Article XXXIX: Of a Christian man’s oath

This post is part of a Lenten series on the 39 Articles.

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, 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, judgement, and truth.

Looking at this last Article, it’s pretty clear the authors didn’t save the best until last. Wouldn’t you think they’d want to end with something powerful — maybe one of the Articles with some poetic text or perhaps one the Articles that speaks to a particularly burning issue? No, they ended with the Article on swearing oaths.

Well, it’s pretty straightforward. It’s OK to swear when the state asks you to. This was a controversial issue back in the day, and it still is somewhat controversial among some Christians today. The idea that Christians should more or less give way to the state fits right in with previous Articles.

I’ve never had to deal with this, but I have some issues with the practice of asking people in court rooms to promise to be truthful, “So help me God”. Yes, they really do that, not just in the movies. It seems to me that my word should be good enough, and for someone planning to lie, a few words about God won’t make a difference. And what about atheists or polytheists? My issues are less about breaking a divine injunction than they are with pragmatism and the churches’ relationship with the state. Were I asked to say this, I’m not sure I would. But since this is not what the Article concerns, I have digressed. As usual.

Rather than write more about oaths, which frankly isn’t a very interesting subject to me, I’d like to reflect a bit on having written 39 blog posts on the 39 Articles over the course of Lent. This is not something I would have considered taking on until my blogging archnemesis suggested it. While I still consider him to be suspect, I am grateful to Fr. Tim Schenck for his idea.

I have often been quick to dismiss the 39 Articles are irrelevant and excessively Calvinist, with no place in Anglicanism today. Well, there are awfully Calvinist. But it seems to me that the Articles are worth paying attention to, not least because they are among the formularies of the church. American Episcopalians may not be bound by them in the way English clergy are, but they are still a key part of our theological, liturgical, and intellectual landscape. Some of the Articles are also beautiful — both the words and the ideas they express.

There are also some lessons to be learned in taking into account the Articles as a whole. They do express — quite clearly — a particular brand of Anglicanism that reached its ascendancy in the latter half of the 16th century. For whatever reason, the Articles were never revised. Perhaps the church, Parliament, and the Crown could not agree on how they might be updated, so they were left alone. So today we have Articles with effect but which are broadly ignored. Except for a few ardent evangelicals, almost everyone looks the other way on at least a few of these Articles.

This is very relevant as we discuss an Anglican Covenant. Just as the 39 Articles were a response to a particular set of “issues”, the Covenant is driven as a reaction. Just as the 39 Articles are an incomplete — and perhaps even inaccurate — portrayal of Anglican Christianity, so too is the Covenant. It is possible that a Covenant makes sense for the Anglican Communion (I am not so militantly against it as many of my friends), but my study of the 39 Articles has made me more wary. We would do well to stick to the creeds as our symbols of the faith. We probably don’t need another narrow, reactive document.

Anyway, thank you dear reader for trudging along with me. I do hope you’ve had some edifying and/or amusing moments along the way. Please do stick around. I’m working up an Eastertide series!

Here are some questions for pondering or meditation:

  • When Christians are asked by the state to do things that trouble us, when should we cling to our Christian ideals? When should we compromise?
  • Do you find swearing an oath to be problematic?
  • If you have been reading along for this series, has your opinion about the 39 Articles changed?
  • Has study of the 39 Articles changed your understanding of Anglican Christianity?

Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim
your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who
lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Previous: Article XXXVIII: Of Christian men’s goods which are not common

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1 Response

  1. Penny Nash says:

    Thanks for your work on this, Scott. I actually learned some stuff. But more than that, I appreciate your dedication to this labor of love.