Hi, I posted the following in the Ask an Apologist section, but I reckoned it was a bit long, so it may not get answered so I said I’d post here too. Hope you guys can help.
I’m an agnostic, interested in early Christianity and lately have been delving into some modern Catholic theology also. Glad you guys are open to new registrations again. I was hoping you guys could shed some light on something I have been pondering for a while.
I’ve been doing a lot of research on how the commands of the Sermon on the Mount were observed in the early Church and by far the deepest I have dug regards oaths [Matthew 5:33-37 cf James 5:12].
In the works of the earliest orthodox ecclesiastical writers, the saying is deemed to be a total prohibition of all oaths. This can be seen in the works of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, Gregory Thaumaturgus, Eusebius, Hilary of Potiers, Basil the Great, Ambrose, Chromatius, Jerome, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory Nyssa, Epiphanius, John Chrysostom, Benedict of Nursia, Salvian, Basil of Seleucia, Didymus the Blind, Rufinus of Aquileia, Isaac the Syrian and Caesarius of Arles (expansive, not exhaustive, citations available). The prohibition can also be found in a plethora of early anonymous/pseudonymous orthodox works (eg. Didascalia, Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, Acts of Pilate, Pseudo-Hippolytus etc.) as well as all throughout the Martyrdom genre (though a strain of attempted, yet dismissed compromise can be found; see Acts of Apollonius, 6 cf. Tertullian, Apology, 32: Swearing is unlawful, even by Christ, will not swear by Genius of Caesar, but will compromise to swear by safety/health of Caesar/ by God that we love Caesar) and though the teachings of those outside of the orthodox traditions such as Ptolemy the Gnostic and Pelagius.
A typical example of the interpretation is found in Justin Martyr, First Apology, 16.5:
And with regard to our not swearing at all, and always speaking the truth, He enjoined as follows: “Swear not at all; but let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these comes of evil.”
Yet towards the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth, this interpretation began to change. The motive for the change seems to stem from both the societal side (Romanisation of Christianity and the use of oaths in civil and daily life) and from the theological side (wide acceptance of Augustine’s Anti-Pelagian writings, which contained a defense of oath taking, based upon Paul and the necessity of swearing).
This interpretation of complete prohibition of all swearing is no longer present in Catholic teaching, nor even is the teaching of Augustine “if you are compelled to swear, know that it comes of a necessity arising from the infirmity of those whom you are trying to persuade of something; which infirmity is certainly an evil” (On the Sermon on the Mount, 51) cf. Aquinas, (S.T., IIa-IIæ, Q. 89 A.2) as this would condemn the Church’s infirmity, e.g. The Oath of Fidelity, Can 380. The Haydock commentary is typical of modern Christian thought on the matter, Catholic, Orthodox and mainstream Protestant alike: “Swear not at all. We must not imagine that here are forbidden all oaths.” The idea of a total prohibition is usually associated with heretics and schismatics, yet the unanimous teaching of the early Church is vastly ignored, barring a small number of critical commentaries and historical studies.
While my primary interest is the study of the early Church, I have been tying it in with modern theology lately. I cannot help but feel that this heavily goes against the typical mantra of “doctrine does not change,” and that it makes the fourth precept of the Oath against Modernism: “I sincerely hold that the doctrine of faith was handed down to us from the apostles through the orthodox Fathers in exactly the same meaning and always in the same purport,” rather ironic. I was hoping a seasoned theologian could rise to the challenge.
The only thing close to dealing with this issue within official Catholic documentation and without, in the Catholic apologist blogosphere is from Pius VI’s condemnation of the Synod of Pistoia, Auctorem fidei, LXXV, which really only condemns the teaching which “proceeds to condemn the oaths which the ecclesiastical curia… adopted”.
The teaching which says that in the happy days of the early Church oaths seemed so foreign to the model of the divine Preceptor and to the golden simplicity of the Gospel that “to take an oath without extreme and unavoidable need had been reputed to be an irreligious act, unworthy of a Christian person,” further, that “the uninterrupted line of the Fathers shows that oaths by common consent have been considered as forbidden”; and from this doctrine proceeds to condemn the oaths which the ecclesiastical curia, having followed, as it says, the norm of feudal jurisprudence, adopted for investitures and sacred ordinations of bishops; and it decreed, therefore, that the law should be invoked by the secular power to abolish the oaths which are demanded in ecclesiastical curias when entering upon duties and offices and, in general, for any curial function, -false, injurious to the Church, harmful to ecclesiastical law, subversive of discipline imposed and approved by the Canons.
Interestingly, elsewhere I have argued the opposite of the Synod of Pistoia, which attempted to reform the Church by reverting to a simpler, stricter Church akin to early Christianity, by arguing that since change can and has occurred, more doctrinal changes may be possible. See here reddit.com/r/Catholicism/comments/3rvuvq/free_friday_can_you_play_a_devils_advocate_to/cws2w0u.
Hope you can shed some light.