Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Diptych: Theological Graffiti | Article 39

A diptychical study into the seeming prohibition against swearing an oath stemming from Thomas Kidd's 4/8/2014 article,  The Quaker Contribution to Religious Liberty.
Over at T.C. Moore's website, Theological Graffiti, TC has posted an article, Abusing the Bible: Why Jesus Hates Oaths of Office. He opens up by saying:

Presidents since the birth of the United States republic have been sworn into office on a Bible. (Not all presidents but many.) George Washington is said to have kissed the Bible after reciting his oath. Also, many presidents have added to the end of the oath “So help me God.”

Is this the proper usage of the Bible, according to the Bible? What are the implications of this practice? And most importantly, What does Jesus have to say about oaths that his disciples should know so they can follow his Way?

 [Continue reading here

Others, starting with religious leaders among our earliest American colonial settlers, wrote about oaths and the Bible in a similar vein. See here (scroll down to: It was about this time that Penn wrote his Treatise of Oaths).for William Penn, see  here for Cotton Mather, or here for an 1826 remonstrance by a minister of the (New Netherlands) Dutch Reformed Church.

In juxtaposition, we have Article 39 which is taken from  the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.  The full codex was first established in 1563 when the Church of England was coping with the controversies surrounding the English Reformation.

After the American Revolution, and some twelve years after the ratification of the United States Constitution, on September 12, 1801,  the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion underwent a much needed revision. The task occurred under the supervision of a General Convention of the  Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. (There was no change to Article 39.)

So now in view of what T.C. Moore’s had to say, let’s examine Sect.XXI - Article XXXIX, Of a ChristianMan's Oath, pages 447-449;  Established Church of England, the Anglican Church,  A manual of the rudiments of theology, Rev. J. B. Smith, London, 1830 .

Article 39 - “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 the 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.”

Here’s a snippet from the associated exegetical text

There are passages in Scripture sometimes brought forward in objection to this; e.g. Christ’s words “Swear not at all; but let your communication be yea, yea, nay, nay.” St. James says the same. Now the word communication seems to be the key to the matter; and shows that the caution applied to cases of ordinary conversation, and not to judiciary forms. The Jews were much addicted, in our Saviour’s time, to oaths of various sorts, in common discourse, and these passages are directed against that practice. Hence, as profane swearing was forbidden by the third commandment, and yet Moses expressly says, “Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and swear by his name;” so all swearing is forbidden to Christian men on ordinary occasions, and is only allowable when necessary, and the magistrate requireth in a cause of faith and charity: and then it is to be performed with a seriousness and awful reverence for God’s majesty upon our minds.


Tom Van Dyke said...

"Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?" ---GWash, Farewell Address

Naum said...

The early Christians / early Church (pre-Constantine) adhered to Jesus proscription about "swearing oaths" and its why the early church voices wrote against serving in military and government.

Once Christianity became the official religion of the state, syncretism set in and these verses were not taken literally anymore.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ray previously found an interesting snippet here

The words now used, "So help me God," at present little understood, are but a shorter way of expressing the same imprecation. When this precise form was first adopted is uncertain. Tyler says that he has been unable to find any oath in England which does not contain it or a similar phrase. The meaning of the phrase is, "So may God help me at the judgment day if I speak true, but if I speak false, then may He withdraw His help from me." Tyler, C. III.

One could sophistically argue it's not an oath per se, theologically speaking, since it doesn't ask God to punish you for lying, or claim God as a supporting witness, only that he withhold his "help" if you don't tell the truth.

As I said, "sophistically," but the slippery SHMG formulation perhaps salved the theological conscience and prohibition on oaths per Matthew 5.

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