Nothing but the Truth

Ten Commandments - 9

Nothing but the Truth

The Value of the Ninth Commandment

(Deuteronomy 19:15-21)

The purpose of the ninth commandment is not only to protect people from false accusation in a court of law, but to guard people’s repuation and foster truth-telling in every area of life. Intellectuals, sadly, are no better in this respect than anyone else, as illustrated by examples of academic reputations damaged by false witness. Rob Yule gave this message in St. Alban’s Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 6 December 1998.

False Witness in the Bible

The original setting of the ninth commandment was a legal one, but it came to apply to truth-telling in all areas of life. In ancient Israel an accused person would be brought before a court of elders, and people would testify against them. The commandment required that witnesses tell the truth, so people were protected from being falsely accused. In the book of Proverbs, among seven things the Lord hates is ‘a lying witness who testifies falsely’ (6:17). ‘A truthful witness saves lives, but one who utters lies is a betrayer’ (Proverbs 14:25).

Because of the possibility of false testimony, the Old Testament contained regulations about the conduct of trials. ‘No one shall be put to death on the testimony of a single witness’ (Numbers 35:30). ‘Only on the evidence of two or three witness shall a charge be sustained’ (Deuteronomy 19:15). If there was suspicion that witnesses were not telling the truth, they were to be examined. If it was found that ‘a witness was a false witness, having testified falsely against another, then you shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other’, in this way creating a fear in society ensuring that such an offence would not be committed again (Deuteronomy 19: 18-19). An example of exactly this punishment is in the book of Esther, where the treacherous Haman, who had plotted the murder of Mordechai and the genocide of the Jews, is hanged on the very gallows that he had planned for Mordechai (Esther 7:9-10), with the result that a tremendous ‘fear of the Jews’ fell upon the population of the vast Medo-Persian Empire (Esther 8:17).

There are numerous accounts in the Bible of the destructive effects of false witness. A frequent cry of the psalmist is that ‘false witnesses have risen against me’ (Psalm 27:12). The shocking crime of Queen Jezebel when she misappropriated Naboth’s vineyard for her husband King Ahab, was carried out by means of two scoundrels, recruited to give false witness against him (1 Kings 21:8-14). False witnesses were involved in the trial of Jesus, which was a travesty of proper judicial process, though they could not agree together what testimony to give (Mark 14:56-59). False witnesses also testified against Stephen, the first Christian martyr, when he was stoned to death (Acts 6:13).

False Witness in the Law Court

False witness is very harmful when it occurs in a court of law. We tend not only to interpret things from our point of view, but to twist things to put ourselves in a more favourable light. Two drivers involved in a car accident might each tell the story of what happened in a way which puts the blame on another. William Barclay recounts how one judge, after hearing the evidence in a case like that, said that if you were to believe the evidence of both sides, there was a head-on collision between two cars, each of which was stationary on its own side of the road! (The Old Law and the New Law [Edinburgh, St Andrew Press, 1972], p. 42).

In our New Zealand courts, perhaps the most famous case of false witness was after the 1979 DC10 crash on Mount Erebus in the Antarctic. Air New Zealand’s defence, which attempted to put the blame on pilot error, was dismissed by Judge Peter Mahon in his Royal Commission of Enquiry Report as ‘a pre-determined plan of deception’ and ‘an orchestrated litany of lies.’ His report found that ‘the single dominant and effective cause of the disaster was the mistake made by those airline officials who programmed the aircraft to fly directly at Mount Erebus and omitted to tell the air crew.’ So the pilots believed they were flying on a navigation track safely down McMurdo Sound, west of Mount Erebus, when in fact they were headed directly towards it, in whiteout conditions that made it invisible.

False Witness in Scholarship

False witness is also a pernicious influence in scholarship. It is disappointing to discover that intellectuals are no more honest, and are sometimes a lot less honest, than the rest of us, often breaching the ninth commandment. In his account of Soviet prison camps the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn tells a number of stories about stolen academic reputations. He mentions a leading plant breeder, V. S. Markin, whose variety of wheat that he had developed, ‘Taiga 49’, was stolen by another agronomist, A. A. Solvyev, after Markin was arrested by the Communists. It was twenty years before Markin was rehabilitated, in 1963, but he received only a fraction of the payment due to him for his wheat variety (The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 2 [Glasgow, Collins/Harvill, 1975], p. 625.

Solzhenitsyn also tells how at the height of their anti-religious policy, the Communist authorities destroyed the Institute of Buddhist Culture in the Soviet Union (Ibid., pp.625-6). All its leaders were arrested, and the head of the institute, Academician Shcherbatsky, died. A self-serving student, Kalyanov, went to Shcherbatsky’s wife, and threatened her with serious repercussions from the authorities if she didn’t hand over to him her husband’s books and papers. He then proceeded to publish some of them over his own name, so gaining a wrongful academic reputation at the dead scholar’s expense.

The most shocking story of this kind that I know was discovered by Dr John Hitchen, former principal of the Bible College of New Zealand, during his doctoral research on Christian missions in the South Pacific. A leading nineteenth century anthropologist made it his business to criticise the activity of early missionaries as culturally insensitive. In fact, these particular missionaries not only displayed great sensitivity towards the cultures of the peoples they worked with, but by their careful and objective scholarship became authorities on these cultures. The anthropologist, dishonestly, not only misrepresented the missionaries and criticised them in his publications; but after their deaths took their researches and published them over his own name, thus gaining a stolen academic reputation at the expense of the missionaries he thus doubly maligned.

False Witness about C. S. Lewis

On 29 November 1998 we celebrated the 100th anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s birth, and my wife Christene spoke to us about Lewis as a man, as a writer, and as a Christian. You probably know that late in life Lewis married Joy Davidman, a feisty American Jewess, divorced wife of an alcoholic, Bill Gresham. In his biography of Lewis, the writer A. N. Wilson implies that Lewis’s relationship with Joy was consummated before his Christian marriage ceremony to her in the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, where Joy was dying of cancer:

According to an oral memory of Joy’s son Douglas, transcribed in the Marion E. Wade collection at Wheaton College, Illinois, the two of them were already lovers in 1955. Douglas on one occasion came into his mother’s bedroom at 10 Old High Street and found it occupied by Jack and Joy in a compromising position. This memory, which transpired during a conversation between Douglas Gresham and Lyle W. Dorsett, is not repeated in either of the books which the two men have written about the Lewis marriage, and it is not clear whether the omission is because Gresham distrusts the memory (he was eight years old at the time) or because it was considered indelicate to imply that the union between Lewis and his future wife was consummated, as would appear to have been the case, before they were married. (C. S. Lewis: A Biography [London, Collins, 1990], pp. 256-7).

Another biographer, George Sayer, who was, unlike Wilson, a close personal friend of Jack (as Lewis was known to his friends) over many years, and a practising Christian, discusses this issue carefully. According to him Douglas Gresham ‘has stated in writing that he never made this statement’, and both Gresham and Lyle Dorsett, the former curator of the Wade Centre at Wheaton College, have told him ‘that the statement is not on the tape or in the typescript that was made from it.’ Sayer writes:

This is a most serious charge. If it is true, it destroys Jack’s credibility as an honest man and a Christian moralist. For Lewis not only taught and believed that sexual intercourse outside marriage was utterly wrong for the Christian, he told his brother and a few of his closest friends (I had the honour to be among them) that the registry office marriage was a formality to enable Joy to stay permanently in England and that any living together as man and wife was out of the question. All of us who knew him had no doubt that he was an honest man who practiced what he preached. (Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis, 2nd. ed. [Wheaton, Illinois, Crossway Books, 1994], p. 414).

Wilson is a widely respected biographer. Yet he makes this damaging insinuation without any evidence or documentation, and in so doing casts an unjustifiable shadow over Lewis’s moral integrity and authority. The implication is that Lewis didn’t live out what he wrote about Christian sexual morality in Mere Christianity: ‘There is no getting away from it: the Christian rule is "Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence".’ ([London, Collins, 1952], p. 86). As far as I can judge from the lack of evidence, Wilson’s assertion is simply a refined but scurrilous form of false witness.

That same Joy Davidman whom C. S. Lewis married, remarks in her book on the Ten Commandments that ‘You can usually tell when a hypocrite has been sinning; he denounces that sin in public - and in somebody else.’ (Smoke on the Mountain [London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1963], p. 100). It is inappropriate for me, especially in a message on false witness, to raise the issue of Wilson’s own sexual propriety, because I have no idea what sort of man he is; but it does make you wonder what ulterior motive or conduct underlies such an insinuation about Lewis.

False Witness in the Church

False witness, often in the guise of gossip, can be a destructive thing in the Christian community, quickly sowing mistrust and broken relationships in a local church. About three months ago I heard the astonishing rumour going around that St Albans was experiencing division because of the lack of resolution to the debate about homosexuality and leadership in the wider Presbyterian Church to which we belong. Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite this difficult external environment, St Albans has been surprisingly buoyant and united. We adhere strongly to, and the Presbyterian Church has never rescinded, the statement of the 1991 General Assembly affirming the inadmissibility of sexual relations outside of marriage.

The letter of James in the New Testament addresses this problem of gossip, comparing the tongue to a fire which can set ablaze and destroy a whole forest (James 3:5-8). Older New Zealanders will remember the former New Zealand Forest Service warning: ‘One tree can make a million matches, one match can destroy a million trees.’ Careless and inflammatory speech can be equally destructive. ‘If any think they are religious,’ says James, ‘and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.’ (James 1:26). Criticism, slander, gossip, can cause great harm to people’s reputation in the church. We are to avoid it, along with all forms of false witness. Instead, we should speak well of one another, building one another up and protecting one another’s reputations.

Rob Yule
6 December 1998

© 1998, St Albans Presbyterian Church
Palmerston North, New Zealand