Commentary on Baxter’s Directions for the Government of the Tongue (Lying)

admin Christian, lying, Richard Baxter, tongue

Richard Baxter was 57 when he wrote his book Christian Directory. It is a book on Christian Ethics. It consists of four parts and Christian Ethics is just a first volume of that book. In order to narrow down my commentary I selected a discourse on the government of the tongue. Out of all the sins of the tongue that Baxter speaks against I chose to comment on the sin of lying and perjury, because I want to avoid being “needlessly tedious” (Baxter, vol.I, 527) Baxter lived in the 17th century (1616-1691) and during his lifetime wrote more than 130 books, letters and sermons. Having poor health he oftentimes preferred to write a sermon to his parishioners and send it as a letter or publish it as a book, rather then say it in public. He wrote his first book which made him known to the wider public at the age of 34, 9 years after he became ordained as a pastor in the small town of Kindderminster, England. After 19 years of hard labor in this area he was forbidden to preach there by the government due to political reasons. Four years later in 1673 he wrote Christian Directory, the book were he wrote answers, or “directions” to many cases of conscience written for Christians of his days. All of those cases, whether it be private, family or church duties were for the most part Baxter’s experience after years of pastoral visitation. It was his custom to visit his parishioners and to talk with them on the things of God. “Every Monday and Thursday Baxter would start at one end of the town, his assistant would start on the other, and together they managed to interview 15 or 16 families a week – a total of 800 families each year.” (Lim, 19)
So in brief Baxter’s “advices-directions” come from his own experience and from his knowledge of literature and Holy Scriptures. Though Baxter didn’t have any formal theological education and was for the most part self-taught, he had immense knowledge of human psychology and his library included around 1400 books. In this commentary you would see how he quotes both secular philosophers and the Holy Scriptures in order to speak against the evils of lying.

Baxter lived in Great Britain during the reign of such kings as Charles I, Charles II and James II. He was 4 years old when first Puritan separatists fled to America and found colony at Plymouth Massachusetts. During the English Civil War he spent five years as a chaplain in Oliver Cromwell’s army.(Lim, 19) Five years after publication of his “Christian Directory”(1673) he could enjoy reading John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” – the greatest Christian allegory written in English, which was as interesting in the Christian circles as John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” in the secular. He lived in the century of enlightenment, when it was scientifically proved that the Earth and other planets revolved around the Sun, when Galileo’s “formulation of the law of of inertia left Aristotelian physics in shambles.”(McKay, 593) Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and John Descartes(1596-1650)were Richard Baxter’s contemporaries. Baxter lived in a Puritan environment and in his theology he tried to find some middle ground between the predistination of Calvinism and the free will as taught by Arminians. Such puritans as John Owen, Richard Sibbs, William Perkins and others had a profound influence upon Baxter and his writings. Baxter’s theology proves him to be Amyraldian and closer to Arminian side than to Calvinism.

The text about lying (which I am about to comment on) is 8 pages long. (Christian Directory, vol.1, pp. 353-361) It is rather tedious and in many parts I found that only a lawyer would be able to take the full advantage of the written text. In this study I do not intend to take a deep verse-by-verse commentary, but to a) show Baxter’s style, b) show his understanding of truth and lie in general and c) show both strong and weak points in Baxter’s directions against the sin of lying in Christian’s life.

The discourse has the following structure:
1. The proof of what the truth is.
2. Eleven questions on truth and lie.
3. The proof of what the lie is.
4. First direction against the sin of lying with 10 major evils which are connected to it.
5. Directions from 2nd to 11th.
6. 12th direction with seven questions-answers explaining the particular details of things that are connected to lying.

Here is a quote on how Baxter explained what the truth is:

“Truth in the things known is nothing but their reality; that indeed they are that which their names import, or the mind apprehendeth them to be : this is that which is called both physical and metaphysical truth.” (Baxter, 353)

So from this we can deduce that Baxter uses some extra biblical sources in order to define the truth. He does not merely say as many contemporaries of his days: “Jesus is the Truth.” Well, he knows that and he will say that later, but here he brings the reader a general and even abstract idea of what the truth is. I would say that this tells us that he goes from the abstract to the particulars, from the common truths to the practical directions as many Greek rhetoricians and philosophers did. The influence of Aristotle is felt so strongly, that for the one who is acquainted with the writings of Aristotle it could appear that those are quotes from his works.

Compare it with this excerpt from Aristotle’s Metaphysics:
“To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.”

Read this second statement of Baxter about the truth and you will see how many smiliraties are their between him and the Aristotle:

“Truth in the conception or knowledge of the mind, is nothing else but the agreement or conformity of the knowledge to the thing known ; to conceive of it truly, is to conceive of it as it is ; mistake or error is contrary to this truth.” (Baxter, 353)

Baxter does not hide that he uses Greek writings when later he quotes 8 Greek philosophers to prove that truth is for the good of man. “Aristotle could say, that the nature of man is made for truth.” <...> Pythagoras could say, that to love truth and do good, were two things that made man likest to God, and therefore were his two most excellent gifts.” (Baxter, 355-356) His main method throughout all of this chapter is to first bring some philosophic background to his teachings, then to say something out of the logic and finally to conclude it with the string of texts from the Holy Scriptures.

“He is the truth,” John xiv. 6, and ” full of grace and truth,” John i. 14.” Grace and truth came by him,” John i. 17.<...> ” Repentance” is given men, ” to the acknowledging of the truth, that they may escape out of the power of the devil,” 2 Tim. ii. 25,26. <...> They that receive not the truth in the love of it cannot be saved,” 2 Thess. ii. 10. All they ” are damned that believe not the truth,” 2 Thess. ii. 12, 13. You see what truth is in the judgment of God and all the sober world. Therefore a lie, that is contrary to truth as darkness to light, must be equally odious as truth is amiable : no wonder therefore if it be absolutely forbidden of God.” (Baxter, 356)

5. Examples of directions. Comments. The strong and weak points of author’s directions against lying and perjury.
The weakest point of Baxter I would say is his tediousness. He uses more than 11000 words to prove the Excellency of truth over lying. That is around 17 pages of single-spaced printed text. Though warns his readers in the preface that he would try not to be tedious, he falls into that temptation I think. Somehow he seems to speak on and on the same subject without trying to make his point quickly. On the other hand the strongest point in his directions is the power of persuasion and the strength of his arguments. His examples are vivid. His logic is clear. His reasoning is compelling. Many of his directions are connected with his knowledge that lying is connected with other sins such as absence of the fear of God, pride and selfish ambition, seared conscience, covetousness, rashness in speaking and others. He urges the reader to forsee that which is most likely can entrap them into a lie an thus prevent it. I also liked how he reasoned in his very first direction on being informed of the evil of the sin of lying. There he gives 10 reasons why all men should hate lying: it perverts man’s noble faculties, turning them clean contrary to their natural use, it is the enemy and the destroyer of truth, it makes us most unlike God, it is the image or work of the Devil, it destroys human converse and brings most pernicious confusion into the affairs of the humankind and it tendeth directly to perjury and so on.(Baxter, 355-356) I liked Baxter’s unmasking the lie for what it is showing it in its destructive power.

Finally, I would say a few words about some uses of lie which are arguable and raise eyebrows of both Christian and non-Christian people alike. Those are the issues of hiding secret information, doctors deceiving patients, “white lies”, lies “approved” by God in the Old Testament times. In his long discourse Baxter found a place for each of those issues and answered those in a usual to his times “question-answer” format. I would quote his reasoning about the lies of the Israeli midwives during the times of Moses who disobeyed the command of the pharaoh to kill the male boys who would be born to Jewish women. Here is the quote:

“Object. Are not the midwives rewarded by God for saving the Israelitish children by a lie ?
Answ. I need not say with Austin, ” The fact was rewarded, and the lie pardoned;” for there is no such thing as a lie found in them. Who can doubt but that God could strengthen the Israelitish women to be delivered without the midwives ? And who can doubt but when the midwives had made known the king’s murderous command, that the women would delay to send for the midwives, till, by the help of each other, the children were secured ? Which yet is imputed to the midwives, because they confederated with them, and delayed to that end.
So that here is a dissembling and concealing part of the truth, but here is no lie that can be proved.” (Baxter, 360)

This argument implies that one knows the Scripture reference well and knows the passage were midwives were refusing to kill the Jewish babies, and when asked by officials why they refused to kill them (that was a death threat to them), they simply replied that Jewish women were stronger than Egyptian and would deliver babies faster, without the help of the midwife.

Baxter’s reasoning is lucid and sharp. I found it strange that I myself never thought of that option, that midwives could truly be missing during Jewish women labors, for I transposed everything too fast to our days, where women are giving labor from 6 to 24 hours and the whole process is long and exhausting for women.

After looking at Baxter’s casuistically detailed approach to the sin of lying we are left with opinion that Baxter is a person who is fluent in Latin, for many of his quotes are in Latin, he is well acquainted with Greek philosophers and he is able to quote Scriptures like a mobile Bible concordance. I think that in his days he was one of the authors whose theological works on Christian Ethics were in wide circulation and high demand among the general audience. His advantage consists in the fact that though he quotes a lot of philosophers in this treatise, he still explains away all the details precisely so that even the simple people would understand his message. His treatise is like a layered pie in which there is food both for the learned scholar and for the village shepherd.