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§ 7. The Third Commandment.

“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”

The literal meaning of this command is doubtful. It may mean, “Thou shalt not utter the name of God in a vain or irreverent manner;” or, “Thou shalt not utter the name of God to a lie,” i.e., “Thou shalt not swear falsely.” The Septuagint renders the passage thus; Οὐ λήψῃ τὸ ὄνομα κυρίου τοῦ θεοῦ σου ἐπὶ ματίῳ. The Vulgate has, “Non assumes nomen Domini Dei tui in vanum.” Luther, as usual, freely ad sensum: “Du sollist den Namen des Herrn, deines Gottes, nicht missbrauchen.” Our translators have adopted the same rendering.

The ancient Syriac Version, the Targum of Onkelos, Philo, and many modern commentators and exegetes understand the command as directed against false swearing: “Thou shalt not utter the name of God to a lie.” So the elder Michaelis in his annotated Hebrew Bible, explains “ad vanum confirmandum: non frustra, nedum, falso.” Gesenius in his Hebrew Lexicon renders the passage,289289Edit. Leipzig, 1857, sub voce, שָׁוְא.Du sollst den Namen Jehova’s nicht zur Lüge aussprechen; nicht falsch schwören.” Rosenmüller290290Scholia in Vetus Testamentum in Compendium redacta, Leipzig, 1828, vol. i. p. 404. renders it: “Nolli enunciare nomen Jova Dei tui ad falsum sc. comprobandum.” Knobel291291Kurzgefasstes exegetische Handbuch zum Alten Testament: Exodus und Leviticus, von August Knobel, Leipzig, 1857, p. 205. reads: “Nicht sollst du erheben den Namen Jehova’s zur Nichtigkeit;” and adds, “The prohibition is directed specially against false swearing.”

This interpretation is consistent with the meaning of the words, as aשָׁוְא, here rendered “vanity,” or with the preposition, “in vain,” elsewhere means “falsehood.” (See Ps. xii. 3 (2); xli. 7 (6); Isaiah lix. 4; Hos. x. 4.) To lift up, or pronounce the name of God for a lie, naturally means, to call upon God to confirm a falsehood. The preposition ל also has its natural force. Compare Leviticus xix. 12, “Ye shall not swear by my name [לַשָּׁתֶר ‘to a lie’] falsely.” The general import of the command remains the same, whichever interpretation be adopted. The command not to misuse the name of God, includes false swearing, which is the 306greatest indignity which can be offered to God. And as the command, “Thou shalt do no murder,” includes all indulgence of malicious feelings; so the command, “Thou shalt not forswear thy self,” includes all lesser forms of irreverence in the use of the name of God.

It is urged, as an objection to the second interpretation given above, that perjury is an offence against our neighbour, and therefore belongs to the second table of the Law; and that it is in fact included in the ninth commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” Bearing false testimony and false swearing are, however, different offences. The first and second commandment forbid the worship of any other being than Jehovah, and worshipping Him in any way not appointed in his word; and the third, supposing it to forbid false swearing, is here in place, as false swearing is a practical denial of the being or perfections of God.

Import of the Command.

The word “name” is used in reference to God in a very comprehensive sense. It often means a personal or individual designation; as when God says, “This is my name,” i.e., Jehovah. Frequently the “name of God” is equivalent to God himself. To call on the name of the Lord, and to call on God, are synonymous forms of expression. As names are intended to distinguish one person or thing from another, anything distinguishing or characteristic may be included under the term. The name of God, therefore, includes everything by which He makes Himself known. This commandment, therefore, forbids all irreverence towards God; not only the highest act of irreverence in calling on Him to bear witness to a falsehood, but also all irreverent use of his name; all careless, unnecessary reference to him, or his attributes; all indecorous conduct in his worship; and in short, every indication of the want of that fear, reverence, and awe due to a Being infinite in all his perfections, on whom we are absolutely dependent, and to whom we are accountable for our character and conduct.

The third commandment, therefore, specially forbids not only perjury, but also all profane, or unnecessary oaths, all careless appeals to God, and all irreverent use of his name. All literature, whether profane or Christian, shows how strong is the tendency in human nature to introduce the name of God even on the most trivial occasions. Not only are those formulas, such as 307Adieu, Good-bye or God be with you, and God forbid, which may have had a pious origin, constantly used without any recognition of their true import, but even persons professing to fear God often allow themselves to use his name as a mere expression of surprise. God is everywhere present. He hears all we say. He is worthy of the highest reverence; and He will not hold him guiltless who on any occasion uses his name irreverently.


The command not to call upon God to confirm a lie, cannot be considered as forbidding us to call upon Him to confirm the truth. And such is the general nature of an oath. Oaths are of two kinds, assertatory, when we affirm a thing to be true; and promissory, when we bring ourselves under an obligation to do, or to forbear doing certain acts. To this class belong official oaths and oaths of allegiance. In both cases there is an appeal to God as a witness. An oath, therefore, is in its nature an act of worship. It implies, (1.) An acknowledgment of the existence of God. (2.) Of his attributes of omnipresence, omniscience, justice, and power. (3.) Of his moral government over the world; and (4.) Of our accountability to Him as our Sovereign and Judge. Hence “to swear by the name of Jehovah,” and to acknowledge Him as God, are the same thing. The former involves the latter.

Such being the case, it is evident that a man who denies the truths above mentioned cannot take an oath. For him the words he utters have no meaning. If he does not believe that there is a God; or suppose that he admits that there is some being or force which may be called God, if he does not believe that that Being knows what the juror says, or that He will punish the false swearer, the whole service is a mockery. It is a great injustice, tending to loosen all the bonds of society, to allow atheists to give testimony in courts of justice.292292In a recent murder trial in one of the courts of New York, a young scientific physician was called to give testimony on what constitutes insanity. He distinctly asserted that thought was a function of the brain; that where there is no brain there can be no thought; and that a disordered brain necessitates disordered mental action. Of course, God having no brain cannot be intelligent; in other words, there can be no God. Such a man may be a good chemist or a good surgeon; but he is no more competent to be a witness in a court of justice, than he is fit to be a preacher.

The imprecation usually introduced in the formula of an oath, is not essential to its nature. It is indeed involved in the appeal to God to bear witness to the truth of what we say, but its direct assertion is not necessary. Indeed, it is not found in any of the oaths recorded in the Bible. Some strenuously object to its introduction, 308as involving a renunciation of all hope of the mercy and grace of God, and as an equivalent to an imprecation on one s self of everlasting perdition.

The Lawfulness of Oaths.

The lawfulness of oaths may be inferred, —

1. From their nature. Being acts of worship involving the acknowledgment of the being and attributes of God, and of our responsibility to Him, they are in their nature good. They are not superstitious, founded on wrong ideas of God or of his relation to the world; nor are they irreverent; nor are they useless. They have a real power over the consciences of men; and that power is the greater according as the faith of the juror and of society in the truths of religion, is the more intelligent and the stronger.

2. In the Scriptures, oaths, on proper occasions, are not only permitted, but commanded. “Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and shalt swear by his name. (Deut. vi. 13.) “He who blesseth himself in the earth, shall bless himself in the God of truth; and he that sweareth in the earth, shall swear by the God of truth.” (Is. lxv. 16.) “It shall come to pass, if they will diligently learn the ways of my people, to swear by my name, Jehovah liveth; (as they taught my people to swear by Baal;) then shall they be built in the midst of my people.” (Jer. xii. 16; iv. 2.) God Himself is represented as swearing. (Psalms cx. 4; Hebrews vii. 21.) “When God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself.” (Heb. vi. 13.) Our blessed Lord also, when put upon his oath by the high priest, did not hesitate to answer. (Matt. xxvi. 63.) The words are, Εξορκίζω σε κατὰ τοῦ Θεοῦ τοῦ ζῶντος, which are correctly rendered by our version, “I adjure thee (call on thee to swear) by the living God.” Meyer in his comment on this passage says: “An affirmative answer to this formula was an oath in the full meaning of the word.” And our Lord’s reply, “Thou sayest,” is the usual Rabbinical form of direct affirmation.293293See Schoettgen’s Hor. Hebr. et Talm., Matt. v. 34; Dresden and Leipzig, 1733, p. 40. The Hebrew word הִשְׁבִּיַע is rendered in the Septuagint by ὁρκίζω and ἐξορκίζω, and in the Vulgate by adjuro. See Genesis 1. 5, “My father made me swear, ὥρκισέ με.” Num. v. 19, “The priest shall charge her by an oath, ὁρκιεῖ αὐτήν.” It appears from this passage as well as from others in the Old Testament, that oaths were on certain occasions enjoined by God himself. (Ex. xxii. 10.) They cannot, therefore, be unlawful.


Seeing, then, that an oath is an act of worship; that it is enjoined on suitable occasions; that our Lord himself submitted to be put upon his oath; and that the Apostles did not hesitate to call God to witness to the truth of what they said; we cannot admit that Christ intended to pronounce all oaths unlawful, when he said, as recorded in Matthew v. 34, “Swear not at all.” This would be to suppose that Scripture can contradict Scripture, and that Christ’s conduct did not conform to his precepts. Nevertheless, his words are very explicit. They mean in Greek just what our version makes them mean. Our Lord did say, “Swear not at all.” But in the sixth commandment it is said, “Thou shalt not kill.” That, however, does not mean that we may not kill animals for food; for that is permitted and commanded. It does not forbid homicide in self-defence, for that also is permitted. Neither does it forbid capital punishment; for that is not only permitted but even commanded. The meaning of this command has never been doubted or disputed, because it is sufficiently explained by the context and occasion, and by the light shed upon it by other parts of Scripture. As, therefore, the command, “Thou shalt not kill,” forbids only unlawful killing; so also the command, “Swear not at all,” forbids only unlawful swearing.

This conclusion is confirmed by the context. A great part of our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount is devoted to the correction of perversions of the law, introduced by the Scribes and Pharisees. They made the sixth commandment to forbid only murder; our Lord said that it forbade all malicious passions. They limited the seventh commandment to the outward act; He extended it to the inward desire. They made the precept to love our neighbour consistent with hating our enemies; Christ says, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you.” In like manner, the Scribes taught that the law allowed all kinds of swearing, and swearing on all occasions, provided a man did not forswear himself; but our Lord said, I say unto you, in your communications swear not at all; this is plain from ver. 37, “Let your communications (λόγος, word, talk) be Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these, cometh of evil.” It is unnecessary, colloquial, irreverent swearing our Lord condemns. This has nothing to do with those solemn acts of worship, permitted and commanded in the word of God. The Jews of that age were especially addicted to colloquial swearing, holding that the law forbade only fake swearing, or swearing by the name of false gods;294294See Meyer on this passage, who refers to Philo, De Spec. Leg.; A. Lightfoot, Horö, and Meuschen, N. T. ex Talm. illustr. See, also, Winer’s Realwörterbuch, and Tholuck’s Auslegung der Bergpredigt Christi, 3d edit. Hamburg, 1845. 310hence our Lord had the more occasion to rebuke this sin, and show the evil of any such adjurations.

When are Oaths lawful.

1. As an oath involves an act of worship, it is plain that it should not be taken on any trivial occasion, or in an irreverent manner.

2. An oath is lawful when prescribed and administered by duly authorized officers of the State, or of the Church; they are the “ministers of God,” acting in his name and by his authority. There are many who do not regard it as proper that an oath should ever be taken, except when thus imposed by those in authority. The Church of England in the thirty-ninth article, says: “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.” The same ground has been taken by many moral philosophers and theologians.

There does not, however, seem to be any sufficient reason for this restriction, either in the nature or design of an oath, or in the teachings of Scripture. The oath being an appeal to God to bear witness to the truth of our declarations, or the sincerity of our promises, there is no reason why this appeal should not be made whenever any important end is to be accomplished by it. There should be a necessity for it; that is, no man should swear lightly or profanely, but only when all the conditions which justify this appeal to God are present. According to the old law those conditions are, “judicium in jurante, justitia in objecto, veracitas in mente.” That is, the juror must be competent. He must have a just judgment of the nature and obligation of an oath, so as to understand what he is about to do. Therefore an idiot, a child, or an unbeliever cannot properly be put upon his oath. By “justitia in objecto,” is meant that the object concerning which the oath is taken, should be a proper object. If it be a promissory oath, the thing we engage to do must be possible and lawful; if an assertatory oath, the object must have due importance; it must be within the knowledge of the juror; and there must be an adequate reason why this appeal to God 311should be made. The “veracitas in mente,” includes the sincere purpose of doing what we promise, or of telling the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, to the best of our knowledge in the case in which we testify. This excludes all intention to deceive, all mental reservation, and all designed ambiguity of language. All these conditions may be present in private, as well as in judicial or official oaths.

Then again, as the design of an oath is to produce conviction of the truth, to satisfy others of our sincerity and fidelity, and to make an end of controversy, it is evident that circumstances may arise in private life, or in the intercourse of a man with his fellow-men, when an oath may be of the greatest importance. If we risk a great deal on the fidelity or veracity of a man, we have a right to bind him by the solemnity of an oath; or if it is of great importance that others should confide in our veracity or fidelity, it may be right to give them the assurance which an oath is suited and intended to afford.

As to the Scriptural examples, by far the greater number of the oaths recorded in the Bible, and that with the implied approbation of God, are of a non-judicial character. Abraham swore to Abimelech. (Gen. xxi. 23.) Abraham made his servant swear to him. (Gen. xxiv. 3.) Isaac and Abimelech interchanged oaths. (Gen. xxvi. 31.) Jacob caused Joseph to swear not to bury him in Egypt. (xlvii. 31.) Joseph exacted a similar oath from his brethren. So we read of David’s swearing to Saul, and to Jonathan, of Jonathan’s to David, and of David’s to Shimei. Such private oaths seem at times to have been prescribed in the Mosaic law. In Exodus xxii. 19, it is said, if a man deliver any animal to his neighbour for safe-keeping, and it die on his hands, “then shall an oath of the Lord be between them both, that he hath not put his hand unto his neighbour’s goods.” In the New Testament we find the Apostle frequently appealing to God to witness to truth of what he said (Rom. i. 9; Phil. i. 8; 1 Thess. ii. 10); doing this also in the most formal manner, as in 2 Corinthians i. 23, “I call God for a record upon my soul.”

Augustine’s rule on this subject is good: “Quantum ad me pertinet, juro, sed quantum mihi videtur, magna necessitate compulsus.295295Sermon CLXXX. 10 [ix.]; Works, edit. Benedictines, Paris, 1837, vol. v. p. 1250, a. The multiplicity of oaths is a great evil. The rapid irreverent administration of them is profane.


The Form of an Oath.

Under the Old Testament, in voluntary oaths the usual fona was, “The Lord do so to me, and more also.” (Ruth i. 17; 2 Sam. iii. 9, 35; l Kings ii. 23; 2 Kings vi. 31.) Or simply,”As the Lord liveth.” (Ruth iii. 13; Judges viii. 19; 2 Sam. ii. 27, Jer. xxxviii. 16); or as it is in Jeremiah xlii. 5. “The Lord be a true and faithful witness.” In judicial proceedings the oath consisted in a simple assent to the adjuration, which assent was expressed in Hebrew by אָתֵו, and in Greek by σὺ εἶπας. The form is a matter of indifference; any form of words which implies an appeal to God as a witness is an oath. In swearing, the right hand was usually elevated towards heaven. Genesis xiv. 22, “Abram said to the king of Sodom, I have lift up mine hand unto the Lord, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth.” Hence “to lift up the hand” was to swear. (See Deut. xxxii. 40; Ex. vi. 8 (in the Hebrew); Ezek. xx. 5.) Lifting up the hand was evidently intended to intimate that the juror appealed to the God of heaven. Among Christians it is usual to put the hand upon the Bible, to indicate that the oath is taken in the name of the God of the Bible, and that the judgment invoked in case of perjury is that which the Bible denounces against false swearing. Kissing the Bible, another usual part of the ceremonial of an oath, is an expression of faith in the Bible as the word of God. There is nothing unseemly or superstitious in this. On the contrary, instead of appealing to the God of nature, it is most appropriate that the Christian should appeal to the God of the Bible, who, through Jesus Christ, is our reconciled God and Father.

Rules which determine the Interpretation and Obligation of an Oath.

An oath must be interpreted according to the plain natural meaning of the words, or the sense in which they are understood by the party to whom the oath is given or by whom it is imposed. This is a plain dictate of honesty. If the juror understands the oath in a sense different from that attached to it by the party to whom it is given, the whole service is a deceit and mockery. The commander of whom Paley speaks, who swore to the garrison of a besieged town that if they surrendered, a drop of their blood should not be shed, and buried them all alive, was guilty, not only of perjury, but also of dastardly and cruel mockery. The 313animus imponentis, as is universally admitted, must therefore determine the interpretation of an oath. It was the fact that the results inculcated the lawfulness of mental reservation, which more than anything else made them an abomination in the eyes of all Christendom. It was this which furnished the sharpest thong to the scourge with which Pascal drove them out of Europe.

This is a matter about which men who mean to be honest are not always sufficiently careful. Their conscience is satisfied if what they say will bear an interpretation consistent with the truth, although the obvious sense is not true.296296A gentleman was charged with having written a certain article in a newspaper. He declared that he did not write it. That was true. But he had dictated it.

No oath is obligatory which binds a man to do what is unlawful or impossible. The sin lies in taking such an oath, not in breaking it. The reason of this rule is, that no man can bring himself under an obligation to commit a sin. Herod was not bound to keep his oath to the daughter of Herodias when she demanded the head of John the Baptist. Neither were the forty men, who had bound themselves with “an oath of execration” to kill Paul. But an oath voluntarily taken to do what is lawful and within the power of the juror binds the conscience, (a.) Even when fulfilling it involves injury to the temporal interests of the juror. The Bible pronounces the man blessed who “sweareth to his own hurt and changeth not.” (Ps. xv. 4.) (b.) When the oath is obtained by deceit or violence. In the latter case the juror makes a choice of evils. He swears to make a sacrifice to save himself from what he dreads more than the loss of what he promises to relinquish. This may often be a hard case. But such is the solemnity of an oath, and such the importance of its inviolable sanctity being preserved, that it is better to suffer injustice than that an oath should be broken. The case where an oath is obtained by deceit is more difficult, for when such deceit is practised the juror did not intend to assume the obligation which the oath imposes. He might, therefore, plausibly argue that if he did not intend to assume an obligation, it was not assumed. But, on the other hand, the principle involved in the commercial maxim, caveat emptor, applies to oaths. A man is bound to guard against deception; and if deceived he must take the consequences. Besides, those to whom the oath is given trust to it, and act upon it, and, in a certain sense at least, acquire rights under it. The Scriptures, however, in this as in all other cases, are our safest guide. When 314the Israelites conquered Canaan, the Gibeonites who dwelt in the land, sent delegates to Joshua pretending that they were from a distant country, and “Joshua made peace with them, and made a league with them, to let them live: and the princes of the congregation sware unto them.” When the deception was discovered, the people clamoured for their extermination. “But all the princes said unto all the congregation, We have sworn unto them by the Lord God of Israel: now, therefore, we may not touch them.” (Joshua ix. 15, 19.) This oath, as appears from 2 Samuel xxi. 1, was sanctioned by God and the people were punished for violating it.

Romish Doctrine.

The principle on which the authorities of the Roman Church assume the right to free men from the obligation of their oaths, is that no man can bind himself to do what is sinful. It is the prerogative of the Church to decide what is sinful. If therefore the Churoh decide that an oath to obey a sovereign disobedient to the Pope, to preserve inviolate a safe conduct, or to keep faith with heretics or infidels is sinful, the obligation of every such oath ceases as soon as the judgment of the Church is rendered.

In answer to the question, “Cui competit potestas dispensandi super juramento?” the Romish theologians answer: “Principaliter competit summo Pontifici; non tamen nisi ex rationabili causa, quia dispensat in jure alieno: competit etiam jure ordinario Episcopis, non Parochis. Requirit autem hæc dispensatio potestatem jurisdictionis majoris.297297Theologia Moralis Dogmatica Reverendi et Eruditissimi Domini Petri Dens: de Juramento, x. 177, edit. Dublin, 1832, vol. iv. pp. 214-216. The casuists, on this as on all other practical subjects, go into the most minute details and subtle distinctions. Dens, for example, in the section above quoted, gives no less than ten conditions under which the obligation of an oath ceases. To the question: “Quibus modis potest cessare obligatio juramenti promissorii?” he answers: “1. Irritatione. 2. Dispensatione et relaxatione. 3. Commutatione. 4. Materiæ mutatione vel subtracione. 5. Cessante fine totali complete. 6. Ratione conditionis non adimpletæ. 7. Cessante principali obligatione cessat juramentum pure accessorium. 8. Non acceptatione, et condonatione, seu remissione. 9. Si juramentum incipiat vergere in deteriorem exitum, vel in præjudicium boni communis, vel etiam alicujus particularis, v. g. quis juravit occultare furtum alterius, sed inde alter liberius prolabitur ad alia furta: item cessat juramentum, quando directe est majoris boni impeditivum. 10. Denique 315cessat obligatio juramenti, licet improprie, per adimpletionem sive totalem solutionem rei juratæ: et e contra dicitur cessare ab initio, quia juramentum fuit nullum, sive quia nullam ab initio obligationem produxit.” Number nine opens a very wide door: the last clause especially seems to teach that a promissory oath ceases to bind whenever it is expedient to break it.298298In conversation with a very intelligent Romish priest who had been educated at Maynooth, the question was asked, What was the effect of a course of “Moral Theology” designed to train priests for the confessional? The prompt answer was, Utterly to destroy the moral sense.

The whole Romish system is the masterpiece of the “wisdom of the world.” As many promissory oaths are not obligatory, it would seem to be wise, instead of leaving the question of their continued obligation to be decided by the individual juror, who is so liable to be unduly biased, to refer the matter to some competent authority. This would tend to prevent false judgments, to satisfy the conscience of the juror and the public mind. And as the question is a matter of morals and religion, it would seem to be proper that the decision should be referred to the organs of the Church. Rome makes all these seemingly wise arrangements. But as God has exalted no human authority over the individual conscience, as no man can delegate his responsibility to another, but every man must answer to God for himself, it is clear that no such arrangement can be consistent with the divine will. Again, if it were true that the Church were divinely guided so as to be infallible in its judgment, this tremendous power over the consciences of men might be safely intrusted to it; but as in fact the representatives of the Church are men of like passions as other men, and no more infallible than their fellows, Romanism is nothing more than a device to put the prerogatives and power of God into the hands of sinful men. History teaches how this usurped power has been used.


Vows are essentially different from oaths, in that they do not involve any appeal to God as a witness, or any imprecation of his displeasure. A vow is simply a promise made to God. The conditions of a lawful vow are, first, as to the object, or matter of the vow, (1.) That it be something in itself lawful. (2.) That it be acceptable to God. (3.) That it be within our own power. (4.) That it be for our spiritual edification. Secondly, as to the person making the vow, (1.) That he be competent; that is, that he have sufficient intelligence, and that he be sui 316juris. A child is not competent to make a vow; neither is one under authority so that he has not liberty of action as to the matter vowed. (2.) That he act with due deliberation and solemnity; for a vow is an act of worship. (3.) That it be made voluntarily, and observed cheerfully.

All these principles are recognized in the Bible. “When thou shalt vow a vow unto the Lord thy God, 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. But if thou shalt forbear to vow, it shall be no sin in thee. That which is gone out of thy lips thou shalt keep and perform: even a freewill offering, according as thou hast vowed unto the Lord thy God, which thou hast promised with thy mouth.” (Deut. xxiii. 21-23.) In Numbers xxx. 3-5, it is enacted that if a woman in her father’s house make a vow, and her father disallow it, it shall not stand, “and the Lord shall forgive her, because her father disallowed her.” The same rule is applied to wives and to children, on the obvious principle, that where the rights of others are concerned, we are not at liberty to disregard them.

All the conditions requisite to the lawfulness of a vow, may be included under the old formula, “judicium in vovente, justitia in objecto, veritas in mente.” There are two conditions insisted upon by Romanists to which Protestants do not consent. The one is that a vow must be “de meliore bono,” i.e., for a greater good. If a man vows to devote himself to the priesthood, to make a pilgrimage, to found a church, or to become a monk, the thing vowed is not only good in itself, but it is better than its opposite. The other condition is, that the thing vowed must be in itself not obligatory, so that the sphere of duty is enlarged by the vow. These conditions are included in those laid down by Dens.299299Tractatus de Voto; Theologia, edit. Dublin, 1832, vol. iv. N. 91, p. 111. He says: “Quinque ex causis provenire, quod aliquid non sit apta materia voti; 1º. quia est impossibile; 2º. quia est necessarium; 3º. quia est illicitum; 4º. quia est indifferens vel inutile; 5º. quia non est bonum melius.” The two conditions just specified no doubt concur in many vows acceptable to God, but they are not essential. A man may vow to do what he is bound to do, as is the case with every man who consecrates himself to God in baptism. Nor is it necessary that the thing vowed should be in its own nature a greater good. A man may bind himself to a work out of gratitude to God, which in its own nature is indifferent. This was the case with many 317of the particulars included in the vows of the Nazarite. There was no special virtue in abstaining from wine, vinegar, grapes moist or dry, or in letting “the locks of the hair of his head grow.” (Num. vi. 3-5.) The Romish doctrine on this subject is connected with the distinction which Papists make between precepts and counsels. The former bind the conscience, the others do not. There is special merit, according to their theory, in doing more than is commanded. No man is commanded to devote himself to a life of obedience, celibacy, and poverty, but if he does, so much the better; he has the greater merit.

As usual, the Romanists connect so many subordinate rules with the general principles laid down that they are explained away, or rendered of little use. Thus the rule that the matter of a vow must be “bonum melius,” is explained to mean better in itself considered, and not better in relation to the person making the vow. Thus it may be very injurious to a man’s spiritual interests to be bound by monastic vows; nevertheless, as the monastic life is in itself a “bonum melius,” the vows once taken are obligatory. Then as to the condition of possibility; if possible as to the substance, but impossible as to the accidents, the vow is binding. Thus if a man vows to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem on his knees, although going on his knees be impossible, he is bound to go in some way.

Lawfulness of Vows.

On this subject there is little or no diversity of opinion. That they are lawful appears, —

1. From their nature. A vow is simply a promise made to God. It may be an expression of gratitude for some signal favour already given, or a pledge to manifest such gratitude for some blessing desired should God see fit to grant it. Thus Jacob vowed that if God would bring him back in peace to his father’s house, he would consecrate to Him the tenth of all that he possessed. The Bible, and especially the Psalms, abound with examples of such vows of thank-offerings to God. Even Calvin, notwithstanding his deep sense of the evils entailed on the Church by the abuse of vows by the Romanists, says, “Ejusmodi vota hodie quoque nobis in usu esse possunt, quoties nos Dominus vel a clade aliqua, vel a morbo difficili, vel ab alio quovis discrimine eripuit. Neque enim a pii hominis officio tunc abhorret, votivam oblationem, velut sollenne recognitionis symbolum, Deo consecrare: ne ingratus erga ejus benignitatem videatur.300300Institutio, IV. xiii. 4, edit. Berlin, 1834, par. ii. p. 338. He 318also recognized the propriety of vows of abstinence from indulgences which we have found to be injurious; and also of vows the end of which is to render us more mindful of duties which we may be inclined to neglect. In all such vows there is a devout recognition of God, and of our obligations to Him. They, therefore, as well as oaths, are acts of worship. They are regarded as such in the Symbols of the Reformed Churches. Thus, for example, the “Declaratio Thoruniensis”301301De Cultu Dei, 5; Niemeyer, Collectio Confessionum, Leipzig, 1840, p. 678. includes, under acts of worship, “jusjurandum legitimum, quo Deum cordium inspectorem, ut veritatis testem, et falsitatis vindicem appellamus. Denique votum sacrum, quo vel nos ipsos, vel res aut actiones nostras Deo, velut sacrificium quoddam spirituale, consecramus et devovemus.

2. The fact that the Scriptures contain so many examples of vows, and so many injunctions to their faithful observance, is a sufficient proof that in their place, and on proper occasions, they are acceptable in the sight of God.

3. This is further evident from the fact that the baptismal covenant is of the nature of a vow. In that ordinance we solemnly promise to take God the Father to be our Father, Jesus Christ his Son to be our Saviour, the Holy Ghost to be our Sanctifier, and his word to be the rule of our faith and practice. The same is true of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper; in that ordinance we consecrate ourselves to Christ as the purchase of his blood, and vow to be faithful to Him to the end. The same thing is true also of the marriage covenant, because the promises therein made are not merely between the parties, but by both parties to the contract, to God.

But while the lawfulness of vows is to be admitted, they should not be unduly multiplied, or made on slight occasions, or allowed to interfere with our Christian liberty. Not only have the violation of these rules been productive of the greatest evils in the Church of Rome, but Protestant Christians also have often reduced themselves to a miserable state of bondage by the multiplication of vows. When such cases occur, it is healthful and right for the Christian to assert his liberty. As a believer cannot rightfully be brought into bondage to men, so neither can he rightfully make a slave of himself. He should remember that God prefers mercy to sacrifice; that no service is acceptable to Him which is injurious to us; that He does not require us to observe promises which we ought never to have made 319and that vows about trifles are irreverent, and should neither be made nor regarded, but should be repented of as sins. Even Thomas Aquinas says, “Vota quæ sunt de rebus vanis et inutilibus, sunt magis deridenda, quam servanda.302302Summa, II. ii. quæst. lxxxviii. 2; edit. Cologne, 1640, p. 164, b, of third set.

Monastic Vows.

At the time of the Reformation the doors of all the monasteries in lands in which Protestants had the power, were thrown open, and their inmates declared free in the sight of God and man, from the vows by which they had hitherto been bound. Protestants did not maintain that there was anything intrinsically wrong in a man, or a company of men renouncing the ordinary avocations of life, and devoting himself or themselves to a religious life. Nor did they object to such men living together and conforming to a prescribed rule of discipline; nor did they deny that such institutions under proper regulations, might be, and in fact had been of great and manifold utility. They had been places of security for those who had no taste for the conflicts by which all Christendom was so long agitated. In many cases they were places of education and seats of learning. Their objections to them were, —

1. That they had been perverted from their original design, and had become the sources of evil and not of good, in every part of the Church. Instead of its being free to every one to enter and to leave these institutions at discretion, those once initiated were bound for life by the vows which they had made, and instead of the obligations assumed being rational and Scriptural, they were unreasonable and unscriptural. Instead of the inmates of these institutions supporting themselves by their own labour, they were allowed to live in idleness, supported by alms or by the revenues of the convents, which had in many cases become enormous. This objection was directed to the very principle on which the monastic institutions of the Romish Church were founded. On this point Calvin says, “Proinde meminerint lectores, fuisse me de monachismo potius quam de monachis loquutum, et ea vitia notasse, non quæ in paucorum vita hærent, sed quæ ab ipso vivendi instituto separari nequeunt.303303Institutio, IV. xiii. 15; edit. Berlin, 1834, vol. ii. p. 345.

2. To this, however, was added the argument from experience. Monastic institutions had become the sources of untold evils to the Church. Being in a great measure independent of the ordinary 320ecclesiastical authorities, they were the cause of conflict and agitation. Each order was an “imperium in imperio,” and one order was arrayed against another, as one feudal baron against his fellows. Besides, the corruption of manners within the convents as portrayed by Romanists themselves, rendered them such a scandal and offence as to justify their summary suppression. Much is implied in the answer of Erasmus to Frederick the Wise, “Lutherus peccavit in duobus, nempe quod tetigit coronam pontificis et ventres monachorum.304304Guericke’s Kirchengeschichte, VII. 1. ii. § 174, 6th edit. Leipzig, 1846, vol. iii. p. 69.

3. Practical evils might be reformed, but Protestants objected that the whole system of monkery was founded on the false principle of the merit of good works. It was only on the assumption that men could work out a righteousness of their own, that they submitted to the self-denial and restraints of the monastic life. If, however, as Protestants believe, there is no merit in the sight of God in anything fallen men can do, and the righteousness of Christ is the sole ground of our acceptance with God, the whole ground on which these institutions were defended is undermined. To enter a monastery, on the theory of the Romish Church, was to renounce the doctrine of salvation by grace. Besides, it was also taught that celibacy, obedience, and voluntary poverty, being uncommanded, the monastic vow to observe these rules of life, involved special merit. This was a twofold error. First, it is an error to suppose that there can be any work of supererogation. The law of God demanding absolute perfection of heart and life, there can be no such thing as going beyond its requirements. And, secondly, it is an error to assume that there is any virtue at all in celibacy, monastic obedience, or voluntary poverty. These are not “meliora bona” in the Romish sense of the words. In this view, also, monastic vows are antichristian.

4. A fourth reason urged by Protestants for pronouncing monastic vows invalid, was that they were unlawful, not only for the reason just assigued, but also because they were contrary to the law of Christ. No man has the right to swear away his liberty; to reduce himself to a state of absolute subjection to a fellow-mortal. To his own master he must stand or fail. The vow of obedience made by every monk or nun was a violation of the apostolic injunction, “Be not ye the servants of men.” The same remark is applicable to the vow of celibacy. No one has a right to take that vow; because celibacy is right or wrong according to circumstances. It may be a sin, and therefore no such vow can bind the conscience.


5. Monastic life, instead of being subservient to holiness of heart, was in the vast majority of cases injurious to the monks themselves. The fearful language of Jerome is full of instruction: “O quoties ego ipso in eremo constitutus in illa vasta solitudine, quæ exusta solis ardoribus, horridum monachis præstat habitaculum, putavi me Romanis interesse deliciis. . . . . Ille igitur ego, qui ob Gehennæ metum tali me carcere ipse damnaveram, scorpiorum tantum socius et ferarum, sæpe choris intereram puellarum. Pallebant ora jejuniis, et mens desideriis æstuabat in frigido corpore, et ante hominem sua jam in carne præmortuum, sola libidinum incendia bulliebant.305305Epistola xxii; Ad Eustochium, Paulæ Filiam, De Custodia Virginitatis, Opera, ed. Migne, Paris, 1845, vol. i. p. 398. This long epistle is addressed to a young Roman lady of rank and wealth; and is designed to confirm her in her resolution not to marry. It is founded on the assumption that virginity was not only a great virtue, but also that a special reward, a glory not otherwise attainable, was attached to it. He says to her: “Cave, quæso, ne quando de te dicat Deus: ‘Virgo Israel cecidit, et non est qui suscitet eam.’ (Amos v. 2). Audenter loquar: Cum omnia possit Deus, suscitare virginem non potest post ruinam. Valet quidem liberare de pœna, sed non vult coronare corruptam.” Ibid. p. 394. He enjoins upon her all kinds of ascetic observances even while confessing their inefficacy in his own case. In the day when that which is hidden shall be made manifest, there will probably be no such fearful revelation of self-torture as that made by unveiling the secret life of the inmates of monastic institutions. They are in necessary conflict with the laws of nature and with the law of God.

The Protestants adopted the rule announced by Calvin:306306Institutio, IV. xiii. 20; edit. Berlin, 1834, vol. ii. p. 349.Omnia non legitima nec rite concepta, ut apud Deum nihili sunt, sic nobis irrita esse debere.” For, he immediately adds, as in human contracts only that continues binding, which he to whom the promise is made wishes us to observe, so it is to be supposed that we are not bound to do what God does not wish us to do, simply because we have promised Him to do it. On these grounds the Reformers with one accord pronounced all monastic vows to be null and void. Thus the Gospel became a proclamation of liberty to the captive, and the opening of the prison to those who were bound.

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