On the impropriety of Christian oaths


Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.’ (Matt.5. 33-37)

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John Calvin is a princely theologian, who by God’s Spirit has mediated treasures of wisdom and insight for which students of the Word remain eternally indebted. Yet his position on oaths (1), which has become determinative for most serious Protestant confessions stands at variance with the Lord’s.

It is easy to see why in a church-state with a mixed multitude of regenerate and unregenerate members, there was a perceived need to maintain Old Testament strictures to solemnise court proceedings, but why modern disciples of Christ still come short of full obedience to His command is more difficult to appreciate. Here is an issue of far ranging significance for the relation between the Lawgiver and His Law, and specifically the intent of the Sermon on the Mount – was it a clarification of previous commands obscured by subsequent oral tradition, or a substantial deepening and broadening of their scope, as perfected in their Incarnation?

Calvin’s argument in favour of retaining oaths is rooted in the Third Commandment. He refers the focus of the command to the use of God’s name in oaths, and of his six sections devoted to this commandment, spends five exegeting this aspect of the command alone.

This is an unfamiliar emphasis, whilst we are uncomfortable with its intensity, there is considerable justification for it. The issue here for Calvin is not perjury per se, that he reminds us is addressed in the second table, under the Ninth Command. Taking God’s name in vain particularly implies profaning His character and polluting His reputation by failing to keep an oath sworn before men. This is well captured in Lev.19.12, ‘And ye shall not swear by my name falsely, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD’. True oaths are an integral part of the true use of His Name (Isa.65.16, Jer. 12.16). The oath must have exclusive reference to the only God or be repulsive to Him (Zeph.1.4,5). Oaths to other deities are flagrant displays of apostacy (Jer.5.7).

The root of the problem comes from Calvin’s broad definition of what constitutes an oath. He considers Paul’s calling God to witness, 2 Cor.1.23 (see also 2 Cor.11.11,31 or 2 Cor.1.18) as much an oath as the spies solemn word to Rahab (Josh. 2.17). Does this view legitimately represent the scriptural view of oaths and the sense of the Saviour’s command?

Biblical Definition

First it is important to distinguish sharply between vows, which are solemn and obligating commitments made only to Deity (or deities) and oaths which are sworn obligations or confessions to or before men, whether by man or by God. Vows are Godward, oaths manward. The Hebrew words for the two (rdn for vow, hewbv or cognates or less commonly hla for oath) are distinct with no overlap. One clear testimony to this is Jer. 44.21-25, where the prophet reproves the people for insisting, ‘We will surely perform our vows (rdn) that we have vowed (rdn)’ (v.25) to the Queen of Heaven. Then the Lord’s solemn response to the people is, ‘I have sworn (ebv) by my great name’ (v.26) vengeance for disobedience. Other examples of the distinct God-ward character of vows abound (2), and no scriptural counter example may be cited.

What are the 7 distinct and essential characteristics of a Biblical oath?

There are late references to earlier Divine oaths, such as God’s oath to Noah or to Abraham, Isa. 54.9 , Gen. 26.3, as part of a covenant, a more complex and specific legal structure, of which an oath forms a vital part.

The first example of an explicit oath by man, occurs at the ‘Well of the Oath’, Beersheva, Gen. 21.23. Here too it occurs in the context of a covenant, v.27,32. The passage makes explicit a number of essential components of an oath, though we must turn elsewhere to see its full Biblical dimensions.

1 An act of worship and obedience to God – a uniquely sacred matter.

First, although an oath may be contracted with a pagan or an unbelieving idolater, it is nonetheless an act of submission and obedience to God’s own arrangement, as Calvin properly underscores, and it is natural that the passage concludes with reference to Abraham’s prayers to the Lord, Gen. 21.33. Numerous other texts illustrate this primary attribute of oaths, as will be demonstrated.

Second, the oath is sworn of Abraham by God v.24, and it is instructive that it is not Abraham who initiates this, but pagan Abimelech who observing God’s evident interventions requests this, v.23. Other passages indicate that there are two main components to this involvement of God in the framing of the oath:

2 Calling on the Name of God – bearing witness to His just and holy character, in which He despises favouritism.

Three key passages in the Law wed oath swearing with the Name of God, Lev.19.12, Deut. 6.13, and 10.20. To violate an oath is to profane His Name, to sully His character by misrepresenting Him as Lord of a perfidious people. The mention of the name of false gods is also a cardinal aspect of rebellion, and is immediately joined to a strict prohibition of swearing by them, Jos. 23.7. Two prophetic passages reinforce this aspect of an oath, and the centrality of its sincere performance to full obedience. Jer. 12.16, with an ironic note offers blessing if the people will learn to swear in God’s name as diligently as they have sworn by Baal’s. Isa. 48.1 warns the people against their hollow oaths. In both passages, oath keeping is taken as a synecdoche for complete piety (synecdoche = when a part of something is used to refer to its whole). However it is also plain that invoking God’s Name doesn’t by itself constitute an oath, Gen 4.26, Gen.12.8.

3 Invoking the life of God – as testifying to His changeless transcendence and the ubiquity of His being.

The second aspect of swearing by God, is the invoking of His life. In Rom. 14.11, for example, the phrase ‘As I live, saith the Lord’ is substituted for the phrase in the passage cited, Isa.45.23, ‘I have sworn by myself’. This suggests an equivalence of the two expressions. It is a frequent Divine expression, found for example 16 times in Ezekiel alone. It is also a frequent component of human oaths, Micaiah the lone prophet says, ‘As the LORD liveth, even what my God saith, that will I speak.’ 2 Chron. 18.13. So invoking the life of a superior party clearly forms a vital part of swearing, as Calvin suggests, apparently in relation to 1 Sam.14.44 from v.39, ‘For, as the LORD liveth, which saveth Israel, though it be in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die.’ Yet does it in isolation constitute the essence of an oath? If so, Hannah swears by Eli, Abner by Saul, Ittai and the Tekoite woman of David and Uriah, with particular intensity, twice by David  – perhaps a sudden outbreak of idolatrous behaviour - all unreproved (1Sam 1.26, 1Sam 17.55, 2 Sam 11.11, 15.21, 2 Sam 14.19)? Joseph then too twice swears by Pharaoh (Gen.42.15,16). It appears strained to reckon each of these as acts of worship. More troubling still, there are several examples of confounding Creator with creature in the swearing of oaths by figures otherwise regarded as exemplary, ‘truly as the LORD liveth, and as thy soul liveth, there is but a step between me and death’, says David to Jonathan in 1 Sam 20.3. Has David sworn by Jonathan as well as by the Lord? Has he committed the sin of Zephaniah’s generation, ‘them that worship and that swear by the LORD, and that swear by Malcham’ (Zeph.1.5)? Or is there another component which constitutes the fullness of an oath? A component frequently though not universally made explicit in other passages?

This aspect too is an important aspect of oath-swearing, but insufficient to define it.

4 Various stipulations/conditions set out

Another vital aspect of an oath was to clarify the precise boundaries of the commitment. Abraham’s servant expressed concern not to fall short of his oath and clarify the consequences if he was unable to perform it Gen. 24.5,8. ‘Peradventure the woman will not be willing’ (a condition Muslim apologists for the vicious Hanbali school of law would do well to take note of), and Abraham’s response, ‘If the woman will not be willing to follow thee, then thou shalt be clear from this my oath’. Then again, clarifying the stipulations of an agreement hardly constitutes the whole of what makes an oath.

5 Calling for Divine observation of the past, present or future performance of these conditions.

Here is Calvin’s capstone to an oath, in commenting on Romans 9.1. ‘But to swear by the name of God, in a proper sense of the word, is to call him as a witness for the purpose of confirming what is doubtful, and at the same time to bind ourselves over to his judgment, in case we say what is false.’ Is a calling to witness always an oath? Calvin suggests an oath is implicit in every calling to witness, and its judicial implication. He repeats the claim in commenting on the third command. ‘An oath, then, is calling God to witness that what we say is true.’ (Inst. Bk.2. Ch.8. Sn.23). Paul’s inspired assertion in Rom. 9.1 groans with triple emphasis, but there is no other distinct indication that it constitutes an oath. In a simpler expression in 1 Thess 2.5, Paul also appeals to God’s testimony, but the passage by itself contains no other indication of an oath. In 1 Sam 12.3-5, the prophet in exasperation challenges his people to charge him with injustice, and the people acknowledge his integrity with God as witness with His anointed. Yet again there is no other specific hallmark of an oath. If calling to witness constitutes the kernel of an oath, and false oaths may be sinfully sworn by idols, saints and other servants of God, as Calvin grants – is a calling to the witness of such a person itself then a sinful oath? Surely not. When Jacob calls Laban and his brethren to witness, is he then swearing an oath by them (Gen.31.36-7)? We think all right judging readers will reject such a notion. Nor should we consider that Jacob’s wives appeals to the witness and justice of God in their mutual wrestlings (Gen.29.32,33; 30.6,18,23), appeals made known to others, and ones He evidently heard and answered, constitute oaths.

All the components examined so far are insufficient to distinguish and define an oath from other ordinary dealings with God and men.

6 Specific and public invocation of an imprecation upon non-fulfilment

The passage already cited on Saul’s curse on eating (1 Sam.14.44) contain explicit imprecations on the person failing to keep the oath. This is a common theme, for another graphic example consider, Jehoram’s vain oath against Elisha (2 Ki.6.31). Or Eli fiercely adjures Samuel, ‘What is the thing that the LORD hath said unto thee? I pray thee hide it not from me: God do so to thee, and more also, if thou hide any thing from me of all the things that he said unto thee.’ (1Sa 3.17). ‘King Solomon sware by the LORD, saying, “God do so to me, and more also, if Adonijah have not spoken this word against his own life.” ’ (1Ki 2.23). Ruth’s wonderful oath also contains a solemn personal charge, ‘Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me’ (Ru 1.17). Other oaths also make a specific imprecation an explicit and apparently vital condition, for example, ‘David sware, saying, So do God to me, and more also, if I taste bread, or ought else, till the sun be down.’ (2Sa 3.35). Here his reference is to Abner’s sudden and violent death. Moreover the imprecation of broken oaths frequently did fall on the heads of their violators. Shimei is reminded by Solomon of the legal cause of his imminent execution, ‘Did I not make thee to swear by the LORD, and protested unto thee, saying, Know for a certain, on the day thou goest out, and walkest abroad any whither, that thou shalt surely die? and thou saidst unto me, The word that I have heard is good. Why then hast thou not kept the oath of the LORD, and the commandment that I have charged thee with?’ (1 Ki.2.42) – solemn words.

A clear anatomising of an oath, is found in the dealings of Joshua’s spies and Rahab. An oath in the name of the LORD is pleaded for (Josh.2.12), and granted v.14, its stipulations precisely clarified, v.18-20, and its mutual penalties stated, ‘Whosoever shall go out ...his blood shall be upon his head, and we will be guiltless: and whosoever shall be with thee in...his blood shall be on our head, if any hand be upon him’ v.19. Its terms were carefully provided for and kept, 6.22-3. The same passage provides another example of an oath violated, this time the effects being remote from the oath by reckless Hiel many generations later, 6.26-7, 1 Ki.16.34. The solemn and dreadful results of an oath, only violated and delayed in the face of another oath by all the people can be seen played out again in Saul’s fierce command in 1 Sam.14.24,26,27,39,41,43-5.

So we see then that the invocation of Divine imprecation on failure to fulfil the agreed stipulations was an essential thread in an oath.

The Hebrew name for a god (hwla) is closely related to a word for curse (hla), found in Num.5.21, for example, and as Calvin helpfully indicates swearing to Deity before men, invoking for His imprecation for falsehood, is a repeatedly emphasised theme in scripture.

A further strong example of the essential thread of imprecation in oaths is found in the ceremony of the offering for jealousy found in Numbers 5 and esp. v.19-28. The justice of the ritual entirely hinges on the imprecatory content of the oath sworn by the woman under suspicion. Finally a graphic New Testament example comes from the 40 or more Jews who ‘bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul' Acts 23.12. In v.21 they are described as, those ‘which have bound themselves with an oath’.

Indeed here is the foundation of the Lord’s command on oaths, that He Himself was to bear the full Divine imprecation Himself for us, Gal.3.13, here alone too is adequate ground for a profound change of Divine Law.

Calvin claims Paul sometimes invokes imprecations on himself and that these too are oaths, in apparent defiance of Christ’s command – where are these examples? Galatians 1.8 is a simple statement of principle as applicable to angels as apostles, not accompanied by a new personal undertaking, Romans 9.1 is an intense expression of an as yet unfulfilled desire for the salvation of the Jews, not a binding to a new course of action or direction. Neither of these carry the other characteristics of oaths.

7 Faithful execution of the stipulations in dependence on its Author.

Christ is the substitute for our broken oath to God, the surety of a New Covenant – the proof lay in His perfectly bearing our imprecation, our broken promises and responsibilities lay on His shoulder. By union with Him, He alone becomes the Yes and the Amen of our promises to God and His to us. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Author and the Finisher, the precious Object of our faith.

Meaning of the Lord’s command – reasons why swearing in the Lord’s name is included in the prohibition, ‘Swear not at all’.

To evade the sweep of the Lord’s command, it is claimed that the intended focus of the command is on lesser oaths, oaths by Heaven or Earth, or the Temple, oaths which might be violated lightly. In this Calvin claims that Christ’s intention and scope is a restoration of the simplicity of the Pentateuch, from accumulated abuses.

1 What is command contrasted with?

Christ contrasts His statute to a statement that perfectly summarises the Torah, ‘Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shall perform unto the Lord thine oaths’ (Le 19.12, Nu 30.2). He then interjects, ‘But I say unto you, “Swear not at all...”’. Any claim that He intends to remove accretions to the Law must be drawn by inference from His later statements, not from His immediate description of the command just as it was originally given.

2 Holos – implies intensity and comprehensiveness.

The Greek expression translated not ‘at all’ olwv is quite emphatic, and is elsewhere translated ‘utterly’, ‘altogether’, or more literally ‘wholly’. It strongly suggests a complete not a partial prohibition. The burden of proof on a restriction of the command lies strongly with detractors.

3 Christ indicates that all minor oaths are equivalent to major oaths – so why ban just minor?

Calvin seeks the purpose of appending minor examples of oaths to a comprehensive ban, but that is the Saviour’s precise precedent to proceed from a major to a minor, to ban name-calling after murder, lustful glances after adultery, malice for enemies after malice towards a neighbour. So what is at all unusual about excluding even minor evasions after prohibiting oath swearing of a cardinal kind? Christ’s prohibition of major oaths is established not limited by extending its reference to swearing by God’s nature and possessions. His point is not that small oaths may be easily broken and are bad and good oaths are more likely to be kept, therefore lawful, but that all oaths small and great are equally serious and unvarnished truth telling alone pleases God.

4 James writes, ‘Neither by any other oath’ – is a swearing by Divine Name not an oath of this character?

James’ writing too has a scope and breadth of prohibition that cannot be evaded, not ‘any other oath’.

5 ‘Above all’ – command given considerable priority

Again, James gives this command strong and simple emphasis.

6 ‘Let your yes be yes and your no be no.’

The recommended practice in both passages is not to swear your oaths only to God and by His sacred Name alone, as Calvin suggests, but to speak every single word as though it were under oath. To be as perfect as God is himself in never speaking a falsehood. What a lofty and awesome standard! Every lie is black, every falsehood perjury, every deceit a broken oath.

7 Simple clarity – ‘Not to fall into condemnation’ – ‘whatsoever is more than these comes of evil.’

The Messiah’s simple injunction on universally truthful speech sets clear bounds, ‘Whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil’. James warns against any alternative policy, 'lest ye fall into condemnation'. How dare we defy Him so frequently?

Various objections to a plain reading of Christ’s command on oaths.

Paul’s examples of swearing and imprecation

On several occasions, Paul invokes God’s witness to confirm the truthfulness of his statements. In 2 Cor.1.23, 2 Cor.11.31, Rom.1.9, and 1 Thess.2.5. In none of these statements is there an express self imprecation, a reference to swearing or an oath, reference to the Name or the being of God, nor any specific stipulation. They each lack the full character of an oath. The two statements, Rom.9.1 and Gal.1.8 in which Paul may said to write  of self-imprecation also lack any personal initiative or new undertaking, or other characteristics of an oath. In the latter statement there is a stark, general prohibition, in the character of Jer.17.5-6 or Ps.119.21, not an oath.

Christ’s oath before the High Priest

Christ was adjured by the High Priest, Matt.26.63, to testify to His Christhood. Does this legal imposition, to which Christ made no contribution set an example of voluntary oath swearing? He recognised the claim, by answering directly, but did not violate His own command.

God’s oath

The author of Hebrews writes, ‘For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife’ (6.16). Is the custom of men then to take precedence over the Divine command? Objectors reply that God Himself sets us an example, ‘because He could swear by no greater, He sware by Himself’ (v.13). Yet this reply has weak foundations, if God who cannot lie, for our assurance and comfort, doubly seals His promise with an oath – yet that is no mandate for us to follow Him when an express command stands in our way, any more than we are now to take vengeance or laugh at the ungodly, because that is reserved as His prerogative.

Setting the Son against the Father

Perhaps Calvin’s strongest objection to this plain interpretation of Christ’s command, is that it establishes a disjuncture, an apparent conflict between the Old and New Testaments. To phrase this as he does is, as a conflict between Father and Son, is somewhat loaded argumentation – given that circumcision, the seventh Day Sabbath, the Temple and its ornaments, and in Calvin’s view (dubiously) usury have all been abolished by the New Testament. The Son acts in concert with the Father. The express command in Exod.22.11, has much the same character as references to commands on divorce, polygamy and slavery which have been greatly changed by the Messiah’s coming. As ever the key to this issue lies in the legal mechanism by which Christ both fulfilled and established the Law, forever changing our relationship with it and its character. This deep matter is beyond our scope here.

Goal of likeness to God, of Heavenliness.

The great aim of this command is perfect integrity Truth telling always and in all circumstances is to characterise the people of God, as much as a solemn oath. Pagans and unbelievers may violate their oaths and covenants, as Roman, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and atheists have often done, which the Jesuits even wickedly sanctify, but true Christians must be as their Prince and Father, He who cannot lie, their yes will be yes and no will be no.

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Basil of Caesarea on the imposition of oaths

Letter LXXXV.2291
That the oath ought not to be taken.2292
It is my invariable custom to protest at every synod and to urge privately in conversation,
that oaths about the taxes ought not to be imposed on husbandmen by the collectors. It
remains for me to bear witness, on the same matters, in writing, before God and men, that
it behoves you to cease from inflicting death upon men’s souls, and to devise some other
means of exaction, while you let men keep their souls unwounded. I write thus to you, not
as though you needed any spoken exhortation (for you have your own immediate inducements
to fear the Lord), but that all your dependents may learn from you not to provoke
the Holy One, nor let a forbidden sin become a matter of indifference, through faulty familiarity.
No possible good can be done them by oaths, with a view to their paying what is exacted
from them, and they suffer an undeniable wrong to the soul. For when men become
practised in perjury, they no longer put any pressure on themselves to pay, but they think
that they have discovered in the oath a means of trickery and an opportunity for delay. If,
then, the Lord brings a sharp retribution on the perjured, when the debtors are destroyed
by punishment there will be none to answer when summoned. If on the other hand the
Lord endures with long suffering, then, as I said before, those who have tried the patience
of the Lord despise His goodness. Let them not break the law in vain; let them not whet the
wrath of God against them. I have said what I ought. The disobedient will see.


1 Institutes, Book II, Chapter 8, Third commandment.

2 Gen. 28.20 at Bethel; Num.21.2; Num.30 (whole chapter); Deut.12.17; 2 Sam. 15.7-8; Eccles. 5.4, among many other.