The Larger Catechism's Ninth Commandment: A Case Study in Confessional Hermeneutic

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Recently the Westminster Larger Catechism's treatment of the Ninth Commandment (particularly Q. 144) has become an issue in some conservative Presbyterian presbyteries.  For example, last fall my own ARP presbytery voted to establish an ad hoc committee "to draft a code of online conduct for ministers and ruling elders, with a special reference to the Westminster Larger Catechism's teachings on the ninth commandment (WLC 143-145)," and (for my sins, no doubt) I was appointed to serve on it.  The context of the action suggests that it may have been occasioned by a particular member of the presbytery whose Internet blog has sought with considerable gusto to expose what he takes to be the institutional foibles of the denomination. 


But such use of the Larger Catechism is not confined to the ARP Church.  I recently spoke with a PCA minister/blogster involved in a doctrinal controversy, and he told me that he had been threatened with ecclesiastical charges on the basis of WLC Q. 144.   Thus Q. 144 of the Larger Catechism now seems to be one of two tools falling to hand among those who seek to silence ecclesiastical whistleblowers, the other being the now nearly ubiquitous appeals to Matthew 18:15-20 (for some thoughts on this, see here).


But is this a proper use of the Larger Catechism's treatment of the ninth commandment ("Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor")?  As I reflected on the matter, I came to the decided conclusion that it is not.  More specifically, I realized that such attempts to deploy the WLC as grounds for ecclesiastical discipline are neither practical nor appropriate, and that such usage stands in considerable tension with the Standards themselves.


Given that the intent seems to be to silence those who raise public questions about the doctrinal orthodoxy and behavior of others, it is not surprising that attention has focused on language from Q. 144: "The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbour, 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 neighbours; 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 tale-bearers, flatterers, and slanderers; love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth; keeping of lawful promises; studying and practising of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report."


A close examination of the Larger Catechism suggests, however, that that document should not and cannot be used in this fashion.  The Larger Catechism was framed as a catechetical document, not as a set of grounds for discipline.  As the Westminster divines themselves noted, it was intended "to be a directory for catechising such as have made some proficiency in the knowledge of the grounds of religion."   Thus, we might say that the Larger Catechism is a fine tool for uncovering sin in ourselves and a considerably less serviceable one for judging others. 


One problem we face here is hermeneutical.  Confessional documents must be interpreted, and part of the hermeneutical (interpretive) challenge here has to do with bridging the historical and cultural gap between the Westminster divines and ourselves.  When many contemporary conservative Presbyterians (especially in the American South) read the language of WLC Q. 144 above, they tend to read it through the lenses of the American southern "culture of niceness," and through an ecclesiastical culture that since the nineteenth century has been, as historian Ann Douglas trenchantly demonstrated in The Feminization of American Culture, increasingly sentimentalized and feminized.  Thus, in many church circles we tend to shy away from overt conflict, regard any direct confrontation as inappropriate, and avoid the public airing of dirty laundry at all costs.  In this way, the ninth commandment comes to be seen as more about "niceness" than about truth. 


But the Scriptural writers were not hampered by such a culture of niceness.  Many examples could be cited, but the following will suffice.  The prophet Elijah publicly mocked the 450 prophets of Baal, even to the point of lampooning their alleged god's bathroom habits (1 Kings 18:27).  The prophet Amos described the self-indulgent matrons of Samaria as "cows of Bashan" (Amos 4:1).  The prophet Micah excoriates the corrupt leaders of Judah as cannibals (Micah 3:1-12).  Turning to the New Testament, Jesus himself blasted the Pharisees as "hypocrites," "blind guides," "whitewashed tombs," and a "brood of vipers" (Matthew 23).  The Apostle Paul was no shrinking violet either.  He calls down a curse on Judaizing false teachers (Galatians 1:8-9) and he even suggests that they surgically emasculate themselves (Galatians 5:12).  Moreover, Paul's so-called "Fool's Speech" in 2 Corinthians rings with bitter irony and sarcasm (see esp. 2 Corinthians 11:16-21), and the repeated condemnations of false teachers in the church throughout the New Testament can scarcely be described as "nice," though they are necessary and important. 


We see similar patterns in church history.  Here we recall the bitter condemnations of the heretic Arius by the great church father Athanasius of Alexandria, the excoriations of error by Epiphanius of Salamis (the "hammer of heretics"), the vituperative exchanges between Luther and Thomas More, Luther's witty characterizations of his opponents (e.g., his description of Andreas Karlstadt as thinking he had "swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all"), and Calvin's entertaining descriptions of his theological opponents (e.g., "that barking dog Pighius").  Even the Puritan controversial literature (e.g., the pamphlets of a William Prynne) tends to be more robust than what many of us might be comfortable with today.  Our purpose here is not to justify each and every one of these examples from church history.  Rather, the point is that today's conventional culture of niceness cannot be imposed on Scripture and upon church history, and it ought not to be imposed on Christians today as a binding obligation by means of an ahistorical and untenable reading of the Larger Catechism. 


The second problem is that the Larger Catechism does not lend itself to such use, and severe problems quickly result when it is pressed into the service of policing use of the Internet.  When used in this way we quickly find that the Larger Catechism is a double-edged sword.  For example, those accused of a lack of charity on the basis of LC Q. 144 might well respond with charges drawn from Q. 145: "The sins forbidden in the ninth commandment are . . . 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 . . . 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."  In other words, the WLC needs to be treated as a whole, and problems emerge when specific passages are lifted out of that larger context. 


Another aspect of this problem has to do with the fact that the Larger Catechism expresses in its exposition of the Ten Commandments some views that are shared by few Christians today.  For example, in its treatment of the second commandment ("Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image") it forbids any pictorial representation of God (i.e., pictures of Jesus) and even the forming of mental images of Jesus (LC Q. 109).  Try reading the Gospel accounts without forming a mental picture of Jesus!  The treatment of the fourth commandment ("Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy") is highly restrictive, and it is safe to say that few Christians, even in conservative Reformed circles, observe the Sabbath as the Westminster divines intended (LC QQ. 116-121).  Also, the elaboration of the fifth commandment ("Honour thy father and thy mother"), with its extensive descriptions of duties to superiors, inferiors, and equals (LC QQ. 124-133), clearly presupposes the British class system of the seventeenth century.  Here the point is not that the WLC is rife with errors.  It is not, and the amazing thing is that, given the length and specificity of the document, there are so few issues of this sort!  I suspect that most thoughtful ministers tacitly recognize the historically conditioned nature of the WLC at these points and move on to more important matters, and problems only emerge when the document is used in inappropriate ways.


In short, use of the Larger Catechism as grounds for discipline not only runs counter to the purpose of the document but it also opens the door to all sorts of abuse and hypocrisy.  Almost inevitably those bringing charges against another on the basis of the Larger Catechism would themselves be open to charges on the basis of other parts of the document, and the fact that appeals to the Larger Catechism for purposes of discipline are often arbitrary merely underscores the fact that the document was not intended to be used in this fashion.


Finally, the use of the WLC as grounds for discipline stands in tension with the express teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith in that it assumes the WLC to be a rule of faith and practice. But the Confession of Faith tells us, "All synods or councils since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as an help in both" (WCF 31.4). 


That being said, we must not lose sight of the central and obvious teaching of the ninth commandment--it enjoins truthfulness in all dealings.  Thus the most important question to be asked with respect to Internet communication in relation to the ninth commandment is this: "Is it truthful."  In addition, we are also called as Christians to be "speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15).   Here we must also recognize that "love" is not to be equated with "niceness," that the proper relationship of truth and love is often complex, and that discerning the proper balance calls for wisdom and dependence upon the Spirit of God.


I am happy to report that the presbytery committee on which I served decided that an internet "code of conduct" was not such a good idea, and that Scripture and the Standards of the Church are sufficient to provide guidance in this matter.  May such good sense prevail elsewhere as well.

Posted April 22, 2012 @ 4:36 PM by William B. Evans

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