Q 101: May we then swear religiously by the name of God?
Answer: Yes: either when the magistrates demand it of the subjects; or when necessity requires us thereby to confirm a fidelity and truth to the glory of God, and the safety of our neighbor: for such an oath is founded on God's word, (a) and therefore was justly used by the saints, both in the Old and New Testament. (b)
(a) Deut.6:13 Thou shalt fear the LORD thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name.
Deut.10:20 Thou shalt fear the LORD thy God; him shalt thou serve, and to him shalt thou cleave, and swear by his name.
Isa.48:1 Hear ye this, O house of Jacob, which are called by the name of Israel, and are come forth out of the waters of Judah, which swear by the name of the LORD, and make mention of the God of Israel, but not in truth, nor in righteousness.
Heb.6:16 For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife.
(b) Gen.21:24 And Abraham said, I will swear.
Gen.31:53,54 The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge betwixt us. And Jacob sware by the fear of his father Isaac. Then Jacob offered sacrifice upon the mount, and called his brethren to eat bread: and they did eat bread, and tarried all night in the mount.
Jos.9:15 And Joshua made peace with them, and made a league with them, to let them live: and the princes of the congregation sware unto them.
Jos.9:19 But all the princes said unto all the congregation, We have sworn unto them by the LORD God of Israel: now therefore we may not touch them.
1 Sam.24:22 And David sware unto Saul. And Saul went home; but David and his men gat them up unto the hold.
Sam.3:35 And when all the people came to cause David to eat meat while it was yet day, David sware, saying, So do God to me, and more also, if I taste bread, or ought else, till the sun be down.
1 Kin.1:28-30 Then king David answered and said, Call me Bathsheba. And she came into the king's presence, and stood before the king. And the king swear, and said, As the LORD liveth, that hath redeemed my soul out of all distress, Even as I swear unto thee by the LORD God of Israel, saying, Assuredly Solomon thy son shall reign after me, and he shall sit upon my throne in my stead; even so will I certainly do this day.
Rom.1:9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers;
2 Cor.1:23 Moreover I call God for a record upon my soul, that to spare you I came not as yet unto Corinth.
Question 102: May we also swear by saints or any other creatures?
Answer: No; for a lawful oath is calling upon God, as the only one who knows the heart, that he will bear witness to the truth, and punish me if I swear falsely; (a) which honor is due to no creature. (b)
(a) 2 Cor.1:23 Moreover I call God for a record upon my soul, that to spare you I came not as yet unto Corinth. Rom.9:1 I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost,
(b) Matt.5:34-36 But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.
James 5:12 But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.
To these two Questions the doctrine respecting the oath is explained at large.
The doctrine of the oath
Concerning this we must enquire,
What is an oath?
By whom are we to swear?
Is it lawful for Christians to make oath?
What are the things concerning which we are to make oath?
Are all oaths to be kept?
I. What is an oath?
An oath is often used in the Scriptures for the whole worship of God, as, “Thou shalt swear by his name.” “In that day shall five cities in the land of Egypt speak the language of Canaan, and swear to the Lord of hosts.” “Every knee shall bow unto me, every tongue shall swear.” (Deut. 10:20. Is. 19:18; 45:23.) Concerning the worship of the New Testament it is said: “He who blesseth himself in the earth, shall bless himself in the God of truth, and he that sweareth in the earth, shall swear by the God of truth.” “If they will diligently learn the ways of my people, to swear by my name, then shall they be built in the midst of my people.” (Is. 65:16. Jer. 12:16. The reason of this is that we profess him as our God, by whom we swear. An oath, properly speaking , is a calling upon God, as the one who knows the heart, that he will bear witness to the truth, and punish me if I swear falsely. It is in this way that the Catechism defines a lawful oath, which definition is taken from the form of swearing which the apostle Paul uses, when he says, “I call God for a witness upon my soul, that to spare you I came not as yet unto Corinth.” (2 Cor. 1:23.)
It is said in the definition just given, that God will bear witness; viz., by preserving and doing good to him that swears if he swear religiously, and by punishing and destroying him if he swear falsely. For the oath was instituted by God, that it might serve as a bond of truth between men, and be a testimony that God is the author and defender of truth.
II. By whom are we to swear?
We must swear by the name of the true God alone;
1. Because God has commanded that we swear by him alone, as he alone is to be feared and worshipped. “Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, him shalt thou serve, and to him shalt thou cleave, and shalt swear by his name.” (Deut. 10:20.)
2. God positively forbids us to swear by any other name. “Make no mention of the names of other gods.” (Ex. 23:13.)
3. God wills that the worship of invocation be given to him alone, and condemns those who in their oaths join creatures with himself. The oath now, according to the definition, is one of the ways in which we call upon God, being comprehended in it.
4. An oath ascribes to him by whom it is taken, a knowledge of hearts, omniscience, omnipresence, &c. And it is indeed necessary that he by whom we swear should be possessed of infinite wisdom, and have a knowledge of the heart; because when oaths are taken it is not concerning things which are manifest, and of which there is no doubt, but of things unknown and uncertain, and of which he only, who has a knowledge of all hearts, can judge whether men speak the truth, or that which is false. But God alone knows the heart, is omniscient and everywhere present. And as Christ and the Holy Ghost are God, and know all things, as the following passages of Scripture sufficiently testify, we are also to swear by them. “He knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man, for he knew what was in man.” “The Spirit searcheth all things.” (John 2:24, 25. 1 Cor. 2:11.)
5. We commit the execution of punishment to him by whom we swear, and also attribute such power to him as is necessary to maintain the truth, and punish those who are guilty of perjury. But God alone is possessed of such power, and inflicts punishment upon the wicked. “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt. 10:28.) Men cannot be the avengers of those who are guilty of perjury, inasmuch as those who swear falsely may escape the judgment of men, either because they do riot know the heart, so as to see whether those who swear are practicing a deception or not, or because those who perjure themselves are too powerful to be punished by men. It follows, therefore, that we must not take an oath except by the name of God alone.
It is apparent, from what has now been said, that oaths which are taken by the saints and other creatures are idolatrous, and prohibited by God. Obj. But Joseph swore by the life of Pharaoh. (Gen. 42:15.) Therefore it is lawful to swear by men and creatures.
Ans. There are some who admit that Joseph sinned in following the custom of the Gentiles, who were wont to swear by things, that his brethren might not by this means recognise him. But we may give a different reply to the objection, by maintaining that his language does not, properly, contain an oath, but merely a strong affirmation; so that the sense is, As truly as Pharaoh lives , or is in safety; or, As truly as I desire him to be in safety, so truly do I affirm these things. The same interpretation must be given to all other asseverations of a similar character, instances of which may be found in 1 Sam. 1:27; 15:55; 20:3; 25:26. These forms of speech are not properly oaths, but strong declarations, made for the sake of placing some thing in the clearest light by comparing it with something known and mani fest; so that we are to understand them as meaning that those things which are affirmed are as certain, as that he liveth, who is named by the person making the declaration.
III. Is it lawful for Christians to take an oath?
That it is lawful to swear religiously by the name of God, when the magistrates demand it, or otherwise when necessity requires, may be proven by these four arguments:
1. That the glory of God may be promoted. Truth, with its manifestation, is glorious to God.
2. That it may contribute to the safety of others. Our safety consists in the maintenance of truth, especially heavenly truth.
3. The word of God authorizes and sanctions lawful swearing
4. The saints have at different times taken oaths under a religious form. The Anabaptists take exceptions to what we have here taught respecting the oath, and maintain that whilst it was lawful for the fathers who lived under the Old Testament to swear, we who live under the New Testament are prohibited. Hence, in order to meet their objections, we must add to the reasons already given the following additional considerations:
5. Christ says, “I am not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.” (Matt. 5:17.) This, now, was spoken with reference to the moral law, to which the oath had respect. Hence, Christ has not prohibited those who live under the New Testament to swear religiously, when necessity demands it.
6. The moral worship of God is perpetual. A lawful oath forms a part of the moral worship, being one of the ways in which we call upon God. Therefore it is perpetual.
7. The prophets, in describing the worship of the Christian church, call it a swearing by the name of God. “He that sweareth in the earth, shall swear by the God of truth.” (Is. 65:16.) Therefore those who live in the Christian church are not prohibited from swearing religiously.
8. The same thing may be argued from the design of the oath, which is a confirmation of fidelity and truth, and a removal of strife, which de sign is profitable, lawful and necessary for the church and the state, and at the same time honorable to God. “An oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife.” (Heb. 6:16.) Such, now, being the design of the oath, it is manifest that it is not only lawful, but even necessary for Christians to take it.
9. From the examples of Christ and the saints in the New Testament. Christ on more than one occasion used a form of swearing for the confirmation of his doctrine. “Verily, verily, I say unto you," &c. (John 3:3.) Paul says, “God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit, in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers.” “I call God for a record upon my soul, that to spare you I came not as yet unto Corinth.” “I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost.” “God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.” “Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly and unblameably we behaved ourselves among you that believe.” (Rom. 1:9. 2 Cor. 9:23. Rom. 9:1. Phil. 1:8. 1 Thes. 2:16.) These and similar arguments and examples clearly demonstrate that it is lawful for Christians under the new Covenant also to swear religiously.
The Anabaptists bring forward, by way of objection to what has now been advanced, the declaration of Christ, found in Matt. 5:34-38, where it is said, “I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; neither by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king; neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” They also bring forward, for the same purpose, the following passage from the Epistle of James 5:12, “Above all things, my brethren, swear not; neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath; but let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay; lest ye come into condemnation.” But that these declarations do not forbid all oaths, but only such as are rash and unnecessary, is evident both from a comparison of other passages of the Old and New Testaments, and especially from the design of Christ, who in the first passage referred to, removing the corruptions thrown around the law, and giving its true sense, and at the same time reproving the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, teaches that the third commandment of the Decalogue does not only condemn perjury, but also such oaths as are unnecessary and rash; and among these not only such as are direct, in which there is an express mention of the name of God, but also such as are indirect, in which, when creatures are named, the name of God is dissembled and understood thereby; which kind of oaths were then common in ordinary conversation. Hypocrites, or those who were in the habit of using these indirect forms of swearing, such as swearing ~by the temple, by the altar, by heaven, &c., excused these oaths, as if they did not profane the name of God when they swore in this way, inasmuch as they did not expressly mention the name of God; and did not suppose that they had perjured themselves, if they violated the oath which they had taken in this indirect form. Christ, now, in the passage referred to, shows that men swear also by the name of God, when heaven and earth are named; because there is no creature, nor any part of the world, upon which God has not stamped some mark of his glory. And when anyone swears by heaven and earth in the sight and hearing of his Maker, the religious character of the oath which he takes is not in the creatures by whom he swears, but God himself alone is called upon to witness what in said, by the mention of those things which are the signs of his glory. Nor does God tenaciously cling to the words which are uttered, but looks more particularly to the mind and intention of him that swears; neither does the honor or dishonor of the name of God consist so much in the syllables or forms of expression used, as in the meaning and sense which they bear, as Christ elsewhere (Matt. 23:1623) teaches in express terms, which passage should be compared with the one now under consideration. The same interpretation must be given to the passage quoted from the Epistle of James.
Obj. 1. But Christ says, Swear not at all; and James says, Nor by any oilier oath. Therefore Christians are not allowed to swear under any form.
Ans. There is here a fallacy of composition; for when Christ says, swear not at all, we are not to refer this language to the oath itself, but to the various forms of rash swearing which the Pharisees imagined lawful. It is, therefore, as if he would say, Swear not falsely or rashly at all, whether it be in a direct or indirect way. So when the Apostle James says, Nor by any other oath, we must understand him also as referring to such oaths as are rash and false, of which kind he furnishes some specimens, and forbids all of a similar character. If this be not the proper interpretation of these passages, Christ himself has violated his own precept which he here lays down, saying, “Let your communication be yea, yea; nay. nay;” for he frequently in his discourses used this most emphatic form of expression, Verily, verily, 1 say unto you. And James would in this case condemn Paul, who called God for a record upon his soul. And the Holy Ghost would contradict himself by condemning all oaths by James, and commending them by another Apostle as a remedy useful and necessary to the preservation of society, for the purpose of putting an end to strifes and controversies, from which human life, in this state of frailty and imperfection, cannot be free.
Obj. 2. But such oaths as were permitted, together with the examples which are found in the Scriptures, have respect to public oaths such as were exacted or given in the name of the public and for the public good. Therefore at least private oaths, or such as pass between private individuals, are entirely prohibited.
Ans. 1. We deny the antecedent; because there is not only no such restriction as that which is here maintained, specified in the instances recorded in the Scriptures, where the saints make oath to God, but it is impossible to interpret them in this way, as a careful examination of the passages themselves will prove. 2. There are many oaths recorded in the Scriptures, the private character of which cannot be doubted, such as that of Jacob and Laban, that of Boaz, Abdiah, Abigail, and David. (Gen. 31:53. Ruth 3:13. &c.) 3. The same thing may be proven from the design of the oath, which is a confirmation of fidelity and truth amongst men, and the putting an end to strife. These things now have respect to Christians also as private individuals; and hence the oath itself by which we establish truth and fidelity, likewise has respect to them.
IV. What are the things concerning which we are to make oath; or what oaths are lawful and what unlawful?
Only such oaths are lawful as are evidently not opposed to the word of God, and which are made concerning things true, certainly known, lawful, possible, weighty, necessary, useful and worthy of such and so great a confirmation, or of such things as require a confirmation for the glory of God and the safety of our neighbor. It is only in reference to such things, that it is lawful for us to make oath. Unlawful oaths are such as are plainly in opposition to the word of God, and made in reference to things which are either false, uncertain, unlawful, impossible, or light and trifling. Of such things no one should make oath: for he who makes oath in reference to things which are false, calls God to witness a lie. He who swears concerning things uncertain, makes oath with an evil conscience and with contempt of God, inasmuch as he has the presumption to make God a witness of something of which he has no certain knowledge whether it be true or false. He who swears in this way, has but little concern whether he makes God a witness of what is truth, or falsehood; and yet at the same time he desires that God will either give testimony to a lie, or if he will not be a witness of what is false, that he will punish him making an oath. He who makes oath concerning things unlawful, calls upon God to approve and sanction what he has forbidden in his law, and so makes God contradict himself; because he desires that God may punish him if he does what he commands, or if he does not do what God has forbidden. And still further, he who swears in this way, either purposes to act contrary to the command of God, or if he swears sincerely, he calls God to witness a falsehood. He who swears in reference to things impossible, is either beside himself, or else trifles with God and men, since he cannot have a sincere purpose to do what he takes an oath to, or he swears hypocritically concerning a lie, viz: that he will do that which he neither will nor can do. Lastly, he who swears with levity, is devoid of all proper reverence to God, and he who swears readily and thoughtlessly, also readily forswears, or takes oath to what is false. The principle cause of an oath should be glory of God, and the public and private safety of our neighbor.
Obj. We should not make oath concerning things that are uncertain. But future contingencies, such as those which men promise themselves that they will perform, are uncertain. Therefore we should not swear in reference to things still future.
Ans. As it respects future things, no one does, neither should he swear respecting the event which is beyond our control, but of our present will and purpose to do what is just and lawful, either now or hereafter, and of our obligation, present and future, to do a certain thing, in reference to which every one may and ought to be certain. It was in this way that Abraham, Isaac, Abimelech, David, Jonathan, Boaz, &c., made oath, binding themselves to perform certain, duties.
V. Should all oaths be kept?
Oaths which have been properly made concerning things lawful, true, certain, weighty and possible, should necessarily be kept. For if anyone once acknowledges and declares that he is justly bound to keep what he made oath to, and calls God to testify thereto, if he afterwards willingly or knowingly violates his faith, or breaks his oath he, in so doing, breaks a lawful bond, and so becomes guilty of perjury. The case however, is different as it respects oaths which have been made unlawfully, either concerning things unlawful, or by error, or by infirmity, or against the conscience. These are not to be kept; but retracted and amended by repentance and by not persisting in an evil purpose, and so adding sin to sin. “He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not.” (Ps. 15:4.) He who keeps an unlawful oath, sins twice he sins in the first place by making an oath wickedly, and, in the second place, by keeping that which was done unlawfully, according to the rule, that which is sworn to wickedly, is worse when kept. What God forbids, that he will not have us to keep, whether sworn to or not; and what he forbids us to promise, or to swear to, that he the more strictly forbids us to do, by as much as doing surpasses permitting. Those, therefore, who keep such oaths as have been wickedly made, add sin to sin, as Herod did, who put John the Baptist to death upon the pretext of keeping his oath. The same thing may also be said in reference to the vows of Monks who have sworn to that which was idolatrous, or to an unholy single life.
Obj. 1. He who swears that he will do something which he has the power to do, and yet does it not, makes God the witness of a falsehood. He now who makes oath that he will kill a certain person, swears to what he has the power to execute. Therefore, he who takes an oath that he will kill anyone, and yet does it not, makes God witness what is false; and as this ought not to be done, he should perform what he has sworn to do.
Ans. We reply to the major proposition that it is true, if it has respect to things which are lawful and possible; but it is false if it be understood of things which are unlawful, even though we may have the power to do them. The breaking of an oath which is unlawful, is by no means making God witness a falsehood; inasmuch as it is right and becoming to retract, or to refrain from doing what is evil, as is evident from the example of David who revoked the oath which he had made to destroy Nabal with his family. (1 Sam. 25:22.)
Obj. 2. The oath of peace which was made with the Gibeonites was contrary to the command of God. (Josh. 9; 15.) Therefore it is lawful to keep oaths which have been taken in reference to things which are un lawful.
Ans. 1. We deny that the oath which the princes of the children of Israel made, was unlawful; for they were not forbidden to make peace with any of the nations which God had commanded to be destroyed, if it was desired by any of these nations and they were willing to embrace the Jewish religion, which was the case as it respects the Gibeonites. 2. The objection also contains the fallacy of making that a cause which is none. The Israelites kept this oath, not because they felt themselves bound to do so, having been deceived when they made it, supposing that the Gibeonites had come from a far country; but, 1. That they might avoid offence, so that the name of God might not be reproached or evil spoken of among heathen nations, which might have been the case had they not kept the oath which they had made. 2. Because it was lawful and proper to save those that sought peace, and embraced the Jewish religion, even though there had been no oath taken in the case.
From what has now been said in reference to keeping such oaths as are lawful, we may easily return an answer to the Question, Are such oaths as, are, extorted from persons by tortures, c., to be kept? They are to be kept if they contain nothing that is unlawful, or if they have the conditions which we have already specified as necessarily required in oaths that are proper, even though they may be disadvantageous and injurious to us. But no one should feel himself bound to keep such oaths as are evidently wrong, nor should we suffer such oaths to be extorted from us by any tortures we should rather suffer death. Yet if such unlawful oaths are extorted from anyone by fear, or by infirmity against the conscience, they bind no one to keep them, and should be retracted; because, what it is wrong for us to do, that it is wicked to swear to; nor must we add sin to sin. But if such oaths as are lawful are extorted from anyone; that is, if they be concerning things lawful and possible, even though they be burthensome and disadvantageous to us, yet they should be kept. Should any impossibility, however, afterwards arise, they should in that case not be kept, but be revoked. But if no such impossibility arise they should be kept, that so the greater evil may be avoided; for we are bound by the law of God to choose that evil which is less. If it is just for anyone to do what he has promised, being compelled thereto, it is in like manner just to promise by oath to do it. For what it is lawful for anyone to do, that it is also lawful for him to promise to do by oath; as, if anyone falling into the hands of a robber, should find himself compelled to promise by oath a sum of money, and in addition to this take oath to keep the matter secret, as a ransom for his life, here it is not only lawful, but also proper, (if the thing is at all possible to be done,) to make oath of both to the robber, and to keep the oath, that he may save his life. For what it is lawful to take an oath in regard to, the same is also lawful to be done, and contrariwise.
Obj. No one should take an oath in regard to what would be injurious to the commonwealth, and if such an oath be taken it should not be kept. But to make oath of secrecy to a robber is injurious to the commonwealth. Therefore, such an oath should not be made, and if made, should not be kept.
Ans. 1. What is injurious to the commonwealth should not be promised, in case the withholding of such a promise do not endanger our lives, and in case the person placed in such circumstances of danger, be not rather bound to consult his own personal safety, than to come to such a decision. 2. We also deny the minor proposition, because to make such a promise to a robber, and to keep it when made, is rather profitable than injurious to the commonwealth, inasmuch as the life of him who promises secrecy by an oath under such circumstances, is by this means preserved, which is an advantage to the commonwealth; whereas, if he had not by an oath promised secrecy to the robber threatening him with death, he might have been slain, and so have been lost both to the commonwealth and himself. Hence, to promise secrecy by an oath to a robber should rather be preferred, inasmuch as this is a less evil to the state, than that a member thereof should be slain.