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The great solemnity of an oath consists, -
I. In its being an appeal to the Omniscience of God. It is deliberately calling upon him to whom the heart is known, to witness the truth of what is affirmed. If on no occasion his name should be pronounced but with the profoundest reverence, it should be with deep seriousness, and only on such occasions as the ends of justice imperiously require, that we venture to swear by his being and perfections.
II. It is a reference to his decision in the judgment of the great day. This, indeed, is expressed in the form of oath administered in Scotland. The nature of an oath implies it. We hereby most solemnly signify our belief, not only that God is the witness of our thoughts and our conduct, but that he will punish with awful severity those who in defiance of all the sanctions of religion, and of the retributive justice of God, declare falsehood. The violation of truth in such circumstances is a contempt of God, and indicates the extreme of human depravity.
III. An oath is the last means to which mankind can have recourse, to ascertain each other's veracity. In this view “men verily swear by the greater ; and an oath for confirmation, is an end of all strife.” They of necessity must give greater credit to it than to a bare, affirmation, from the greater solemnity of the circumstances attending it, and from their having nothing better beyond to which they can trust. Perjury, therefore, is the most aggravated crime, since it is not only a contempt of God; but, in its consequences, strikes at the property and life of man, and at the very existence of society.
There are some professing christians who are of opinion that the taking of oaths in evidence, or for any purpose whatever, is unlawful. In vindication of their views they allege the language of our Lord: “ 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 * "
This language is obviously a prohibition of vain and unauthorized swearing, and does not at all relate to judicial oaths. The persons whom it immediately censures are profane swearers. Our Lord himself when examined upon oath in the presence of the high-priest made no objection to answer the questions proposed to him. The Apostle Paul repeatedly uses the form of an oath: “I call God for a record upon my soul, that to spare you, I come not as yet to Corinth."
* Matt. chap. v. 33–38.
SUBSCRIPTION TO ARTICLES OF RELIGION.
Every religious society, or church, has an unquestionable right to determine that its own creed shall be the creed which all who may be admitted to share its privileges shall profess to receive. The articles admitted into this creed may be too numerous, or, some of them may even be erroneous; but if a voluntary society choose to adopt them, who has a right to hinder ? and if they adopt them as the expression of their own religious belief, may they not require that all who shall be admitted into communion with them shall be of the same sentiments ? This remark holds true, more especially in regard to those who are proposed as candidates for the sacred office.
“ The inquiry concerning subscription,” says Paley, “ will be, quis imposuit, et quo animo ? The bishop who receives the subscription, is not the imposer, any more than the crier of a court, who administers the oath to the jury and witnesses, is the person that imposes it; nor, consequently, is the private opinion or interpretation of the bishop of any signification to the subscriber, one way or the other. The compilers of the Thirtynine Articles are not to be considered as the imposers of subscription, any more than the framer or drawer up of a law is the person that arrests it. The Legislature of the 13th Elizabeth is the imposer, whose intention the subscriber is bound to satisfy.
They who contend that nothing less can justify subscription to the thirty-nine articles, than the actual belief of each and every separate proposition contained in them, must suppose, that the legislature expected the consent of ten thousand men, and that in perpetual succession, not to one controverted proposition, but to many hundreds. It is difficult to conceive how this could be expected by any who observed the incurable diversity of human opinion upon all subjects short of demonstration.” He adds, that the authors of the law intended to exclude from offices in the church, all abettors of popery ; Anabaptists; and Puritans.
While this distinguished author restricts his observations to the articles of religious belief of the Church of England, they are susceptible of any latitude ; and in the few remarks which I shall offer, I shall consider them as more or less applicable to the confessions of faith of every church.
I. I agree with Mr. Paley in thinking, that the opinion or interpretation of the official person who receives our subscription to articles of religious belief, should have no weight with the subscriber. ' His sentiments may be different from the obvious and only meaning of that “ form of words” which he requires us to' sign'as the confession of our faith. His opinion, therefore, should be received by us only as an opinion, which, if founded in truth, we are to receive, and if erroneous, we should reject. We are to use proper
. means for the correct understanding of the formula under consideration; and for ascertaining its conformity to the doctrines of divine revelation. Should the result be, a conviction that it is either in whole or in part fundamentally opposed to the oracles of God, or even, if we are not fully satisfied of its truth, I own I cannot discover on what ground, consistently with a good conscience, we can solemnly declare our belief in it.
II. According to Paley's view, articles of religi. ous belief can scarcely in any case answer the end for which they are framed. In his apprehension, the meaning of these articles is of no moment to those who may be called to subscribe them; since their attention is to be exclusively occupied with the views of those by whom they have been enacted.
In regard to the thirty-nine articles, it matters not though we should never have seen them, if we can only ascertain what were the motives with which the parliament of the thirteenth of Elizabeth enjoined sub. scription to them as the condition of admission into the offices of the church. With respect to the confession of faith of the Church of Scotland, we need not give ourselves the trouble of reading it ; since our only business is with the intentions of the legislature by which it received the sanction of the state. But is it not probable that there may be as great a difference as to the intentions of the legislature, as there is about the meaning of the different articles which the confession contains ?
Mr. Paley tells us, that the parliament of England designed by the thirty-nine articles to exclude from offices in the church,—all abettors of popery ; Anabaptists; and Puritans. This may be true, though it be not the whole truth. May it not still be asked,