Friday, July 07, 2006


One of the most common charges across the blogosphere, regardless of the theological conversation or Protestant denomination, is "slander." Generally, if the one making the claim has any knowledge of the ten commandments, there is also a reference to the 9th commandment as well. Yet it is not clear to me that "slander" is the proper charge to be making.

First, according to, slander is "oral communication of false statements injurious to a person's reputation" and "a false and malicious statement or report about someone." Since most of the exhibits of "slander" are in written form (books, presbytery reports, articles, websites), wouldn't the proper accusation be "libel"?

Next, both slander and libel have to do with injury to an individual's reputation. Generally, there has to be a malicious intent in order to be libelous; that is, someone has to be seeking to ruin another person knowingly by willfully distributing false statements. However, in current theological conversations, in which certain individuals publish things and then other individuals read those things, criticize them, and draw conclusions, it is not clear to me at all that what is going on meets the standard of libel.

As a historian who deals with written texts all the time and who has to connect various texts together into a pattern in order to offer an interpretation, I recognize that my interpretation of certain texts may be open to criticism. For example, not everyone has been pleased with my understanding of Robert Lewis Dabney's failures during the Civil War; it was my attempt to probe why Dabney only served five months during the war and why he was so bitter at the end. To accuse me of "libel," though, would be ridiculous; I tried to interpret the evidence to the best of my ability and if I failed, then so be it. Others can come along behind me, offer a different interpretation that corrects mine, note in their footnotes how Lucas blew it. That's part of the process; I'm not offended by it.

Another thing along this line: I'm not certain that interpreters of texts have the responsibility to engage in dialogue with the author of those texts if they feel they understand the materials adequately. I've wrestled with this myself as I've worked on my current historical project, which focuses on those leaders who fought liberalism in the old PCUS and who helped to form the PCA. The questions of whether to use oral history and whether to allow certain key players the opportunity to read drafts have come to my mind. I have decided not to do so, but rather rely on my own interpretation of the written record (which includes both published and archival materials). It may open me up to criticism when my work is published; however, I wanted to protect others and give them the opportunity to object to my understanding when they have the chance to read and engage my work.

By extension, I don't believe that it is necessarily incumbent for current theological analysts to engage with others when they are examining "the public record," if you will. Especially in some of the theological conversations going on currently in Baptist and Presbyterian denominations, it strikes me that dialogues over written words can inevitably devolve in ways that are simply not helpful.

In addition, I think there has to be a recognition that when one goes into print, it is inevitable that people will misunderstand things that you've written; they won't pick up on nuances in your argument; they will focus on niggling issues and miss the larger point. It is inevitable. If they fail to get it, others will compare the original materials and the critic's understanding of those things and make a determination: did the critic really understand the author? There is also the inevitability of peer review; when you put material out there for others to read, there will be disagreement and sometimes it will be strong disagreement. It is one of the more painful issues that I've faced when I've written book reviews; most of us do not like to review things negatively, but sometimes negative reviews must be written. But that is part of the bargain of going into print.

Finally, I do believe that the 9th commandment is at stake in these issues, but it is striking how quickly the Presbyterians Together document (and the 9th commandment itself) has been forgotten in these times. Just as a refresher, the Westminster Larger Catechism talks about the 9th Commandment this way:

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

Surely there is enough sin here in the 9th Commandment for all to share; I certainly can think of times when I've misrepresented others, when I've engaged in scornful contempt, and other like sins. But there are also duties in the 9th Commandment as well--the duty to seek the truth as well as the good of a brother's name. What makes this so complicated in this matter is when other brothers appear to be pushing the theological envelope. How does one seek the truth as well as the good of a brother's name when he is worried that the brother is in error? How does one engage in theological dialogue (and even polemics) in a gracious and Christ-centered way?

Part of this has to be a more winsome approach to theological discourse than is currently being employed on the internet and other venues (e.g. one critique of a critique warned that the original critic was going to face "God's harshest judgment"; that strikes me as a little strong). Part of this is a recognition that most individuals seeking the truth, especially those who go through some sort of peer review process, generally are not trying to be malacious and are trying to understand others, even when they may disagree in the strongest possible terms.

Above all, it strikes me that the proper response when we feel that we've been misunderstood is not fire and brimstone and not accusations of libel (or slander, for that matter). Rather, a gracious correction and a hopeful engagement strike me as a better path. Even more, such also represents our better affirmations and the better angels of our (redeemed) natures.

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