An Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles: Article XXXIX

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, judgment, and truth.

De Jurejurando.

Quemadmodum juramentum vanum et temerarium a Domino nostro Jesu Christo, et Apostolo ejus Jacobo, Christianis hominibus interdictum esse, fatemur: ita Christianorum religionem minime prohibere censemus, quin jubente magistratu in causa fidei et charitatis jurare liceat, modo id fiat juxta Prophetæ doctrinam, in justitia, in judicio et veritate.

Section I. — History

WHEN the early Christians were called on to swear before heathen magistrates, they were mostly required to use idolatrous oaths. These were naturally abhorred by them, and perhaps inclined them to a dread of swearing altogether, even more than Scripture would inculcate. Thus Tertullian says, “I say nothing of perjury, since it is unlawful even to swear.”[1] Yet from a passage in his Apology we find that Christians did not refuse to take lawful oaths; though idolatrous oaths they, of necessity, rejected. Christians, he says, would not swear by the Emperor’s genii; for the genii were dæmons; but by the safety of the Emperor they were willing to swear.[2] The same swearing by the safety of the Emperor (ὑπὲρ τῆς σωτηρίας τοῦ εὐσεβεστάτου Αὐγούστου Κωνσταντίου) is mentioned by Athanasius.[3] Vegetius, who lived about A. D. 390, says, the Christian soldiers “swore by God, and Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and the majesty of the Emperor.”[4] Nay! Athanasius required of Constantius that his accusers should be put upon their oath.[5] And much more has been alleged, in proof that the early Christians did not refuse legitimate oaths in legal inquiries.

There was, however, doubtless, much scruple on the subject of swearing among the ancients generally. Clement of Alexandria says, the enlightened Christian will never perjure himself. And so he considers it an indignity for a Christian to be put upon oath, as disparaging his fidelity; and that he will avoid swearing, saying only Yea and Nay.[6] And Lactantius says, that a Christian will never perjure himself, lest he mock God; nor indeed will he swear at all, lest he fall by accident, or carelessly, into perjury.[7]

Against idle swearing, swearing by the creatures, and perjury, the primitive Church was very severe.[8] And it does indeed appear, that some of the fathers, led by the strong language of Matt, v. 34, and James v. 12, doubted even the lawfulness of oaths at all; thinking that they may have been permitted to Jews, but forbidden to Christians.[9] The Pelagians took up, as one of their positions, that a man must not swear at all.[10] But Augustine replied, in an epistle cited in the last Article. There he enjoins to avoid swearing as much as possible; but shows that, in cases of necessity, there was Scriptural ground for it.[11]

In later ages, the Waldenses,[12] the Anabaptists,[13] the Quakers, and some other sects, have held all oaths unlawful. It is against the Anabaptists probably, that this Article, as well as the last, is specially directed.

Section II. — Scriptural Proof

IT is probably an admitted fact that oaths were lawful under the old Testament. This Article refers to a passage in the Prophet Jeremiah (iv. 2): “Thou shalt swear, The LORD liveth, in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness.” The only prohibition was against false swearing, or swearing by false gods.[14] It seems likely that the Jews somewhat abused this permission, and were rather free in their use of oaths, and of the name of the Almighty on trivial occasions. Accordingly some strict and ascetic sects among them were led to the opposite extent of refusing to take an oath under any circumstances.[15] If the Jews were thus profane and careless in swearing, we can readily see the object of our Saviour’s denunciation of rash oaths. There are obvious and very great dangers in a habit of this kind. If, on every trivial occasion, we have recourse to an oath for attestation, it will almost necessarily follow, that we shall lightly regard an ordinary assertion, and that the sanctity of an oath itself will be less revered. Hence such swearing must foster a spirit of untruthfulness. And again, the readily bringing into common conversation the most sacred name of God, must necessarily lead to irreverence and impiety. What can be more alien from the spirit of the Gospel, than these two habits of falsehood and irreverence?

Now it seems very apparent, that it is this evil habit which our Lord condemns. The Jews appear to have satisfied themselves, that they might swear as much as they chose, if they did not forswear themselves. But our Lord, enforcing the spirit, not merely the letter, of the commandment, tells them not to swear at all; and enjoins that, in their common discourse, they should only say yea and nay; as more than this can come only from the evil One; Ἔστω δὲ ὁ λόγος ὑμῶν ναὶ, οὒ οὔ · τὸ δὲ περισσὸν τούτων ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ ἐστιν (Matt. v. 37). The very words used, and the whole tenor of the passage, show that it is to common conversation that the precept applies. St. James’s words (James v. 12) are so nearly a repetition of our Lord’s, that the former must be interpreted by the latter.

So far then we see the great evil of profane swearing, and of solemn asseverations on unimportant occasions. All such are strictly forbidden by, and thoroughly opposed to, the Gospel of Christ.

But, on solemn and important occasions, and especially in courts of justice, we have new Testament authority for believing that oaths are lawful to Christians as well as to Jews. Our Lord Himself was adjured by the High Priest, and, instead of refusing to plead to such an adjuration, He answered immediately.[16] This one argument seems a host in itself. Our Lord consented to be put upon His oath. Oaths therefore before a civil tribunal cannot be forbidden to His disciples. St Paul frequently, in very weighty matters, calls God to witness, which is essentially taking an oath. See Rom. ix. 1. 1 Cor. xv. 31. 2 Cor. i. 18, 23; xi. 10, 31; xii. 19. Gal. i. 20. Phil. i. 8. This is St. Augustine’s argument against the Pelagians; though he says truly, that we must not swear carelessly, because St. Paul swore when there was good reason for swearing. Again, in the Epistle to the Hebrews (iii. 11; vi. 16, 17), the Almighty is represented as swearing; and, in the latter passage, the Apostle compares God’s swearing with the swearing common among men, saying, “Men verily swear by the greater; and an oath for confirmation is the end of all strife” (Heb. vi. 16). With this we ought to compare Matt, xxiii. 16‒22. See also Rev. x. 6.

Weighing then, all that has been said above, very strong as our Lord’s and St. James’s language against oaths may be, it yet seems impossible to doubt, that it is directed against vain, trivial, and thoughtless swearing, but not against that legal confirming of the truth by a solemn attestation in the sight of God, which was commanded in the Law of Moses, which our blessed Saviour Himself submitted to before Caiaphas, and which the example of the Apostles, and their general language on the subject, seem not only to permit, but to sanction also, if not to enjoin. In short, profane swearing is altogether forbidden to Christians; but religious attestation upon oath seems to be acquiesced in as necessary, and admitted as lawful.


  1. “Taceo de perjurio, quando ne jurare quidem liceat.” — De Idol. c. 11.
  2. “Sed et juramus, sicut non per genios Cæsarum, ita per salutem eorum, quæ est augustior omnibus geniis. Nescitis genios dæmonas dici? &c.” — Apol. c. 32. See other examples of the like objection, ap. Bingham, XVI. vii. 7.
  3. Epist. ad Monach. Tom. I. p. 866. Colon.
  4. “Jurant autem per Deum, et per Christum, et per Spiritum Sanctum, et per majestatem imperatoris.” — Veget. Institutio Rei Militaris. See Lardner, VIII. p. 479; Cave, Prim. Christ., pt. III. ch. I. p. 214.
  5. Athanas. Apol. ad Constantium, Tom. I. p. 678.
  6. Stromat. VII. 8, p. 861. Potter.
  7. “Hic non pejerabit, ne Deum ludibrio habeat; sed ne jurabit quidem; ne quando, vel necessitate, vel consuetudine, in perjurium cadat.” — Lactant. Epitome, c. 6.
  8. Bingham, XVI. vii. 5‒8.
  9. So Chrysostom, Homil. XV. in Genesin: Homil. VIII. in Act.; Theodoret. In cap. iv. Jeremiæ; Theophyl. In cap. v. Matth., &c. See Suicer, s. v. ὅρκος, Tom. II. p. 510.
  10. Augustin. Opp. Tom. II. p. 542.
  11. Epist. 157, Tom. II. p. 559. The opinions of the primitive Christians on swearing are fully discussed by Cave, Prim. Christianity, pt. III. ch. I. p. 212; and Bingham, XVI. vii. See also Suicer, as above.
  12. Mosheim, Cent. XII. pt. II. ch. V. 12.
  13. Ibid. Cent. XVI. sect. III. pt. II. ch. III. 16.
  14. The Third Commandment is probably a prohibition of perjury. “Thou shalt not lift up the name of the LORD thy God to falsehood,” i. e. Thou shalt not swear falsely by Him. “To take or lift up the name of God” is unquestionably to swear by His name. The word לְיֹיָיוִא “to vanity,” most probably means “for a falsehood.” Some interpret is as the LXX., ἐπὶ ματαίῳ, for a light and vain purpose. But יֹיָיוא is constantly used of falsehood. See Exod. xxiii. 1. Deut. v. 17. Psalm xii. 3. &c.
  15. Joseph. De B. J. Lib. II. c. 12.
  16. The high-priest (Matt. xxvi. 63, 64) said ἐξορκίζω σε κατὰ τοῦ Θεοῦ τοῦ ζῶντος: a form equivalent to putting a witness on his oath,in the most solemn possible manner.

E. Harold Browne

(Edward) Harold Browne was an English bishop, born at Aylesbury and educated at Eton and Cambridge. He was ordained in 1836, and two years later was elected senior tutor of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. From 1843 to 1849 he was vice-principal of St David’s College, Lampeter, and in 1854 was appointed Norrisian professor of divinity at Cambridge. His best-known book is the Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles (vol. i., Cambridge, 1850; vol. ii., London, 1853), which remained for many years a standard work on the subject and is still beloved today. In 1864 he was consecrated bishop of Ely.

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