We live in an age of unparalleled riches when it comes to theology and the study of God’s Word. Of course, there are new, excellent books being written each year. But the greatest riches are found in the translation of older texts into English so they can be read by normal men like me. One fascinating series is Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law. I know, your blood gets pumping just thinking about it. The series is a translation of some lesser known works, at least to us 21st century men, by some leading thinkers in the late Middle Ages up through the 17th century. I am currently working my way through On Righteousness, Oaths, and Usury, which is Wolfgang (that’s right his first name is Wolfgang) Musculus’ commentary on Psalm 15, as well as two appendices, one on oaths and the other on usury. His section on Psalm 15:3, “[He] who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend” was particularly helpful as he discussed what slander is. Here are some quotes from Musculus’ section on slander. All bold and brackets are mine.
To slander one’s neighbor is not simply to report what the neighbor either says or does (because sometimes not only is this permissible to do, but also it ought to be either for their sake or for the public good), but it is to report something maliciously, in the spirit of harming one’s neighbor.
The point is that the “why” matters. Two men can say the same thing about their friend and one be slandering and the other not. The problem is that we all assume our motives are pure and just. That we are only saying it for their good or because people need to know. But if we dig deeper into our hearts and desires we will often find that we wish to harm others with our words about them.
The next section is titled “What Sort of Vice Slander Is.” Musculus lists four descriptions of the vice of slander. Here is the first. He uses “denouncer” as a synonym for slanderer.
For the most part, a denounce is a liar. As a matter of fact he either reports something false, inventing what neither has been said nor done, or if he reports something is true, he reports some things that could favor someone by its reporting, and he adds something of his own that would not favor the same person. By that addition he constructs a calumny serious in its appearance and resembling the truth, or he perverts the person’s words and the reasons for their actions.
Among Christians the second type of slander described is common. Christians know we should not lie. So we tell the truth…sort of. We shade the truth for us and against them. We add a little phrase they did not say. Or we say we heard something first hand when we really heard it second hand and exaggerated it. Or we impute motives. We make sure what we say, “resembl[es] the truth” but we also make sure the truth leans a certain way. Here is the second description of the slanderer.
A denouncer is malicious and unjust. For he reports not simply what good things there a in his neighbor and what could be profitable to his neighbor, but also those things that are bad and that are not for his neighbor’s correction but for his detriment. His eye is malicious, not observing those things that are good, but only those that are evil. His ears are malicious, hearing only bad things and deaf to good things. His speech is malicious, reporting only the bad things and being silent about the good things. These things are in then nature of the denouncer.
I am not sure Musculus is entirely accurate here. Again Christians know they should not be super-critical or harsh. I do not think a slanderer, especially one in the church only sees, hears, or speaks bad things about others. But what they do is focus on the bad things. And if they say good things about someone it is only so they can come back and remind people that they don’t say only bad things about that person, though they are saying bad about that person right. The slandered deposits compliments in a bank and then removes them later to defend themselves against the charge of slander. “Oh, remember when I said something good about Mrs. Smith last month. Clearly, I do not hate her even though right now I am pointing out some of her failings, for her sake of course.” Here is Musculus’ third point.
He is also a counterfeit and hypocrite, for he feigns [pretends] either benevolence or good faith toward the one to whom he denounces his neighbor, or he feigns zeal for either justice or piety. Meanwhile, he excuses himself because he does not wish ill in denouncing.
Slanderers pretend they are motivated by love for the person or some higher sense of justice or holiness. “My love for Jesus requires me to say all these bad things about you publicly.” The reason this works is because sometimes it is true. There are times people need their sins exposed. The slanderer uses this truth to cover up their hypocrisy. Here is Musculus’ final point.
[The slanderer] is also a secret ambusher, murdering in secret like a serpent so that whoever is denounced may not know who is denouncing him, and related to this point, he requires the confidence of silence that he may not be revealed.
Wolfgang nails this one. A slanderer does not do their work in the open. They speak to this person here and that person there. They remind the listener that “they are not sure exactly what they heard.” Or they hint at deeds done by others instead of being clear as to what actually happened. They plant seeds of doubt and discord by throwing words into people’s ears while they slink away into the dark. All of the sudden Mrs. Smith is being judged for something people think she did or said and not surprisingly no one knows exactly where they heard that Mrs. Smith did that or said that, but they are sure she did.
None of us believe we gossip and slander. But it we look closely we will find that often why we say something about someone else, how we say it, when we say it, and what we say is not as pure as we think. Our hearts can deceive us in this matter.