The Reformed Faith

An Exposition of the

Westminster Confession of Faith

Robert Shaw

Chapter XXII. Of Lawful Oaths and Vows

Section I–A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, 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.

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; 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. 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, so a lawful oath, being imposed by lawful authority, in such matters ought to be taken.

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. 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. Yet it is a sin to refuse an oath touching anything that is good and just, being imposed by lawful authority.

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

Exposition

These sections embrace the following points: first, The nature of a lawful oath; secondly, By whose name men ought to swear; thirdly, The warrantableness of taking an oath; fourthly, The manner in which an oath ought to be taken; and, fifthly, The binding obligation of an oath.

1. An oath is a solemn act of religious worship, in which the person swearing calls God to witness his sincerity in what he asserts or promises, and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he swears. When a person swears to facts past or present, this is called an assertory oath; when one swears that he will perform a certain deed or deeds in time to come, this is called a promissory oath. An oath may relate to matters civil or ecclesiastical, and, according to its matter, may be denominated a civil or ecclesiastical oath; but to whatsoever matter it may be applied, the oath itself retains its high place among the solemnities of religion.

2. An oath is only to be taken in the name of God. We are expressly commanded to "swear by his name" (Deut. vi. 13); and to "swear by them that are no gods" is represented as highly criminal.–Jer. v. 7. Swearing by the name of God implies a belief and acknowledgement of his omniscience, omnipotence, and justice; it follows, therefore, that to swear by any other besides him, must be utterly unlawful, and no less than idolatry.

3. An oath may be warrantably taken on weighty occasions, when imposed by lawful authority. The Quakers, and some others, deny the lawfulness of swearing an oath in any case, under the New Testament. But their opinion is refuted by a variety of arguments. An oath for confirmation is warranted by the third precept of the moral law; for while that precept prohibits the taking of God's name in vain, it sanctions swearing by the name of God on lawful occasions. The practice is confirmed by numerous approved examples under the Old Testament. Abraham swore to Abimelech that he would not deal falsely with him.–Gen. xxi. 23, 24. A king of the same name desired that an oath might be between Isaac and him; and they swore one to another. - Gen. 2. xxvi. 31. In like manner Jacob swore to Laban (Gen. xxxi. 53); and Joseph swore to his father.–Gen. xlvii. 31. All these examples occurred before the Mosaic law was given to the Jews, and therefore an oath can be no peculiarity of the Mosaic dispensation. But that law expressly recognised the warrantableness of taking an oath (Lev. v. 1), and under that dispensation we have various examples of holy men swearing by the name of God. Thus Jonathan required David to swear unto him (1 Sam. xx. 17); and David also swore unto Saul.–1 Sam. xxiv. 21,22. The taking of an oath being no part of the judicial, or of the ceremonial law, it must be equally warrantable under the present dispensation, unless expressly prohibited in the New Testament. But there is much in the New Testament to confirm the practice. The Apostle Paul frequently appeals to God in these and similar expressions: "God is my witness:"–"I say the truth in Christ, I lie not", (Rom. i. 9, ix.1): "I call God for a record upon my soul."–2 Cor. i. 23. Christ himself answered the question of the high priest, when he adjured him by the living God; which was the common form of administering an oath among the Jews. The writer to the Hebrews speaks of the oath which God swore to Abraham, "who, because he could swear by no greater, aware by himself;" and he adds, "An oath for confirmation is an end of all strife" (Heb. vi. 13, 16); plainly showing that he sanctioned the practice. It must be evident, therefore, that our Saviour's words (Matt. v. 34), "Swear not at all," and the similar words of the Apostle James (v. 12), do not absolutely prohibit all swearing on necessary end solemn occasions; but only forbid the practice of swearing in common conversation, and particularly of swearing by creatures. It must be remarked, however, that an appeal to God in trivial matters, and the frequent and unnecessary repetition of the same oath, is a taking the name of God in vain. And it may also be observed, that as the lifting up of the hand is the usual mode of swearing mentioned in Scripture (Gen. xiv. 22; Rev. x. 5, 6), so it ought to be preferred; and all superstitious forms ought to be rejected.

4. An oath ought to be taken "in truth, in righteousness, and in judgment."–Jer. iv. 2. In truth; that is, with an entire correspondence between the sentiments of the mind and the words of the oath, in their common obvious meaning, and as understood by those who administer it; without any equivocation and mental reservation. To allow of mental reservation in swearing, as the Church of Rome in certain cases does, is to defeat the very end of an oath, to destroy all confidence among men, and to involve the swearer in the heinous sin of perjury. In righteousness; that is, in things lawful and possible for us at the time of swearing, and with a fixed intention to perform what we pledge ourselves to do. In judgement; that is, deliberately and reverently, well considering whether the matter of the oath be good and just, and whether the ends proposed be sufficient to justify us in interposing the glorious and dreadful name of God for a pledge of the truth of our declarations.

B. A lawful oath binds to performance. Oaths engaging persons to what is sinful are in themselves null and void; and they who have rashly taken such oaths ought to repent of and renounce them, instead of adding the sin of keeping to the sin of making them, as Herod most wickedly did in beheading John the Baptist for the sake of his oath.–Mark vi. 23, 26. But a lawful oath is binding, though the performance may be prejudicial to a man's temporal interest; and it is the character of a good man, that though "he swears to his own hurt, he changes not."–Pa. xv. 4. It is a detestable principle of the Romish Church, that "faith is not to be kept with heretics"

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.

Section VI–It is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone: 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 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 thereto.

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 of which he hath no promise or ability from God. In which respects, monastic 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.

Exposition

These sections relate to the nature, the matter, and the obligation of a vow.

A vow is a solemn promise made to God, and may be either personal or social. Although a vow is "of the like nature with a promissory oath," yet they admit of being distinguished. In an oath, man is generally the party, and God is invoked as the witness; in a vow, God is both the party and the witness. A vow is to be made to God alone; and, therefore, to make vows to saints departed, as Papists do, is superstitious and idolatrous. Vows ought to be entered into voluntarily, and in the exercise of faith, or in dependence upon the grace of Christ for enabling us to perform them.–Phil. iv. 13; 2 Cor. xii. 9.

Persons may bind themselves by a vow, either to necessary duties or to other things not expressly required, so far and so long as they may lie conducive to the better performance of these duties. But no man may vow to do anything which is either unlawful or which is not in his own power, and for the performance of which he has no promise of ability from God.

A vow has an intrinsic obligation, distinct from the obligation of the law of God. In the law, God binds us by his authoritative command; in a vow, we bind ourselves by our own voluntary engagement. To represent a vow as laying no new or superadded obligation on the conscience, or to maintain, as some Popish writers do, that a vow does not bind us in moral duties commanded by the law of God, because our vow cannot add any obligation to his law, is manifestly absurd. It is equally contrary to Scripture and to the common sense of mankind. The law of God obliges; this is the primary obligation. But a vow also obliges; this is the secondary obligation. And subordinate things oppose not each other. The performance of vows is frequently and strictly enjoined in the Word of God. "When thou shalt vow a vow unto the Lord thy God," says Moses, "thou shalt not slack to pay it; for the Lord thy God will surely require it of thee; and it would be sin in thee."–Deut. xxiii. 21; see also Eccl. v. 4; Ps. l. 14, lxxvi. 11.

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