Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Reformation-Era Polemics against Anabaptist Oath Refusal

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Reformation-Era Polemics against Anabaptist Oath Refusal

Article excerpt

Abstract: The refusal of Anabaptists to swear oaths elicited a significant theological defense of oath swearing that was sustained throughout the sixteenth century. The literary response to the Anabaptists was cross confessional, including Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican and Roman Catholic authors. This article examines the polemical defense of oath swearing by three Augsburg preachers: the Lutheran Urbanus Rhegius, the Reformed Wolfang Musculus and the Roman Catholic Johannes Faber of Heilbronn. These authors are united in arguing that the Anabaptists made fundamental mistakes as readers of Scripture, interpreting Jesus' prohibition of swearing (Mt. 5:34) as absolute when the prohibition must be interpreted in light of other biblical statements supporting the oath, and in light of the use of oath formulas by the apostle Paul and by Christ himself. The Anabaptist challenge precipitated not only a theological defense of a socially sanctioned practice, but also a more general discussion regarding proper methods of biblical interpretation.


The sixteenth-century Anabaptists were not the first group in church history to challenge the legitimacy of oath swearing on the basis of Christian principles. But the Anabaptist refusal of oaths provoked a long and sustained theological defense of oath swearing unlike any previous treatment of this topic. Sixteenth-century confessions of faith and catechisms frequently include statements regarding the legitimacy of the oath. Article sixteen of the Augsburg Confession states that "it is right for Christians ... to swear oaths when required by magistrates." The Heidelberg Catechism includes the statement that oath swearing is legitimate "when the civil authorities require it of their subjects, or when it is otherwise needed to maintain and promote fidelity and truth, to the glory of God and the welfare of our neighbor." In the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church, article thirty-nine declares that the "Christian religion doth not prohibit but that a man may swear when the magistrate requireth in a cause of faith and charity." (1)

Such confessional statements regarding the oath did not, of course, simply drop out of the sky, but developed in the context of a sixteenth-century struggle between Christian thinkers who were trying to make sense of biblical statements regarding the function and permissability of oaths. By 1527 many Anabaptists were challenging the legitimacy of swearing any oath on the basis of Jesus' words in Matthew 5:34-37: "Do not swear at all ... Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one." They also cited James 5:12 in which the dominical prohibition is repeated: "Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your 'Yes' be yes and your 'No' be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation." (2) The Anabaptists' appeal to such biblical language to challenge the common custom of swearing oaths of allegiance, fealty and loyalty was understood by the magisterial reformers as a political attack on a practice that served to stabilize and unify Christian society. The fact that the Anabaptists appealed to the words of Jesus to justify their seemingly seditious position made the matter all the more urgent. Theologians and preachers responded with numerous treatises that were intended to demonstrate not only the permissibility but even the responsibility of Christian citizens to practice oath swearing.

In 1527 three theologians--Huldrych Zwingli, Johannes Oecolampadius and Urbanus Rhegius--published writings that attempted to refute the Anabaptist views on the oath and on other subjects such as baptism and the role of government. These three writings represent the opening foray in a sustained theological attack on Anabaptist oath refusal that lasted throughout the sixteenth century. (3)

From 1527 to 1602 at least nineteen theologians published writings directed against the Anabaptist rejection of oath swearing. …

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