Thomas Manton — the clerk of the Westminster Assembly — wrote that the Confession together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms presented the “substance of Christianity.” To the modern reader that may be shocking. After all, we might be convinced that the substance of Christianity can be neatly summarized in ten bullet points. A confession of faith that compromises thirty-three chapters of in-depth theology sounds, in the ears of a minimalist, like theological maximalization. Nevertheless, the Westminster Divines understood these documents as confessing and teaching the substance of Christian doctrine, worship, and piety.
Still, it may seem odd that nestled between the chapters on religious worship and the civil magistrate is a chapter on oaths and vows. It’s odd because oaths and vows don’t have a prominent place in most of our lives. Even those things that we sometimes call “vows” aren’t — strictly and confessionally speaking — vows. As Edward Morris wrote in The Theology of the Westminster Symbols: “In an inferior sense engagements, or pledges solemnly made among men, as in the marriage contract, are characterized as vows: acts of special devotion or sacrifice to some cherished interest, personal or public, are sometimes so described” (582). Neglected as oaths and vows are to many of our lives this teaching has, nevertheless, received attention within confessional Protestantism from the Augsburg Confession to the Heidelberg Catechism to the Westminster Confession.
There are, in fact, several practical reasons why this chapter has secured a place in a summary of Christian doctrine, worship, and piety. First, while oaths and vows aren’t a part of ordinary public worship they are a part of religious worship (see WCF 21.5). As a part of worship we need to understand how the Bible regulates oaths and vows. Second, as Chad VanDixhoorn noted in Confessing the Faith, those who have a high view of the State and a Christian’s civic duty will appreciate the teaching and clarity in this chapter. Even today oaths are used for elected offices, to affirm the obligations and conduct of certain professions, and for sworn testimonies. Third, this chapter represents a Protestant response to the serious errors of Roman Catholicism. J.H. Thornwell observed that Rome with its monastic system requiring vows of celibacy and poverty had erred in the truth by will-worship and superstition. He wrote that a teaching on vows needed to be “reclaimed from prostitution and restored to its right place among the functions of the religious life” (Works, 2:569) Finally, vows have a place in the practice of Christian piety. As the Puritan Henry Hurst argued, a well-composed vow will certainly “produce such effects in thy life as will very much conduce to the increase of godliness and righteousness.”
So what is an oath and a vow? The Confession rightly notes that they are of a “like nature” (WCF 22.5). In part, that’s because both oaths and vows are to be used in a reverent and holy way (see WLC Q. 112). Nevertheless, they can be distinguished. The distinction is primarily that an oath is made between man and man in the presence of God as a witness. A vow is a promise made between man and God as the only two contracting parties. Westminster Divine Edward Reynolds wrote: “A vow is a solemn promise […] made unto God” (Works, 4:120). The Confession says: “It is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone” (WCF 22.6). There are other differences as well. An oath, for instance, can be imposed by a lawful authority whereas a vow is to be made voluntarily (WCF 22.6). Again, as Henry Hurst said: “No law or reason can empower any one to enforce a vow upon another.” But, generally speaking, an oath calls on God as a witness and a vow is a particular promise made to him.
Practical as the making of vows are, the Confession not only gives a clear definition but emphasizes the “religious care” with which a vow is to be made and performed. That’s because to break a vow is a violation, as the old writers used to say, of duty and fidelity. It’s a violation of duty because the subject of a vow is “necessary duties” (i.e. those things God commands of us), or those things that help us keep those commandments. It’s a violation of fidelity because a vow “more strictly” binds us to necessary duties (WCF 22.6). For instance, prayer is a necessary duty in the Christian life. Whether I vow to God to pray or not, I’m obligated to pray. But I more strictly bind myself to prayer if I vow it to the Lord. Therefore, to break a vow is not only to transgress the command of God but to be unfaithful in my promise to him. As Edmund Calamy — an active member of the Westminster Assembly — said in his volume A Practical Discourse Concerning Vows, “When I vow anything that is commanded, besides my obligation to that which is the subject of my vow, and the matter of my duty, I am also under another divine obligation to keep my vow.”
Because of the seriousness with which a vow is to be made, it’s not uncommon to find instructions and advice on the making of vows. In one such treatise Tentations: Their Nature, Danger, and Cure, Westminster Divine Richard Capel offers the following advice on the making of vows –:
- The making of vows should accompany Christian maturity. He writes: “There is use and place for vows, and great good they do, but it is a duty fitter for a strong Christian then for every young beginner” (171).
- In the making of vows we should remember Christian freedom. He says: “God loves a willing people, and we should serve him with a free spirit; and vows (which are as shackles) are not to be used but in some cases of some necessity, when otherwise we cannot hold ourselves to some particulars in the worship of God, or in our daily life: and this opinion is not sound (as I think) who saith, that a work done with a vow is more laudable and acceptable, then the same work and duty done without a vow” (171).
- If we cannot fulfill our duty except by the making of a vow, he cautions that we should “be sparing in vowing, since we break many and keep few” (172). Heaping one vow up after another tempts us to break them. Additionally, he writes: “To bind ourselves by perpetual vows is not so convenient, because our nature is even made to break those bonds that we do bind ourselves with for continuance” (172). Interestingly, Calvin argues similarly against the long continuance of vows: “Anyone who obeys my advice will undertake only sober and temporary vows […] If you bind yourself with a perpetual vow, either you will fulfill it with great trouble and tedium, or else, wearied by its long duration, you will one day venture to break it (Institutes, 4.13.6). To this same effect Isaac Ambrose says that we shouldn’t bind ourselves perpetually “lest our vows become a burden to us” (Works, 98).
- We shouldn’t look to ourselves alone for the fulfilling of vows but to that which God has promised ability and assistance for. He writes: “We vow not on our own strength, but only on the power and grace of God: were we to perform the vow by any force, any whit of our own, men should rather vow never to vow, then to vow at all” (175-176).
- The breaking of a vow is a serious sin against both duty and faithfulness. He says: “A vow broken doth punish the heart of a godly man extremely” (171). But, he says, even when we break a vow we “must not spend our spirits too much with hellish melancholy […] The way is to return to the Lord with all speed” (173). Vows aren’t to be made outside of the context of the gospel of grace: “Repentance will come and heal all again” (175). Breaking vows “is a pardonable sin, repentance will take up the matter betwixt God and us and make us as good and perhaps better friends than ever” (176). He concludes by saying: “Our repenting of our breach of promise, is as pleasing to God, and ought to be as comfortable to us, as our not sinning would have been; and God thinks never the worse of us for our breaking one vow, we must not go about to be more just, or more holy than God, we must not think ever the worse of ourselves” (177-178).
Though largely neglected in our modern world, the confessional teaching on vows is an important part of Christian doctrine, worship, and practice. It strengthens our obligations to God in the giving of ourselves — body and soul — to his service. As John Owen wrote: “God help us to look unto it, every one of us in our several places and stations; — there is more in these things than we are aware of” (Works, 9:293).