XXXIX. Of a Christian man's Oath
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 cloth 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, injustice, judgement, and truth.
Of all the topics to end with, I have always found this topic to be a curious grand finale. A Grand Slam in the Bottom of the 9th it ain't, but I suppose they had to end somewhere. And, indeed, this article is somewhat cryptically worded.
Article 37, if you recall, had a curious bit about the relationship between civil magistrates and the Church, the Bishop of Rome having no jurisdiction in the Realm of England, and the final throw away lines discussing, "The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offenses, " and that "It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars." Article 38 then jumps into a discussion of things held in common, and the Article 39 has to do with the taking of oaths. There was much debate when these were being drawn up and adopted on where exactly to delineate the concepts in Articles 37, 38, and 39, which is why they seem somewhat disjointed when read together. In fact, some subsequent editions of the published Articles actually moved the last two concepts of Article 37 to Article 38, so as to lump all of the Civil Rights and Duties of Man into a more coherent order. This explains why, if you consult Victorian era commentaries on the Articles of Religion, they often seem to mislabel the final articles.
One has to understand the idea of Realms to understand the thinking of the final articles. We have somewhat lost that idea in the modern world, where the secular or civic realm is basically the only realm. The Church and Religion are largely viewed now as little more that personal hobbies that one engages in, if one is so inclined, in one's own spare time. The idea of a "Realm" is best defined as a royal domain or "the region, sphere, or domain within which anything occurs, prevails, or dominates. The closest thing to compare the idea to these days is perhaps the idea of the realm of dreams. People's dreams are real, but quite apart from the Realm of Reality.
In classic Medieval civic thought, there was the Realm of the Church and the Realm of the Sovereign. Both were important, and people existed in both realms simultaneously. One had duties to and expectations of both realms. It was almost as if one had duel citizenship in two countries. This hearkens back to St. Augustine's notions in the City of God that evolved from the Biblical thinking of the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man. Being a good Platonic philosopher who believed in the world of Ideals and Forms, St. Augustine thought that the Kingdom of Man was always a shadowy reflection of the Kingdom of God, much like the idea that the Human Body was but a crude, shadowy reflection of the Human Soul, the Soul being the "really real" part of a person.
As such, there was much debate beginning in the Middle Ages well into the Reformation about what duties that human individuals owed to the Church and to the State. Do we pay taxes if they are oppressive? Do we fight in wars when Jesus said, "Pray for your enemies?" Is it right to execute people in certain defined situations? Basically, the dilemma boiled down to one question: "What is lawful for a person in his private capacity as a citizen in the Realm of Man, and what is lawful for him to do as a "minster of Christ" in the Realm of God? Conversely, what happens when the two realms come into conflict? Specifically, when the State is asking you to do something that violates your conscience as a Christian? At what point do you not participate, and at what point do you openly rebel?
Though he would not come onto the scene until the 20th Century, this is what Richard Neibuhr was discussing when he set up the dichotomies of how one viewed the Role of Christ in the World. Basically, he came up with several paradigms. Do you see Christ's relation to Culture (or the Realm of Man) as being in or of the culture, being against culture, being above culture. Or do you see Christ transforming culture or being in Paradox with Culture? How you view Christ's relationship to the world largely affects the answer to the questions raised in my prior paragraph. Of course, Neibuhr's paradigms are limited, as real life does not so easily fit into neat academic paradigms, but they are interesting as a tool to understanding people's differing predispositions toward secular authority.
Anabaptists, for example, very much viewed Christ as against culture, and therefore were pacifist and had a tendency to want to create a Utopia unto themselves. Anglicans on the other hand were in a pickle because if the King was also the head of the Church, then the Church was, in some sense, the State. Therefore, the knee jerk reaction by some Anglicans very much tended to have a view that Christ was of the culture. Rebelling against either the Established Church or the Crown was in either capacity a rebellion against God's created order.
As such, the final Articles of Religion wanted to nail down these concepts as being lawful under the Realm of the Crown. Perhaps such things were not ideal, but they were deemed necessary for the proper functioning of the State. It was not against Christian conscience to allow the "things that are Caesar's" to remain in the hands of Caesar, particularly if Caesar is a Christian monarch. That may seem a little warped, but with the baggage of "Divine Right of Kings" on the one hand, and open Protestant rebellion against any and all authority on the other, it does make sense from the time period's perspective.