ARTICLE XXXIX — OF A CHRISTIAN MAN’S OATH
As we confess that vain and rash Swearing is forbidden Christian men by our Lord Jesus Christ, and James his Apostle, so we judge, that Christian Religion doth not prohibit, but that a man may swear when the Magistrate requireth, in a cause of faith and charity, so it be done according to the Prophet’s teaching, in justice, judgement, and truth.
And so we come, if not precisely to the climax, certainly to the end of the 39 Articles, with this brief statement permitting the swearing of oaths in court. Oath swearing was an extremely significant feature of both political and spiritual realms in the sixteenth century. Indeed, it could be argued that the English Reformation as a whole was enacted through the swearing of oaths. The assent of the people to the will of the monarch was achieved by compelling them to swear oaths of loyalty and obedience.
By contrast, the continental Anabaptist movement had been teaching that all oaths were forbidden since the early part of the century. In his Forty-Two Articles (1552), Cranmer includes a number of articles specifically directed against the teaching of the Anabaptists, several of which were discarded in the revised Thirty-Nine Articles (1563). As an aside, this is a reminder that all creeds and confessions are products of their historical context. Some of what was important in 1552 was already less relevant by 1563. The article on swearing oaths, however, remained.
‘Vain and rash’ swearing is forbidden, but in a case of law, adjudicated by a magistrate, Cranmer considers that it is permissible for Christians to swear an oath. The Heidelberg Catechism, published in the same year as the Thirty-Nine Articles, takes a similar position:
But may we swear an oath by the name of God in a godly manner? Yes, when the government demands it of its subjects, or when necessity requires it, in order to maintain and promote fidelity and truth, to God’s glory and for our neighbour’s good. Such oath-taking is based on God’s word and was therefore rightly used by saints in the Old and the New Testament. (Q.101)
The biblical evidence is, as the catechism suggests, not as simple as reiterating Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:33-37 and declaring all oaths forbidden. In the Old Testament, oaths were not merely permitted, they were at times commanded (Numbers 5:19). Even in the New Testament, Matthew 5 notwithstanding, Paul appears to make oaths, calling upon God as his witness, in 2 Corinthians 1:23 and Galatians 1:20. Hebrews 6:16 apparently commends the practice of swearing oaths.
As always in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus argues from an existing understanding of the law to a greater one: “You have heard it said… but I say to you.” In this case the existing understanding may be traced back to Leviticus 19:12 and Numbers 30:2. These verses prohibit false oaths and broken vows, but it seems that true oaths and kept vows are perfectly permissible. It was not the making of oaths which was forbidden, but the breaking of them.
However, Jesus pushes the case further, prohibiting any vows which invoke heaven, earth, Jerusalem or one’s own head as the third-party participant. There are two reasons given: heaven and Jerusalem are forbidden because they are the throne of God and city of the great King, respectively. Swearing by one’s own head is forbidden because it is beyond the oath-taker’s control. Presumably swearing by the earth is forbidden for a similar reason.
In order to understand why these kinds of oaths are prohibited, it is helpful to analyse the very nature of an oath. Making an oath is a speech act which commits the speaker to the truth of his statement or the keeping of her promise by invoking a third party as witness. If the oath is unsuccessful, i.e. the statement is false, or the promise is broken, then the third party will be dishonoured and their own trustworthiness called into question.
The problem is: who or what is a suitable third party? The Anabaptists believed that Christians were not permitted to make oaths because there was no appropriate third party. How can we swear by things we can’t control? And what can we control? Not even our own lives, let alone God or his heaven! So, they argued, we can make statements and promises, but we cannot invoke any third party. Rather, Christians should be truthful and trustworthy, and they should be known as such. Since oaths are normally only required when there is reason for doubt, there should normally be no need for Christians to use them.
However, Cranmer points out that there is a situation when oaths are required, not because of any reason to doubt the speaker but rather in the pursuit of justice and truth, in the cause of faith and charity. Oaths made in the legal setting of a court are not pointless oaths, which add nothing to the reliability of our words, nor rash promises which are easily made and easily broken. Oaths spoken in court legally and spiritually bind the speaker to their words, and to God as their witness. Such oaths are not to be taken lightly, since the consequences of breaking them are both temporal and spiritual. To break one’s own word is a lie; to break an oath made in God’s name is to make him a liar.
Honesty is a rare quality in this post-truth world. Keeping promises seems to be the exception rather than the rule. We don’t need to swear by anything to keep our word and speak truth. Be the person who can be believed and trusted, whose yes is yes, and whose no is no. But if you are called to swear an oath, make sure to do so with the truthfulness and trustworthiness of God who is your witness.