Our text here is Genesis 31:44-54
So now come, let us cut a covenant, you and I, and let it be a witness between you and me.” Then Jacob took a stone and raised it up as a pillar. And Jacob said to his relatives, “Gather stones.” So they took stones and made a heap, and they ate there by the heap. And Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed. Then Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me this day.” Therefore it was named Galeed, and Mizpah, for he said, “May Yahweh watch between you and me when we are absent one from the other. If you afflict my daughters, or if you take wives besides my daughters, although no man is with us, see, God is witness between you and me.” And Laban said to Jacob, “Behold this heap and behold the pillar which I have set between you and me. This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass by this heap to you for harm, and you will not pass by this heap and this pillar to me for harm. The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.” So Jacob swore by the dread of his father Isaac. Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain and called his relatives to eat a meal; and they ate the meal and spent the night on the mountain.
There are several features to note about this episode:
(1) In the immediate context Laban was looking for his idols from Jacob which Rachel had stolen. God could even speak to Laban in his dream. Thus, clearly we are dealing here with a covenant between those who worship Abraham’s God and polytheists.
(2) It is also clear that there is such a thing as natural religion, which at the minimum provides enough revelation for a sort of henotheism, and which seems to be sufficient for forming a social compact or covenant between different peoples.
(3) It is interesting that they swore not only by the “God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father”. Thus, this isn’t strictly by the God of Abraham but the God of the grandfather of Abraham (Nahor) and *his* father above him. The idea as such is that one can find “common ground”, as it were, by locating the God of their common ancestry or origins.
(4) As such, it seems to me, that if we simply go back far enough, we can simply invoke the God of all our fathers, back to creation, as the common Divine Creator whereby we can invoke to mutually bind the two parties in a covenant or oath, despite theological differences between the parties.
It maybe objected that while we may use the same words “the God of our forefathers” to seal a covenant, pagans may have a different subjective understanding of those words, as such, the word does not refer to “the same” God. It is the purpose of the next section as such to delve a little into the philosophy of language, especially from the analytic side, and see how the referent of words could be fixed independently of our subjective understanding.
A Philosophical Analysis of the Referent of Words
It is now a standard conceptual toolbox in analytic philosophy to make a distinction between “sense” and “reference”. The usual go to example here is the difference between the “Morning Star” and the “Evening Star”. Ancient astronomers have observed what seems like two different stars which appear very differently in the sky, the Morning Star, and the Evening Star, and for some time it was believed that they were two different stars. However subsequent observation established that they in fact the same star, Venus, they merely appeared differently at different times of the day.
Now, while the terms “Morning Star” and “Evening Star” *refers* to the same object, i.e. Venus, they obviously do not have the same *sense*, they are not synonymous with one another, and no amount of semantic analysis or studying the words themselves will lead one to infer that the Morning Star refers to the same planet as the Evening Star. To establish that they refer to the same thing took astronomical observation, not philosophical speculation. Likewise, the phrases “the sum of 1 and 1” and “the definite integral of x from 0 to 2” refers to the same number, 2, but they obviously do not have the same sense, while a toddler can understand the former, secondary school calculus is needed to understand the latter.
As such, it is possible to *talk about* something, or *refer* to something, while not knowing its inferential meaning or implications, or even having the same “concept” in mind if “concept” were understood in some subjective sense.
There are many theories in analytic philosophy concerning how words refer to things, etc. I happen to favour a “causal theory of reference” account, or some hybrid of it, where the referent of words are fixed by a causal connection between the thing and the word. But so that my argument will not rest on controversial philosophical theses, I would just argue at the surface level by using examples without engaging the meta-issues.
Now, back to God. Let’s go to the signing of the Westphalian Treaties, the parties covenant “In the name of the most holy and individual Trinity.” Suppose however in their minds they hold two divergent beliefs about God:
(1) The Protestant party believes that the Triune God is “the God who condemns the invocation of saints”.
(2) The Roman party on the other hand believes that the Triune God is the “God who commends and rewards the faithful for invoking the saints.”
We can raise two questions: (a) Do they believe in “the same God” and (b) Have they covenanted “under” “the same God”?
With respect (a), obviously (1) and (2) cannot refer to the same God, they are directly contradictory with one another. But how would these different subjective beliefs about God affect their covenant? Would the covenant be meaningless since they subjectively hold divergent views on God?
I would suggest that, holding to the distinction between sense and referent, we can argue that the parties may have different subjective understanding of the Trinity, but the word “Trinity” itself has an objective referent, and most importantly, it refers to the same entity notwithstanding the parties different subjective understanding of God. Covenants bind and are meaningful by virtue of the text which have an objective referent, notwithstanding the subjective beliefs which the parties may have concerning the broader implications of the text.
We can as such project this point, without loss of generality, to basically any pagan, heathen, or henotheist (I’ll explain this later). If on the covenant itself we took an oath, “in the name of the God who made our ancestor” or “in the name of God the Creator of all mankind”, then we would have successfully referred to the same God, notwithstanding the parties different understanding of the “the God who made our ancestor”.
However, can we truly tolerate just about *any* belief concerning the God under whom we covenant? Surely there must be some limits. I would accept that there must be a basic framework for covenants to work at all, however, this has to do with the nature and purpose of covenants itself rather than anything to do whether some beliefs are “essential” to who God is compared to whether some beliefs are peripheral, etc, as if differing views on the filioque or divine simplicity would annul a covenant.
On this point I would refer us to an interesting 18th century English case, Omychund v. Barker, where the question of whether an “infidel’s deposition” or oath, by a Hindu, could be recognised by a Christian court. While it is their conclusion that it is valid, and they discussed oaths in the Bible at some length, what is more interesting for our purpose are the minimum background beliefs they laid down for accepting an infidel’s oath:
Though I have shewn that an Infidel in general cannot be excluded from being a witness, and though I am of opinion that infidels who believe a God, and future rewards and punishments in the other world, may be witnesses ; yet I am as clearly of opinion. that if they do not believe a God, or future rewards and punishment, they ought not to be admitted as witnesses.
So, they have to first obviously believe that there is a God, and second, they need to believe that there is future rewards and punishments. As such, it is clear that for a covenant to have binding effect under God, the parties concerned must hold certain beliefs about the God under whom they covenant, first and foremost, that God obviously will hold them to the terms of the covenant. We can proceed to sketch out as a preliminary the following “background beliefs” about God:
(A) That God is Almighty and has the power to punish infractions of oaths and reward keeping the same, whether in this life or the next.
(B) That God providentially has “sacralised” words such that terms of a covenant have objective referents, that words have meanings to which the parties can be held to answer for. It’s not a Humpy-Dumpty scenario where it means whatever each individual party wants it to mean.
(C) That God cares about the Truth, and cares about His Name, to be willing to do something about invoking his name in vain or breaking the terms of a covenant made in his name.
Point (A) pretty much ensures some form of Henotheism, you can believe in as many gods as you wish as long as you hold that there is one supreme Almighty God who has the power to hold the parties to account for their words. They can’t be rescued, as it were, by some other gods whisking them away from their oath.
Point (B) makes certain assumptions about the structure of reality and humanity, and that God has, providentially, in some sense, given man the power of speech, to be able to name and identify things, and reality is “fitted” for human language. Thus, God can hold us to account for what we say because of the power of words.
Finally Point (C) is the final piece which says that God cares enough about his Name and the Truth to enforce the terms of the covenant.
No doubt we can add to this list, but the main point of this list isn’t about identifying essential attributes or accidental attributes or whatever, the point of this list is for the very specific purpose of identifying the belief structure which ensures that people will be motivated to keep to the terms of the covenant.
There is naturally a lot more we can discuss about the divine interest in oath keeping, truth and language, along with meaning and intentionality, but I believe these provide sufficient material at least for the philosophical framework for making oaths with non-Christians.