Calvin’s Letter on Usury
We actually became quite derailed by looking at banking, because in these notes we were trying to look at the century in terms of Capitalism and Socialism and political and economic ideas, but we started becoming aware of this other very much related thread that seems to have been running through everything for centuries. Now we felt we had to go through the whole century again, from a different perspective, and then found that we had to reach back further in time.
This whole thing was a rude shock to our understanding of history, always having been a little interested in history and politics, etc. It had never really occurred before what power there is in controlling the supply of money and what a central and seemingly neglected theme in textbook history it is. We mentioned earlier what Joseph Stiglitz called the Hot Money Cycle, but a fuller consideration of what Lincoln actually didn’t call the Money Power (as we’ll come on to) we were still quite unprepared for.
It detained us and depressed us, and for months delayed the initial completion of the site, which started out being about airing a few songs about the obvious truth of Henry George’s insights. We’ve never written anything of any length or researched anything before, it has all happened through the inspiration of Henry George.
The current age is definitely a time when people are angry towards those termed banksters, and we found there were many other times in history when banking had become vividly visible and people were angry. We couldn’t leave it alone, and had to go through a few months of learning some history of money, and absorbing loads of things, and then finding some of that challenged and having to re-think again some of what we’d heard. It was a tortuous journey at times, checking things over and again.
There is a need to actually finish this piece, and money is such a huge subject there really has to be a separate note with a look at the whole history of it, and this is a page in construction, as we are ourselves a work-in-progress in being able to do this. But a quick glance at the story we’ve been reading is demanded, a story behind the scenes of the history we’ve been writing about earlier, the history book history.
The story we were often confronted with tells of a kind of hidden history, unconsidered for a century; a parallel secret history of close manipulation of the actual history. For some, all the apparent history is like a production on a stage, the whole world seen as a chessboard with hundreds of millions of pawns, and the same player playing both sides. Horrified, we’ve had sometimes to consider the notion that maybe all of this history, and the reasons why millions of people have suffered so much, was the playing out of the design of a secret interest behind the scenes, steering and puppeteering the apparent powers, becoming vastly rich from huge gains from everyone else’s bitter loss. That’s how some would have it. People are angry.
This kind of thing, the vituperative quotes that go around from figures in history, genuine and fake, the historical financing of and profiting from wars by bankers, inspires various levels of conspiracy theory about banking groups and their control over human history. It’s a story that almost suggests that all historical events of the past few centuries, as presented to us, are a sham, a grand charade.
It is just incredible, and absurd, but we couldn’t leave it alone for a period, there seemed something in it amongst the mass of views and theories which had been fetched from various distances, near and far.
The story of money is a truly absorbing story, and when we can finish a note about money, we’re going to look at things in the story like the artefact of law that Aristotle saw money as, and the cheap metal coinage of the Roman Republic, and the ancient Chinese coins with the square hole. We’re going to look at the Medici bank in Italy and the Fuggers in Germany, and the world’s first central bank in Sweden.
All of this is all for another time. As for our brief look at the 20th century, we found it really needed to start in 1545.
After the teachings of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, the medieval Church in Europe taught that any lending of money for interest was sinful, this was the sin of usury. The Reformation in the 16th century lifted the sinfulness from lending money, usury was removed from the Church’s teaching as a sin. It remains sinful in the Islamic faith.
John Calvin by Holbein
Looking at reformer John Calvin’s Letter of Advice on Usury in 1545, he stressed that when Christ said lend hoping for nothing in return, He meant that one is obliged to help the poor freely, and that following the rule of equity, people should be judged by their circumstances and not by legal definitions.
Calvin, in his analysis of the Bible and the Church’s teaching, considered the two Hebrew words in the Bible which had been translated as usury. One of the original words, neshekh, meant a bite; the other word, tarbit, meant to take legitimate increase. John Calvin’s actual interpretation, following Aquinas, was that it was only the biting loans that were sinful. But making a loan to a businessman, for the purpose of making legitimate increase was not sinful, go for it. It is tarbit which isn’t sinful.
But this distinction somehow got lost somewhere, as things do, and never made it into orthodoxy. As we well know, loans for legitimate increase and biting loans became the same animal, which increasing accent on the latter in recent times.
More about Calvin and usury here.
And there is a quote, often attributed to Einstein but convincingly refuted, which is a shame, but someone said it:
compound interest is the strongest force in the Universe.
For some scholars the issue of usury was the key driver behind the medieval Reformation of the Church. Certainly Henry VIII didn’t waste any time in repealing England’s Usury Laws, which opened up financial trading and helped foment the conditions for the next development of what became known as Capitalism, more of which in a moment.