صور الصفحة
PDF
النشر الإلكتروني

MISCELLANEOUS COMMUNICATIONS.

OATHS.

(To the Editor of the Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine.)

THIS is a subject on which much has been said of late years. The "Society of Friends" has, from the beginning of its existence, protested against them. George Fox, among his other peculiarities, insisted on taking the words of our Lord, "Swear not at all," in their widest application, as referring, not merely to the ordinary intercourse between man and man, but also to the most solemn judicial proceedings. His followers, therefore, have always held oaths to be unlawful, under all circumstances; and for many years were exposed in consequence to various and heavy inconveniences, as they could not give evidence in any court of justice. Their objections were altogether religious. Their conscience may be thought to have been mistaken; but still, sincerely conscientious they were. They feared God, as well as honoured the King. In proportion as enlightened and truly liberal notions on the science of government prevailed, it was felt, with growing force, that to these inconveniences such a body of Christians ought no longer to be exposed. That in their case affirmation should be received instead of oath, became at length the law of the land. Some years ago, certain persons, describing themselves as Separatists, alleged similar objections, and on similar grounds. The Legislature held them to be entitled to similar relief, and ultimately granted it to them. Since then, a number of other persons have come forward, stating their objections to the judicial administration of oaths; and a bill is now before Parliament, granting almost indiscriminate relief. A necessity appears to exist for the investigation of the case. Volumes have been written on the subject; but its principles lie within a narrow compass, and may be examined without prolixity. It is proposed to attempt this in the present paper.

One thing must be admitted, even by those who most strenuously object against the judicial administration of oaths, provided their objections be the same as those advanced by the "Friends;" that is, that they rest on religious grounds, and imply a true belief in the New Testament, as of divine origin and sovereign authority; that, if oaths be not rendered unlawful by the positive command of Christ, but may be, with due reverence, judicially administered, such administration adds greatly to the weight of civil power, and invests it with a sacredness of character of which otherwise it would be entirely destitute. This, indeed, is the reason for instituting the investigation proposed in the present paper. Without oaths, judicial proceedings visibly possess no connexion with the great truths of religion. They appear before us as human institutions, and nothing more. Now, this is not the full character in which they are beheld by a believer in the New Testament. That man has much to do in their constitution is evident, not only from universal history, but from the very decisive language of Scripture; (which is as truly governed by inspiration as the mental conceptions of Scripture ;) for St. Peter says, "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man (waon avoρwin kтiσα) for the Lord's sake." But St. Paul also says, "There is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. He is the minister of God to thee for good. He beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, a revenger to

execute wrath upon him that doeth evil." To the Christian, therefore, proper subjection is not submission to a merely conventional arrangement of society, but an affair in which conscience is concerned. It is to be rendered, not because punishment may follow upon refusal, but because it is a duty which through him we owe to Him who is King of kings and Lord of lords. "Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience' sake. For they are God's ministers." If, therefore, the judicial administration of oaths be not forbidden, there is an exact harmony between it and the scriptural character of human tribunals. Whatsoever be their precise form, or in whatsoever way constituted and appointed,— and the remarks we are now making are applicable to any and every form, -to monarchical, to republican and popular,-to the tribunals of America, and to those of England,-God recognises them in their proper course of actions. They are branches of that instrumentality by which he governs society; and he who receives the Scriptures as a divine revelation is taught there that submission is not a matter of mere convenience, but of religious duty. This being the case, if the judicial administration of oaths be not in itself, or by positive prohibition, wrong, there is in it an adaptation, a suitableness, which gives a high propriety to the whole proceeding. What is an oath, but a solemn appeal to God, as supreme Sovereign, as Witness, as Judge? He who takes an oath in a court of justice says in effect, “I am now engaged in a proceeding which God in his word recognises, and to which he calls me to submit as a matter of conscience. To assist the authorities who are termed in Scripture, God's ministers'-in coming to a decision in the present controverted question, I am now called to deliver my testimony, and I declare that I do it as in his presence, appealing to Him to whom the truth is known, that what I say shall be, so far as I know it, the truth, and that I will conscientiously avoid falsehood, because I am the servant and subject of the God of truth, and am persuaded that I should have to answer for falsehood at his judgment-bar, before which I believe that I shall stand." We refer to no particular form of oath. Let that be decided by legislative wisdom. We only take that which is essential in the case, the public, personal appeal to God, as Sovereign, Witness, and Judge, the solemn profession that we speak in his presence,—the acknowledgment of our belief that we shall be obnoxious to his righteous judgment, if we speak falsely. Nor is anything that may be said designed to advocate that multiplication of oaths which brings them into comparatively trivial proceedings, by this very circumstance impairing their solemnity, as their frequency, operating according to a well-known law of human nature, produces a like effect. This, at all events, is forbidden by the commandment, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain." Neither must any allowance be made for a light and irreverent mode of administration. Every religious act ought to be performed with solemnity. An oath should no more be administered with carelessness, than a sacrament,—no more than a prayer should be offered in carelessness. But we still contend, that, supposing the occasion to be solemn, and the mode reverend and impressive, there is an harmony between the administration of an oath and the religious aspect in which judicial proceedings are placed by Scripture, which, unless the former can be shown to be intrinsically wrong, or positively forbidden, more than allows and justifies, even demands, that it be required. Without oaths, courts of justice are completely denuded of their visibly religious character. They exhibit nothing with which conscience has any concern. They become, in their visible character, atheistic.

The witness speaks as a man, and only as a man. He professes to fear the human pains and penalties of false testimony, and nothing more. To us it appears a remarkable circumstance, that human nature itself, in its most instinctive movements, is opposed to this. Men have never been willing to trust one another, merely considered as men. Irrational as may have been the forms of idolatry, into which men have changed the glory of the incorruptible God, yet, under them all, they have required witnesses in judicial proceedings to declare that they would speak the truth, not merely because truth was due from man to man, but because the power or powers superior to man would be offended by falsehood. Whenever men have been sufficiently civilized to form themselves into regular societies, with regularly-constituted governments and laws, they have felt the necessity of bringing to bear upon man more than the fear of human punishment. Oaths-appeals to superhuman powers-have been always required, wherever men have been raised above the lowest savagism; and the doctrine of a divine Nemesis-guilt and punishment under a higher respect than human-has always been employed to assist in preserving society from the effects of the headlong, torrent-like power of human depravity.

The views we have thus taken of the strikingly-apparent mutual relation of judicially-administered oaths, and the scripturally-stated character of judicial proceedings, receive thus the remarkable confirmation of a testimony so extensively, so independently borne, as to be attributable to nothing short of the very nature of man. Everywhere, and always, has man felt that society could not be held together on atheistic principles. The restraints of human law, with all the strength of human punishment, have never been considered to possess sufficient power even to neutralize, much less to overcome, and efficiently to subdue, the selfish passions which are continually at war with the order of society.

Still, we allow that all this is but reasoning, and such reasoning as can possess no weight in the presence of a positive, unmistakable declaration to the contrary. To such a declaration we are bound at once to submit. But, on the other hand, it is a reasoning that shows that a declaration to the contrary must be explicit, and beyond possibility of honest mistake. There is nothing in the practice unnatural; for men have had recourse to it in almost every possible variety of circumstance, under almost every form of religious error. And there is nothing in the practice unscriptural,—that is, supposing it not to be forbidden by some positive law of Scripture,— because there is a most remarkable consentaneousness between it and the scriptural representations of human government and law. Of course, if it be positively forbidden, the case is decided. On the supposition of the inspiration of holy Scripture, superhuman wisdom speaks there, superhuman authority enacts. That may appear to us to be right, which yet, could we penetrate more deeply into the elements of the question, or view their operation more comprehensively, we should see to be wrong. To us, the books of the sacred volume are the "oracles of God." Their sentence is decisive. There is no appeal from it. In these books God speaks. They were given by his inspiration. The holy men, whose proximate, visible authorship we acknowledge, spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. And therefore are they rightly called the word of God. There is, indeed, a person to whom that term is applied, in order to assist man in forming some faint idea of the relation in which he stands to that eternal Being, that infinite Essence and Nature, in whom all creatures live, and move, and have their being. He is emphatically, the Word of God. But so is the

Scripture the word of God: for they who wrote it did so because the word of the Lord came unto them, and they spoke-in the permanent speech of writing-as the Spirit gave them utterance. What is here declared, fairly and honestly interpreted, allows no further discussion. It is God speaking to us; and what is spoken to us by God is the word of God. We come then to this divine volume. What saith the Scripture on this subject? And here, a few preliminary remarks are absolutely necessary. We take up the Bible. It is not one uniform treatise, discussing its various subjects in consecutive chapters, from the commencement to the close. It is composed of a number of separate books, written during a long series of ages. One leading division, however, is obviously furnished. There is the Old Testament and the New Testament. And some persons have spoken as though the first were, in reference to Christian believers, of inferior authority to the second. The mischief of such a statement is rendered the greater by the fact, that it contains a measure of truth. Undoubtedly, there are portions of the Old Testament which are not binding upon Christians. The New Testament plainly declares this, states the reason, and enables us to mark the extent to which this freedom from obligation extends, and the limits beyond which it must not pass. The principle is clear in itself, and without difficulty in its application. When God chose the Jewish nation to be the people over whom he would reign as their personal Sovereign, the depositaries of his truth and will, he gave them a peculiar ritual, designed to continue obligatory as long as that particular economy lasted. This is the law of Moses; and certainly it is done away in Christ. But it were a great, and a very dangerous, mistake, to say that all the books of the Old and New Testament are to be considered only as the statement and development of the Mosaic ritual law. Let any one read it carefully, and he will see, that along with these there are likewise statements and developments of that one true religion, made known especially to Abraham, and which the Jewish national law was never intended to supersede. The law of this one, true, changeless religion runs through the whole Old Testament, runs into the New, where it finds its complete and final development. The law of Moses-that which is strictly soregarded the Jews as Jews: but, is it possible to read the Old Testament, and not see that, consistent with this, there is a wider economy by which they were regarded as men? The promise to Jewish obedience was, that it should be connected with temporal prosperity; but the Old Testament declares as plainly as the New, that "many are the afflictions of the righteous." Was Isaiah speaking as an expositor of the Judaic national law, when he said, "Who is among you that feareth the Lord, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God?" That most important passage of holy writ, usually called the "Song of Zacharias,"delivered, be it remembered, under the plenary inspiration of the Holy Ghost, (Luke i. 67,)—stands as the connecting link between the Old and New Testament. One of the most beautiful accounts of the Christian salvation is to be found in it: "That we, being delivered out of the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life." And this is expressly designated as "salvation by the remission of sins." Now, in bestowing the Saviour and the salvation, Zacharias represents God, in his tender mercy, as fulfilling his promise, "spoken by the mouth of his holy Prophets, which have been since the world began," and especially, that "holy covenant," that “oath

which he sware to our father Abraham." Here, therefore, is something older, wider, than the Jewish national law, and declared by a series of Prophets from the very beginning. In this unbroken stream we find all the great principles, often in an advanced stage of development, of the religion of Christ and his Apostles. The Christian church is therefore said to be "builded on the foundation of Prophets and Apostles," and "the holy Scriptures" of the Old Testament to be "able to make men wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus." The subject deserves consideration in a separate paper: at present we will pursue it no farther than to remind the reader that the fundamental duties of Christian ethics, supreme love to God, and love to our neighbour as to ourselves, are stated by our Lord in language quoted from the Old Testament. So far, indeed, is that portion of inspired Scripture from being limited to the ceremonial ritual, and the political and municipal institute of the Jews, as a separated nation, living under the special sovereignty and dominion of Jehovah, that we find in its records the examples of men who, deeply convinced of sin, and desiring and praying for the exercise of the divine mercy, expressed themselves in language which proved that they not only saw their need of the very blessings which it is the great work of the Christian ministry to offer to mankind through Christ's atonement and intercession, but saw that these blessings were even then attainable by themselves. When Christ appeared to Paul, and sent him forth to his service of apostleship, the design was stated in these remarkable words: "That they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified." Pardon and holiness are the great blessings of the Gospel. But we go back, in the Old Testament, to the days of David, and we find him, under the influence of a "broken heart and contrite spirit," praying for these very same blessings: "Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me." Rightly, therefore, has the Anglican Episcopal Church decided, "The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and man.” (Art. VII.) And on the subject immediately before us, for which we have thus been preparing the way, we willingly quote, for convenience, and for accuracy of expression, a subsequent Article (XXXIX.): "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, so it be done according to the Prophet's teaching, in justice, judgment, and truth." This Article, as it appears to us, rightly states the case. Two kinds of swearing are mentioned; one forbidden, the other allowed. Oaths on solemn and judicial occasions, administered with religious reverence, are said not to be forbidden: vain and rash swearing, often called by a significant epithet, "profane" swearing, is confessed to be forbidden to Christian men by Christ and the Apostle James. We go farther. It was forbidden, as we shall see, to the Jews. The commandment, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain," evidently includes the prohibition of this most evil and ungodly practice. The distinction, we shall see, was plainly recognised in the Old Testament.

Oaths themselves, in this their solemn and religious use, are very plainly referred by St. Paul to a real instinct of human nature. His argument on the subject is remarkable, and sufficiently accounts for the fact of their

« السابقةمتابعة »