Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lying, according to Sacred Scripture

Isaac, deceived and blessing Jacob

The use of Scripture in the recent debate about lying
In the debate over the moral status of the Live Action sting operations against Planned Parenthood, two examples of “ethical” lying regularly came up in comment boxes and even in the bodies of articles. On the one hand, some referred to the supposed acts of lying which Pope Pius XII employed in order to save the Jews during War II – the historical veracity of this claim is open to some question, for further reading we point to an article in favor of the claim and an article against it [for our part, we suspect that the story is more myth than history].
The example proffered in favor of lying which we will be focusing on in this article, however, is actually a conglomeration of numerous cases taken from Sacred Scripture. Some have claimed not only that many of the holy men and women of the Old Testament lied, but that God himself has lied! We will consider, in particular: Abraham’s claim that Sarah was his sister; the testing of Abraham (according to which some will be so bold as to accuse God of deceiving Abraham with falsehood); the blessing of Jacob in place of Esau; the deception of Pharaoh by the Egyptian midwives; and, from the New Testament, the statement by our Savior that he did not know the day or the hour of his Second Coming (of which some have most impiously claimed that Christ our God spoke a lie in this matter, since he certainly did know the time of the Parousia).
In our first little article, we will consider the broader question of the interpretation of these difficult passages of Scripture. Then, in later articles, we will discuss first the cases involving the Patriarchs, then that involving the midwives, and finally those involving God himself.

How a Catholic reads the Bible
The Second Vatican Council has put forward three criteria for reading the Bible in union with the same Spirit who inspired it: 1) Be especially attentive to the content and unity of the whole Scripture. 2) Read the Scripture within the living Tradition of the Church. 3) Be attentive to the analogy of faith. (Dei Verbum 12, CCC 112-114)
Thus, whenever he comes upon a difficult Bible passage, the Catholic considers the relation between the Old and New Testaments (since many obscure portions of the Old Testament are made clear in the New, while the New Testament would be incomprehensible without the Old), he then looks to the commentaries of the great saints and theologians of the Church’s Tradition (giving special pre-eminence to the Fathers of the Church and to the Magisterium), and finally he considers the coherence of all the doctrines of the faith and seeks to read the particular passage in light of the whole plan of Divine Revelation.
There are many things which a Catholic ought never to do when interpreting difficult passages of Scripture, we will point to some which are particularly relevant to our current topic: The Catholic ought not to isolate a peculiar or extraordinary passage of Scripture from the rest of the Bible or from the Church’s Tradition; and, he ought not to interpret a passage without reference to the commentaries of Church Fathers, saints, and theologians, as well as the Magisterium. It goes without saying that a Catholic ought never simply to pluck a single passage of the Bible out of context, so as to use it as a “proof-text” to justify his particular claim.
The way some have attempted to use the Bible in order to justify lying
Unfortunately, in the on-line debate about lying, many persons regularly cited difficult passages of Sacred Scripture in order to claim that lying is not always wrong. These individuals did not consider the Patristic interpretations, nor the reasoned considerations of later theologians from the scholastic and counter-reformation periods. Rather, they simply isolated particular passages and interpreted them according to the whims of their own minds.
Although many saints and theologians have interpreted these passages in such a way as to both respect the texts themselves and maintain the constant teaching of the Scriptures and the Church that lying is always and everywhere wrong, many (in an attempt to defend the activity of Live Action) have ignored the sound doctrine of the Catholic Tradition and have substituted their own commentaries for those of the Fathers. What is worse, these writers seem to refuse to enter into serious discussion with any who would question their “obvious” interpretations – To those who have attempted to recall the interpretations of the Church Fathers and Doctors, these persons will only respond, “You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me!” And with that, they dismiss the riches of Catholic Biblical exegesis.
What the Scriptures say about lying
In later articles, we will consider the particular passages which have been most commonly brought up in the recent debate about the ethics of lying. For now, it will be enough to point to the general teaching of the Scriptures – recognizing that no passage of the Bible can be read outside of the unity of the Biblical Canon.
Below, we have included a short list of Biblical verses on lying. This list is by no means exhaustive, but will suffice to give a general sense of the Scriptural tradition. It is worth noting that, especially in Psalms and Proverbs, the wicked and sinful man is typified as a liar (even more than as a murderer). Moreover, Satan himself, though called a murderer from the beginning, is immediately thereafter identified as a liar, and the father thereof. (John 8:44)

Lying is forbidden.
Leviticus 19:11 Ye shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to another.
Colossians 3:9 Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds;
Proverbs 6:16-19 These six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.

Lying is an abomination to God.
Proverbs 12:22 Lying lips are abomination to the LORD: but they that deal truly are his delight.
And a hindrance to prayer.
Isaiah 59:2-3 But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue hath muttered perverseness.

The devil is the father of lies.
John 8:44 Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.
1 Kings 22:22 And the LORD said unto him, Wherewith? And he said, I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so.
Acts 5:3 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?

The saints do not lie
Psalms 119:163 I hate and abhor lying: but thy law do I love.
Proverbs 13:5 A righteous man hateth lying: but a wicked man is loathsome, and cometh to shame.
Psalms 101:7 He that worketh deceit shall not dwell within my house: he that telleth lies shall not tarry in my sight.
Zephaniah 3:13 The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies; neither shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth: for they shall feed and lie down, and none shall make them afraid.
Psalms 119:29 Remove from me the way of lying: and grant me thy law graciously.
Proverbs 30:8 Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me:
Proverbs 14:5 A faithful witness will not lie: but a false witness will utter lies.
Proverbs 14:25 A true witness delivereth souls: but a deceitful witness speaketh lies.

Sinners lie
Hosea 11:12 Ephraim compasseth me about with lies, and the house of Israel with deceit: but Judah yet ruleth with God, and is faithful with the saints.
Psalms 58:3 The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies.
Psalms 52:3 Thou lovest evil more than good; and lying rather than to speak righteousness.
Psalms 62:4 They only consult to cast him down from his excellency: they delight in lies: they bless with their mouth, but they curse inwardly.
Jeremiah 9:3 And they bend their tongues like their bow for lies: but they are not valiant for the truth upon the earth; for they proceed from evil to evil, and they know not me, saith the LORD.
Jeremiah 9:5 And they will deceive every one his neighbour, and will not speak the truth: they have taught their tongue to speak lies, and weary themselves to commit iniquity.

Liars are excluded from heaven.
Revelation 21:27 And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb's book of life.
Revelation 22:15 For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.
Revelation 21:8 But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.

Examples of liars:
The devil,
Genesis 3:4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
Genesis 4:9 And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?
Genesis 18:15 Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh.
Joseph's brethren,
Genesis 37:31-32 And they took Joseph's coat, and killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the coat in the blood; And they sent the coat of many colours, and they brought it to their father; and said, This have we found: know now whether it be thy son's coat or no.
Joshua 9:9-13 And they said unto him, From a very far country thy servants are come because of the name of the LORD thy God: for we have heard the fame of him, and all that he did in Egypt, And all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites, that were beyond Jordan, to Sihon king of Heshbon, and to Og king of Bashan, which was at Ashtaroth. Wherefore our elders and all the inhabitants of our country spake to us, saying, Take victuals with you for the journey, and go to meet them, and say unto them, We are your servants: therefore now make ye a league with us. This our bread we took hot for our provision out of our houses on the day we came forth to go unto you; but now, behold, it is dry, and it is mouldy: And these bottles of wine, which we filled, were new; and, behold, they be rent: and these our garments and our shoes are become old by reason of the very long journey. ...
Prophet of Bethel,
1 Kings 13:18 He said unto him, I am a prophet also as thou art; and an angel spake unto me by the word of the LORD, saying, Bring him back with thee into thine house, that he may eat bread and drink water. But he lied unto him.
Job's friends,
Job 13:4 But ye are forgers of lies, ye are all physicians of no value.
Matthew 26:72 And again he denied with an oath, I do not know the man.
Acts 5:5 And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things.


Suzanne said...

I'm so glad you are doing this. I had the idea to do this too, except I've been ill lately. Will keep an eye on future articles.

Would you consider doing a series on the meaning of the phrase "lying by its nature is to be condemned"? People don't understand what this "nature" is, and how it excludes any possible exceptions. People don't understand the meaning of the phrase "intrinsically disordered".

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I will try to put together a short article on the nature of lying (sometime in the next week) -- specifically we will need to clarify what the Catechism means when referring to the "intention to deceive" (which seems to say that the evil of lying is in the intention) and then clarifying this by saying that lying is wrong by its nature (and not merely by the intention)...this very point has led to much confusion as many (rather foolishly) have stated that a lie is not a lie if it is told with the intention of leading someone to a moral conversion...

Thank you for your kind words and encouragement! +

Br. Gabriel Thomas, OP said...

Seriously, I'm glad that more people are addressing this issue and from different aspects of the Tradition.

Nick said...

St. Augustine - God is Truth

Cooperatores Veritatis

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Suzanne, I have just posted on "the nature of a lie", offering the clarifications which you requested.

I hope that this little article will bring some clarity to the issue -- thank you for spurning me on to write it! +

David said...

Thank you for this post. I agree with your arguments however, there seems to be a brushing over of what Pope Pius did during WWII and many countless others. Lying is a sin but in the context of saving one's life while not endangering the recipient of the lie has to be taken into consideration. In addition, to the nature of the lie. Habitual lying and lying for you own gain is different from lying to save another's life.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Agreed, a lie which is told for personal gain is usually either a very serious venial sin or a mortal sin.
However, when a person lies in order to save another (especially if that lie does no further direct harm to anyone), that lie is often probably only a venial sin.

What troubles me is when some claim that, because a lie is told with a good intention, it is no longer really a lie at all, or at least is not wrong...this is consequentialism on parade.

Chatto said...


I've just read Dei Verbum after your mentioning it in this article. Much of what is read about the guarantee of receiving the Truth of Revelation seems to come from Newman's Development of Christian Doctrine, about which I'm giving a talk this Saturday - spare prayers would be appreciated!

On a different note, I noticed that throughout DV 'sacred tradition' is lower-cased, while 'Sacred Scripture' is capitalised. Is this the way it's supposed to be written? I always capitalise 'Sacred Tradition'.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

The on-line Latin edition at has Sacra Traditio in caps...while the English has it lower case...

My English edition of the Catechism has Tradition capitalized...

For my part, I agree with you -- I always capitalize "Sacred Tradition" is just as much the Word of God as the Scriptures (one bing living and oral, the other being written)...

Prayers for your talk! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

The consideration of the "cases" of Abraham, Jacob, the midwives, Rahab, and Judith can be found in my latest post:

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