Luther and Calvin on Slander (and Women)

Although I’m writing lectures on Calvin at the moment, brother Martin is rarely far away. So as a bit of fun [read ‘distraction’], I thought I’d check out some of their reflections on the same topic – namely, slander. Unlike Calvin who is typically careful, measured, sober, and rarely amusing, Luther – whether relatively dry or completely off his face – is a brilliant hoot, often careless, never politically correct and always calls a spade a shovel. Isn’t that precisely one of the reasons why we love him so much! Anyway, here he is in near-full swing:

‘It is especially among womenfolk that the shameful vice of slander is prevalent, so that great misfortune is often caused by an evil tongue. This is the work of those bitter and poisonous brides of the devil, who when they hear a word about another, viciously make it sharper, more pointed, and more bitter against the others, so that sometimes misery and murder are the result.

All this comes from the shameful, demonic filth which naturally clings to us, that everyone enjoys hearing and telling the worst about his neighbor and it tickles him to see a fault in someone else. If a woman were as beautiful as the sun but had one little spot or blemish on her body, you would be expected to forget everything else and to look only for that spot and to talk about it. If a lady were famous for her honor and virtue, still some poisonous tongue would come along and say that she had once been seen laughing with some man and defame her in such a way as to eclipse all her praise and honor. These are really poisonous spiders that can suck out nothing but poison from a beautiful, lovely rose, ruining both the flower and the nectar, while a little bee sucks out nothing but honey, leaving the roses unharmed. That is the way some people act. All they can notice about other people are the faults or impurities which they can denounce, but what is good about them they do not see. People have many virtues which the devil cannot destroy, yet he hides or disfigures them to make them invisible. For example, even though a woman may be full of faults and have no other virtue, she is still a creature of God. At least she can carry water and wash clothes’. – Luther’s Works, Vol. 21: The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat, 41.

Calvin makes what I think is the same basic point, but O how different in tone. Here he is on the ninth commandment (‘You shall not be a false witness against your neighbour’, Exod 20:16):

‘The purpose of this commandment is: since God (who is truth) abhors a lie, we must practice truth without deceit toward one another. To sum up, then: let us not malign anyone with slanders or false charges, nor harm his substance by falsehood, in short, injure him by unbridled evil speaking and impudence. To this prohibition the command is linked that we should faithfully help everyone as much as we can in affirming the truth, in order to protect the integrity of his name and possessions’. – Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.viii.47.