Tag Archives: Aquinas

Swearing Oaths on Bibles

With the upcoming inauguration of the President of the United States, much ado is being made

Image by Wonderlane, http://www.flickr.com/photos/wonderlane/

Image by Wonderlane, http://www.flickr.com/photos/wonderlane/, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

about the Bibles that will be used for the cermonies. According to an article from ABC News, Obama will be using three different Bibles. For a first, private ceremony, the day before the public inauguration, he’ll use the Robinson family Bible, which has been in the First Lady’s family since 1958. During the public celebration, he’ll swear his oath of office on two Bibles: the one used by Lincoln in 1861 and Martin Luther King’s personal travel Bible. How exactly a person can swear on two Bibles at once is a mystery.

Presidential Oaths on the Bible

George Washington was the first President to swear his oath of office on the Bible. The oath was administered by Robert Livingston, the Chancellor and Grand Master of Masons of the State of New York. It was sworn on a Bible used for Masonic ceremonies at the St. John’s Lodge in New York City. (Oath-taking is a big part of freemasonry. You can read Charles Finney’s condemnation of it here.) This Bible was again used for swearing in Harding, Eisenhower, Carter and George H.W. Bush. It was supposed to be used in 2001 for George W. Bush, but was not because of rain. There is no constitutional requirement that the President use a Bible to swear in, but it is a tradition from the founding. Most interesting is the case of President Franklin Pierce, who “affirmed,” and did not swear his oath of office on a law book, not a Bible. He was a reportedly devout Episcopalian and some sects within the Episcopalian camp objected to oath-taking. So the Constitution built in an option for those who objected to oaths, that they could solemnly “affirm” a commitment rather than swearing an oath.

Objections to Oaths on the Bible

In Matthew 5:34-37, Jesus teaches:

But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,
35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
(Mat 5:34-37 ESV)

And then in James 5:12, we read: “But above all, my brothers, 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. (Jam 5:12 ESV)

On the basis of these two scripture passages, several Christian groups have objected to oath-taking, as against the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. Notably, Mennonites and Quakers have objected to oath-taking on these grounds. The problem, suggested by both of these passages, is that oath-taking seems to imply a double standard for truth telling, even to hint that under regular circumstances one is not obliged to faithfully tell the truth.

In fact, in Leo XIII’s condemnation of Freemasonry, which forbids Catholics from becoming Masons, he highlights the objectionable oaths of Masons:

“Candidates are generally commanded to promise – nay, with a special oath, to swear – that they will never, to any person, at any time or in any way, make known the members, the passes, or the subjects discussed. Thus, with a fraudulent external appearance, and with a style of simulation which is always the same, the Freemasons, like the Manichees of old, strive, as far as possible, to conceal themselves, and to admit no witnesses but their own members.” (Humanum Genus, 1884)

Now, what do Catholics have to say about oaths, especially oaths on Bibles?

A Catholic View of Oath-Taking

Catholics have a lot of oaths. Married persons take vows at their weddings, religious persons profess vows in special ceremonies, priests take vows at their ordination ceremonies. In addition, Pope Pius X commanded that all priests take the “Oath Against Modernism.” Catholic theology teachers often take the “Oath of Fidelity” to promise to hold to Catholic teaching–interestingly, the Oath includes placing one’s hands on the Book of the Gospels. The Catholic Encyclopedia takes a rather sanguine view of oath-taking and describes its various forms.

Thomas Aquinas has quite a lot to say about oaths (ST II-II, q. 89). He teaches that is “in itself lawful and commendable.” In specific, he cites, Hebrews 6:16-17, “For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath” (Heb 6:16-17 ESV). From this example, we see a New Testament author mentioning oaths as a normal part of life, without condemnation. Also, the author to the Hebrews insists that God himself makes an oath, swearing by himself (see earlier in Hebrews 6 for context). Now, to the problem of the Bible passages I listed above (Matt 5:33-37 and James 5:12), Thomas quotes Jerome and Augustine:

Reply to Objection 1.Jerome, commenting on Matthew 5:34, says: “Observe that our Saviour forbade us to swear, not by God, but by heaven and earth. For it is known that the Jews have this most evil custom of swearing by the elements.” Yet this answer does not suffice, because James adds, “nor by any other oath.” Wherefore we must reply that, as Augustine states (De Mendacio xv), “when the Apostle employs an oath in his epistles, he shows how we are to understand the saying, ‘I say to you, not to swear at all’; lest, to wit, swearing lead us to swear easily and from swearing easily, we contract the habit, and, from swearing habitually, we fall into perjury. Hence we find that he swore only when writing, because thought brings caution and avoids hasty words.” (Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 89, a. 2)

Augustine’s argument is rather weak. He argues that Scripture forbids something just to help us avoid the habit of it. I hope he wouldn’t say the same thing about murder or adultery! The Catechism of the Catholic Church does a better job explaining:

2154 Following St. Paul,83 The tradition of the Church has understood Jesus’ words as not excluding oaths made for grave and right reasons (for example, in court). “An oath, that is the invocation of the divine name as a witness to truth, cannot be taken unless in truth, in judgment, and in justice.”84

The citations in there are to 2 Cor 1:23, “But I call God to witness against me– it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth” (2Co 1:23 ESV), where Paul actually takes an oath in writing; and to Galatians 1:20, “(In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)” (Gal 1:20 ESV), where the same thing happens. The last citation is to the Code of Canon Law 1198, which has lots of rules concerning oaths. For example, an oath becomes non-binding if the thing sworn becomes evil.

So it seems, from a Catholic perspective, that oaths can only be sworn by God (e.g., “so help me God”) and can only be done for serious reasons. Oaths should not be taken lightly. Swearing an oath on the Gospels is part of an official Catholic ritual, so swearing oaths on Bibles does not seem objectionable. One must constantly keep in mind the gravity of the oath and one’s obligation to fulfill it.

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St. Thomas Aquinas Sixteen Precepts for Acquiring Knowledge

About six years ago, I did a post on St. Thomas Aquinas’ “16 Precepts for Acquiring Knowledge.”  The precepts are from a letter that Aquinas wrote to a certain “John.” Now, some scholars doubt the authenticity of the precepts and I’m no Medievalist to argue over such things, so I’ll leave that up to you. I first became interested in the precepts upon reading A. G. Sertillanges’ book, The Intellectual Life, which is loosely based on the precepts. Last year, I used the precepts in an introductory course that I co-taught and for lack of a standard translation out there, I did my own. I’ll provide the Latin alongside my translation here so you can judge whether it’s a good one or whether there are errors. I hope you all find it useful. And this is the only place you’ll find it on the whole internet.

St. Thomas Aquinas

Sixteen Precepts for Acquiring Knowledge (De modo studendi)

Because it was asked of me, John, my beloved in Christ, how you ought to study in the in acquiring of a treasury of knowledge, such counsel is delivered to you by me:

  1. That by rivulets, and not immediately into the sea, we choose to enter, because by the easier we must come at the more difficult. This is my warning then and your instruction:
  2. I bid you to be slow to speak
  3. and slow in coming to the place of talking.
  4. Embrace purity of conscience.
  5. Do not cease to pray.
  6. Love to keep to your cell on a regular basis if you wish to be admitted to the wine cellar.
  7. Show yourself amiable to all.
  8. Pay no heed to others’ affairs.
  9. Do not be overly familiar with anyone, because excessive familiarity breeds contempt and yields subtraction from the ability to study.
  10. In no way enter into the sayings and doings of secular persons.
  11. Above all, flee conversation; do not omit to imitate the footsteps of the saints and the good.
  12. Do not consider from whom you learn,
  13. but commit to memory whatever good is said.
  14. It is the same with what you read and hear, work so that you may understand; resolve each of your doubts.
  15. And busy yourself to store whatever you are able in the closet of your mind, as desiring to fill a vessel.
  16. do not seek what is too high for you.

 

Following these footsteps, you will put forth and bear branches and fruit in the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts as long as you have life. If you pursue this, you will be able to obtain that which you desire.

Quia quaesisti a me, in Christo mihi carissime Ioannes, qualiter te studere oporteat in thesauro scientiae acquirendo, tale a me tibi traditur consilium:

  1. ut per rivulos, non statim in mare, eligas introire, quia per faciliora ad difficiliora oportet devenire. Haec est ergo monitio mea et instructio tua.
  2. Tardi loquum te esse iubeo
  3. et tarde ad locutorium accedentem;
  4. conscientiae puritatem amplectere.
  5. Orationi vacare non desinas;
  6. cellam frequenter diligas si vis in cellam vinariam introduci.
  7. Omnibus te amabilem exhibe;
  8. nihil quaere penitus de factis aliorum;
  9. nemini te multum familiarem ostendas, quia nimia familiaritas parit contemptum et subtractionis a studio materiam subministrat;
  10. de verbis et factis saecularium nullatenus te intromittas;
  11. discursus super omnia fugias; sanctorum et bonorum imitari vestigia non omittas;
  12. non respicias a quo audias,
  13. sed quidquid boni dicatur, memoriae recommenda;
  14. ea quae legis et audis, fac ut intelligas; de dubiis te certifica;
  15. et quidquid poteris in armariolo mentis reponere satage, sicut cupiens vas implere;
  16. altiora te ne quaesieris.

 

 

 

Illa sequens vestigia, frondes et fructus in vinea domini Sabaoth utiles, quandiu vitam habueris, proferes et produces. Haec si sectatus fueris, ad id attingere poteris, quod affectas.

Latin text: Thomas Aquinas, De modo studendi (Textum Taurini, 1954), Corpus Thomisticum, http://www.josephkenny.joyeurs.com/CDtexts/Latin/ModoStud%28false%29.htm (accessed June 29, 2011). Translation is mine. Copyright 2011 CatholicBibleStudent.com.

I should note that the “wine cellar” (cellam vinarium) in Precept #6 is a quotation from the Vulgate rendering of Song of Songs 2:4, “introduxit me in cellam vinariam ordinavit in me caritatem” (He brought me into the wine cellar, he ordered charity in me). This little idea, which in the Hebrew is closer to “house of wine” and dynamically, “banquet hall,” becomes important in Medieval spiritual reading of the Song.

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A House of Wine in the Song of Songs

I was reading the Hebrew of the Song of Songs and notice ??? ???? (the beit hayyayin) in Song 2:4. I thought, “Wait a second! I didn’t remember a ‘House of Wine’ in the Song.” So, I took a look at the English translations and most of them are lousy. Most of them have things like “banqueting house” (ESV, JPS, KJV, RSV, NRSV), “banquet hall” (NAB, NASB, NIV). The Latin has “cellam vinarium” which the Douay-Rheims dutifully translates as “cellar of wine.” This reminds me of St. Thomas’ injunction regarding the mystic wine cellar in his Sixteen Precepts, which I wrote about a while back. Only the translations of the Septuagint get it right as “wine house” (at least Brenton’s translation). So what’s the deal?! Clearly, we clearly have a “house of wine” here and every translation opts for some kind of bizarre dynamic equivalence. Frustrating. My tendency is to believe that the KJV translators were prejudiced against wine drinking and all the more recent translations followed suit. Well, next time anyone asks, you’ll know that a House of Wine is to be found in the regions of the Song of Songs.

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The 33 Doctors of the Church

Who are the 33 doctors of the Church? Well, I was wondering too, so here they are:

1. St. Athanasius
2. St. Ephrem
3. St. Cyril of Jerusalem
4. St. Hilary of Poitiers
5. St. Gregory Nazianzen
6. St. Basil the Great
7. St. Ambrose
8. St. Jerome
9. St. John Chrysostom
10. St. Augustine
11. St. Cyril of Alexandria
12. St. Leo the Great
13. St. Peter Chrysologus
14. St. Gregory the Great
15. St. Isidore of Seville
16. St. Bede the Venerable
17. St. John Damascene
18. St. Peter Damian
19. St. Anselm
20. St. Bernard of Clairvaux
21. St. Anthony of Padua
22. St. Albert the Great
23. St. Bonaventure
24. St. Thomas Aquinas
25. St. Catherine of Siena
26. St. Teresa of Avila
27. St. Peter Canisius
28. St. Robert Bellarmine
29. St. John of the Cross
30. St. Lawrence of Brindisi
31. St. Francis de Sales
32. St. Alphonsus Ligouri
33. St. Therese of Lisieux

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My Inspirations #2: St. Thomas Aquinas

Life: 1225-1274
Profession: Friar, Theologian, Philosopher

St. Thomas was prolific to say the least. His most important work is the very famous Summa Theologica which attempts to sum up all of Christian theology concisely. I mean, it’s only five thick volumes. That’s not too bad, right?

The reason I enjoy Thomas is that he is a very systematic and honest thinker. He makes no bones about impressing people. He simply writes and argues through every bit of truth. He forces himself to honestly answer the toughest challenges to his own arguments. I wouldn’t say that most of his work is terribly enjoyable to read, but it certainly is profound. He goes over all sorts of questions and topics, but he approaches everything from within his whole system of thought. He doesn’t leave anything hanging.

I have read a decent amount of Thomas, but no one can read enough and few, if any, have ever read everything. His theology has become the gold standard of Catholic theology for the ages. While there are parts of his system that many contemporary thinkers have taken issue with, Pope Leo XIII encouraged Catholics to look to Thomas’ philosophy and theology in Aeterni Patris (1879).

There are some fun stories about Thomas Aquinas. I will relate a couple to you.

1.) One time a brother friar of his came into the place where Thomas was praying and found him levitating and looking intently at a crucifix. The corpus on the cross came to life and asked Thomas if there was anything he wanted in all the world in return for his theological work. And the saint replied simply, “Just more of you.” (I have not source-checked this story. So if anyone has any sources for it, please comment below.)

2.) It is said that St. Thomas was so fat that a half-circle had to be cut out of the table where he normally ate. (Also, not checked)

3.) Thomas was of a noble family and his family members were none too happy when he announced he wanted to be a Dominican friar, so they locked him in a tower and sent in a prostitute to steal away his purity. (This is the stuff of legend.) Supposedly, Thomas chased her out of his room with a hot poker from the fireplace and was later lowered from the tower in a basket.

A few little factoids about St. Thomas: He studied in Sicily where he met people from across the Mediterranean, including Muslims. He was good friends with St. Bonaventure and received his doctorate at the same ceremony as Bonaventure. He died in transit to the Fifth Lateran Council in 1274–the same year Bonaventure died. He was tall and large and quiet so he got the nickname “Dumb Ox.” He taught at the University of Paris. He wrote the “Panis Angelicus,” sung as a sequence for the feast of Corpus Christi.

——
Books about St. Thomas Aquinas that I have read:
St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox by G.K. Chesterton
-This book is a short introduction to Thomas’ life and thought. I found it fun to get into the spirit of his thought, but it does not give a lot of the biographical details you expect from a biography. It’s not really a biography, but a portrait. I also find Chesterton’s prose to be rather laborious sometimes.

Knowing the Love of Christ by Matthew Levering and Michael Dauphinais.
-This short book is a helpful introduction to the Summa Theologica. It presents Thomas’ thought as a unity and tries to outline the content to orient the new reader before he dives in and gets lost in the labyrinth of the Summa.
——-
Websites about St. Thomas Aquinas:
The Wikipedia Article
A Bibliography of Aquinas’ works in English
Complete Works of St. Thomas Aquinas in Latin
Works by Aquinas on CCEL

Updated! 12-3-2007
Aquinas Bible Commentaries
Texts by and about Aquinas at archive.org
——-

Many books have been written about his thought–too many. In fact there are whole schools of thought and journals just about “Thomistic” thought. So be careful. Don’t get lost in the shuffle. Thomas is good to read, but you have to take it slow and use easy introductory material to prevent you from getting lost!

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Thomas Aquinas’ “16 Precepts for Acquiring Knowledge”

Since I am a student and a Catholic one at that, I try to learn how to be a better student constantly. Thomas Aquinas once wrote a letter to a certain Brother John about the principles of good study. Aquinas lays out his philosophy of how to study. A lot of it has to do with avoiding social contact, which I find more applicable to a more monastic approach to study. It should be noted that Aquinas was not a monk, but a mendicant. Yet he did live a religious life in community as a priest. Despite the hermit/monk flavor of some of the precepts, this list is extremely helpful in learning to think like a professional. Some of the shortest maxims are the most helpful. Let me know what you think of it.

“My Very Dear Brother,
Since you have asked me how you ought to study in order to amass the treasures of knowledge, listen to the advice which I am going to give you.
As a mere stripling,

1. Advance up the streams, and do not all at once plunge into the deep: such is my caution, and your lesson. I bid you to

2. Be chary of speech,

3. Slower still in frequenting places of talk:

4. Embrace purity of conscience,

5. Pray unceasingly,

6. Love to keep to your cell if you wish to be admitted into the mystic wine-cellar.

7. Show yourself genial to all:

8. Pay no heed to other folk’s affairs:

9. Be not over-familiar with any person, because over-much familiarity breeds contempt, and gives occasion to distraction from study.

10. On no account mix yourself up with the sayings and the doings of persons in the outside world.

11. Most of all, avoid all useless visits, but try rather to walk constantly in the footsteps of good and holy men.

12. Never mind from whom the lesson drops, but

13. Commit to memory whatever useful advice may be uttered.

14. Give an account to yourself of your every word and action:

15. See that you understand what you hear, and never leave a doubt unsolved:

16. Lay up all you can in the storehouse of memory, as he does who wants to fill a vase. ‘Seek not the things which are beyond thee’.

Following these ways, you will your whole life long put forth and bear both branches and fruit in the vineyard of the Lord of Sabaoth. If you take these words to heart, you will attain your desire.”

-Sixteen Precepts for Acquiring the Treasure of Knowledge by St. Thomas Aquinas

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