The oath is the strongest possible confirmation of the truth of a statement by calling upon God to witness. The most familiar and most common explanation is that the oath is the calling upon the holy and omniscient God as witness and protector of the truth and as judge and avenger of untruth and lying.
Among the Jews, who had a living faith in a personal God, the oath had a deeper religious meaning than among the pagans. With the Jews the prescribed oath before a tribunal was very rare. It was used only as a sort of oath of purification in case of injury or theft of some entrusted or found property. Exodus 22:6 ff.; Leviticus 5:23; Proverbs 29:24. But it was very frequent in their civil and business life. In the Old Testament the oath was required. The basic passage is designated as Genesis 21:28-31, where Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, demanded of Abraham an oath that he would not deal falsely with him or his descendants but show mercy as Abimelech had shown Abraham. Abraham rendered the oath and as a testimony of the oath gave the king seven lambs. This is the origin of the Hebrew word for swearing, which means to affirm with seven sacrifices. The simplest form of the oath was the elevation of the right hand or both hands. Genesis 14:22; Deuteronomy 32:40; Daniel 12:7. It appears to have been generally customary, so that the expression "to lift the hand" is equivalent to swearing (Hebrew and German of Exodus 6:8; Numbers 14:30).
A presupposition of a proper oath in the Old Covenant is faith in the living God. Only the oath by Him is expressly commanded. Exodus 22:10. It is considered a sign of faithful attachment to God. Deuteronomy 6:13; Deuteronomy 10:20; Jeremiah 12:16; Isaiah 48:1. A special blessing of God is promised for it. Psalm 24:4; Isaiah 65:16. Only the oath by false gods is prohibited. Exodus 20:7; Leviticus 19:12; Joshua 23:7. God swears by Himself (Isaiah 45:23), by His soul (Amos 6:8), by His eternal life (Deuteronomy 32:40), by His all-power (Isaiah 62:8), or by His holiness (Amos 4:2; Psalm 89:36). Man swears by God and His name. Exodus 22:10. The most common formula for the oath was "As the Lord liveth" (Judges 8:19; 1 Samuel 14:39). Less usual was the assertion, "The Lord be (watch) between me and thee" (Genesis 31:50; 1 Samuel 20:42; Jeremiah 42:5). Curses upon others and upon oneself are frequent with the formula, "The Lord do so to me" (1 Samuel 3:17; 1 Samuel 14:44), "Let the Lord even require it" (1 Samuel 20:16), "The Lord shall return thy wickedness upon thine own head" (1 Kings 2:44; see also Numbers 21). The Israelites also swore by the king and his life. Genesis 42:15; 2 Samuel 11:11. Not unusual is the oath by the life of the one addressed, "As thou livest" (1 Samuel 1:26; 1 Samuel 17:55; also 1 Samuel 20:3; 1 Samuel 25:26; 2 Kings 2:2; 2 Kings 4:6, 30). Later the practice of swearing by calling curses upon oneself increased among the Jews. Their hesitancy to speak the name of God also led to their swearing oaths by things that had some relation to Him, as by heaven, by Jerusalem, by the angels, by the earth, by the temple, by the altar, and by the sacrifice. Against this increasing abuse of the oath earnest voices of urgent warning were raised. Ecclesiastes 9:2; Sirach 23:9-17.
The New Testament (NT) position on the oath is on a higher plane than that of the Old; it adopts an actually opposite position. Whereas in the Old Testament (OT) the oath was commanded as a religious duty, in the NT it is expressly forbidden. This is taught unequivocally and clearly by the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:33-37): "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." Jesus here definitely opposes the OT custom with something new and essentially different. If the oath was permitted and even commanded to those of "old times," which means the members of the Old Covenant, it is now abrogated for His disciples. For them is meant the strict command of the Lord, the "I say unto you," that they must not only refrain from swearing falsely, but that they must not in any case or under any circumstance whatever swear an oath. Jesus mentions several kinds of oaths, formulas for the oath that were especially popular in that day, i.e., by heaven, by earth, by Jerusalem, and by one's head. It is possible that He is here opposing the casuistry of the Pharisees, which distinguished between such oaths and an oath by God, declaring the former less binding than the latter.
It is therefore completely erroneous to say that Jesus made an exception of the oath by God in His prohibition. Much more the conclusion from the lesser to the greater is correct here. If even the oath by heaven, by earth, by Jerusalem, and by one's head are forbidden because and in so far as they are in a relationship with God, so much the more is the oath by God prohibited. To this strict and rigorous prohibition of the oath Jesus adds the definite command that His disciples in their assurances restrict themselves to a simple yes or no and avoid all that goes beyond them by way of strengthening a statement because it is of evil. Whether this is interpreted to mean the evil one (devil) or abstract evil makes little difference. Jesus means that the oath has its basis in a corrupt and sinful condition and that it leads to such a condition, both of which the Christian is to avoid and put away.
An express repetition of the prohibition of the oath by Jesus is found in James 5:12: "But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation." The closing words, which constitute the only difference between these words and those of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, suggest that the oath is punishable; it is a wrong toward God and is thus subject to His punishment.
There are therefore religious and moral concerns which underlie the prohibition of the oath. A deep reverence for God must restrain man from using the absolutely holy God as a witness to his statements. Even if one is ever so sure of telling the truth, it is very easy to be in error and thereby sin, and thus by an oath involve God in his sin. It is presumptuous for a man to assert in extreme form his trust in his own ability to be truthful and to call down upon himself the judgment of God. The Christian should rather so live before God that His presence sanctifies heart and mouth; consequently he does not willingly sin against God's commandments and always has God for a witness wherever he is and whatever he does. Hence the Christian does not make a special attempt to be truthful before courts and in extraordinary considerations but always seeks to live in the highest truth. The oath dulls this sense of absolute commitment and hence has a demoralizing rather than morally elevating effect. Jesus' prohibition of the oath is therefore not a literalistic, legalistic command but is grounded on a deep and solid religious and ethical foundation. The rejection of the oath binds one to absolute obedience to Jesus in full discipleship and always to live and testify in complete truthfulness.
The leading Church Fathers, such as Origen, Gregory of Nazianzus, Tertullian, and Chrysostom, rejected the oath most vigorously. It was only after the state church was set up and Christianity became a state religion that the oath returned to use among Christians. It was the state's interest that called for the oath, and the church as the willing servant of the state supported and sanctioned its demand. Augustine gave the theological foundation for the oath. He was quite aware of the objections to the oath and hence called for its use only in urgent matters. But he nevertheless held that the oath contributed to the glory of God and was useful to the state and the neighbor. This remained the basic position of the Catholic Church. Councils and popes, especially Innocent III, constantly increased the emphasis upon the oath as a matter of divine law.
The Reformers and the Protestant churches adopted the position of the Catholic Church on the oath. Luther interpreted the passage in Matthew 5 as forbidding the swearing of an oath on one's own initiative or out of custom, but taught that the command of the state to render an oath must be obeyed. His Greater Catechism says, "The oath is a right good work, by which God is praised, the truth and the right are confirmed, lies are stopped, people are brought to peace, obedience is done, and strife is overcome, since God Himself enters in to separate right from wrong and good from evil." The Heidelberg Catechism answers thus the question whether one may piously swear an oath with the name of God: "Yes, if it is required by the authorities or in case of need to maintain and promote loyalty and truth to the honor of God and the welfare of one's neighbor. For such swearing is grounded in the Word of God and therefore was rightly used by the saints of the Old and New Testaments." This is the general Protestant understanding and teaching concerning the oath down to the present time. It is claimed that the oath is necessary even in Christian society because of the all too common unreliability of ordinary statements and the general distrust of people toward each other, in short because of the imperfection of human society. Says Martenson, "Lying and mutual distrust are with us, and so from ancient times the oath has been used as a guarantee for truthfulness." Such a position fails to recognize and properly evaluate Jesus' strict prohibition of the oath.
But alongside of the church's position there has always been another position which rejects the oath completely in obedience to the command of Jesus and of James. This has been the position of the medieval sects (though not uniformly), the Cathari, Albigenses, Waldenses, Beguines, and Beghards, also the Wiclifites, Hussites, and Bohemian Brethren.
The Anabaptists rejected and opposed the oath from the beginning in strict obedience to the express prohibition of Jesus. Andreas Castelberger requested the Zürich Council in 1526 to excuse him from the oath (Urfehde) when he was to be exiled. Georg Blaurock refused to swear the oath when he was expelled on 5 January 1527. The seventh article of the Schleitheim Confession of 24 February 1527, expressly refers to the prohibition of Christ "who taught the perfection of the law and forbids Christians all swearing." Our speech is to be simply yes and no. This was the general rule among the Anabaptists as is frequently attested in the trials, disputations, and confessions extracted by torture, although Hubmaier and Denck did not take such a strong position. (See the disputations of Zofingen in 1532 and Frankenthal in 1571, also the discussion with Hans Pfistermeyer in 1531.) Felix Manz swore the Urfehde, as did Blaurock shortly after 5 January 1527.
The case was slightly different among the Anabaptists in Holland. At first Menno Simons was not so strict on the oath as he was later. Hoekstra says that at first, on the ground of Jesus' use of "verily" and Paul's use of several strong asseverations, Menno thought that the prohibition of the oath in the N.T. referred only to temporal matters, such as flesh and blood and money and property, whereas one was allowed to use only yes and no in affirming divine truth to the honor of God and the welfare of one's neighbor. Later he declared that the asseverations of the N.T. had nothing to do with the swearing of an oath. Peter Tasch, an Anabaptist leader in Hesse, wrote a tract Vom Eid, which has apparently been lost.
Menno dealt with the oath in only two of his writings. The first was his booklet of 1552 entitled A Fundamental and Clear Confession, in which he earnestly admonishes: "Worthy Reader, are you one who fears the Lord and you are pressed to take an oath—stand by the Word of the Lord, which forbids you so clearly to swear, and let your yea be yea and your nay be nay, as He has commanded, whether it means life or death to you, so that you may by your valiance and steadfast truthfulness so admonish and rebuke the worthless, unfruitful, vain world, which respects nothing less than the Word of the Lord, that by your yea and nay it may be brought in its faithlessness and falsity to righteousness, so that perchance someone may be converted from his unrighteousness and thereby led to deeper thought and be saved."
Menno's second writing dealing with the oath was his Epistle to Martin Micron of 1556 written in reply to Micronius' A Clear and Scriptural Instruction on the Oath. Most skillfully Menno points his opponent to the "bright and clear words of the Son of God whose word is truth and whose commandment is eternal life," and deplores that they "are falsified for the sake of human authorities."
Among the martyrs in Offer des Heeren who expressly rejected the oath were Elizabeth (1549), Frans van Bolsward (1545), Joos Kind (1553), Leenaert Plovier (1560), and Hans van der Maes (1559).
All the Mennonite confessions of faith without exception have included a prohibition of the oath. The Concept of Cologne (1591) says: "According to the teaching of Christ and James one is not to swear, rather all words and deeds are to be confirmed by a truthful yes or no, and nothing added thereto, and this is to be kept just like a sworn oath." The Confession of Hans de Ries and Lubbert Gerrits of 1610 declares briefly and laconically, "Jesus Christ, king and lawgiver (Matthew 28:20; Galatians 6:2) of the NT, has forbidden the Christian all swearing of the oath (Matthew 5:33, 37; James. 5:12), wherefore the NT believer is not permitted to swear an oath." The Dordrecht Confession of 1632 concludes emphatically from the prohibition of Christ "that all high and low oaths are forbidden us," and calls upon us to keep all promises, sayings, and testimonies as faithfully "as if we had sworn with a high oath." The prohibition of swearing is most thoroughly defended in the [Cornelis Ris Confession of 1766.
The Hutterites also had a high regard for the prohibition of the oath. Peter Riedemann discusses the oath extensively in his Rechenschaft (1545). He bases the difference between the Old and New Testaments in the fact that the O.T. has the shadow (Colossians 2:17) of the truth while the NT has the full brightness, the OT has the spirit of the slave while the NT has the spirit of sonship, hence the shadow "must give way to the spirit of truth which operates in us."
Since the oath has always been held to be essential to the existence of the state it was inevitable that the refusal of Mennonites to use it would bring them into conflict with government. It was only gradually and after long and serious attempts to suppress them that those countries in which Mennonites settled became willing to grant them the special privilege of substituting the simple affirmation (Handgeluebde) for the oath. This was especially true in Switzerland, for the authorities felt that the rejection of the oath meant the undermining of all authority; hence they fought the Anabaptists as a sect dangerous to the very existence of the state. Stubbornly they insisted on the oath (Urfehde) whenever an Anabaptist was expelled from their territory, and the loyalty oath if they granted toleration. Not until late in the 17th century did Zürich, for instance, finally authorize the affirmation in place of the oath for expellees and even then the exception was simply allowed in practice without putting it into the legal regulations. Similarly in Bern as late as 1813 a decree was issued denying to the Mennonites all civil and voting rights because they refused the loyalty oath. A regulation of 22 November 1820 specified that instead of the loyalty oath an affirmation which had the same consequences as the oath could be rendered in the official residence of the judge (Oberamtmann). With the adoption of the new federal constitution of 1874 Mennonites have been permitted to substitute the affirmation for the normal oath.
In Holland the Mennonites early received special consideration for their position on the oath through the good will of Prince William of Orange. He granted the request of the Mennonites of Antwerp (23 September 1566) for release from the requirement of the oath. Likewise his intervention secured to the Mennonites of Middelburg in 1577 and 1578 exemption from the civil oath. Four years later the state of Zeeland attempted without success to impose a law requiring all Mennonites to perform the oath. In 1585 the Dutch States General decided to exempt the Mennonites from the oath, and a law of 28 March 1588 specified the wording of the substitute formula. Friesland, on the other hand, issued a decree on 8 March 1597, denying those who refused the oath the privilege of living in the country, and not until 19 March 1659, was the requirement of the oath canceled for Mennonites; on 10 July 1700, a substitute formula was provided. The city of Groningen passed a decree on 25 April 1616, exempting Mennonites from the oath. In many Dutch towns it became usual that in place of the oath of citizenship the Mennonites declared to have spoken the truth or promised to speak the truth "by mannes waerheyt" (by a man's truth) and eventually by a handclasp ("handtastinger") with the official administering the oath.
Louis XVI of France rejected the request of the Alsatian Mennonites in 1766 for exemption from the oath. Jacob Frey of Duerrenzen, who refused to swear an oath, was sentenced on 7 September 1769, to lifelong exile from France and a fine of 10 pounds and court costs. But the Mennonites of France refused to yield and finally won their release when the Court of Cassation in 1810 decreed that "Anabaptists and Quakers" need not render an oath, and since 1812 it has been the general practice in France to permit members of recognized religious bodies to substitute an affirmation for the oath.
In Austria Mennonites were freed from taking an oath by a royal decree of 10 January 1816.
In Germany the practice in regard to the oath has been variable. On 13 October 1768 the imperial high court decreed that the Mennonite affirmation was to be accepted as a substitute for the oath; but only a few states in the empire, e.g., Hesse-Nassau, observed this decree. Almost everywhere Mennonites had to fight for exemption. In Prussia it took the Mennonites a long time to secure toleration. The rulers repeatedly ordered expulsion of the Mennonites, but their decrees were not executed because of the economic advantages accruing from Mennonite settlement, and the Mennonites were quietly allowed the religious freedom which the laws did not openly grant. Those settlements living under Polish rule, however, were granted special privileges of freedom by the Polish kings, which evidently included exemption from the oath. In Elbing they were allowed to substitute the simple yes and no but required to place the hand on the breast. The first express grant by a Prussian king of substitution of affirmation for the oath was by Friedrich II on 14 June 1773, in response to a Mennonite petition of 7 June. The affirmation was fully legalized by a law of 11 May 1827. In East Friesland a decree of 30 August 1631, governing leasing of land authorized the substitution of the "Mennonite oath." But Mennonites still had much trouble before the courts and in spite of repeated petitions did not acquire full exemption until the decree of 2 June 1701. In Friedrichstadt the Privilegium of 13 February 1623, granted Mennonites exemption. In Altona the grant was made as early as 1601 and reconfirmed on 6 June 1641.
The earlier Mennonite practice of settling all disputes without going to law long kept the oath question from becoming a serious issue in Germany. But after the 18th century, with settlement in the city and entering business life, involvement in legal matters was almost inevitable. Trouble arose on this account in Krefeld and in Mannheim. In the latter city a legal action was broken off because two Mennonites refused to swear the required oath. An appeal to the ruler resulted in a decree that Mennonites were to be granted the privilege of affirmation "according to previous practice." By 1893 Mennonites were exempt from the oath in practically all the German states (ten Doornkaat-Koolman). In the absence of a general uniform law for all Germany, however, Mennonite conference petitions were directed to securing such a law; e.g., the Vereinigung presented such a request to the Prussian authorities on 22 December 1892, and again in 1910, and in 1910 to the federal authorities. The 1919 constitution of the German Republic instituted the secular oath (all reference to God omitted), but since Mennonites did not want to swear in any form they requested exemption.
In the United States and Canada the Mennonite immigrants coming from Europe at various times 1683-1880 received full recognition for their position on the oath. In this they were greatly aided by the prior arrival of the Quakers who had an identical position, the Quaker Colony of Pennsylvania being the only place of direct Mennonite settlement up to 1815. Recognition of the affirmation instead of the oath on grounds of conscience is not provided in the federal constitution, but the guarantee of religious freedom which it contains is understood to include this and has been so interpreted by the courts. However, many state constitutions include express provisions for the use of the affirmation in place of the oath, and there has never been any serious trouble on this point in the United States or Canada. The modern spirit of toleration in most countries makes it relatively easy to secure recognition of conscience in such matters almost anywhere, even in the absence of specific constitutional or legal guarantees.
It is noteworthy that the principle of non-swearing of oaths has been and still is upheld by all Mennonite groups of whatever country, conference, or theological position, the one historic Anabaptist-Mennonite principle of which this can be said. Individual exceptions of course have taken place, and there are no doubt Mennonites today who are careless in applying this principle in all legal matters. Some Mennonites, for example, who are notaries, follow the inconsistent practice of administering the oath to others; and others sign legal forms on which the oath is printed without substituting the word "affirm" for "swear," as they may legally do. To some this may seem to be a minor technicality, but where it is ignored the deeper meaning of the rejection of the oath has been obscured or lost.
(Details of the history and practice in Germany regarding the Mennonite objection to the oath are given in the exhaustive treatment by Neff in the article Eid, Mennonitisches Lexikon I, 542-546, which carried the account up to 1920, which article has been reproduced in somewhat condensed form above. The following supplementary section by William Klassen adds material chiefly on the attitude of the 16th-century South German Anabaptists toward the oath.) -- Neff, H.S.B.
In the major disputations between the Anabaptists and the Reformers the question of the oath had an important place. Hans Hillerbrand has correctly noted, "Contrary to the question of nonparticipation in war, where due to the absence of universal conscription in the sixteenth century the Anabaptist position remained largely a theoretical one, the problem of the oath was real and pertinent."
The earliest confession, drafted at Schleitheim in February 1527, makes it clear that the Anabaptist stand against oaths was absolute. The oath is there defined as a confirmation among those who promise or are in disagreement with each other. It has been commanded in the law, but Christ who is the fulfillment of the law teaches that under no circumstances should His disciples swear an oath. The reason for this is that we cannot make a hair on our head white or black. Since we may not be able to accomplish the content of the oath due to the contingencies of human existence, the oath is forbidden.
After this definition of the oath and the exposition of Christ's teaching, the writers deal with certain objections to this interpretation. (1) To the objection implying that since God swore an oath to Abraham, man can do so also, Sattler, the editor if not author of the Schleitheim articles, replies that God is able to accomplish His promise, whereas human beings cannot. (2) The objection insisting that Christ forbade only the swearing by certain things, such as temple, heaven, or the head, is answered with a reference to Christ's question: "You blind fools, what is greater, the throne, or he that sits upon it?" (3) To the argument asserting that swearing must be right, since Peter and Paul swore, the reply is that the apostles in calling God to witness were actually only testifying to what God will do, and not themselves promising what they will do; swearing and testifying are two different things. Testifying refers to the present, while swearing refers to the future. Even the statement by Simeon to Mary is here called a testimony, even though it clearly refers to the future. The final (4) argument for the rejection of the oath is the word of Christ, Let your word be Yes, Yes, and No, No, and whatever is above that is from the evil one. For it is clear that Christ did not permit the oath. All those who simply seek Christ will follow His clear word and understand it.
The Confession of Schleitheim exerted a profound influence, not only among Anabaptists, but also evoked a reply from Zwingli and Calvin. The standard objections to this Anabaptist position on the oath, found in both of these Reformers, are to a large extent anticipated in the Schleitheim Confession. A large number of Anabaptists followed this interpretation of the oath and refused to swear under any circumstances. At Strasbourg those who refused to take the oath were identified as Anabaptists. Also the only Anabaptist treatise devoted exclusively to the oath was written at Strasbourg by Fridolin Meyer in 1528 in which the various Scripture passages on the oath were set side by side. This manuscript leaflet of four pages found with the record of his cross-examination indicates that the Strasbourg Anabaptists were discussing this issue.
Already before the convocation at Schleitheim Hans Denck had formulated a position on the oath which he discussed in his treatise Von der wahren Liebe (January 1527). He argues that since man is unable to keep his vows or covenants, whatever appears as right should be performed without a promise or commitment. Where a man makes a vow concerning something over which he has no power, there is either a presumption without understanding, or else hypocrisy with understanding. He deals also with the argument that God's swearing justifies ours, since we are to become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect! Denck rejects this because we do not have the power to accomplish our oath, and insists that we must follow the example of Christ.
Nor should anyone be too hasty in saying yes or no simply because it is allowed, for whoever assures someone with an affirmation, has already sworn, because he anticipates the will of God and might become a perjurer. This is not the case if one deals correctly as Paul did when it was impossible for him to carry out his plans with the Corinthians.
With respect to matters which have taken place in the past, Denck says that whoever would testify to them should do so with as few words as possible, yes or no, for whatever is above that must be settled with God. If someone has God as a witness to the truth of his statement, he may appeal to this fact, as Paul also did, only let him be careful not to take the name of God in vain, for this is forbidden in the law, as also the N.T. forbids swearing. In his "Recantation," Denck devotes the last section (X) to the oath. He begins again, as he did earlier, with the assertion that swearing, judging, etc., are not wrong in themselves, but forbidden so that no occasion be given to the flesh. The abuse of the oath, seen everywhere, is that it is assumed certain that what is sworn will take place. "Whoever has the mind and spirit of the Lord, promises, vows, and swears nothing, except that which he may do with a good conscience, namely, that which he is obligated to do out of the teaching of Christ, such as not to steal, not to kill, not to commit adultery, not to avenge oneself, and the like. And yet he will promise nothing, except on the grace of God, not what he will do, but rather what he would like to do, so that he is not guilty of presumptuousness.
"Summa, whatever one can say by the truth, that he may also testify to by God, even more by creatures, such as raising the hand and die like, . . . whether one call it swearing or not, it has not been the meaning of Christ at any time to forbid such. Paul says: I call upon God as witness to my soul, as if to say, God shall repay my soul if I do not speak the truth. That is no different than the way a man swears today: This or that I will or desire to do, so help me God, i.e., if my will is not this, God will not help me, etc."
Denck is here cited at some length because he indicates a difference from the position of Schleitheim in some important respects, and it may be that it is due to him that a number of important South German Anabaptists diverged from the statement of Schleitheim on the subject of the oath.
Hans Hut, in his testimony of 1527 (October), asserts that the oath in community, civic, and state affairs is not forbidden by God and that the authority of government in this area can only be questioned when it demands an oath which is against God (see Hut in Mennonitisches Lexikon, but not in Mennonite Encyclopedia). Hut surely knew of Schleitheim, and there are indications that he had had discussions with the Kuerschner (Jacob Gross?) and others about the oath. The lack of uniformity in the traditions surrounding Hut calls for caution in evaluating this evidence, but on the surface it would seem to agree with the position which is later seen in the Marpeck brotherhood.
Pilgram Marpeck himself was accused by Bucer of teaching the Strasbourg Anabaptists that swearing and resisting are wrong, but he never discusses the oath at any length in any of his writings. The only possible exception is an epistle in the Kunstbuch attributed by Heinold Fast to Marpeck, directed to the Swiss Brethren (No. 8), dated 1543. The reference to the oath there is as follows: "Concerning the oath, we cannot captivate or bind anyone's conscience to your understanding of it (which we have abundantly and earnestly understood from you), nor can we bind a cord on anyone's neck, nor can we subjugate our conscience to your understanding. . . ." Unfortunately at this point a page is torn out, leaving the statement on the oath incomplete without proof of authorship. But the epistle shows that the South Germans had discussions with the Swiss about the oath, and that there was disagreement on it.
Joerg Rothenfelder, the editor of the Kunstbuch, wrote a one-page discussion of the oath (fol. 157). But since this folio is without signature, it is possible that the page mentioned above as missing at the end of the Marpeck epistle is simply displaced to here. The position reflected in this statement deviates from the absolute rejection of the oath by Schleitheim by equating calling God as witness with swearing an oath, and making it legitimate since Paul and Peter did this. Rothenfelder gave as one of the reasons why he left St. Gall earlier the differences between him and the Swiss Brethren, and one of the issues was the oath. So it is clear that there is a difference on this point between the Swiss Brethren and at least some of the South German Anabaptists.
How can one account for this difference? A comparison of Schleitheim and Denck would reveal first of all that Denck was more interested in meeting abstract theological arguments than in legislating for a congregation. Schleitheim, on the other hand, set out to demarcate clearly the differences between them and the false brethren. As a result it appears to be more legalistic than do the writings of Denck. A greater difference, however, is seen in their approach to the Scriptures. The method of Sattler is to take the face value of die words of Scriptures and attempt to fulfill them, whereas Denck and others after him attempted to grapple with the meaning of the Scripture.
On the question of the oath this difference becomes most apparent in connection with the pamphlet written by Wolfgang Musculus entitled Ain frydsams unnd Christlichs Gesprech, ains Euangelischen, auff ainer, und ains Widertauffers, auff der andern seyten, so sy des Aydschwurs halben mitainander thund (Augsburg, 1533) (in Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen, Indiana, USA). Musculus knew the Anabaptists well, having served as Bucer's secretary in Strasbourg, and having left Strasbourg shortly before Pilgram Marpeck. In Augsburg in the later years he had discussions with Marpeck. Musculus was an acute exegete and a temperate polemicist against the Anabaptists, believing that they could be won through convincing arguments. The tone of his pamphlet is very gentle, and his effort to understand their position is apparent. Rothenfelder and perhaps Marpeck were convinced by his statement on the oath, mainly no doubt, because Musculus began with the Bible and allowed it to speak to the matter of the oath, trying to show that the Anabaptist interpretation actually did violence to the intent of Scripture. He begins his refutation with the definition of an oath, making it so broad that it includes not only the asseverations of Paul and the apostles, but also the "Verily, verily" of Jesus Himself, and then appeals to the principle of imitatio Christi as an argument for the oath. Musculus also discusses the assertion of the Anabaptists that the future is uncertain, hence human beings cannot commit themselves by means of an oath, saying that this interpretation would rule out all commitments and all vows, including the marriage vow. His position is that the oath is acceptable because it assures the hearer that the one who takes an oath has searched his heart and promises that, God giving him strength, he will fulfill his obligations. For the past, the oath has the effect of calling on God to witness that what he is saying is indeed true.
Musculus' treatment of the oath is a distinctly different approach to the subject. The main basis of his argument is not the Old Testament, but the New, but in the New he shows exegetical skill and an amazing knowledge of Jewish traditions that must have impressed any Anabaptist who read his pamphlet.
Through Marten Micronius' translation into Dutch in 1535 the book by Musculus became an important element in the discussions between Menno and Micronius in 1556. Micronius defended the position of Musculus, while Menno said that the plain word of Scripture is "lamentably falsified and plastered over with the vile dung of satanic glosses, merely to suit the rulers" by both Musculus and Micronius. Menno does more than simply discard their interpretations; he grapples with their views in several respects.
By bringing in the temporal and eternal categories Menno sought to invalidate Musculus' argument by stating that Paul and Christ's asseverations were only in the sphere of eternal matters, and that in temporal matters they did not use them. In doing so he tacitly granted the equating of the oath with calling God to witness, thus departing from Schleitheim on this point. He also admits that in a sense a vow is the same as an oath, but is valid and necessary in the area of eternal truth which does not relate to temporal matters. Marriage vows and baptismal vows would come under this category. For his position he claims the support of men like Jerome, Erasmus, Philipp Melanchthon, Haymo, and Origen. The yea and the nay of the Anabaptist has the force of an oath because he does not lie, and so the rulers should not fear his refusal to swear. In Menno's writings on the oath the desire to fulfill the words of Christ literally comes strongly to the fore, and the faith is clearly stated that God will not deceive us with His doctrine. The aspect of promise for the future in an oath does not appear as strongly as it does among the Swiss and the South Germans.
The Anabaptists lived their lives in the immediacy of the divine Spirit, and a life thus lived refuses to be held by an oath. Thus when a group of Anabaptists were asked to swear an oath (Urfehde) never to return to Strasbourg in 1532, they refused to do so, stating that this would be trying to ascertain where the Spirit would next lead them. Logically, of course, while there is a strong element of Biblical truth here, this freedom rules out any long-term contract or commitment.
Widmoser has suggested that Marpeck distinguished between the secular and religious oath in much the same way Menno did, only he reversed the tables and made the secular oath permissible (e.g., to serve the city faithfully as an engineer) but ruled out any oath which might restrict his religious life. Support for this view is utterly lacking in the sources, and it is perhaps still more accurate to state that the Anabaptists did not differentiate between the secular and the religious realms in the way that Luther did in his two-kingdom view.
For the contemporary problem it is obvious that the oath has little place in a secularized society, whose God if it believes in one is totally irrelevant. The oath in that context is either a legal tool to make punishment for perjury possible, or else simply a remnant of a civilization once supposedly based on a Deity. Otto Bauernfeind has ably demonstrated the dilemma in which the oath has placed Protestant Christianity, and has shown that when the security of a society is threatened, recourse is taken to an oath (Nazis, loyalty oaths in America, Reformation time). This pathological trait of society creates difficulties for the church which has no policy on the oath, because in war, for instance, "the good and acceptable and perfect will of God is always affirmatively related to preparations for war, while for the establishment of peace it is always comfortably neutral." In a context like modern society the oath becomes utterly absurd, but a mere mechanical abstention from it does little to change the situation. As Bauernfeind shows, the oath was not a part of early Christianity, where the simple formula was yes, yes, and no, no. The principles involved in the oath go far beyond any slavish literal obedience to the letter of Scripture.
Ein Christenlich gespräch gehallten zuo Bern zwüschen den Predicanten und Hansen Pfyster Mayer von Aarouw den Widertouff, Eyd, Oberkeyt, und andere Widertoufferische Artikel betreffende. n.p., n.d.—Bern: 1531.
Doornkaat-Koolman, J. ten. Die Verpflichtung der Menhoniten an Eidesstatt. Berlin, 1893.
Dyserinck, Joh. Het Recht der Waarheid tegenover den Staat (Bijdrage tot de eedevraag). Amsterdam, 1902.
Dyserinck, Joh. De vrijstelling van den eed voor de Doopsgezinden, eene historische Studie. Haarlem: 1883, enlarged reprint from De Gids, 1882, No. 10.
Faber, Johann. Von dem Ayd schwören. Auch von der Widertauffer Marter . . . .n.p., 1550.
Fellmann, W., ed. Hans Denck Schriften, vol. 2: Religiöse Schriften (= Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer, vol. 6, pt. 2), Quellen und Forschungen zur Reformationsgeschichte, 24. Gütersloh, 1956: 84, 110.
Hoekstra, S. Beginselen en leer der oude Doopsgezinden. Amsterdam, 1863: 268.
Jenny, Beatrice. Das Schleitheimer Tauferbekenntnis 1527. Thayngen: 1951: 16 f., 75 f.
Kieferndorf, Philipp. Der Eid. Worms: 1892.
Mannhardt, W. Die Wehrfreiheit der Altpreussischen Mennoniten. Marienburg, 1863.
Meüszlin, Wolfgang. Ain frydsams unnd christlichs Gesprech ains Evengelischenn, auff ainer, und ains Widerteuffers, auff der andern seyten, so sy des Aydschwurs halben mitainander thund. n.p., 1533.
Oecolampadius, Joh. Underrichtung von den Widertauff, von der Oberkeit und von dem Eyd, auff Carlins N. Widertouffer Artickel. Basel, 1527.
Rideman, Peter. Account of Our Religion, Doctrine and Faith. n.p.: 1950; Engl. tr. of the Rechenschaft of 1545, printed 1565: 114-118.
Simons, Menno. The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, c. 1496-1561, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956: 517-521, 922-927.
Toornburg, Klaas. Schriftuurlijke verhandelingh tegens het eedzweren, en voor de wraak en weerloose lydsaemheyt en volmaeckt liefde, die de christen moeten oeffenen, aen en omtrent de boose en vyanden ... Alkmaar, 1688.
Vos, K. "Bastiaan vaan Weenigem en het eedvraagstuk," in Nederlands Archief voor Kerkgeschiedenis (1908).
"Was heisst Mennonit" (extensive discussion of the oath), Monatsblatter der Mennonitengemeinde Krefeld. 1905.
All the above titles are in Mennonite Historical Library (Goshen, Indiana, USA).
Bauer, B. Der Eid, Eine Studie. Heidelberg, 1854.
Bauernfeind, Otto. Eid und Friede. Stuttgart, 1956.
Brandt. Der Eid in den Reichsprozessordnungen. Kassel, 1895.
Brunk, George R. Ready Scriptural Reasons. Scottdalem PA: 1926: 189-91.
Doopsgezinde Bijdragen (1863): 61; (1868): 27, 53 f.; (1875): 93 ff.; (1876): 75; (1881): 43; (1883): 19; (1899): 181; (1904): 233; (1907): 162; (1908): 33-41; (1909): 83, 113.
Dyserinck, J. .Das von den Gliedern der Mennonitengemeinde im Grossherzogthum Baden an Eidesstatt abzuleistende Handgelübde. Heilbronn: 1862, 2nd ed. Sinsheim, 1890.
Hillerbrand, Hans J. "The Anabaptist View of the State." Mennonite Quarterly Review 30 (1958): 105-107.
Kauffman, Daniel. Doctrines of the Bible. Scottdale, PA: 1929, 2nd ed. 1949: 517-21.
Mennonitische Blätter, repeated references 1876-1921 (see Mennonitisches Lexikon I, 546 for specifics).
Pedersen, Johannes. Der Eid bei den Semiten. 1924.
Proksch, Otto. "Das Eidesverbot Jesu Christi." Thuringer Kirchliches Jahrbuch 13 (1907): 21 f.
Roosen, Gerhard. "On the Swearing of Oaths." Christian Conversation on Saving Faith. Scottdale, PA: 1941, Engl. tr. of Christliches Gemuethsgespraech, first ed. 1702 at Ratzeburg?.
Wenger, John C. Separated Unto God. Scottdale, PA: 1951: 104-8.
|Harold S. Bender|
Cite This Article
Neff, Christian, Harold S. Bender and William Klassen. "Oath." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1958. Web. 23 Oct 2017. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Oath&oldid=134169.
Neff, Christian, Harold S. Bender and William Klassen. (1958). Oath. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 October 2017, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Oath&oldid=134169.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 2-8, 1147. All rights reserved.
©1996-2017 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.