Monday, April 15, 2013

Lies for lives

I’m going to quote and comment on this essay:

It is important to clarify at the outset exactly what is being discussed. The question is the narrow one of verbal affirmations of something one believes to be false. In this sense, Lying is affirming in speech or writing something you believe to be false.

 There are several related acts that are not included in this definition. On this narrow definition, “lying” does not include:

 (2) Nonverbal actions intended to mislead or deceive someone (An action is something that happens; it is neither true nor false like a verbal affirmation of something. An example is leaving a light on in our house when we are away for a weekend – an observer may rightly conclude, “The Grudems left a light on,” but that may or may not prove that we are at home.) 

The problem with this narrow definition is that it rigs the analysis. The definition is prejudicial, by preemptively excluding potential counterevidence. By definition, certain types of counterevidence no longer count as evidence.

So this leaves Grudem open to the charge of special pleading. He’s framed the issue in a way that automatically discounts potential defeaters for his position.

Grudem anticipates this objection: 

Of course, some may argue against this narrow definition of lying, saying, for example,  “Deceptive actions are the same thing as lying.” But that is not a careful statement. Deceptive actions are in some ways similar to lying (their goal is to persuade someone else to believe something untrue) and in some ways different from lying. For example, actions are ambiguous and can have various meanings, while verbal affirmations ordinarily are not ambiguous. Also, the Bible treats deceptive actions and false affirmations differently, as I will indicate below. And lying involves a contradiction between what you think to be true and what you say, which does not occur in deceptive actions (a difference that was very significant to Augustine). The differences are important, and show at least that the two categories should be analyzed separately.

I’ll have more to say, but for now I’ll simply point out that his distinction is ad hoc. We’re dealing with a distinction between verbal and nonverbal communication. On the face of it, that’s not a morally principled distinction. Rather, that merely concerns the difference between one medium and another. Mode rather than content.

And, in fact, as Grudem knows, you have sign prophets in Scripture who use nonverbal as well as verbal communication.

Isn’t the morally salient distinction between deceptive and nondeceptive communication rather than verbal and nonverbal communication?

Likewise, isn’t the motivation to deceive a morally salient distinction? Do you have a licit or illicit motive?

The Bible has numerous commands prohibiting “lying” in the sense of affirming something that you believe to be false.

For the moment let’s focus on prohibitions against perjury. As Grudem points out, Biblical prohibitions with respect to “lying” are broader than perjury, but for now let’s focus on perjury to illustrate an underlying principle.

i) The basic flaw in Grudem’s reasoning is that he fails to take into account the implied situation.

Indeed, Grudem basically admits that later on, but he fails to appreciate the significance of his admission when he says:

Therefore there is an alternative to seeing “against your neighbor” as limiting the scope of the ninth commandment. It seem that a better understanding is that “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” is chosen as a particularly hateful example of lying, because it is a courtroom setting where you intentionally speak falsely against your neighbor (whom you should love!) in a way that will cost him his goods (perhaps to your benefit) or even his life. By this God means to show us how hateful all lying is, not merely this kind of lying.

But that’s context-dependent. It isn’t perjury, per se, but perjury with malicious intent, that’s forbidden.

Case law doesn’t address every conceivable contingency. Rather, case law commonly deals with typical, representative situations.

Take a witness who lies to either inculpate the innocent or exculpate the guilty. What are the usual circumstances under which a witness is tempted to lie?

On the one hand, a witness might lie about his enemy to harm his enemy, even if his enemy is innocent in this particular instance. On the other hand, a witness might cover for kinsman based on a tribal honor code, where you automatically stick up for your kith and kin, even if they were in the wrong.

ii) On a related note, keep in mind the legal framework. This is the Mosaic law. A divinely inspired law code. By definition, the laws are just. That’s another aspect of the implied situation.

Can we automatically transfer those prohibitions to a legal system that is unjust? Or does that rip them out of context?

iii) In addition, we have many different social obligations in Scripture. The general prohibition against perjury involves one social obligation, but there are others we need to consider. Balancing different duties.

Let’s illustrate these principles:

iv) Suppose you attend a public high school. Suppose you’re chatting with one of your classmates, who’s a friend of yours. Suppose he says something like “boys are better at football than girls” or “homosexuals are morally depraved.”

Let’s say his statement violates the school speech code. His statement is “sexist” or “homophobic” according to the speech code.

Let’s say another student overhears the offending remarks, and rats him out. He’s hauled into the Vice-Principal’s office. He denies the accusation.  

You are also brought in and questioned. Did he say what the other student attributed to him?

v) What’s your duty in that situation? Like Grudem, we could simply recite the Mosaic prohibitions against perjury. However, in all likelihood, these envision a very different implied situation. Therefore, it’s dubious to assume that we can simply extrapolate from the Mosaic prohibitions to a situation where your classmate is liable to be unjustly punished based on your testimony. 

And if you tell the truth under those circumstances, you are making yourself an agent of an unjust regime. You are directly complicit in the miscarriage of justice.

The student wasn’t punished for wrongdoing. Rather, the punishment was the wrongdoing. He didn’t wrong anyone. Rather, the school is wronging him. If you witness against him, you are accessory to the injustice. 

vi) In addition, your testimony would be a breach of confidence, as well as a betrayal of trust. Because you’re his friend, he felt it was safe to speak freely in your presence.

So there’s more than one potential duty in play. There’s a prima facie duty to be a truthful witness. But in addition there’s a prima facie duty to honor a confidence and be a trustworthy friend. 

vii) Now let’s vary the illustration. Suppose your classmate says: “I hate fags.”

Now, unlike the first illustration, here’s a case where, from a Christian standpoint, he said something wrong. He doesn’t have the right attitude towards homosexuals. In that case, should you witness against him? That raises a couple of interrelated issues:

viii) Even if what he said was wrong, do we want to empower a system in which all our statements, public and private, are subject to prosecution? Where the authorities can haul us in to interrogate us for saying the “wrong” thing? Where we have to have to be prepared explain, defend, or retract our statements when questioned by some “human rights commission” or whatever?

ix) On a related note, how should we respond when people ask questions they have no right to ask? How should we respond in a coercive situation where we are compelled to answer? Where we are penalized if we refuse to answer? Just saying “that’s none of your business” is not an option.

They demand answers, so they put you in a situation where you have to say something, even though they have no right to ask you that. They gratuitously created that situation.

Like Grudem, we could simply recite the Mosaic prohibitions against perjury, but the implied situation is very different. The Mosaic law has a completely different position on the proper role of gov’t.

The passages fall into several categories, but none of them contains a clear lie (in the sense of a verbal affirmation of what the speaker believed to be false) that is approved by God. Some passages contain deceptive actions such as a military ambush at Ai (Josh. 8:3-8), a surprise attack (2 Sam. 5:22-25), or David pretending to be insane (1 Sam. 21:13). These deceptive actions do seem to be approved by God in these passages, but these do not fall in the category of a “lie” as defined in this article.

 But are such deceptive actions sufficiently different from a “lie” (as defined in this article) so that we are justified in putting them in a different category? I think they are,
for several reasons: (1) Scripture treats them differently, always condemning lies but not always condemning such deceptive actions.

Does Scripture treat them differently because there’s a morally relevant difference between verbal and nonverbal communication, or because the implied situations are so different?

 (2) Actions are not true or false (as verbal affirmations are), but they are just something that happens.

That’s simplistic:

i) Strictly speaking, most actions lack truth-value. They don’t make assertions. They don’t affirm or deny something to be the case. Grudem is right about that.

ii) However, not all actions are “just something that happens.” A ruse de guerre is specifically intended to deceive.

iii) In addition, Grudem downplays the role of manual gestures in human communication, especially in some cultures (e.g. Italian).

 (3) People instinctively treat them differently: If on a weekend I leave a light on in my house (to deter burglars by making them think I am home) and then my neighbor bumps into me staying in a hotel in Tucson (2 hours away), the neighbor might have seen my light but will not think me to be a liar. But if I tell my neighbor, “I’m going to stay home this weekend” and then the neighbor bumps into me in staying in a hotel in Tucson, he will think that I lied to him.

I don’t see that his “instinctive” appeal survives ethical scrutiny. Yes, people may treat those differently, but now that he brought it up, is it fundamentally different? Is so, how so?

This is because (4) actions have ambiguous meanings, but propositions ordinarily do not.

On the one hand, I can think of obscene gestures whose significance is pretty unambiguous. On the other hand, human speech is often ambiguous.

I am not saying deceptive actions are never wrong (sometimes they surely are), but that they belong in a distinct category, one I am not dealing with in this essay.

Do they belong to a distinct category? That’s the very issue in dispute.

Therefore the Bible’s moral standards regarding lying include not only the ninth commandment, but an entire collection of Old Testament and New Testament verses that prohibit speaking lies or falsehood. And there are many other similar verses to those listed here, condemning things such as “lying,” “falsehood,” “liars,” and those who “speak lies.” 

 I agree with him that we’re dealing with a larger principle than perjury. But those also presuppose an implied situation.

But this would be impossible for Jesus, who was also God, since “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18).  Therefore, Jesus never lied. And therefore we never have to lie either. Jesus’ own moral character, and the truthfulness of all his words, provide additional evidence that Scripture prohibits us from ever telling a lie. The character of God who never lies is manifested to us in the life of Jesus, who never told a lie.

Actually, Jesus sometimes resorts to misleading words and deeds–misleading to an outsider:

18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 And he said to them, “What things?”

28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther (Lk 24:18-19,28).

5 Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do (Jn 6:5-6).

41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me” (Jn 11:41-42).

So Grudem’s appeal backfires.

Did Elisha (a prophet of God) lie to the Syrian army? He said, “This is not the way, and this is not the city” (v. 19), but the words are actually ambiguous, somewhat enigmatic. What way? What city? (The one where God wants them to go?) The Lord had “blinded” them (v. 18) so they decided to follow Elisha. The statement “I will bring you to the man whom you seek” (v. 19) is, again, somewhat enigmatic, but rather than leaving them, Elisha did in fact bring them to a place where they encountered him face to face.

This is by no means a clear example of a clear falsehood approved by God. (And in any case, it was not told to save Elisha’s life or anyone else’s life, for the Syrian soldiers were already blinded and harmless.)

Needless to say, studied ambiguity is a standard form of deception.

Other passages have to do with God sending a deceptive spirit or a lying spirit to wicked unbelievers (1 Kings 22:19-23; 2 Thess. 2:11), and these passages raise difficult questions about God’s providential use of evil agents to carry out judgment, but they do not necessarily show God’s approval of the lies any more than God’s ordaining that evil people would crucify Christ (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28) shows that God approved of their evil deeds (he did not: Acts 2:23).

Well, that’s pretty facile. God assuredly approves of his own actions. God is deceiving the wicked through a third party.

It must be said that real-life situations are always more complex, and offer more options, than a hypothetical situation sketched in a sentence or two in an ethics textbook. For example, telling the truth and lying are not the only options, since silence is always an option (though it may lead to suffering, as with the bishop that Augustine used as an example).

i) Silence is counterproductive. The interrogator will interpret your silence as guilty silence. You have something to hide. That confirms his suspicions.

ii) It’s not only or primarily a case of whether you will suffer, but whether what you say will be misused to make others suffer unjustly.

A fourth option is saying any of a hundred different things that don’t answer the question asked, such as, “I will not cooperate with any attempt to capture and kill Jewish people.” Yes, that may mean the Nazi soldiers will force their way in and search around, but they probably would have done that anyway. Who can say that they would even believe the Christian if he said, “No”?

There’s more to it than “yes” or “no”. There will be the demand for specific information regarding the whereabouts of the Jews.

 Some would argue in this situation that such evildoers, such as murderers, had “forfeited their right to the truth.” I would probably agree with this (at least the truth regarding the hidden Jews), and so I would not tell them the truth (we have no general obligation to tell everything we know). But that does not mean that I would have to lie to them either. A Christian in that situation should immediately pray for God’s wisdom to know what to say without lying, and without disclosing where the Jews were hidden.

I wonder if Grudem’s fallback at this point isn’t impacted by his charismatic theology.

Some ethicists would use this situation to argue for a “tragic moral choice,” a case where we have to do a lesser sin (lying) to avoid a greater sin (murder, or giving aid to a murderer, or at least not preventing a murder when we could do so). But John Frame would disagree with this viewpoint, and so would I. This is because I agree with Frame that there are no such tragic moral choices, where God wants us to disobey one of his commands in order to obey another. Frame gives several reasons for rejecting the idea that there are situations where we have to sin, including the following:

(1) “In Scripture, we have a moral duty to do what is right, and never to do what is wrong.” (3) This view implies that “the law of God itself is contradictory, for it requires contradictory behavior.” (6) Since Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are” (Heb. 4:15), this view requires that Jesus himself had to sin in some situations, but Scripture repeatedly affirms that Jesus never sinned. (7) 1 Corinthians 10:13 guarantees that God “will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape,” and this implies that there are no tempting situations so hard that all the options are sinful.

Frame writes, “So I must conclude that there are no tragic moral choices, no conflicts of duties.”23

I agree with this position. I think this is significant, because I am concerned that in today’s evangelical Christian world, too often such carefully constructed “hard cases” are used as a wedge to open the door a crack, to get people to admit that there are some situations where it is morally right (and acceptable to God!) to disobey one of God’s commands in Scripture. This was essentially the position of Joseph Fletcher, whose 1966 book Situation Ethics24 constructed all sorts of “hard cases” in which a person supposedly had to lie, or murder, or commit adultery, or steal, in order to act follow the greater principle of “love” for others (that is, to do good for others). 

 But such reasoning from “hard cases” quickly leads to easy rationalization for many other sins. It is easy for people to progress from (1) it is sometimes right to lie to preserve a human life to (2) it is right to lie when it does more good than harm to (3) it is right to lie when you think it will bring a good result to (4) it is sometimes right to break other commands of the Bible when it will do more good than harm. The end result is a terribly weak personal ethical system that lacks any backbone, that ignores the commands of Scripture, and that simply seeks to bring about good results by whatever means (without getting caught). The whole system can slide quickly to moral relativism. 

Grudem’s summary is simplistic:

i) Every obligation isn’t equally or simultaneously obligatory.

ii) One prima facie obligation can come into conflict with another prima facie obligation.

Jesus healing on the Sabbath illustrates both principles.

iii) As a matter of fact, ethics does confront us with borderline cases.

iv) There’s a difference between choosing between the lesser of two “evils” and the lesser of two “wrongs.” Christians should never do wrong. But the lesser of two “evils” is not synonymous with moral evil.

When considering this “situational perspective” for an ethical question, we need to ask what results will come from a given action.  If a person lies (even to protect life), several results will follow:
 (1) The other person’s life might or might not be preserved. But we cannot be sure that different actions (silence, or giving other answers) would not have also preserved life (especially if we trust in God’s sovereign control over situations).

No, we can’t be sure of the outcome. But responsible decision-making includes considering the likely consequences of our actions, to the best of our knowledge. Not all uncertainties are equally uncertain. Not all consequences are equally consequential. For instance, there can be a greater risk of a lesser harm or a lesser risk of a greater harm.

 (2) God will be dishonored, because a human being who is in God’s image, and who represents God on the earth, has told a lie and thus represented his Creator as a liar.

Given the phenomenon of divine deception in Scripture, the logic is reversible.

 (3) People will begin to think of the person who lied as (at least sometimes) a liar, someone whose words cannot always be trusted.

If always telling the truth means you betray a confidence, then that will send the same message.

 (4) The moral character of the person who lied will be eroded, because in a difficult situation he failed to obey the biblical commands against lying. 

That begs the question.

  (5) It will become easier to lie in the future, because once a person thinks it is right to lie in some circumstances, this will seem to be an easy solution in additional circumstances, and the person’s lying will become more frequent.

That’s like saying, if you kill in self-defense, that makes it easier to kill in the future. Even if that’s the case, so what?

 (6) The act of lying may be imitated by others, multiplying these results in other situations.

If you have good reason to lie, then they should emulate your example in comparable situations. People need to learn moral discrimination. An ability to draw relevant distinctions, rather than applying a single rote principle to every issue.


  1. Another great analysis Steve.

    - - - - - -
    My two cents:

    Grudem wrote: (3) This view implies that “the law of God itself is contradictory, for it requires contradictory behavior.”

    This assumes that there isn't a hierarchy or a weightiness of some laws over others which, if obeyed in some circumstances rather than another, more properly reflect the character and priorities of God. For example, Jesus talked about how some laws are weightier than others in Matt. 23:23. Steve mentioned Jesus' healing on the sabbath. In one instance Jesus pointed to how the law of circumcision on the 8th day supersedes the law requiring sabbath rest (John 7:22-23). When Jesus healed on the sabbath He often pointed out how even His critiques would "break" the sabbath under certain circumstances in order to fulfill the intent of the Law (Rom. 13:10; Gal. 5:14).

    And he said to them, "Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?"6 And they could not reply to these things.– Luke 14:5 [cf. Matt. 12:11; Luke 13:15]

    Grudem wrote:(6) Since Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are” (Heb. 4:15), this view requires that Jesus himself had to sin in some situations, but Scripture repeatedly affirms that Jesus never sinned.

    He seems to present a false dichotomy of being in circumstances where the required rightful thing is either 1. one MUST tell the truth or 2. one MUST lie. A third possibility is having the option to lie or to tell the truth, because one can be permitted to lie, without being morally required to lie.

    Another possible instance of a studied ambiguity is John 7:6-10. Jesus says He's not going to the feast. Yet, later He does go, but privately. Atheists point to this as a lie on Jesus' part. The textual variant of having the word "yet" inserted is probably due to scribes trying to protect Christ's integrity. Translations based on the Majority Text or the Textus Receptus include the word "yet" (e.g. KJV, NKJV).

    continued in next post.

    1. Grudem wrote: Some would argue in this situation that such evildoers, such as murderers, had “forfeited their right to the truth.” I would probably agree with this (at least the truth regarding the hidden Jews)...(we have no general obligation to tell everything we know). But that does not mean that I would have to lie to them either.

      It seems to me that the truth isn't morally neutral nor does it exist out there for everyone to use equally whether Creator or creature. Truth belongs to God and the wicked aren't entitled to the truth. Since the wicked love darkness (John 3:19), telling them a lie in order to fulfill the intent of the Law is only giving them the darkness they already sinfully desire after. The Greek word for truth, "aletheia" is the Greek word for "hidden" with the privative alpha prefix "a" added to it. So, the word transforms into a meaning of "unclosedness", "unconcealedness", "disclosure" or "truth". Similar to how in English "theism" becomes "atheism".

      To the degree that one is covenantally faithful to God, to that degree one is entitled to God's truth. Murders are in violation of the Noahic Covenant. Gen. 9:6 enjoins the promotion of human life because it's made in God's image.

      Grudem wrote:
      What should a husband say when his wife asks if he likes a dress she bought, or her new haircut, but he in fact does not think the dress or the haircut is attractive? Here I can give personal counsel (from 40 years of marriage): it is always better to tell the truth, and to do so following Ephesians 4:15, “speaking the truth in love.” This will mean speaking with kindness, humility, and thoughtfulness, and also speaking truthfully. (“Well, it wouldn’t be my favorite . . . but the color is nice,” or something like that.) The result may be momentary disappointment, but in the long term a husband and wife will trust each other always to speak truthfully, and with love and kindness, and the benefits to any marriage will be great.

      By that principle, Songs 1:8 was probably a lie along with most of the rest of the book.

      Songs 1:8 [He ] If you do not know, O most beautiful among women, follow in the tracks of the flock, and pasture your young goats beside the shepherds' tents.

    2. typo correction: When Jesus healed on the sabbath He often pointed out how even His critiques [CRITICS] would "break" the sabbath under certain circumstances

      Murders [MURDERERS, and potential murderers] are in violation of the Noahic Covenant [and the spirit of the Covenant]. Gen. 9:6 enjoins the promotion of human life because it's made in God's image.

  2. On the one hand, I can think of obscene gestures whose significance is pretty unambiguous. On the other hand, human speech is often ambiguous. Bold added by me.

    I don't know if Steve meant for this to be funny, I can't stop periodically laughing.

    I wonder if Wayne Grudem nods his head to say "No" like Bulgarians do. *G*

    Bulgarian gestures

    1. correction: "I don't know if Steve meant for this to be funny, [but] I can't stop periodically laughing."

      The comment about Wayne Grudem was just a joke. I've had great respect for Wayne Grudem since the early 1990s (still do).

      In fact I enjoyed watching his sermon/lesson "Be Filled With the Spirit"

      I also highly recommend his sermons/lessons which can be freely accessed at this link HERE

      It includes a series of lessons based on his popular book An Introduction to Systematic Theology There are approximately 120 mp3 lessons based on that book.

  3. Does Grudem's definition mean that the mute are incapable of lying since they communcate via sign language (an action)?