Presbyterians of the Past

Bearing False Witness & History

If you were asked what the ninth commandment says, you might answer, “Don’t tell lies.” One popular paraphrase of the Bible says just that in Exodus 20:16, “Do not tell lies about others.” The ninth commandment does prohibit lying, but the exposition of the commandment found in the Westminster catechisms expands on the meaning of lying. In historical writing, it is important to present people, places, and events as accurately as possible.

Q. 76. Which is the ninth commandment?

A. The ninth commandment is, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”

Q. 77. What is required in the ninth commandment?

A. The ninth commandment requireth the maintaining and promoting of truth between man and man, and of our own and our neighbor’s good name, especially in witness-bearing.

Q. 78. What is forbidden in the ninth commandment?

A. The ninth commandment forbiddeth whatsoever is prejudicial to truth, or injurious to our own or our neighbor’s good name.

The Shorter Catechism provides the meaning of the commandment in brief, but the Larger Catechism develops the requirements more fully.

Q. 144. What are the duties required in the ninth commandment?

A. The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor, as well as our own; appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever; a charitable esteem of our neighbors; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for and covering of their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; discouraging talebearers, flatterers, and slanderers; love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth; keeping of lawful promises; studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.

Q. 145. What are the sins forbidden in the ninth commandment?

A. The sins forbidden in the ninth commandment are, all prejudicing the truth, and the good name of our neighbors, as well as our own, especially in public judicature; giving false evidence, suborning false witnesses, wittingly appearing and pleading for an evil cause, outfacing and overbearing the truth; passing unjust sentence, calling evil good, and good evil; rewarding the wicked according to the work of the righteous, and the righteous according to the work of the wicked; forgery, concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others; speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end, or perverting it to a wrong meaning, or in doubtful or equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of the truth or justice; speaking untruth, lying, slandering, backbiting, detracting, talebearing, whispering, scoffing, reviling, rash, harsh, and partial censuring; misconstructing intentions, words, and actions; flattering, vainglorious boasting, thinking or speaking too highly or too meanly of ourselves or others; denying the gifts and graces of God; aggravating smaller faults; hiding, excusing, or extenuating of sins, when called to a free confession; unnecessary discovering of infirmities; raising false rumors, receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defense; evil suspicion; envying or grieving at the deserved credit of any; endeavoring or desiring to impair it, rejoicing in their disgrace and infamy; scornful contempt, fond admiration; breach of lawful promises; neglecting such things as are of good report, and practicing, or not avoiding ourselves, or not hindering what we can in others, such things as procure an ill name.

Is there anything the Westminster Assembly missed as it expounded the commandment? Even though this list is extensive, it is not complete because the depth of Scripture cannot be plumbed. Obedience to the Law is impossible for the Christian in this life, but the Lord nevertheless said, “Be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Absolute perfection; perfectly perfect; no jots or tittles transgressed. Is there any hope? Martin Luther said an aspect of the Law is it acts as a schoolmaster by exposing sin and turning people to Christ for redemption from their hopeless situations. When Christ said to be perfect, it was a requirement he met fully and as the perfect lamb he atoned for the sin of his people. The catechisms are evangelistic in their presentation of the commandments because the overwhelming requirements listed in the answers lead readers through the Holy Spirit to relief in Christ. The Lord was and is perfect having fulfilled the ninth commandment even beyond the detailed presentation in the catechisms.

Thomas Watson (1620-1686) was a Presbyterian living in England during the era when the Westminster Assembly met. He was a puritan that was against the execution of King Charles I and was suspected by the roundheads of being a royalist (cavalier). When he wrote about bearing false witness, he undoubtedly had experience being on the receiving end of slander against him given his imprisonment. As he opened his exposition of the ninth commandment in A Body of Divinity, he said —

The tongue which at first was made to be an organ of God’s praise, is now become an instrument of unrighteousness. This commandment binds the tongue to its good behavior. God hath set two fences to keep in the tongue, the teeth and lips; and this commandment is a third fence set about it, that it should not break forth into evil; thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

Using human anatomy Watson expressed the meaning of James 3:9 when he exposed the dangers of the tongue saying, “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the image of God.” And then as he concluded his comments on the ninth commandment, Watson added—

The mandatory part of this commandment implied: that is, that we should stand up for others and vindicate them, when they are injured by lying lips. This is the sense of the commandment, not only that we should not slander or falsely accuse others, but that we should witness for them, and stand up in their defense, when we know them to be traduced.

There is much more to the ninth commandment than telling someone a lie. The commandment is concerned with being true and defending truth in all areas of life. As a historian, I am concerned that I portray accurately the people I write about. My ability to be fair is a function of the sources of information available. An individual such as theologian Charles Hodge has considerable collections of primary source material archived for examination and an abundance of secondary literature. Other people I have written about are not so fortunate when it comes to sources. Sometimes I have to write based on the assessment of a subject’s contemporaries in secondary literature, but these sources are sometimes prejudiced, some openly so, while others are less obvious about their slants. A good historian does not want to misrepresent, sully, or defame someone from the past and transgress the ninth commandment. Sometimes it becomes difficult to be honest about people of the past because during research aspects of their lives are found to be unattractive, even reprehensible, but the ninth commandment still needs to be remembered. The dead cannot defend themselves, so historians have a responsibility to protect their integrity, and what is true for the reputations of the dead applies to the living as well.

Barry Waugh

Notes—The header is used courtesy of Reformation Art.  The Larger Catechism title page is from The Confession of Faith, Together with the LARGER and LESSER CATECHISMS. Composed by the Reverend ASSEMBLY OF DIVINES, Sitting at Westminster, Presented to both Houses of PARLIAMENT. London, Printed by E. M. for the Company of Stationers, and are to be sold by John Rothwel at the Fountain in Cheapside. 1658.

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