James E. Bruce

Of Atheists and Oaths

Written by James E. Bruce |
Tuesday, July 11, 2023
The question about atheists and oaths does not need to be resolved by making philosophical arguments about the rational instability of atheism; by exploring sociological data suggesting atheists are an honest bunch; or by offering probabilistic judgments about whether a certain atheist will tell the truth in a particular instance. These questions, though interesting and helpful, do not determine the answer to the question of whether atheists can take oaths in a church court. Instead, we must look to an oath itself. An oath requires God as witness and judge. To suggest that an atheist can offer an oath contravenes the meaning of an oath. We must look to the third commandment.

Should atheists offer testimony before a church court? Given the desirability of truthful testimony, the relevance of the ninth commandment to this question is obvious: Can someone be trusted not to bear false witness against his neighbor, if he refuses to call upon God as witness and judge? That’s an important question, and one we should consider.
But it’s not the most important question. The third commandment is determinative in a way the ninth commandment is not. The Westminster Assembly understood the connection between honoring God’s name and telling the truth in court. Indeed, the word perjury occurs only once in the Westminster Larger Catechism, and the catechism identifies perjury as a sin forbidden by the third commandment, not as a sin forbidden by the ninth.
The most pressing question is not whether an atheist will bear false witness. The most important question is whether we can neglect to require God’s name when we must require it. The third commandment clearly teaches us that we must not walk away from God’s name when it is required. Because an oath is one such instance, atheists should not offer testimony before church courts, so long as church courts require oaths.
Before we consider the importance of the third commandment, let me say something about a question raised by the ninth: Can an atheist speak truthfully about judicial matters, even if doing so will harm his own interests? Here I may differ from those with whom I am in overall agreement. My answer is straightforward: of course. I happily grant that many atheists will tell the truth with great care.
But the question isn’t whether atheists can tell the truth (of course they can) or whether they will tell the truth (presumably many will). The question instead is whether their promise to tell the truth impresses upon them an obligation to tell the truth that is equivalent to a believer’s oath that calls God as witness and judge. The answer to that different, but related, question? Of course not. An oath is greater than a promise, just as a promise is greater than a mere statement. An atheist can recognize the difference between an oath and a promise, even if he believes it is irrational. God does not exist, he may say, but if God did exist, then calling upon him as witness and judge would be a very solemn thing, indeed.
So let’s be clear: The following arguments do not depend upon a characterization of atheists as uniquely horrible or especially prone to lie. On the contrary, the arguments assume that many atheists will tell the truth. The issue is not the moral character of the atheists. The issue is the nature of the oaths themselves, and the third commandment.
Let’s make our case explicit:

Oaths just are statements that call God as witness and judge.
Atheists cannot make statements that call God as witness and judge.
To say atheists can take an oath without calling God as witness and judge is a contradiction, because that’s just what an oath is.
To permit an oath without using God’s name is a violation of the third commandment, because God’s name is required for an oath.

We will assume that everyone agrees with statement 2, that atheists cannot call God as witness and judge. So the first argument focuses on statement 1, on what an oath is. The claim is that a so-called “oath” without God is actually not an oath at all. The conclusion of the first argument, statement 3, follows from the first two statements: To say that an atheist can take an oath is to say that someone who claims not to believe in God can claim to believe in God as witness and judge, which is incoherent.
The second argument focuses on the honor due God’s name. For me, this argument, which concludes with statement 4, is determinative. The first argument shows that calling God as witness and judge is required for an oath. The second argument shows how the third commandment forbids us from neglecting to use God’s name when his name is required. Because oaths require God, we cannot neglect to mention him in them.


First, let’s ask what oaths are. To address this question, let’s think about how we identify anything at all. Usually, we appeal to a thing’s specific difference, that is, what distinguishes what we are talking about from other things that resemble it. For example, if you ask for a spoon, and I give you a knife, you’ll say you want the scooping thing, not the cutting thing. By contrast, if you ask for a spoon, and I bring you a shovel, you’ll say you want a utensil, not a digging tool. We identify things by acknowledging what they resemble and by emphasizing what distinguishes them from everything else.
Back to oaths: What is the specific difference between solemn speech and an oath, between stating something firmly and swearing to it? One word: God. In an oath, someone calls God as witness and judge. Indeed, an oath just is calling God as witness and judge. Put another way, there is no such thing as an oath without God as witness and judge. There is only one kind of oath, the one that calls upon God as witness and judge. Solemn speech that does not appeal to God may be called an oath by others, but calling something an oath does not make it an oath. Calling upon God as witness and judge makes something an oath.
How can I be so clear about oaths? Three things: Scripture, the Westminster Standards, and the practice of oaths in the history of the world.
My case rests considerably more on Scripture and the Standards, but I’ll first say something briefly about history. A survey of pagan oaths offers this concluding remark: “Even if effective military means were at hand, the gods provided the only written sanction. A treaty was not actually in effect unless it involved the solemn affirmation by the divine that one would be faithful to the details of the agreement” (Donald L. Magnetti, “The Function of the Oath in the Ancient Near Eastern International Treaty,” The American Journal of International Law 72:4 (1978), 829). The oaths of the Vulture Stele call upon different gods as witness and judge; one early Mesopotamian king wrote to another saying, “Let us swear a great oath by the gods.” Hundreds of years later, the Hittites made a variety of treaties, which included gods as witnesses as well as curses and blessings. Likewise, the ancient Hippocratic Oath calls upon Apollo and other gods. Rather than taking each century in its turn, let’s move forward to this more recent oath:
I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.
This oath for legislators came from the 1776 constitution of “tolerant Quaker Pennsylvania,” in the words of Mark David Hall. Even the current Pennsylvania constitution offers unique protection against disqualification from office for those who acknowledge “the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments.” God is witness, and God is judge. Other states have more stringent provisions about unbelievers, but these provisions have been unenforceable since Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961). Nevertheless, they offer textual evidence for my claim that the difference between a solemn declaration and an oath just is calling God as witness and judge.
But who cares? We have developed a better political system than the Hittites, and we have progressed beyond Euclidian geometry in mathematics. Why should we cling to a pre-1961 consensus — a consensus the civil authority has itself abandoned — if doing so prevents key witnesses from giving crucial testimony?
First, we are speaking here of church courts. In civil matters, someone who does not believe in God has an externally enforced motivation to tell the truth. The threat of a perjury conviction serves as an incentive to fulfill the requirements of one’s pledge. Even if you do not think God will judge you, the state may, and the amount of information collected on each one of us increases the likelihood that attempts at deceit will be discovered. We can treat civil oaths without God not as actual oaths but as recognitions by testifiers that they will perjure themselves if they testify falsely. Of course, such is not the case for a church court. There is no threat of perjury, and, for the atheist, no threat of excommunication, either. He is not in the church, so he can hardly be expelled from it. By contrast, in the civil realm, the threat of perjury sharpens the mind.
But, most importantly, the Scriptures and the Standards themselves understand oaths as solemn declarations calling God as witness and judge. To define oaths differently is to depart from their clear teaching. We cannot change what something is merely by speaking of it differently. Saying that a woman is a man or a man is a woman does not make it so. Calling a godless promise to tell the truth an oath does not make it an oath.
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Christianity and Equality: Why Bother?

Written by James E. Bruce |
Wednesday, December 7, 2022
There are certain ways of thinking about justice and equality that undermine historic Christian doctrines. People embrace a new kind of equality and then champion a different kind of Christianity, too.

What causes people to leave the church: evolution, the sexual revolution, or something else? Perhaps all of the above. But let me offer an additional reason why people abandon Christianity: equality.Not every kind of equality casts doubts on Christianity’s core doctrines, but some do. Take the most obvious culprit: equality of outcome. If justice demands that everyone receives the same share, then hell is morally intolerable. But equality of outcome has few defenders, even in the academy, so it’s hard to imagine people leaving the church over that.
Equality of opportunity is different. It’s widely embraced, though people mean very different things when they speak about it. Sometimes they want the most talented person to get the job. This kind of equality of opportunity poses no problems for Christianity and is, in fact, supported by it.
But sometimes people use the language of equality to say there is injustice in the inequality itself. Someone may say the problem isn’t that medical school was closed to people because of race, gender, or religion; after all, it isn’t. Doctors just make too much money compared to the rest of us. We don’t need just gross income equality, the complaint runs. Wages need to be fair, or fairer.
This language of fairness highlights the variety of views we hold about justice and equality. In The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt writes about conservatives who were not pleased with previously published research; they told him so in forthright language. The problem? Haidt and his colleagues asked questions about fairness in terms of equality and equal rights.“We therefore found that liberals cared more about fairness,” he writes, “and that’s what had made these economic conservatives so angry at me.” Conservatives think liberals don’t care at all about fairness, as they understand it: “It was the fairness of the Protestant work ethic and the Hindu law of karma: People should reap what they sow.”
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God’s Relationship to the World

Written by James E. Bruce |
Tuesday, December 6, 2022
If God is a father, then preferential, faithful, and self-sacrificial love becomes appropriate, and even expected. Justice will then be God’s faithful commitment to his children — if God relates to the world as a father.

To say God must be the father of all people, you’ll need something stronger than the idea of fatherhood to get there. After all, we are mothers and brothers, teachers and preachers, customers and consumers — but we aren’t everything to everyone.
We have different kinds of relationships, and these relationships vary in scope. When we talk about God’s relationship to the world, we have to keep kind and scope in mind. It’s important to think about these things because what we think about God’s relationship to the world helps explain what we expect from God himself.
Let’s consider two questions about God’s relationship to the world.

First, what kind of relationship does God have with people? Is it judicial? Familial? Economic? Communal? If that sounds complicated, it gets worse: These four categories are not mutually exclusive, so God can relate to the world (or parts of the world) in more than one way.
Second, what’s the scope of God’s relationship to the world? God may have one kind of relationship with all people or only with some people. Or perhaps God has one kind of relationship with all people, but another kind of relationship with only some.

Relationships and Justice
First, what kind of relationship does God have with the world? This question is important! You tell me what kind of relationship you think God has with the world, and I’ll tell you what you think about the justice of God.
If God relates to humanity as a judge, God must punish wrongdoing. Desert, impartiality, and the rule of law will be appropriate categories for thinking about God’s activities and intentions. Justice will mean punishing and rewarding people appropriately — if God relates to the world as a judge.
If God is a father, then preferential, faithful, and self-sacrificial love becomes appropriate, and even expected. Justice will then be God’s faithful commitment to his children — if God relates to the world as a father.
If you think of God as a purveyor of opportunities — for salvation, for example— then an economic model may explain God’s relationship to the world. Justice will focus on whether or not people have the same opportunities, and what opportunity really means — if God is the one who brings opportunity.
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The King of Love is My Shepherd

Written by James E. Bruce |
Thursday, November 24, 2022
Christ the king makes us his people (“in subduing us to himself”); he exercises authority over us (“in ruling”), and he protects us (in “defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies”). Though the exercise of Christ’s kingly office can be said to be judicial in some respect, because he does conquer his enemies (which serves as a kind of punishment), the focus on Christ’s kingship is intimate and familial. More than impartial judgment, we see special love.

God’s special love for his people rather than for everyone fits awkwardly with the spirit of the age. Christians may underplay the exclusivity of divine love for fear of running athwart the following contemporary consensus: God should love everyone, or he should love no one at all.
Indeed, some who call themselves Christians have abandoned the idea of exclusive love altogether, embracing wholeheartedly the maxim that God must love all if he is to love some. But that’s a rejection of the Christian view of the relationship of God to his people, not a modification of it. Jesus teaches his disciples to pray to “Our Father,” and Jesus himself prays, “I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:9b).
This biblical emphasis on exclusive love — regularly elided in Christian conversation about God’s relationship to the world — cannot be avoided. In what follows, we will explore God’s kingship as a way to consider God’s relationship to the world.
God is the King
First, God is king. Psalm 47 speaks of God as “our King” — that is, the king of his own people — and also as “the King of all the earth” — that is, the king of everything. God is a king in a way mere mortal monarchs can only dream. Kings and queens have their own subjects, but not anyone else’s. God is different: His dominion knows no bounds.
God is not the universe’s democratically elected leader, selected according to rules acceptable to rational contractors. God is everyone’s king. He is king over his people, and he is also king over those who are not his people; he is king over his friends, and he is king over his enemies, too.
God rules what he owns, and he owns what he has made — and he has made everything that has been made. “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). Why? “For he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers” (Psalm 24:2). He made it. He owns it. He is king.
The King is a Judge
God isn’t just a king. He’s a good king. Not every king is good. After all, Ahab was a king, too — but a wicked one. So what makes God a good king? A good king is a just king. And God is a just king! If the goodness of God’s kingship requires impartial judgment that looks to desert, then the exercise of God’s kingship will resemble a judge. And God the king is certainly a judge. Indeed, Abraham calls him “the Judge of all the earth” (Genesis 18:25; cf. Isaiah 33:22).
A just king judges well. Indeed, 2 Samuel 8:15 praises David’s reign over all Israel using judicial language: “And David administered justice and equity to all his people.” No wonder: God executes justice impartially (Deuteronomy 10:17–18), and human judges should be like him. They should not be “partial to the poor or defer to the great” (Leviticus 19:15; cf. Exodus 23:3,6). So justice in judgment — for a judge and for a king — is impartial and looks to desert.
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