Brenda Llewellyn IHSSEN, They Who Give from Evil: The Response of the Eastern Church to Moneylending in the Early Christian Era. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012. pp. 207. $24.00 pb. ISBN 978-1610970327. Reviewed by Richard B. STEELE, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle, WA 98119
This book is a revision of a doctoral dissertation that Ihssen wrote at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. The topic—early Eastern Christian views on usury—was not the one she originally intended to investigate. But she was apparently caught in one of those academic buzzsaws of which all graduate students live in fear, when, “at the very last minute” (ix) a member of her dissertation committee nixed her original proposal. Her advisor suggested moneylending as an emergency alternative, and Ihssen—who knew little about that subject aside from her grim personal experience with student loans—gamely took up the challenge. And I’m glad she did, for the result is at once delightful, instructive and timely. But I do hope she will eventually return to what her naysaying committee member dismissed as “the ramblings of some long dead, long forgotten Byzantine emperor” (ix), for I am confident that she will approach that allegedly dreary subject with the same combination of sparkling wit and profound erudition shown in her treatment of usury.
Ihssen’s primary texts are St. Basil of Caesarea’s Homily on Psalm Fourteen and St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Against Those Who Practice Usury. She shows in Chapter 1 that scholars have typically regarded Gregory’s sermon as dependent upon and inferior to Basil’s earlier discourse. But Ihssen insists that Gregory’s text displays distinctive literary and theological features of its own, which render it a full-bodied complement to Basil’s work, not merely a pale derivative. To show this, she takes us on a grand tour of the writings on usury with which the two brothers were familiar, and on which they drew—various Graeco-Roman moralists (Chap. 2), the Jewish and Christian scriptures (Chap. 3), and numerous earlier Greek Christian writers (Chap. 4). This sets up her thorough comparative analysis of the two primary texts. She gives Basil “the credit he is due”—and the delicate fiscal pun here is but one of many instances of Ihssen’s deliciously wry humor—for the undoubted originality of his sermon. But she also brings Gregory out from his brother’s shadow—a shadow into which he frequently, and perhaps over-modestly, casts himself—and shows him for the brilliant exegete, allegorist and moralist he truly is.
Distinctive as these two sermons prove to be, they nevertheless reflect the broad agreement among ancient Graeco-Roman legislators and philosophers, the authors of the Old and New Testaments, and many other early Christian writers that lending money at interest is morally indefensible. Borrowers, who are already in a perilous financial position when they take out loans, are placed in still graver danger by the need to return the principle with interest after the term of the loan has expired. And usurers, driven by greed, subject themselves to fear—being unsure if they will ever get back their original capital, to say nothing of the interest charged—and subject others to oppression in the form of rack-rents, public shaming and threats of foreclosure. Although Ihssen abstains from speculating too much on the relevance of this ancient religio-ethical tradition for contemporary fiscal policies and financial practices, she prods us to question the validity of our blithe assumption that lending at interest must be morally permissible simply because it is so widely practiced in our time. (Widely, but not universally! To this day, observant Muslims manage financially without engaging in usurious loans.)
Two quibbles about Ihssen’s otherwise very fine book: First, there are a few too many editorial mistakes for my taste: missing quotation marks ([“]Hierienouphis…of the aforesaid year[”] ), misspellings (“portend” instead of “portent” ), simple typos (“eh” instead of “he” [p. 100]), etc. The MS should have been more carefully inspected by a copy-editor before the book went to press. Second, there are several glaring historical mistakes. For example, an action taken by Valentinian III (425-55) is anachronistically attributed to Valentinian I (364-75) (35f.), and John Chrysostom did not become “Patriarch of Constantinople” in 398 (109), for patriarchal powers were not formally conferred on the metropolitans of that city until 451.
They Who Give from Evil is a welcome addition both to Patristic scholarship and to the growing fields of business ethics and theological economics. Although Ihssen’s context-setting chapters will be helpful to general readers, the weight of her argument falls on the sermons by Basil and Gregory, and this may tend to restrict the book’s usefulness to specialists in the fields just mentioned. The latter, however, will find their investment of time and effort in the book richly rewarded.