The Confession of Faith: A commentary on The Westminster Confession of Faith

by A. A. Hodge

A. A. Hodge

Chapter 22

Of Lawful Oaths and Vows

SECTION I: A lawful oath is a part of religious worship,[1] wherein, upon just occasion, the person swearing solemnly calleth God to witness what he asserteth, or promiseth, and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he sweareth.[2]

1. Deut. 10:20; Isa. 45:23; Rom. 14:11; Phil. 2:10-11
2. Exod. 20:7; Lev. 19:12; Rom. 1:9; II Cor. 1:23; 11:31; Gal. 1:20; II Chr. 6:22-23

SECTION II: The name of God only is that by which men ought to swear, and therein it is to be used with all holy fear and reverence.[3] Therefore, to swear vainly, or rashly, by that glorious and dreadful Name; or, to swear at all by any other thing, is sinful, and to be abhorred.[4] Yet, as in matters of weight and moment, an oath is warranted by the Word of God, under the new testament as well as under the old;[5] so a lawful oath, being imposed by lawful authority, in such matters, ought to be taken.[6]

3. Deut. 6:12; Josh. 23:7
4. Exod. 20:7; Jer. 5:7; Matt. 5:33-37; James 5:12
5. Heb. 6:16; II Cor. 1:23; Isa. 65:16
6. I Kings 8:31; Neh. 13:25; Ezra 10:5

SECTION III: Whosoever taketh an oath ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to avouch nothing but what he is fully persuaded is the truth:[7] neither may any man bind himself by oath to anything but what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be, and what he is able and resolved to perform.[8] Yet it is a sin to refuse an oath touching any thing that is good and just, being imposed by lawful authority.

7. Exod. 20:7; Lev. 19:12; Jer. 4:2; Hosea 10:4
8. Gen. 24:2-9; Neh 5:12-13; Eccl. 5:2, 5

SECTION IV: An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation, or mental reservation.[9] It cannot oblige to sin; but in anything not sinful, being taken, it binds to performance, although to a man's own hurt.[10] Nor is it to be violated, although made to heretics, or infidels.[11]

9. Jer. 4:2; Psa. 24:4
10. I Sam. 25:22, 32-34; Psa. 15:4
11. Ezek. 17:16-19; Josh. 9:18-19; II Sam. 21:1

The subjects treated of in these sections are -- 1. The nature of a lawful oath. 2. The only name in which it is lawful to swear. 3. The propriety and duty of taking oaths upon proper occasions. 4. The sense in which an oath is to be interpreted. And, 5. The extent and grounds of its binding obligation.

1. A lawful oath consists in calling upon God, the occasion being of sufficient seriousness and importance, to witness the truth of what we affirm as true, or our voluntary assumption of an obligation to do something in the future -- with an implied imprecation of God's disfavour if we lie or prove unfaithful to our engagements. This last is generally expressed by the phrase forming the concluding part of the formula of most oaths, "So help me God; "-- i.e., Let God so help me as I have told the truth, or as I will keep my promise.

Hence an oath is an act of supreme religious worship, since it recognizes the omnipresence, omniscience, absolute justice and sovereignty of the Person whose august witness is invoked, and whose judgment is appealed to as final.

2. It hence follows that it is a sin equivalent to that of worshipping a false god if we swear by any other than the only true and living God; and a sin of idolatry if we swear by any thing or place, although it be associated with the true God. Those who swear with uplifted hand swear by the God who created, preserves, and governs all things. Those who swear with hand upon or kissing the Bible, swear by the God who reveals himself in the Bible -- that is, by the true Christian God. It is evident that none who believe in the true God can, consistently with their integrity, swear by a false god. And it is no less evident that it is dishonest for an atheist to go through the form of swearing at all; or for an infidel to swear with his hand upon the Christian Scriptures, thereby professing to invoke a God in whose existence he does not believe.

This principle is fully recognized in Scripture. We are told to swear by the true God: "Unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear," Isa. xlv. 23; "He that sweareth in the earth shall swear by the God of truth," Isa. 1xv. 16; "Thou shalt fear JEHOVAH thy God and serve him, and shalt swear by his name," Deut. vi. 13. We are forbidden to swear by the name of false gods: " How shall I pardon thee for this? thy children have forsaken me, and sworn by them that are no gods." Jer. v. 7; Josh. xxiii. 7.

3. The literal meaning of the Third Commandment is, "Thou shalt not take the name of thy God in that which is false" -- that is, to confirm an untruth. The command not to take a false oath, or any oath upon a trifling occasion, by implication carries with it the permission to call upon the God of truth to confirm the truth upon all worthy occasions. Hence the oath is enjoined in the Old Testament as a recognized religious institution. Deut. vi. 13; x. 20, etc. Christ himself, when put upon oath in the form common among the Jews, did not hesitate to answer. Matt. xxvi. 63, 64. Paul often appeals to God for the truth of his statements -- thus: " God is my witness;" "I call God for a record upon my soul." Rom. i. 9; 2 Cor. i. 23. In Heb. vi. 13 -- 18, Paul declares that God, in order "to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath;" and that, "because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself."

It is evident, therefore, that the words of our Saviour (Matt. v. 33 -- 37), " Swear not at all," cannot be intended to forbid swearing upon proper occasions in the name of the true God, but must be designed to forbid the calling upon his name in ordinary conversation and on trifling occasions, and the swearing by that which is not God.

The proper occasions upon which an oath may be taken are all those in which serious and perfectly lawful interests are involved, and in which an appeal to the witness of God is necessary to secure confidence and end strife (Heb. vi. 16); and also whenever the oath is imposed by competent authority upon those subject to it. In the latter case, our Confession says that the taking the oath is a duty, and its refusal a sin.

The oath, of course, both because of its nature as an act of divine worship and because of the effect designed to be attained by it -- namely, the establishment of confidence among men -- ought always to be administered and taken in a reverent manner, and with whatever outward action -- such as raising the hand, placing it upon the Scriptures or kissing them -- as by common consent is generally understood, by all parties and witnesses, to signify that the God appealed to is the true God of creation, of providence, and of the Christian revelation.

4. The oath is always to be interpreted and kept sacred by the person taking it, in the sense in which he honestly believes that it is understood by the person who imposes it. It is evident that if the government, the judge, the magistrate, or a private fellow-citizen, require an oath from us for their satisfaction, and if we put a private sense upon the matter upon which we invoke the witness of God different from that which we know they understand by it, that we deceive them intentionally; and, by calling God to witness our truth while we are engaged in the very act of a lie, we commit the sin of perjury.

5. The obligation of the oath arises (1.) out of the original and universal obligation to speak the truth and to keep faith in all engagements; (2.) and, in addition to this, our obligation to honour God, and to avoid dishonouring him by invoking his witness to a falsehood; (3.) the profanity involved in suspending our hopes of God's favour upon the truth of that which we know and intend to be false.

An oath cannot bind to that which is in itself unlawful, because the obligation of the law is imposed upon us by the will of God, and therefore takes precedence of all obligations imposed upon us by the will of men or by ourselves; and the lesser obligation cannot relieve from the greater. The sin is in taking the oath to do the unlawful thing, not in breaking it. Therefore Luther was right in breaking his monastic vows. Neither can an oath to do that which is impossible bind, for its impossibility is an expression of the will of God.

But an oath to do what is in itself right and binding imposes an additional obligation to perform it -- the obligation imposed by the law, and the obligation voluntarily assumed by ourselves. And an oath to do anything which is lawful binds both for truth's sake and for God's sake. And --

(1.) This obligation evidently does not depend upon the goodness or badness of the persons imposing the oath. An oath to an infidel or a heretic binds as much as an oath to a saint. The Romanists excuse the practice of their Church of releasing persona from the obligation of oaths to infidels or heretics, and of breaking faith generally with all with whom she has controversy, on the plea that an oath cannot bind to that which is unlawful or release from a prior obligation, and that the highest of all obligations is to subserve at all cost the interest of the Church. But they deliberately make the oath in order to break it, and there- fore both lie and profane God's holy name in the making and the breaking. Besides, the interest of the Church is not the superior law which takes precedence of all oaths, but the clearly revealed will of God only.

(2.) The obligation of the oath binds even when a man swears to his own disadvantage. Ps. xv. 4.

(3.) Nor is the obligation impaired when the oath is extorted either by violence or fraud. Thus the oaths imposed by conquerors upon the vanquished bind, because they are voluntarily assumed in preference to the alternatives presented. And thus Joshua kept the oath which the Gibeonites had induced him through deceit to swear in their behalf. Joshua ix. 8 -- 27.

SECTION V: A vow is of the like nature with a promissory oath, and ought to be made with the like religious care, and to be performed with the like faithfulness.[12]

12. Num. 30:2; Isa. 19:21; Eccl. 5:4-6; Psa. 61:8; 66:13-14

SECTION VI. It is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone:[13] and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made voluntarily, out of faith, and conscience of duty, in way of thankfulness for mercy received, or for the obtaining of what we want, whereby we more strictly bind ourselves to necessary duties; or, to other things, so far and so long as they may fitly conduce thereunto.[14]

13. Psa. 50:14; 76:11; 116:14
14. Deut. 23:21-23; Gen. 28:20-22; I Sam. 1:11; Psa. 66:13-14; 132:2-5

SECTION VII: No man may vow to do anything forbidden in the Word of God, or what would hinder any duty therein commanded, or which is not in his own power, and for the performance whereof he hath no promise of ability from God.[15] In which respects, popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself.[16]

15. Acts 23:12-14; Mark 6:26; Num. 30:5, 8, 12-13
16. Matt. 10:11-12; I Cor. 7:2, 9; Heb. 13:4; Eph. 4:28; I Thess. 4:11-12; I Cor. 7:23

The vow is a promise made to God. In the oath, the parties are both men, and God is invoked as a witness. In the vow, God is the party to whom the promise is made. It is of like nature with an oath, because we are bound to observe them on the same grounds -- because of our obligation to truth, and because of our obligation to reverence God. Lightly to vow on a trifling occasion, or having vowed to fail to keep it, is an act of profanity to God.

As in the case of the oath, we have abundant Scriptural sanction for the vow. Eccles. v. 4; Ps. 1xxvi. 11; 1 Sam. i. 11; and the case of Paul, Acts xviii. 18. Reception of either of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper involves very sacred and binding vows to God; and the same is repeated whenever in prayer, orally or in writing, we formally or informally renew our covenant promises to God. Thus a vow, as any other promise, may bind generally to loyal obedience or specially to some particular action.

A vow cannot bind to do that which is unlawful or impossible, for reasons before explained in relation to an oath; nor when made by a child or other person under authority and destitute of the right to bind themselves of their own will. Num. xxx. 1 -- 8. Nor can it continue to bind in cases in which its continued observance is found clearly to be inconsistent with our spiritual interests; for then it is certain that God does not wish it, and a promise can never bind when the party to whom it is made does not desire it kept.

When the matter of the vow is not unlawful, but morally indifferent, the vow is binding; but experience abundantly proves that to accumulate such obligations is very injurious. The Word of God in the Scriptures imposes upon us by his authority all that it is his will or for our interest for us to observe. The multiplication of self-imposed duties dishonors him, and greatly harasses us and endangers our safety. Vows had better be restricted to the voluntary assumption and promise to observe, with the help of divine grace, duties imposed by God and plainly revealed in the Scriptures.

 

Text scanned and Edited by Michael Bremmer

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