What Difference Does One Word Make?

Usury or “Excessive Interest” in Heidelberg Catechism Question 110

By Rev. Chris Iosso (Ph.D.), presenting advice and guidance from Ray Foss

usuryAs a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Ray Foss has written and edited several short arguments challenging one word in the new translation of the Heidelberg Confession being brought to this PC(USA) General Assembly. This brief article points to his arguments—and quotes several of them below.

His arguments are not unknown to the translators and to the Heidelberg Confession Review Committee, and may seem quixotic to many commissioners, but they illuminate both the historical Lutheran-Reformed context of the Confession and the continued role of excessive interest-taking as a form of theft in today’s economy. Precisely because Foss takes our Confessions seriously, and because precision in wording was the basis for re-doing the Heidelberg translation, his argument deserves some attention.


The eighth commandment does not say, ‘Thou shalt not steal — in excess’.

At the same time, because partner churches have already approved the new text, commissioners will essentially be voting up or down on the Special Committee’s recommendation—no amendments. If the commissioners, however, see usury as a current economic danger, they may want to be aware of the choices made in translating the German, wucher (usury), with the two words, “excessive interest.” Whether or not commissioners follow Foss’ additional arguments, even Calvin believed that any level of interest could potentially be usury, depending on the circumstances of the borrower (i.e., no interest should be charged to the poor). Thus Foss may effectively be arguing for a footnote or endnote that points to that part of our Christian tradition that can never be fully comfortable with interest-taking itself, as the agent of accumulating rather than forgiving debts.

Foss is aware of Calvin’s key role in the economic pivot from the formal medieval condemnation of usury to the Reformed acceptance of reasonable (and regulated!) loaning at interest. Calvin moves clearly beyond the ancient and medieval view that did not see a productive use for interest-taking. This shift is part of larger arguments about the relation between Calvinism and capitalism, and about the reluctance of early Lutherans as well as Catholics to allow this use of money as capital on loan. Foss, a retired engineer and avid reader of theology, is not challenging this mainstream reading of our tradition even though he dislikes where it has gone.

Here is Foss’s main point:
“But ‘usury’ is classified as theft by the eighth commandment in both the Westminster (Larger) and German Heidelberg Catechisms; the German Heidelberg says ‘wucher’ is what God forbids in the eighth commandment. Any reference publication will verify that ‘wucher’ literally means ‘usury’. In Question 110 of Heidelberg Catechism re-translation, rendering ‘wucher’ as ‘excessive interest’ is influenced both by the way the Reformed tradition itself has evolved and accommodated to culture as well as (but not solely by) current usage of ‘usury’. Because the word… ‘usury’ has both historic traditional-Christian and modern legal connotations, further discernment and deliberation is advisable. In Heidelberg Catechism Question 110, the rendering of ‘wucher’ (usury) as ‘excessive interest’ does not properly footnote this phrase to Ps. 15:5 & Lk. 6:35, and does not account for the definition by author Zacharias Ursinus in his Commentary: ‘Usury is the gain which is received in view of that which has been borrowed or loaned’ (The Commentary of Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism translated from Latin by G. W. Williard, 4th Edition 1888, page 597).”


And so we take an interest—an exces­sive interest?—in the trans­la­tion of “usury” in a time of great inequal­ity, unem­ploy­ment, and home fore­clo­sure.

The consequence for Foss:
“…rendering ‘wucher’ as ‘excessive interest’ gives the modern English reader the wrong sense of the principles involved. The Heidelberg re-translation does not communicate traditional consideration of ‘usury’ and unqualified ‘interest’ as forms of theft, in accordance with comprehensive teachings of scripture, and the original definition expressed by a 16th century author of Heidelberg catechism… The eighth commandment does not say, ‘Thou shalt not steal — in excess’. Ursinus dealt with God’s law. So the spiritual and religious issue is NOT really… the status of the reformers accommodative language… at the 16th Century time of the Heidelberg’s authorship or the theologians who were open to the practice of the legitimacy of charging interest, but… at issue is the Biblical condemnation of THEFT.”

The consequence for Foss, in other words, revolves around the current cultural assumption of ethical neutrality for compound interest.

In his additional arguments, Foss speaks to current adverse consequences of accepting the escalation of debt that he believes is massively abetted by compound interest, a set of claims well beyond the translation issue, if related to it.

His historical argument is summed up by one of his sources, author on usury Scott Mooney:
“Both those opposed to usury and those sympathetic to usury would agree the general view of usury in Europe was liberalized during the 16th Century. The critical question is whether the Heidelberg Catechism reflects that new liberal view or the old traditional view. Current Heidelberg translators (1963 and since) default to the former as grounds for their translations. However, their only case is the fact there were those at the time (1563) who supported a liberal view. This sort of argument has merit only if there was a general consensus on the liberal view of usury that Heidelberg was supposed to have reflected. But there was no such consensus. The whole reason for the controversy today is because the 16th Century was a tumultuous time without consensus. If anything, a case could be made that the older traditional view held the consensus through much of the 16th Century and the liberal voices were few, and gained ground with much difficulty” (Scott C. Mooney, Fall of the House of Usury, Parakrisis: 2011).


Whether or not it is worth a foot­note, wucher is a win­dow into an eco­nomic fault­line that marks the sep­a­ra­tion of much eco­nomic prac­tice from moral consideration.

A key counter-argument to Foss is that Ursinus himself made allowances for interest taking, a position that could match his general shift from Lutheranism to Calvinism. Another commissioner responds to Foss by noting: “Steve Strehle’s The Egalitarian Spirit of Christianity (p.187) has a list compiled by a contemporary theologian of all the Reformed theologians in Britain and on the continent who were open to the practice of the legitimacy of charging interest, one of whom is Ursinus.” It is Foss’ and his sources’ contention, of course, that Heidelberg’s language reflects the earlier view, if not an earlier Ursinus.

It is also the case that the General Assembly’s recent (2006) resolution, A Reformed Understanding of Usury for the 21st Century, states, “The transition from the prohibition of all interest to the prohibition of exorbitant interest had thus been made in the Reformed theological community by 1562 when the Heidelberg Catechism was completed.” This would stand against Scott Mooney’s contention that there was no consensus.

To conclude this brief discussion for Unbound: any historical discussion of Reformed thought throws one into a briarpatch of scholarship. Words matter, even as context changes. Our tradition is not about reflexive obedience, but about law as a form of education and guardianship (as Paul has it in Galatians 3:24). Our faith is concerned also with the consequences of economic practice as part of holistic human development. Calvin was no cheerleader for a “free market;” all transactions are to serve the common good; God’s sovereignty is expressed through the love and justice of Jesus Christ. And so we take an interest—an excessive interest?—in the translation of “usury” in a time of great inequality, unemployment, and home foreclosure. Whether or not it is worth a footnote, wucher is a window into an economic faultline that marks the separation of much economic practice from moral consideration.

Ray V. Foss is an elder of the Presbyterian Church, USA, and an associate of the United Methodist Church. A former corporate research engineer, he lives in Parkersburg, West Virginia.


photo of Chris Iosso

The Rev. Dr. Chris­t­ian Iosso is the Coor­di­na­tor of the Advi­sory Com­mit­tee on Social Wit­ness Pol­icy of the Pres­by­ter­ian Church (U.S.A.) and the Gen­eral Edi­tor of Unbound. His Mas­ter of Divin­ity comes from Prince­ton The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary and his Ph.D., from Union The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary in New York City. He served as pas­tor of the Scar­bor­ough Pres­by­ter­ian Church in Bri­ar­cliff, NY, from 1992–2005.
Sandra Tamari, right, at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference, alongside Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb
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