he says this to all Christians. “Lend, hoping for nothing again”, but obviously wants to say the same that Moses commands with the word: You shall not lend at interest. Thou shalt not lend at interest obviously means: thou shalt lend, but thou shalt not require Nashech (interest). Hence it is said in Ps. 112:5, “Blessed is he that is merciful, and lendeth gladly.” Christ, therefore, expresses the saying: thou shalt not lend at interest, positively: Thou shalt lend, namely that is a right lending, which cannot be paid, since one therefore takes even less interest. – Thus the commandment: Thou shalt not lend at interest, belongs to the moral law binding on all men, which God wrote into the hearts of all men from the beginning, for Christ commands the same to all his Christians; but he would not bind his Christians to a Jewish ceremonial law.
This does not prohibit other honest contracts. If you have 100 dollars and someone comes along who is not in a position where he has to borrow and asks for your 100 dollars and promises you interest, tell him: this is a contract that God’s word forbids, but I want to make a contract with you that is permitted. If you do business with my money; I give the money, you do the work, then we will share the profit or loss equally. Such a contract or a similar one would be just.
So we see that the teaching that taking interest on borrowed money is sinful is firmly grounded in God’s Word. All projectiles hurled against it bounce powerlessly off this solid wall of the Word of God. Let us now see how Prof. S. Fritschel begins to knock down this mighty rampart of the Word of God. In the last issue of the Brobst’s monthly paper, he brings up mighty cannons against it, so that one would think that everything would have to sink into the dust before it. But one should not be deceived. His cannons are made of wood, he cannot do anything with them, they are only suitable to frighten and deceive the inexperienced.
Prof. Fritschel’s reasons that the commandment: “Thou shalt not lend at interest” is a specifically Jewish one and does not belong to the moral law that is binding for all people (see the April issue) are approximately the following: 1. The commandment: “Thou shalt not lend at interest” is caused by the peculiar conditions in which the Jewish people had to live. The Israelites were not supposed to be a trading people, they were supposed to cultivate the land and live as much as possible for themselves and remain separate from the surrounding peoples. –To this we answer, how do we know so well that this was the only reason for God, which alone moved him to give the law? Where is this written? It must be proven from Holy Scripture. It must be proven from Scripture. For if mere assertion were enough, I could also say that the commandment, Thou shalt not kill, no longer applies so generally. God gave it at a time when the world was not yet so populated as it is now; now it is different. And so you could overturn all God’s commands. Therefore, if Prof. Fritschel’s assertion that God forbade the Jews to charge interest, merely because they were not supposed to be a trading people, is to be of any use, he must first prove it from God’s Word, and indeed he must prove that this was the only reason why God gave the commandment. Mere assertions are wooden cannons that do not fire.
Fritschel’s second reason is that this commandment can only be a specifically Jewish one, because it is expressly said: Thou shalt not charge interest to thy brother, but thou mayest charge interest to the stranger. Deut. 23:19-20.
(Are they allowed to be a trading nation after all?) So this law only applies to the Jews. This may be answered briefly: Christ expressly says that Moses also allowed the Jews to divorce their wives for the sake of their hardness of heart, which was against the natural law. So, to charge the stranger interest, can also be with this permission. Thus, this reason also proves nothing for Fritschel.
A third reason of Fritschel’s is that this commandment stands in the middle of ceremonial-legal decrees, therefore it must also be a ceremonial-legal commandment. Answer: A professor should not make such conclusions. Is this a logical conclusion, Professor? And then, are all places where usury is forbidden of this kind? – It is just as weak when it is added that in the same passage it is also said: “that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all that thou settest thine hand to in the land whither thou goest to possess it.” From this it would follow that the commandment was given only to the Jews, who were to take the land. Answer: It says: “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, thou shalt have no other gods before me.” According to Fritschel’s logic, the first commandment is therefore a specifically Jewish commandment binding only on the Jews.
A fourth reason of Fritschel’s – to mention only one more – is: the law of usury cannot belong to the natural law which is binding upon all men, because the conscience of Christians knows nothing about it. What is generally binding must also be written in the conscience of all people. Answer: Because of the Fall, human nature is so corrupted that man’s natural knowledge is no longer perfect, even with regard to the law of God, which was written in his heart from the beginning, and even his conscience is not free from all blindness in this respect. Even the highly enlightened Patriarchs in their time did not consider polygamy sinful in their conscience, which is nevertheless against God’s law. Luther says (Werke, Erl. Ausg. 29, 156.): “Although the devil so blinds and possesses the hearts that they do not always feel such a law. Therefore one must write and preach it until God lends his assistance and enlightens them, that the heart must confess, that it is so, as the commandments say.” And in another place (Werke, Erl. Ausg. 36, 57.): “Even though it is already in the heart, though it be dark and completely faded, it is awakened again with the word, so that the heart must confess that it is as the commandments say.” All this also applies to the law of usury. Whoever does not willfully close his heart against the truth, but allows the bright light of the Word to work upon him and, invoking God, diligently studies it, will also come, with God’s help, to the point where this law, too, will be reawakened in him by God’s Word, “that the heart must confess, that it is so, as the commandments say.”
- [Original footnote] It was the intention of the editorial staff to remain silent about usury until the meeting of the General Synod; but since more and more opponents of Luther’s teaching on usury are now appearing, the cause of truth demands that the “Lutheran” should not remain silent and stick to its motto “God’s word and Luther’s doctrine will now and never pass away.”–The Editors ↑
- Matthew 5:42 ↑
- Deut. 23:19-20 ↑
- Exodus 20:2-3 ↑