RPM, Volume 19, Number 45 November 5 to November 11, 2017

The Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism

By Dr. Zacharias Ursinus

FORTY-THIRD LORD'S DAY.

Question 112. What is required in the ninth command?

Answer. That I bear false witness against no man, nor falsify any man's words, that I be no backbiter, or slanderer; that I do not judge, or join in condemning any man rashly or unheard; but that I avoid all sorts of lies and deceit, as the proper works of the devil, unless I would bring down upon me the heavy wrath of God; likewise, that in judgment and other dealings I love the truth, speak it uprightly, and confess it: also, that I defend and promote as much as I am able the honor and good character of my neighbor.

EXPOSITION

The design or end of this ninth commandment is the establishment and preservation of truth amongst men. It forbids, therefore the bearing of false witness, and all other things which are closely allied to it, the genus of which is lying. Thou shalt not bear false witness of, or against thy neighbor. There is in this negative precept, an affirmative which is, Thou shalt bear true witness of, or for thy neighbor; that is if thou wilt be true, love to learn and speak the truth. The head, the fountain and genus, as it were, of the virtues which are here enjoined, is truth, or rather veracity in our words, thoughts, judgments, contracts and in our doctrine. For by truth, as it is here used, we are to understand the agreement or correspondence which our knowledge or words have with the thing of which we affirm something. We call that speech or declaration true which harmonizes and agrees with the thing itself. So on the other hand, falsehood, in the premises which we have laid down, is the fountain, the genus of all the vices which are here condemned.

The Virtues of the Ninth Commandment.

I. TRUTH or veracity is a firm purpose or choice in the will, by which we constantly embrace true thoughts and opinions, and profess and defend the same according to a sense of duty and the circumstances in which we are placed; keep contracts and promises, and avoid, both in our speech and deportment all deceitful dissemblings, for the glory of God and the safety of our neighbor. According to this end, the devil cannot be true, even though he may at times speak that which is true: for he alone is true who speaks and loves the truth, and has a desire to promote it for the glory of God and the safety of his fellow-men. Aristotle reasons in his Ethics briefly, but most learnedly concerning this virtue. He refers truth in contracts to justice, and calls him properly a true man, who, when it profits him nothing, is, nevertheless, true in his speech and life, and is habitually such; from which it again appears that the devil and men are liars, and not true, although they may sometimes speak the truth.

Truth comprehends liberty of speech or boldness, which is a virtue by which we profess the truth fearlessly and willingly to as great an extent as is required by the time, place and necessity of the occasion. The confession of the truth is enjoined both in this and in the third commandment, as the same virtue is often regarded and included in the obedience of different commandments; yet it is required here in a different respect from what it is in the third commandment. There it is required as it is the immediate worship and praise of God: here as we are unwilling to deceive our neighbor, but desire that his character and safety be preserved.

There is opposed to this virtue on the side of want, 1. Falsehood or lying, which comprehends all the various kinds of fraud, deceit, dissembling, lies of courtesy, slanders, backbitings and evil speaking, which forms of lying are also opposed to candor. The same thing may also be said of such negligence as does not seek to obtain a true knowledge of things, together with willful ignorance which is a lie in the understanding. 2. Vanity or levity, which is a readiness for lying. He is a vain person who lies much, often, and readily, and that without any shame. He is a liar who has a desire and fondness for lying. A lie is when any one speaks, or declares by out ward signs differently from what he thinks, and from what the thing itself is. To lie is to go against one's own mind and knowledge. All lies, now, which clearly dissemble and cover the truth, are here condemned; nor are those lies which are uttered for politeness sake, excused, because we may not do evil, that good may come. Lactantius very correctly says, "We should never lie, because a lie always injures or deceives someone." Truth, however, which is uttered by a sign, is no lie, whether he to whom the sign is made, understands it or not. Yet we may here remark, that we should not be too severe and rigid in passing sentence upon the actions of the saints, neither should we make an apology for those things which need none. Officious lies are often defended by bringing forward the Egyptian midwives, who lied to the king, and were nevertheless blessed of God: but God did not bless them because they lied, but because they feared him and would not slay the children of the Israelites.

Obj. That which profits another, without injuring any one, may be done. Lies which are uttered out of respect or for fear of giving offense, do not injure anyone, but may result in good. Therefore they may be uttered without any sin. Ans. We deny the minor proposition, because that which God prohibits always injures someone; and if such lies ever profit any one, it is by an accident, on account of the goodness of God. (See Augustin lib. de mendatio ad Consentium.)

There is opposed to truth, as it respects the other extreme: 1. An untimely profession of the truth, which is to cast pearls before swine, and to give that which is holy to the dogs, as Christ says; who, by these words, forbids such a profession of the truth as is not made at the proper time, and when no necessity demands it: for it is correctly said, He who admonishes at the wrong time, injures. 2. Curiosity, which is to inquire into what is not necessary, or impossible. Let these remarks suffice respecting truth, the principal virtue comprehended under this commandment. All the other virtues which are here commended wait upon truth, or contribute to it, and are, as it were, certain appendages of it.

II. CANDOR is a virtue which understands, in a proper light, things correctly and honestly spoken or done, and puts the most favorable construction upon such things as are doubtful, in as far as there are any just reasons for so doing; and does not readily entertain suspicions, or indulge in them, although there might be sufficient cause for so doing; and does not base any actions upon these suspicions, nor resolve anything in consequence thereof. Or, it is a virtue closely related to truth, sanctioning other conclusions when there are probable reasons for them; not indulging any ill-will; understanding in the most probable light things that are doubtful, and hoping that which is good; but yet thinking, concerning things changeable, that the minds of men may be changed, and that a man may err respecting another's intention, since the inmost recesses of the human heart are never brought fully to light.

There is opposed to candor, as it respects the want of it, calumny and suspiciousness. Calumny is not only to criminate and find fault with the innocent, where there is no reason for it, but it is also to put the very worst construction upon things spoken indifferently, or to propagate and coin what is false. Suspiciousness is to understand things, spoken correctly or ambiguously, in the worst light, and to suspect evil things from those that are good; or to entertain suspicions where there is no just cause for so doing; and where there are any proper reasons for suspicions, to indulge in them to too great an extent. It is lawful for us, at times, to have suspicions, unless we wish to be the dupes and fools of others. Hence, the Savior says, "Beware of men." "Be ye wise as serpents and harmless as doves." (Matt. 10:16, 17.) But it is one thing to have suspicions, and another to indulge in them. Suspicion, now, is the entertaining of an evil or unfavorable opinion of someone, on account of some probable and sufficient cause, whether true or apparent. It is two-fold: good and evil. 1. It is evil when it proceeds from a cause altogether false or insufficient, as when a certain cause is imagined which is groundless, or when our neighbor is innocent. It is good when our suspicions are based upon just and sufficient grounds. 2. It is an evil suspicion when any one resolves upon something merely upon suspicion. It is good when the matter is left in suspense, as long as there are probable causes on both sides. 3. It is evil when any one conceives the design to injure a certain one, merely upon the ground of suspicion. It is good when the contrary takes place. 4. It is evil when any one is led to indulge hatred to another, upon the ground of suspicion, Good suspicions proceed differently.

There is on the other side of this virtue, as it respects the extreme of excess: 1. Foolish credulity and flattery. Blind or foolish credulity is to interpret anything rashly or hastily, and to assent to it without just and probable reasons; or, it is to believe a thing upon the declaration of another, when there are evident and sufficient reasons to the contrary. Flattery consists in praising and admiring things which should not be praised, for the purpose of obtaining the fortune or favor of some one. Candor is an assistant, or species of truth, and is, therefore, here enjoined and commended, in connection with truth.

III. SIMPLICITY is truth in its nakedness, without any shiftings, prevarication, or quibbles; or, it is a virtue which honestly and openly speaks and does what is true, right, and understood in arts and common life. Truth is regulated and tempered by candor and simplicity. The extremes of this virtue are a feigned simplicity, and duplicity in manners and conversation.

IV. CONSTANCY is a virtue which does not depart from the truth in as far as it is known, and which does not change its purpose and design without a necessary and sufficient reason; but constantly says and does what is true, just and necessary. Or, it is a virtue holding fast to the truth once discovered, known and approved of, with a profession and defence of it in the like manner. Constancy is necessary for the preservation of truth, and is, therefore, here enjoined. The extremes of this virtue are on the side of want, inconstancy, which is to change one's mind or opinion without any sufficient reason; and, on the side of excess, it is obstinacy or stoical rigor, which clings to false opinions, and persists in doing what is unjust and unprofitable, although convinced to the contrary. It is a vice which arises from the confidence which anyone has in his own wisdom, or from pride and ostentation, and shows itself in an unwillingness to yield its own judgment or opinion, which is seen to be false from many solid arguments.

V. DOCILITY is a virtue which investigates the reasons of those opinions which are true; readily yields and assents to those who teach or show things which are better, and that for reasons sound and convincing; and at the same time disposes the will to fall in with and assent to those reasons which are true and satisfactory, and to abandon what was before received and entertained. The extremes of this virtue are the same as those of constancy. Docility is also necessary to constancy; for constancy, without docility, would degenerate into obstinacy; and docility, without constancy, would degenerate into fickleness and inconstancy.

The virtues which we have thus far enumerated under this commandment are naturally and closely connected together: for it is necessary that truth should be tempered and regulated by simplicity and candor; that it should be perceived and acknowledged by docility, and preserved by candor. In this way the preceding virtues are necessary to the existence of truth. The three following virtues are necessary, in order that it may be profitable in the world:

VI. TACITURNITY, or a discreet observance of silence, is a virtue which keeps to itself things not known and not necessary to be told, where, when, and in as far as it is proper to do so, and at the same time avoids an immoderate use of the tongue, in uttering such things as prudence would require not to be told. Or, it is such a profession of the truth as that which keeps to itself things that are secret, whether true or false, and which avoids conversation that is unnecessary and useless -- especially that which is untimely, baneful, and calculated to give offense. The extremes of this virtue are, on the one side, gossiping, foolish talking, and treachery. Gossiping or prattling is not to be able to retain anything, even things which should be kept secret. Foolish talking is to speak unseasonably, immoderately, and foolishly. Treachery is to betray honest enterprises and plans, to the injury of those whose friend the betrayer seems, and ought to be; and not to defend, nor have any regard to the danger of another, when it is proper and possible to do so; and still further, to relate things not worthy of being told, the narration of which is an injury to him to whom it is told, and to disclose such things as must necessarily be spoken with no good intention or design; and lastly, to utter anything by perjury or falsehood. That which is opposed to this virtue, as it respects the extreme of excess, may be included in moroseness and undue reservedness. Moroseness consists in being silent and keeping back the truth when it ought to be declared. Benn man einem die Borte mus abfaufen. Undue reservedness is to dissemble the truth, where the glory of God and the salvation of our fellow-men require a profession of it.

VII. AFFABILITY, or readiness of speaking, is a virtue which hears, answers, and speaks willingly, and with evidence of good will, where it is proper by reason of some necessary or probable cause: or it is a virtue which makes others feel easy in their interviews with those who are possessed of this grace, and at the same time gives evidence of good-will in conversation, speech and gesture; or it is a virtue which consists in hearing and answering with a declaration and evidence of good-will. The extremes are the same as those of the last named virtue. Taciturnity, without affability, becomes moroseness or peevishness; whilst affability, without taciturnity, degenerates into gossiping, prattling, and foolish talking.

VIII. URBANITY, being that which seasons and recommends truth and speech under every form, is the truth figuratively spoken, for the purpose of moving, exhorting, and delighting others, having a proper regard to the circumstances of the persons, time and place; or it is a facility and power of speaking the truth with a certain degree of grace, so as to teach, comfort, cheer, excite and move others without being accompanied with any unpleasantness or bitterness. The extremes of this virtue are, on the one side, scurrility, raillery, and backbiting. Scurrility consists in obscene and low jesting, especially in holy things. Scurra, which means a person who jests in the manner just described, is so called from the Greek sxwq, which means filth; because he speaks what is obscene and filthy. Raillery is a vice which consists in bitter jesting or scoffing, and in deriding and vexing others, especially those who ought to be pitied. Backbiting is that which puts false reports into circulation in regard to others, and puts the worst construction upon what is spoken doubtfully, with a desire of revenge, and of injuring, and exciting prejudice and opposition against someone. Foolishness, and a want of taste, constitute the other extreme of urbanity. Foolishness is an affectation of urbanity which is altogether inappropriate and out of place; whilst a want of taste shows itself in a silly imitation of urbanity.

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