Lying in the Westminster Standards
In defending my book A Lying Spirit, I have decided to look at the Reformed confessional documents. I have already looked at the Heidelberg Catechism. I confess that there will be almost nothing new in this post. My conviction is that by reading the confessional documents in context their primary concern is the defense of neighbors.
Some may view this as a technicality. But I think it is an important technicality to recognize. The type of lying on the divines' minds is one that hurts our neighbors. This is easily seen in the Shorter Catechism,
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.
Here is a great example of words being used in a specific context that can result in an incorrect black-and-white reading. The Divines restrict anything detrimental to "truth." But this application is defined as "injurious" to any "good name." I think the use of the word "truth" here is unfortunate. What is really being communicated is that false witness diminishes a person's good name. This type of false witness enacts unrighteous judgment against an otherwise righteous person. It is a false conviction. I say in all humility that the Shorter Catechism should read "forbiddeth whatsoever is prejudicial to righteousness." This would better capture the meaning of the 4th Commandment.
The Larger Catechism does explain this better to a degree. It says "speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice...defending their innocency" (Q&A 144). Though the line comes much later in the catechism answer, the crucial nature of " defending their innocency" has to be brought to the front of the answer. When the catechism commands, "standing for the truth... in all other things whatsoever" it has in mind "the good name of our neighbour, as well as our own." It is even concerned with "defending it when need requireth." The whole of the catechism is bent around protecting our neighbors.
It is with this in mind John Frame has defended a perspective of application only to neighbors. The validity of this defense in light of Christ's expansion of the word "neighbor" is left for the reader and Frame to debate. But the point is laid out clearly, we are to work for the good name of our neighbor. We are to defend it. The catechism presumes (perhaps commands) that we defend it with the truth. If they mean literally, and only literally, "the truth" than my thesis of holy deception falls under condemnation. However, I believe the context of the answer endorses reading "truth" as "righteousness." This can more clearly be seen in the list of things forbidden by the commandment. I will quote in entirety so brace yourself,
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 neighbours, 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 and equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of truth or justice; speaking untruth, lying, slandering, backbiting, detracting, tale bearing, whispering, scoffing, reviling, rash, harsh, and partial censuring; misconstructing intentions, words, and actions; flattering, vain-glorious 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.
I can hardly work through every portion of this answer. I'm hoping all the negative connotations of what is forbidden in this commandment sticks out. The few phrases that might condemn holy deception should be accounted for, however.
"All prejudicing the truth" is concerned with "the good name of our neighbours...especially in public judicature." "Outfacing and overbearing the truth" is contrasted with "giving false evidence...and pleading for an evil cause." The catechisms answer ends, "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." The full intent of this answer is the complete defense of innocent neighbors.
If the point of emphasis for the Westminster Divines was the defense of neighbors, then the practice of holy deception, as exemplified in Scripture, is without condemnation. But, if the Westminster Divines meant to reject all non-truthful speech then holy deception falls under their condemnation.