Friday, June 21, 2013

Divine dissimulation

The subterfuge here authorized by the Lord [1 Sam 16:2-3] has often been brought into discussions of whether or not there are ever situations in which it is ethically permissible, according to biblical standards, to lie to or deceive another person. Some have argued that this is never permissible, without exception. Others have said that in certain extreme situations a person is not required to speak the truth because there may be a higher obligation, usually that of protecting innocent life.

This argument is based to a large extent on the ninth commandment, in which the prohibition against bearing false witness against one’s neighbor is not formulated as an impersonal prohibition (not lying) but as a prohibition in which another person is involved. You may not damage your neighbor with your words. But this sometimes leads to a conflict: Are there cases in which one must consider his obligation to his neighbor as a higher obligation than his witness concerning reality (e.g. a formal statement of truth)? The answer would be yes, because to formally speak the truth in such situations would in reality violate the spirit and intent of the ninth commandment (i.e., to protect our neighbor with our words).

Those who say that deception or lying is never permissible usually deal with the Lord’s instruction to Samuel in 16:2 by making a distinction between concealing and lying…One may wonder, however, whether this line of argument really resolves the problem. Samuel was instructed not just to “conceal” his intentions from Saul, but to deceive Saul concerning the real purpose for his trip to Bethlehem, should that become necessary. It would seem to be difficult to defend the proposition that this is telling the truth in the sense that Scripture elsewhere requires. How much difference is there between deliberately misleading another person and lying to that person? Would it not be better in cases such as this to accept the fact that the Lord has told Samuel to deceive Saul, and therefore to conclude that here we find an example of a situation in which there is no obligation to tell the truth…In that case this situation is similar to that of the midwives in Exod 1:17-21, Rahab in Josh 2:1-14, and “the woman” in 2 Sam 17:18-21), J. R. Vannoy, 1-2 Samuel (Tyndale 2009), 158-59.

To protect his prophet, the Lord tells Samuel to go to Bethlehem under the pretense of offering a sacrifice. This half-truth will serve to protect Samuel and to veil the Lord’s intentions. God is not above using deception when he judges rebels (e.g. 1 Kgs 22:19-22; Jer 4:10; Ezk 14:9). The Lord is a God of truth, whose word is reliable, but he may very well deceive his enemies when they have, by their actions, forfeited their right to know the truth (see 2 Sam 22:26-27; 2 Thes 2:11-12). R. Chisholm, 1 & 2 Samuel (Baker 2013), 113.


  1. A particular person's comment (who I believe was previously banned for trolling) was deleted. But here's response to what he posted.

    Steve has dealt with these issues many times before. Here are just two recent posts:

    My two cents worth:

    When God speaks and communicates *as God*, then God cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Deut. 32:4; Isa. 65:16; Ps. 31:5 etc.). But that doesn't imply that God cannot deceive or approve of deception.

    There are various instances where God does seem to do so:
    (1) Exod. 1:15-21; (2) Josh. 2:4-6; 6:17, 25; Heb. 11:31; James 2:25; (3) Josh. 8:3-8; (4) Judges 4:18-21; 5:24-27; (5) 1 Sam. 16:1-5; (6) 1 Sam. 19:12-17; (7) 1 Sam. 20:6; (8) 1 Sam. 21:13; (9) 1 Sam. 27:10; (10) 2 Sam. 5:22-25; (11) 2 Sam. 15:34; (12) 2 Sam. 17:19-20; (13) 1 Kings 22:19-23; (14) 2 Kings 6:14-20; (15) Jer. 38:24-28; (16) 2 Thess. 2:11

    Especially if those to be deceived have forfeited their right to the truth. For example, the intent of the law not to bear false witness is because we're duty bound to love and protect the life of our neighbor (i.e. fellow humans). So when the Nazis asked German citizens whether they were hiding and protecting Jews, it would have gone contrary to the intent of God's law to tell the factual truth. God's laws themselves are grounded in and reflect God's own nature and character. All men are covenant breakers, but some are worse than others.

    As covenant breakers (especially, but even before the Fall), we are not naturally entitled to God's truth. We receive it as an act of God's grace for His glory, our good, and the good of others. To do harm unjustly and undeservedly would be contrary to God's intent in giving us truth and commands. Truth is and truths are God's property/possesion. They belong to Him and aren't neutral facts/data that float in a metaphysical and epistemological void and from which anyone can take a hold of and use for their own nefarious purposes. We don't allow criminals in prison access to the social security numbers of law abiding citizens. Then, why would God be obligated to give cosmic criminals truth/truths? All truths whether necessary, counterfactual or contingent belongs to God's 1. natural/necessary knowledge or 2. free knowledge sans creation.

    The attack that God's law is arbitrary seems to have some degree of traction if I accept your interpretation.

    One doesn't even have to hold to divine voluntarism or God being "ex lex" or Divine Command Theory to deny that God isn't bound by His laws to His creatures. Just because God is arbiter doesn't necessarily imply that God's decisions or commands are arbitrary or random.

    I wonder how we can defend the moral argument if in fact God breaks His own commandments.

    God's commands are for His creatures and therefore reflect His character but are adapted to their creatureliness and His design. For example, it would be ridiculous for God to be bound by or break the law against theft (i.e. the 8th commandment) since God ultimately owns all things. There's no one from whom He can steal. It also reduces to absurdity the common saying, "Oh well, you can’t have everything– where would you put it all?"–since God owns all things, including all time(s) and space(s). If God may not "break" His commands to men, then He violates the the 6th commandment according to Deut. 32:39 and 1 Sam. 2:6 (etc.). Or possibly the 2nd commandment in the incarnation. Or possibly the 4th commandment in John 5:18. And the 10th commandment can't apply to God for the same reason the 8th can't.

  2. Ed Dingess said:

    My previous posts are my impersonation of Triablogue moderators. :-)

    And here is an impersonation of Ed Dingess. :-)

    See here for an explanation.