The Ethics of Lies
by Josiah Audette
“There is a great question about Lying, which often arises in the midst of our every day business, and gives us much trouble, that we may not either rashly call that a lie which is not such, or decide that it is sometimes right to tell a lie, that is, a kind of honest, well-meant, charitable lie.” The following is from the exordium of St. Augustine of Hippo’s treatise written in A.D. 395, meetly entitled “On Lying.” This question is as old as the discipline of ethics itself. Can one deceive another by a known falsehood and it not be immoral before God? The implications of the answer to this ethical dilemma reach far more than simply “White Lies” and the corollaries are grave. Similarly, the history of such debate within the Christian Church reaches all the way back to the era of the reformation. Martin Luther opined with his quotidian aplomb, “A lie out of necessity… would not be against God; he would accept them.” On the contrary Luther’s contemporary, John Calvin, animadverted, “All dissimulation, whether in word or deed, is condemned.” In modern days, Wikipedia has ratiocinated this ethical quandary into twenty eight classifications of a lie. Barefaced lie, Butler lie, Emergency Lie, Exaggeration, Half-truth, Jocose lie, Lie-to-children, Perjury, etc… The ethical dispute of truth and lies has been an extant element in the discipline of ethics, a exigent position of orthodoxy, the modus operandi in orthapraxy, and a determinative in the course of the history of nations. Ethics has consequences, no less the issue of truth and lies.
THE VIRTUE OF TRUTH
The testimony of Scripture regarding truth is clear and cogent. One of the very the attributes of God is truth. A wonted passage in Scripture is John 14:6, where Christ states, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Furthermore, 1 John 1:20, “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ.” These passages establish the righteousness of truth. The virtue of truth is not autonomously isolated to itself. Truth is virtuous because truth is an attribute of God. Truth is defined both by the personhood of God and in the special revelation of the written Word of God. “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” John 17:17. In King David’s endless laudation for the Word of God in Psalm 119 he plaudits, “The sum of your word is truth.” Psalm 119:159. Moreover, God oft prescribes his people believe and act within the truth. “For my mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips. All the words of my mouth are righteous; there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.” Proverbs 8:7-8. “Let what you say be simply ‘yes’ or ‘No’, anything more than this comes from evil.” Matthew 5:37. It is the truth which leads to our life (John 14:6) and freedom (John 8:32.)
THE EVIL OF LIES AND LIARS
To flagitiously deny the truth of God’s Law Word is to autonomously sunder oneself from God’s divine order and foist our own dictum against. This is a latent principle fundamental to every turpitude against the truth of God’s law. Satan’s inimical lie in the garden fomented to the fall of mankind. The interdiction of lies is annexed in the Decalogue itself under, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” With such a prohibition lies are an abomination before our righteous God. “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord.” Proverbs 12:22. Again in Psalm 5:5, “You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.” God not merely reprobates lies but reprobates the liar.
We witness multitudinous accounts of God anathematizing the duplicity of lies and liars. One most all are cognizant of is the record of Annanias & Sapphira. “But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.” On account of their surreptitiousness, cupidity, and perfidiousness God yielded up their ghosts. Additionally, there is the chronicle of Achan and the forbidden goods of the City of Jericho. “But the children of Israel committed a trespass in the accursed thing: for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took of the accursed thing: and the anger of the Lord was kindled against the children of Israel.” From his dissembling God ordained the vagarious defeat of the army of Israel against the men of Ai. Joshua, leader of the Israelites, was hapless when God spoke to him, “Get thee up; wherefore liest thou thus upon thy face? Israel hath sinned, and they have also transgressed my covenant which I commanded them: for they have even taken of the accursed thing, and have also stolen, and dissembled also, and they have put it even among their own stuff. Therefore the children of Israel could not stand before their enemies, but turned their backs before their enemies, because they were accursed: neither will I be with you any more, except you destroy the accursed thing from among you.” Achan was stoned and burnt in the Valley of Achor owing to his mendaciousness. Beyond these specific instances is Satan’s lie in the garden, Cain’s disingenuousness to God concerning the whereabouts of his brother Abel, Gehazi’s spurious claim to King Naaman that the prophet Elijah required silver and garments for two guests, Laban’s perjury to Jacob by betrothing Leah in the stead of Rachel, Rachel’s prevarication about her father’s idols, Judas’ betrayal in Gethsemane, and Peter’s thrice forswearing of Christ. Scripture has clear accounts of the condemnation of lies.
Now, the quandary upon which gravitates the historical debate of the ethics of lies within the Church proceeds from the instances in Scripture where the falsehood is employed either with God’s commendation or by His actuation.
The first instance we are engaged with in Scripture is Abraham’s tergiversation with Pharaoh in Genesis 12. Abraham with his wife Sarah and the some three hundred souls under his stewardship were forced by a direful famine from their peripatetic sojourn to the promised land into the apostate kingdom of Egypt. Pharaoh had the opprobrium at the time being a husband-murdering paramour to procure the widowed wives. Abraham being fully cognizant of the peril he would face, the summoning of God to the promise land yet to be found, the promise of a future nation of God by his own seed not yet realized, and the nearly three hundred souls under his tutelary guardianship chose to deceive Pharaoh of his true identity. Abraham entreated his wife Sarah to only announce him as her brother. “Behold, now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon: Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they shall say, This is his wife: and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive. Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister: that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee.” Genesis 13:11-13. Pharaoh indeed took notice of Abraham’s procession and the beauteousness Sarah in particular. She was taken into Pharaoh’s house and Abraham was treated well for her sake, as her putative brother. In supernatural intervention God greatly plagued Pharaoh and his household on account of Sarah being in his house. Withal, God abundantly blessed Abraham by the regaining of his wife with increased possessions and harrowingly cursed Pharaoh and his household by plague. If this record is not clear enough just eight chapters later in Genesis 20 the same situation unfolds with Abraham and King Abimelech and again six chapters further in Genesis 26 with Isaac and the King of the Philistines. Yet, masses within the Church perniciously caveat that Abraham and Isaac were a pusillanimous, inconsiderate liars. They traduce they had no faith in God, no concern for others (namely, their wives), and no moral restraint in these three consecutive instances. Do they not recognize the extremity of their predicaments? Abraham, the protector of hundreds of men, women, and children, was without provision, without protection, who was forced by famine, who was threatened by Pharaoh, and above all and throughout all, was blessed of God. Such a man is not a coward. The second primary position maintained, specifically by St. Augustine in his treatise, “Against Lying”, is that Abraham did not indeed lie. Augustine attests, “It is not, however, the same thing to hide the truth as it is to utter a lie. For although everyone who lies wishes to hide what is true, yet not everyone who wishes to hide what is true, tells a lie. For in general we hide not truths by telling a lie, but by holding our peace.” Thus, because Sarah was indeed his half-sister, Abraham solely identifying himself as such , avers St. Augustine, would indeed have been truthful. But the point is that it was still deceitful. This conclusion is without question that Abraham’s utterance emitting only part of the truth was availed deliberately in order to deceive Pharaoh despite the maladroit cavilings of such proponents as St. Augustine.
The sixth instance, and a more significant instance we see of deception which resulted in God’s blessing was with the Hebrew midwives and Pharaoh in Exodus 1. Pharaoh had decreed the midwives kill every male child. When Pharaoh saw the male children still being conceived without inhibition from the midwives he brought them for inquiry. Their explication was the vigor of the hebrew women to conceive anterior to their arrival. While this account may have been true for the greater part, it was not so in all instances. Hence, the midwives would not have been attributed in verse 17 of “Saving” the men children, “alive.” Whether they uttered a falsehood or withheld and presented a partial truth is irrelevant. The nature of their utterance was with the intent of deception. Despite their dissembling before Pharaoh God “therefore” dealt well with them. St. Augustine, on the other hand, did not deal well with them. “But as for the midwives, albeit Hebrewesses, if they savored only after the flesh, what or how great is the good they got of their temporal reward in that they made them houses… Those Hebrew women, if they were such as the sort of persons… whom would both eschew to say ought false, and would most frankly refuse that foul service of killing the babies… would die with an heavenly habitation for their incomparably more ample reward than those houses which they made them on earth could be; they would die, to be in eternal felicity, after enduring death for most innocent truth.” What kind of plenary balderdash St. Augustin, John Calvin, and John Gill say from their ivory tower of personal piety condescending down to these beleaguered midwives blessed of God.
Perhaps the most apodictic instance in Scripture is the account of Rahab. In Joshua 2, Rahab in an act of faith received two spies of Joshua’s army to her lodge. The King of Jericho soon ascertained the presence of spies within Jericho and directly sent men-at-arms to Rahab’s inn, as it was a common lodging point of the city. Rehab’s recourse was between being party to the killing of God’s spies or lying to cast God’s enemies off course. After concealing the spies, Rahab reported them as having just gone out of the city and easy to be overtaken if they straightway pursued. Naturally, with the men of Jericho engaged in such a vain search by the hand of Rehab, it provided ample opportunity for Joshua’s men to escape and evade further detection. For her services and loyalty to the spies, Rehab with her household were the only ones saved when Joshua took the city of Jericho. She is praised by Joshua, blessed of God, placed in the lineage of King David and Jesus Christ, and panegyrized throughout Scripture. In this chronicle their is no reservation to whether this be a veritable falsehood or not. Many Church theologians, both present and past, have aggregated a vociferous attack on Rahab for her lie. Either contemptuously passing over it altogether or dismissing it as a venial evil by reason of the state of her soul. Wayne Grudem in his article, “Why Is It Never Right To Lie” elucidates, “To think that Scripture holds up an untrained, uniformed Cannanite prostitute as a model of ethical conduct is asking too much of the text.” John Calvin writes in his commentary on Joshua 2, “As to the falsehood, we must admit that though it was done for a good purpose, it was not free form fault. For those who hold what is called a dutiful lie to be altogether excusable, do not sufficiently consider how precious truth is in the sight of God. Therefore, although our purpose be to assist our brethren, to consult for their safety and relieve them, it can never be lawful to lie, because that cannot be right which is contrary to the nature of God. And God is truth.” St. Augustine wrote, “Rahab, indeed, delivered out of Jericho, made transition into the people of God, where, being proficient, she might attain to eternal and immortal prizes which are not to be sought by any lie. Yet at that time when she did for the Israelites spies that good, and, for her condition of life, laudable work, she was not as yet such that it should be required of her, “In your mouth let yea be yea, Nay nay.” If we dismiss the examples of God’s people on the basis of their moral history we ought then burn all of Scripture on the alter of our personal piety. Furthermore to isolate and segregate Rahab’s lie from Scripture’s repeated praises for her, is to be errant of sever eisegesis of the text. Incontrovertibly, her lying was inherent to to the account of her receiving, safekeeping, and delivering of the spies. Pray tell, what of the context? In Joshua 2, Rahab, a scabrous, meretricious harlot indeed, lied and is praised. In Joshua 7 (Same story, city, and context), Achan, a child of Israel indeed, lied and is stoned. How do these theologians then stone Rehab? They have the wrong person! How is it also that the spies, who by trade are master liars, evade the censuring gaze of these theologians and proponents? Rahab receives the praises of Joshua, the spies, the nation of Israel, Scripture, and God, yet is ruefully castigated by these men.
There are many more instances in Scripture such as these. Jonathan lying to King Saul about David’s whereabouts when his seat was empty at the King’s table, David acting as a mad man, Samson lying to Delilah about the source of his strength, Rebecca deceiving Isaac with blessing Jacob in the stead of Esau, King Jehu lying about being a worshiper of Baal in order to gather and destroy all the prophets of Baal in the land, Tamar deceiving Judah into taking her as a harlot, Michal’s lie to protect David from Saul, the woman’s lie to protect Jonathan from Absalom’s men, or Jael lying to Sisera about his safety if he came to rest in her tent. Apart from even these occasions, we encounter God’s men fighting in God’s battles with the commissioning and employment of undercover spies. Moses, Joshua, and David specifically. Counting his army, David was smitten by God, but employing spies was never averred against. Throughout all these records, although not all be just as perspicuous as the ones we have reviewed afore, God administers no condemnation but on the contrary, commendation.
I can go no further without stating the definitions I am working with and arguing against. Namely, what is a lie? Wayne Grudem provides a concise definition for those who hold as St. Augustine, Calvin, Gill and Grudem himself. “Lying is affirming in speech or writing something you believe to be false.” While I would agree with this definition, I would adduce it as incomplete. Nonetheless, this definition is coherent and consistent which their teachings and judgements on Abraham, the midwives, Rehab, etc… This quixotic definition directs the logical syllogism to the exact end these theologians and proponents have didactically established. All lies are sin. Lies are uttering a known falsehood. Rahab’s uttering a known falsehood is sin. The historical quandary is resolved. But is it? Could there be a definition of lying which would condemn those instances in Scripture which God condemns and commend those instances in Scripture which God commends? Could there be a definition which praises Rahab in Joshua 2 and casts the first stone at Achan in Joshua 7 just as Scripture does? Here is the definition I am contending: Lying is affirming in speech or writing something you believe to be false… with the intention to deceive another with an immoral design, when he has a right to know the truth or when morality requires just representation. The addition to Grudem’s definition which I have brought forward, comes from Noah Webster’s first edition dictionary of 1806. By this definition, anything less does not meet the qualifications of a lie. In the instances above with Abraham, the Midwives, and Rehab by our opponents own confessions, they did not lie of immoral design. Nor in all instances did the hearers require just representation. Contrarily, the subterfuge of Achan, Annanias, Sapphira, Judas, Rachel, Peter, Cain, Gehazi, Laban, and Judas was uttered falsehood with the immoral design to deceive those who had a right to know the truth or just representation.
WHAT OF MORAL RELATIVISM?
The immediate objection some will raise is that of moral relativism. In other words, where is the line of delineation? St. Augustine faced this predicament. At the time there were many Perscillianists in hiding from the Catholics. Perscillianism was a heresy derived from the Gnostics and Manichaeans. As heretics, they were to recant to the Catholic Church or be executed. St. Augustine’s comrade, Consentius, made a proposition to St. Augustine to go undercover as a Perscillianist in order to discover there whereabouts. St. Augustine wrote in response his second propaedeutic treatise on lying which stated the following to Consentius, “For if lies not of whatsoever kind, but blasphemous lies, are therefore just because they are committed with intent to detect hidden heretics; it will be possible at that rate, if they be committed with the same intention, that there should be chaste adulteries. For put the case that a number of lewd Priscillianists, some woman should cast her eye upon a catholic Joseph, and promise him that she will betray their hidden retreats if she obtain from him that he lie with her, and it be certain that if he consent unto her she will make good her promise: shall we judge that it ought to be done?… We are not to find out concealed adulterers by committing adulteries, nor murderers by committing of murders, nor practicers of black arts by practicing of black arts, so neither must we seek to find out liars by telling lies or blasphemers by blaspheming.” Or consider Grudem’s enumeration on the digression of lies. “1. It is sometimes right to lie to preserve a human life. 2. It is right to lie when it does more good than harm. 3. It is right to lie when you think it will bring a good result. 4. It is sometimes right to break other commands of the Bible when it will do more good than harm.” These are remarkably astute reasonings, which is why having definitions which draw the line of delineation are so critical. With regards to Augustine. Firstly, they are not lies if they be without sordid, immoral design and the recipient forfeited their right to just representation. Secondly, we see no example or implied provision for the committing of adultery, with the prophetic exception of the command given by God to the prophet Hosea. Third, we cannot act in any regard against what Scripture expressly forbids. As to Grudem, again, I am not saying there is provision for breaking the ninth commandment. Uttering a known falsehood to deceive without immoral design is no lie. Consequentially there never is any ‘Provision toward’ or ‘breaking of’ the commandments.
CONSEQUENCE OF ETHICS
Proponents such as St. Augustine and Grudem argue my definition effectuates into licentiousness, bidding what God does not, but I argue theirs effectuate legalism, forbidding what God does not. Rehab could utter known falsehood without immoral design, and David’s spies could communicate under a known false identity without immoral design in the fighting of a just war, and in modern day men can utter known falsehood to the enemy without immoral design and make D-Day possible, and a family may utter a known falsehood to the S.S without immoral design and protect the Jews in the basement, or even on a quotidian scale a man may utter known falsehood to his buddies without immoral design and surprise them with something. By definition falsehood, but not by definition lies. Opponents would cast the first stone at them all, but God casts none. Beyond this pedant legalism, in such instances where these prescient opponents would entreat desultory silence, or the hypocrisy of partial truths, or other pacifist tactics (None of which we can find in Scripture besides Christ’s prophetic stance before his accusers.) and they err on tempting God. They suppose these patriarchs of Scripture, Church, and Western history should have preened their pallid, personal piety and died to inherit, “eternal felicity” or simply expected God to supernaturally intervene on behalf of their poltroon hides “holding their peace.” Why not start pursuing God and altruistically protecting His people as courageously as our patriarchs have? Put down your ethical stones.
So what is the ethic of lies? Lies are the uttering of falsehood with the intent of deception by immoral design when the hearer requires the truth and just representation.