‘WHAT is truth?’ said Pilate. The irony of his question is that truth, ‘the truth’, stood before him. The tragedy of Pilate’s bewilderment was the complete absence of comprehension regarding the stupendous character of the Person whom he had delivered to be crucified. Pilate’s vacillation and his readiness to be directed by expediency rather than by justice show that he was not ‘of the truth’. ‘Everyone who is of the truth heareth my voice’, said Jesus (John 18:37). There was tension in Pilate’s mind because he had some sense of justice. But ‘the truth’ he did not know, and truth did not command his judgment
Pilate’s question is inescapable and none is more basic. If the question is to be oriented properly it must, first of all, take the form, ‘What is the truth?’ Our Lord’s answer to Thomas, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6) points the direction in which we are to find the answer. We should bear in mind that ‘the true’ in the usage of John is not so much the true in contrast with the false, or the real in contrast with the fictitious. It is the absolute as contrasted with the relative, the ultimate as contrasted with the derived, the eternal as contrasted with the temporal, the permanent as contrasted with the temporary, the complete in contrast with the partial, the substantial in contrast with the shadowy. Early in the Gospel John advises us of this. ‘The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’ (John 1:17). It is to miss the thought entirely to suppose that truth is here contrasted with the false or the untrue. The law was not false or untrue. What John is contrasting here is the partial, incomplete character of the Mosaic dispensation with the completeness and fulness of the revelation of grace and truth in Jesus Christ. John had said this in the preceding context: ‘We beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). The Mosaic revelation was not destitute of grace or truth. But grace and truth in full plenitude came by Jesus Christ. The ultimate reality of which Moses was the shadow, the archetype of which Moses was the ectype, now appeared. The true light (John 1:9), the true grace were now manifested.’
It is in this sense that we are to understand our Lord when he said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’. He is enunciating the astounding fact that he belongs to the ultimate, the eternal, the absolute, the underived, the complete. The predications made with reference to him are those than which nothing is more ultimate. Jesus’ own witness is not less than the profound and simple propositions with which John opens his Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). The predications are these indubitably—the eternity of the Word, his eternal coordination with God, his eternal identity with God. He is distinguished from God and yet identified with him. He is all that God is and yet he is not the only one who is God.
When our Lord in his high-priestly prayer says, ‘This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent’ (John 17:3), he is predicating of the Father the most ultimate and absolute in respect of deity that biblical language provides. No higher predication is possible than this, ‘the only true God’. Jesus says and means that the Father is ultimate, self -existent, self-subsistent, eternal being, that he is such as God, and that as God he is such. The Father is ‘truth’ in the ultimate and highest conceivable sense. But it is an inescapable fact that John makes this same predication with reference to Jesus Christ himself. It is implied in John 1:1, ‘the Word was God’; and it is expressly affirmed by John in his first Epistle: ‘And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given to us an understanding that we may know him that is true: and we are in him that is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life’ (I John 5:20). That the person designated ‘the true God’ is Jesus Christ the exegetical considerations converge to establish. Hence all the ultimacy, reality, eternity belonging to ‘the true’ in terms of Johannine usage is predicable not only of the Father, as Jesus himself expressly said, but also of the Son himself; he also is ‘the true God’. It is this alone that could warrant the word of Jesus to his disciples, ‘Believest thou not that I am in the Father and the Father is in me: the words which I say to you I speak not of myself; but the Father dwelling in me doeth his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me’ (John 14:10, 11).
We are thus getting to the basis and heart of the question of ‘truth’. God is ‘the truth’, truth absolute, ultimate, eternal, in contradistinction from all that is relative, derived, partial, and temporal. And when we say this, the foregoing data show that it is of the triune God in the mystery of unity in trinity and trinity in unity that we make this predication. Only trinity in unity can explain such terms as ‘the Word was with God, and the Word was God’, together with the correlative teaching of Scripture respecting the Holy Spirit. The Spirit also is the truth (I John 5: 6; cf John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). When we speak, therefore, of the sanctity of truth, we must recognize that what underlies this concept is the sanctity of the being of God as the living and true God. He is the God of truth and all truth derives its sanctity from him. This is why all untruth or falsehood is wrong; it is a contradiction of that which God is. And this is why God cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18; cf Romans 3:4).’ To lie would contradict himself and he cannot deny himself (II Timothy 2:13). It is his perfection to be consistent with himself, and all his ways are truth. ‘The works of his hands are truth and judgment; all his precepts are sure. They stand fast for ever and ever, and are done in truth and uprightness’ (Psalm 3:7, 8; cf Deuteronomy 32: 4; Isaiah 25:1). This attribute of God is often expressed as his ‘faithfulness’ and is exemplified in the certainty and immutability of his promises and threatenings. God’s covenant is one of faithfulness to such an extent that promise and fulfilment are essential features of the covenant concept (cf Genesis 9: 16; 15: 18). And there can be little doubt that the specifically redemptive name of God, ‘I am that I am’, in terms of which we are to interpret the tetragram, points distinctly to the immutability of his covenant grace and promise (cf Malachi 3:6).2
In God’s address to man the first express allusion to God’s truthfulness and to the necessity on man’s part of crediting God’s word is in connection with the forbidden tree. ‘In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die’ (Genesis 2:17). It was by this prohibition that man’s faithfulness was to be tested; and his faithfulness would have required as an essential ingredient unrelenting trust in the faithfulness of God. It is here that the craft of the tempter appears, as also his malignity. The temptation to which Eve was subjected was directed in two stages, first by a question of fact and then by flat denial. It is this latter stage that interests us now. ‘Ye shall not surely die’ said the tempter. The form of the denial is to be noted. It is not that God would be unsuccessful in fulfilling his threat, that he would not be able to carry it into effect. The allegation carried with it that implication. But that is not the pivot of the denial; it is not simply a denial of God’s power. It is much more diabolical. Nor is it an impeachment of God’s knowledge. The serpent is not saying that God is ignorant and that he knows more than God does. Such an allegation would have been blasphemous enough, but not for the serpent. He credits God with knowledge, indeed with full knowledge of what the outcome would be, and on that assumption makes the thrust which is the genius of his attack. He directly assails God’s veracity. ‘God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, your eyes will be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil’ (Genesis 3:5). He accuses God of deliberate falsehood and deception. God has perpetrated a lie, he avers, because he is jealous of his own selfish and exclusive possession of the knowledge of good and evil! ‘Ye shall not surely die.’
The denial is not then an attack upon God’s knowledge, nor merely upon his power. The tempter openly assails the integrity and veracity of God. In a word, it is the truthfulness of God that is impugned. And this was directed to the end of securing assent on the woman’s part to the monstrous allegation. In this the tempter was successful, and disobedience to the divine command was the sequel. It was the strategy of skilfully framed and designed attack upon man’s integrity by eliciting distrust in the integrity of God. Man’s integrity is dissolved when God’s veracity is questioned. The way of integrity for man is unreserved commitment to God, totality trust in his truthfulness. God’s truth is his glory. The epitome of malignity is to assail this glory. That was the tempter’s strategy, and by acquiescence our first parents fell. Sin entered into the world, and death by sin. When we speak of the sanctity of truth in relation to ethics, we have particularly in view ‘truthfulness’ on our part in our dealings with God, ourselves, and our fellowmen. The necessity of truthfulness in us rests upon God’s truthfulness. As we are to be holy because God is holy, so we are to be truthful because God is truthful. The glory of God is that he is the God of truth; the glory of man is that he is the image of God and therefore ‘of the truth’ (cf John 18:37). It is not without significance that the arch-enemy of God and his kingdom is the father of lies; ‘he does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own, because he is a liar and the father of it’ (John 8:44). All untruth has its affinity with that lie by which Eve was seduced, and nothing exemplifies the contradiction of God and of man’s integrity more than the lie. It is the acme of reprobation when God sends upon men ‘a working of error to the end that they may believe the lie’ (II Thessalonians 2:11) and gives them over to a reprobate mind (cf Rom. 1:28-32). The foundations of all equity are destroyed when truth has fallen. It was the lament of the prophet that ‘none pleadeth in truth’, that ‘truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter. Yea, truth faileth; and he that departeth from evil maketh himself a prey’ (Isaiah 59:4, 14, 15). And Jeremiah’s lamentation is to the same effect: ‘This is a nation that obeyeth not the voice of the Lord their God, nor receiveth correction: truth is perished, and is cut off from their mouth’ (Jeremiah 7:28). ‘And they bend their tongue like their bow for lies: but they are not valiant for the truth upon the earth’ (Jeremiah 9:3). Hosea has the same complaint: ‘Hear the word of the Lord, ye children of Israel: for the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land’ (Hosea 4:1). When our Lord himself was made manifest to Israel, one of his severest indictments was this: ‘Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will to do’ (John 8:44). And why such a charge? ‘But because I say the truth, ye do not believe me’ (John 8:45). An apostle can describe the deeds of the old man and of the manner of life by which the old man is characterized as those of lying and falsehood (cf. Ephesians 4:22-25; Colossians 3:9, 10).
That untruth is the hallmark of impiety is borne out by numerous examples of Scripture. The envy of Joseph’s brethren by which they sold him into Egypt is matched by the deception perpetrated to conceal the vile deed from their father (Genesis 37:31-35). Joseph’s piety is proven by his chastity: ‘how can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?’ (Genesis 39:9). The lust of Potiphar’s wife is paralleled by the malicious lie by which she sought either to conceal her own wickedness or, more probably, to wreak vengeance on Joseph for his refusal to gratify her lewd designs (Genesis 39:13-18). The perfidy of Pharaoh is but an index to the hardness of his heart (cf Exodus 9:28). Judas played the part of the father of lies, who had entered into him (Luke 22:3; John 13:27), when he acted a lie and betrayed the Son of man with a kiss (Matthew 26: 49; Mark 14:45; Luke 22:48). Ananias and Sapphira lied by an act of pretension. Again it is eloquent of affinity with the father of lies and with the deception by which sin entered the world that Peter said, ‘Ananias, why hath Satan filled thy heart, to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back part of the price of the land?’ (Acts 5:3). Lying is of the devil; it is the work of darkness. And when the consummated order of righteousness is portrayed for us it is, as we should expect, an order also of truth: ‘And there shall in no wise enter into it anything that is unclean, or he that worketh abomination and a lie’ (Revelation 21:27). ‘Without are the dogs, and the sorcerers, and the fornicators, and the murderers, and the idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie’ (Revelation 22:15). Liars, like murderers, fornicators sorcerers, and idolaters, have their part ‘in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death’ (Revelation 21:8). Such a result is inevitable. The new Jerusalem is the holy city and ‘the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it’. His servants ‘shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And there shall be no night there’ (Revelation 22:3-5). The Lord God who ‘is light and in whom is no darkness at all’ (I John 1:5) will be their everlasting light, and the holy will be holy still.
As untruth is the hallmark of impiety, so truth is the insigne of godliness. This is true, first of all, in respect of knowledge. No words of Scripture are more relevant than those of our Lord himself. ‘This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent’ (John 17:3). ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no one cometh unto the Father but by me’ (John 14:6). ‘If ye continue in my word, then are ye truly my disciples; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free’ (John 8:31, 32). To know God is to know the truth; to be established in the faith and obedience of Christ is to know the truth. To know the Holy Spirit and to be indwelt by him is to be guided into all truth; the Spirit is ‘the Spirit of truth’ (John 16:13). In all of this we have a rich and complex coordination of aspects or elements. We must not set up those false antitheses which are too frequently the coinage of dialectic scepticism. If we know God, we know the truth; but we know God only through his revelation and specifically through his Word. The Word of God is the truth; and, if we know God, we know his Word as the truth. If we abide in Christ as ‘the truth’, we abide in his Word, and there is no abiding in him apart from continuance in his Word (cf. John 8:31, 32; 5: 38; 15:7, 10). So our Lord, in like manner, could say in his address to the Father: ‘Sanctify them in the truth: thy word is truth’ (John 17:17). And Paul could say of the Thessalonians that the gospel he preached came unto them ‘not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and much assurance’ (I Thessalonians 1:5), and they received the word of the message ‘not as the word of men, but as it is in truth the word of God’, which works effectually in them that believe (I Thessalonians 2:13). To speak of knowing God and the truth that he is apart from the word of revelation which is incorporated for us in the Scripture is for us men an abstraction which has no meaning or relevance. When we are of the truth and know the truth we discern in the inscripturated word of truth the living voice of him who is the truth and there is no tension between our acceptance of the living God as ‘the only true God’ and of his Word as the truth. ‘I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth but because ye know it, and that no lie is of the truth’ (I John 2: 21). It is the certitude which is the only appropriate response to confrontation with God himself that his Word, the Word of Scripture, must elicit. God’s Word is truth because he is truth.
The second respect in which truth is the hallmark of godliness is the necessity of ‘truthfulness’, truth in practice in thought, word, and action. It is apparent that this second aspect depends upon the first. In reality, truthfulness cannot guide our life unless ‘the truth’ is formed in us. We must know the truth if we are to live the truth. The lie is the element of our depraved state. A biblical ethic of truth must not ignore or discount the witness of Scripture that every imagination of the thoughts of our hearts is only evil (Genesis 6:5; 8: 21), that we go astray from the womb speaking lies (Psalm 58:3), that we change the truth of God into a lie (Romans 1:25), that with our tongues we have used deceit and the poison of asps is under our lips (Romans 3:13), that the god of this world, the father of lies, has blinded our minds (II Corinthians 4:4), that we receive not the things of the Spirit of truth (I Corinthians 2:14), that the mind of the flesh is enmity against God (Romans 8:7), and that there is no fear of God before our eyes (Romans 3:18). Hence the life of truth and truthfulness can emerge only as there is the transformation of the new creation in righteousness and holiness of the truth and God shines in our hearts ‘to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (II Corinthians 4:6). John with his usual incisiveness and decisiveness brushes aside all camouflage when he says, ‘Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ?’ Where this central tenet of the truth of the gospel is disbelieved, there the lie is enthroned. The life of truth takes its genesis from the faith of Jesus, that the Son of God is come in the flesh. ‘He that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also’ (I John 2:23), and in this confession we discern the Spirit of God (I John 4:2) as the Spirit of truth.
If faith is constituted by, and terminates upon, the truth of Jesus, the life of faith continues in obedience to the truth. It was the truth of the gospel (Galatians 2:5) that was at stake in the churches of Galatia when Paul penned his Epistle. His reproofs and expostulations take many forms, and one of them is this: ‘Ye were running well: who hindered you that ye should not obey the truth?’ (Galatians 5: 7). In writing to Timothy, Paul makes plain that if men like Hymenacus and Philetus were over-throwing the faith of some it was because they erred concerning the truth (II Timothy 2:18); and that men of corrupt mind and reprobate concerning the faith were those who, though ever learning, were not able to come to the knowledge of the truth (II Timothy 3:7, 8). Those reprobated to damnation are those who did not receive the love of the truth that they might be saved (II Thessalonians 2:10-12; cf Romans 2:8). On the positive and favourable side the witness is equally explicit. Paul gives thanks that God had chosen some ‘unto salvation in sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth’ (II Thessalonians 2:13), the brethren beloved of the Lord. The love that abides, the love that is greatest of all, without which nothing else profits, is the love that ‘rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth’ (I Corinthians 13:6). The fruit of the light in all who are the children of light is in all truth as well as in all goodness and righteousness (Ephesians 5: 9). And John has no greater joy than to hear that his children were walking in the truth (III John 4; cf verse 3 and II John 4). In a word, it is the truth of the gospel, dwelling richly in us in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, that insures the truthfulness of our practical life; sincerity, honesty, integrity are formed in us by the truth.
What is truthfulness? It is not a simple question. Moralists have written extensively on this theme and much disagreement has perplexed the solution of the problems involved.3 It is easy to affirm that to speak, or signify, or live a lie is wrong, that to bear false witness is to violate the core of integrity. The Bible throughout requires veracity; we may never lie. ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’ (Exodus 20:16). ‘Thou shalt not take up a false report: put not thine hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness’ (Exodus 23:1). ‘Keep thee far from a false matter’ (Exodus 23:7). ‘Speak ye every man the truth to his neighbour; execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates: and let none of you imagine evil in your hearts against his neighbour; and love no false oath: for all these are things that I hate, saith the Lord’ (Zechariah 8:16, 17). ‘Wherefore, having put away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour: for we are members one of another’ (Ephesians 4:25). It needs to be borne in mind that all falsehood, error, misapprehension, every deviation from what is true in thought, feeling, word, or action is the result of sin. There would be no misunderstanding and no misrepresentation if there were ‘no sin. We may not forget that sin began in this world with the acquiescence of the woman in the misrepresentation respecting God, averred by the tempter. In the last analysis, all misunderstanding and misrepresentation are misunderstanding and misrepresentation of God; all truth is derived from him and only in relation to him is anything true. Quite apart from sin there would have been ignorance and lack of full understanding on the part of all created rational beings. But limited knowledge is one thing, falsehood in understanding or representation is another.
It is true, of course, that misunderstanding and misrepresentation often arise when the persons involved in either or both are not directly or deliberately intending to create misunderstanding or misrepresentation. A person receives information that is erroneous, for example; he believes the report and passes it on to another. He is acting, as we say, in good faith. And we do not call such a person a liar because, though mistaken as to the facts, he utters what he believes to be true and is not motivated by malice or any evil intent. We are all involved to some extent in such reporting. It appears to be a necessity of the credit we must accord to others and of the limitations that encompass life in this world. We should be doing grave injustice if everyone involved in erroneous representations were charged with lying and esteemed accordingly. Ordinarily, at least, the person who is to be branded as a liar is the person who affirms to be true what he knows or believes to be false or affirms to be false what he knows or believes to be true.4
But we think very superficially and naïvely if we suppose that no wrong is entailed in purveying misrepresentation of fact. Even when the conditions aforementioned exist and persons are, as we say, the innocent victims of misinformation, we are not to suppose that they are relieved of all wrong. What we need to appreciate is that the representation is false; it does not accord with truth. Such a representation ought not to be; it is a violation of truth and, in the final analysis, a misrepresentation of God’s truth. It has its affinities with the original lie. Consequently to be the agent of passing on that misrepresentation, however noble may be our motives and designs, and however deeply unaware of its untruth, must entail for us in some way or other involvement in the intrinsic wrong of the untruth. What we ought to discern and assess more carefully than we are wont is the involvements in sin arising from our communal and corporate relationships as members of the race. The misrepresentation or untruth of which we are now speaking is a wrong that ought not to be. It is not simply an evil consequent upon sin which is not itself sinful, such as disease. It is intrinsically wrong because it is false. It does not cease to be false as it continues to be communicated. How we are to measure the wrong of the apparently innocent purveyor is beyond our power of analysis and beyond our province. But to dismiss the entail of wrong is to fail in an analysis which the nature of the misrepresentation and our involvements require us to make.
This consideration that all falsehood, as a deviation from truth, is per se wrong should arouse us to the gravity of our situation in relation to the prevalence of falsehood and to our responsibility in guarding, maintaining, and promoting truth. Moralists have devoted a great deal of attention to the question of what is overtly a lie and of what constitutes a person a liar. It is all-important to define and foster sincerity and honesty of heart and expression. But we must not overlook more basic questions pertinent to the sanctity of truth. This sanctity requires that we not only avoid and hate all deliberate lying, but also that thought and conviction be in accordance with truth, that not only must we refrain from uttering or signifying what we believe to be false but that belief itself be framed in accordance with truth.5 In entertaining belief or conviction it is necessary that our minds be so informed and our judgment so disciplined that we shall not allow conviction to be induced, judgment registered, or representation made until adequate evidence is discovered and evaluated to ground conviction, judgment, and representation. No warning or plea is more germane to the question of truth than that we cultivate the reserve and exercise the caution whereby we shall be preserved from rash and precipitate judgments and from the vice of peddling reports that are not authenticated by the proper evidence. And we must also strive to be blinded by no prejudice, nor impeded by the remissness of sloth and indifference, which render us impervious to the force of the compelling evidence with which we are confronted. Jealousy for truth and for the conviction that is correspondent will make us alert to evidence when it is presented and to the absence of evidence when it is not sufficient. The man of truth is the man of resolute, decisive conviction; he is also the man of scrupulous reserve. ‘Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people’ (Leviticus 19:16).
The injunctions of Scripture which bear directly on the demand for truthfulness have reference to speech or utterance. ‘Speak every man truth with his neighbour’ (Ephesians 4:25). Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’ (Exodus 20:16). ‘Lie not one to another’ (Colossians 3:9). It will have to be understood that this covers other forms of signification as well as the spoken word. Words spoken are simply signs by which thought and meaning are conveyed, and there are numerous other means of communication by which truth can be conveyed or lying perpetrated. There are particularly the signs of gesture and action, sometimes closely associated with the spoken word and sometimes wholly intelligible without words. But as the Scripture itself deals with the question in terms of speech, and since that is the most common means of communication, we may do likewise.6 What does the Scripture mean by ‘lying’ as the prohibited thing and by ‘speaking truth’ as that required? May we under any circumstances utter what we know to be untrue, what we believe to be false? Are we always under obligation to declare what we know or believe to be true?7 May we affirm part of the truth and conceal the rest? These are the questions that inescapably arise, not only in the exigencies of life but in the interpretation of Scripture. We are compelled to come to terms with such questions because the biblical record supplies us with instances in which untruth was blatantly spoken and in which truth was concealed. Does the Scripture approve such conduct under certain circumstances?
In Old Testament history there are notable instances of obvious untruth. Without determining the precise category of Abraham’s action both in Egypt and in the land of Abimelech in averring that Sarah was his sister, there is the indubitable untruth of Jacob and of Rebekah as his instigator when he went to Isaac his father to secure the covenant blessing. That Jacob pretended to be Esau and stated a deliberate falsehood cannot be denied. ‘Who art thou, my son?’ said Isaac. ‘I am Esau thy firstborn,’ said Jacob. And Isaac said, ‘Art thou my very son Esau? and he said, I am’ (Genesis 27:18, 19, 24). It might appear utterly impossible to condemn Rebekah and Jacob for the deception and untruth of act and word since it was the very occasion upon which divine blessing was administered to Jacob. Could the Lord countenance such a stratagem if it were a lie of act and word? And, furthermore, we may discover in Rebekah’s action jealousy for the fulfilment of the divine promise she had received, ‘The elder shall serve the younger’. There was undoubted faith in Rebekah’s action, indeed the urgent impulsion of faith. And there must have been faith in Jacob, too. If he were indifferent to the blessing he would not have acted as he did. And, no doubt, much more could be said of the resolute faith which lay behind the whole episode as devised and arranged by Rebekah.
But it is poor theology and worse theodicy that will seek to derive from God’s action in the bestowal of the blessing upon Jacob, or in the faith of Rebekah which lay back of her design, a vindication of the method devised by Rebekah and enacted by Jacob. We know little of biblical theology if we do not recognize that God fulfils his determinate purpose of grace and promise notwithstanding the unworthy actions of those who are the beneficiaries of that grace. He fulfils his determinate purpose in spite of the actions which are alien to the integrity of character which his will demands. And surely we have here a signal example of the sovereign grace as well as of the determinate purpose of God. He even fulfils his holy and sovereign will in connection with the unholy means adopted by Rebekah and Jacob. And if we think of Rebekah’s faith we can readily discern the insistent impulsion of faith conjoined with an action that was not of faith. Are we to say that faith is never mixed with the devices of unbelief? Or, to put it otherwise, are we to say that strong faith cannot coexist with the infirmities of unbelief? There is no ground upon which we may seek to justify the deception and untruth of Rebekah and Jacob.8 Jacob spoke and acted a lie, and this fact only enhances our astonishment at the sovereignty of God’s grace and the faithfulness of his promise. In this instance we find no justification of the falsehood perpetrated.
The vindication of deliberate untruth under certain circumstances receives more plausible support from the case of Rahab the harlot. That Rahab uttered an explicit falsehood is apparent. She hid the spies upon tile roof. The king of Jericho sent to Rahab and asked her to bring forth the men who had come to her. Her reply is not one of evasion; it is plain contradiction of known fact. ’‘Yea, the men came unto me, but I knew not whence they were: and it came to pass about the time of the shutting of the gate, when it was dark, that the men went out: whither the men went I wot not: pursue after them quickly; for ye shall overtake them’ (Joshua 2:4, 5). Rahab was a woman of faith. She is included in the great cloud of witnesses. ‘By faith Rahab the harlot perished not with them that had been disobedient, having received the spies with peace’ (Hebrews 11:31). Again we read, ‘Was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, in that she received the messengers and sent them out another way?’ (James 2:25). How could her conduct in reference to the spies be so commended, we might say, if the untruth by which she shielded them were itself wrong?
It should not go unnoticed that the New Testament Scriptures which commend Rahab for her faith and works make allusion solely to the fact that she received the spies and sent them out another way. No question can be raised as to the propriety of these actions or of hiding the spies from the emissaries of the king of Jericho. And the approval of these actions does not logically, or in terms of the analogy provided by Scripture, carry with it the approval of the specific untruth spoken to the king of Jericho. It is strange theology that will insist that the approval of her faith and works in receiving the spies and helping them to escape must embrace the approval of all the actions associated with her praiseworthy conduct. And if it is objected that the preservation of the spies and the sequel of sending them out another way could not have been accomplished apart from the untruth uttered and that the untruth is integral to the successful outcome of her action, there are three things to be borne in mind. (1) We are presuming too much in reference to the providence of God when we say that the untruth was indispensable to the successful outcome of her believing action. (2) Granting that, in the defacto providence of God, the untruth was one of the means through which tile spies escaped, it does not follow that Rahab was morally justified in using this method. God fulfils his holy, decretive will through our unholy acts. (3) The kind of argumentation that seeks to justify the untruth because it is so closely bound up with the total result would be akin to the justification of Jacob’s lie in connection with the blessing of Isaac; Jacob’s deception in deed and word is integral to the defacto outcome of the episode, and yet we need not and may not justify his lie.
We see, therefore, that neither Scripture itself nor the theological inferences derived from Scripture provide us with any warrant for the vindication of Rahab’s untruth9 and this instance, consequently, does not support the position that under certain circumstances we may justifiably utter an untruth.
One of the most pertinent incidents in the Scripture is the instruction received by Samuel from the Lord himself on the occasion of the anointing of David as king. ‘Fill thy horn with oil, and go; I will send thee to Jesse the Bethlehemite: for I have provided me a king among his sons’ (I Samuel 16:1). Samuel feared the consequences if Saul heard of this. ‘How can I go? if Saul hear it he will kill me. And the Lord said, Take an heifer with thee, and say, I am come to sacrifice to the Lord’ (I Samuel ’16:1). Without question here is divine authorization for concealment by means of a statement other than that which would have disclosed the main purpose of Samuel’s visit to Jesse. We may call this evasion, if we will. But, in any case, there is suppression of the most important facts relevant to Samuel’s mission. We do not know if direct speech to Saul himself was intended or necessary, but, if so, there was the divine sanction for the concealment. The question is: Was untruth involved? There are three considerations that must be borne in mind.
(1) Samuel carried into effect what the Lord asked him to say and do. ‘And Samuel did that which the Lord spake, and came to Beth-lehem. And the elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, Comest thou peaceably? And he said, Peaceably: I am come to sacrifice unto the Lord: sanctify yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice. And he sanctified Jesse and his sons, and called them to the sacrifice’ (I Samuel ’16: 4, 5). Hence Samuel was authorized to say nothing more than what he actually did say and perform. He did not speak what was contrary to fact. There was no untruth in what the Lord authorized. If it is objected that this is a fine-spun distinction akin to sophistry and quibbling, we must take note that these are precisely the facts which the Scripture itself is meticulously, almost repetitiously, careful to set before us. It is an indisputable fact that what Samuel was told to say was strictly in accord with the facts which followed and there is surely purpose in the explicitness of the narrative to this effect. We are compelled to take account of the agreement between statement and fact. It is looseness to ignore this consideration. (2) This incident makes clear that it is proper under certain circumstances to conceal or withhold part of the truth. Saul had no right to know the whole purpose of Samuel’s mission to Jesse nor was Samuel under obligation to disclose it. Concealment was not lying. (3) This instance gives us no warrant whatsoever for maintaining that in concealing the truth we may affirm untruth. It is the eloquent lesson of this incident, borne out by the plain facts referred to above, that what was affirmed was itself strictly true. This passage is perhaps unique in the Scripture because there is the explicit authorization of the Lord as to the method of concealment. It is just for that reason that the precise conditions are to be observed; there is no untruth involved. It is necessary to guard jealously the distinction between partial truth and untruth. If we are not hospitable to this distinction it may well be that we are not sensitive to the ethic of Scripture and the demands of truth. After all, this is not a fine distinction; it is a rather broad distinction. But if we wish to call it a fine distinction, we must remember that the biblical ethic is built upon fuse distinctions. At the point of divergence the difference between right and wrong, between truth and falsehood, is not a chasm but a razor’s edge. And if we do not appreciate this fact then certainly we are not sensitive to the biblical ethic.10
The apparent prevarication of the midwives in Egypt has been appealed to as warrant for untruth under proper conditions. ‘And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them. And God dealt well with the midwives’ (Exodus 1:19, 20). The juxtaposition here might seem to carry the endorsement of the reply to Pharaoh.
We need not suppose that the midwives’ reply to Pharaoh was altogether void of truth. There is good reason to believe that the Hebrew women often bore their children without the aid of the midwives. We may therefore have an instance of partial truth and not total untruth, and partial truth relevant to the circumstances. And since the midwives feared God and therefore disobeyed Pharaoh’s command, it was not an obligation to tell Pharaoh the whole truth. Hence it is possible that the midwives’ answer shows not falsehood but concealment through the means of part truth.11 But that the reason they gave was not the whole truth is apparent—the midwives ‘saved the men children alive’ (Exodus 1:17).
Let us grant, however, that the midwives did speak an untruth and that their reply was really false. There is still no warrant to conclude that the untruth is endorsed, far less that it is the untruth that is in view when we read, ‘And God dealt well with the midwives’ (Exodus 1:20). The midwives feared God in disobeying the king and it is because they feared God that the Lord blessed them (cf verses 17, 21). It is not at all strange that their fear of God should have coexisted with moral infirmity. The case is simply that no warrant for untruth can be elicited from this instance any more than in the cases of Jacob and Rahab.12
The statement of Elisha the prophet of Israel to the host of the king of Syria when they encompassed the city of Dothan, evidently for the purpose of apprehending him, is one that appears untruthful. ‘And Elisha said unto them, This is not the way, neither is this the city; follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom ye seek. And he led them to Samaria’ (II Kings ’6:19). If we say that this is a case of untruth spoken in order to deceive the host of Syrians, it would be difficult to take the position that Elisha had done wrong. The total circumstance of signal protection on the part of God, and of both justice and mercy on Elisha’s own part, especially the latter, would make it precarious to infer that Elisha had done wrong in leading the host to Samaria. And so, if untruth is involved, this instance would provide an example of untruth justifiably uttered in order to fulfil a worthy end. Perhaps more than any other incident in Scripture this would be the justification of the untruth of exigency or necessity (mendacium officiosum). As we study Elisha’s statement, however, it is just as difficult to find untruth in what Elisha said. Let it be granted that the Syrians understood Elisha’s words in a way entirely different from Elisha’s intent, does it follow that Elisha spoke untruth? Elisha was under no obligation to inform them that he was the man whom they sought. The Lord had miraculously intervened to guard him from their intent, and to disclose himself to them would have been counter to the miraculous providence by which he was shielded. Furthermore, when Elisha said, ‘This is not the city’, how are we to know precisely what he intended? He may have meant, ‘This is not the city in which you will find the man whom ye seek’. Apparently he was outside the city when he addressed them and he did not intend to re-enter the city. Of what purpose would it have been for Elisha to say, ‘This is the city’? If there was deception in what Elisha said, it would have been more of deception to have said ‘This is the city’. Was he to encourage them to wander aimlessly in Dothan to find their man when he would not have been there and especially since their eyes had been blinded? Again, when he said, ‘Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom ye seek’, he carried this into effect, though not with the result which the Syrians envisaged or might have envisaged. In the light of the providence by which their eyes had been blinded and of the sequel of mercy and justice meted out to these Syrians at Elisha’s demand, how can we say that Elisha had spoken an untruth? Elisha did bring them to the city in which they found the man whom they sought. He did this in a way that they could not have anticipated, but he did it with such a merciful outcome for both the Syrians and for Israel that the Syrians themselves could not have accused Elisha of falsehood. If they had any capacity for intelligent reflection, they would have said, ‘How true it was, “This is not the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom ye seek”, though strangely and wonderfully true. Hence when we view Elisha’s statement in the light of all the facts, unseen indeed to the Syrians at the time but envisaged by Elisha, facts which Elisha had a right to take into account when he made the statement in question, we can see how true, after all, Elisha’s statement was. And we have no right to insist that the understanding of the Syrians at the time of its having been made should have dictated the sense of Elisha’s statement. The meaning of Elisha’s words are to be understood in the light of all the facts and not in terms of the temporary blindness and bewilderment which had over-taken the Syrians. Is this not oftentimes the way of truth? We make statements or promises which are very imperfectly understood by others and have, even for them, a far more real and beneficent meaning than they could have anticipated. The meaning is dictated by the facts which come within the purview of the person making the statement or promise and not by the limited or erroneous conception of these facts entertained by others. In a word, the utterance is determined by the relevant facts which come within the horizon of the person speaking; it is dictated by what is true. If another person is temporarily deceived by inadequate understanding or foresight, this is not deception springing from untruth on the part of the speaker. And this is the question with which we are now concerned. Elisha’s statement was not untrue to the facts which in due time were disclosed.
What may we infer to be the biblical ethic regarding the stratagems of war? It is understood, of course, that truthfulness is concerned not only with words, but also with other forms of signification. What we are concerned with now is action intended to deceive the enemy as to the strategy of the opposing forces. When something is pretended, is there not untruth of action, though not necessarily of words? We have a concrete example in the stratagem by which Joshua conquered the city of Ai (Joshua 8:3-29). In this incident it is not the setting of the ambush nor the action of the men who took part that raises the question of untruth. The ambush was an action of concealment as such. It is the retreat on the part of the other division of Joshua’s army that poses the question (verse 15); they fled the way of the wilderness. That this was designed and feigned retreat is made plain by the narrative (see verses 5, 6). So Joshua and Israel feigned an action which did not itself reflect the intent but was designed to lead the people of Ai to think that Israel was fleeing before them. It was simulated defeat. And the question is: May we simulate contrary to actual fact?
In this instance it would surely be futile to try to categorize this action on Joshua’s part as wrong. The Lord himself was party to the stratagem (cf verse 18), and it would be sophistry indeed to attempt to abstract this element of the strategy from that which the Lord himself authorized. Is there not here, therefore, the divine sanction upon untruth?
When we ask ourselves the question, Was there untruth? or, Wherein did the untruth reside?, we find ourselves in real difficulty, and the untruth we may have assumed is not as obvious as it at first appeared to be. Israel did what they intended to do; there was no action on Israel’s part contrary to fact or intent. There was indeed retreat when, in the ordinary sense, there was no need for retreat. In other words, it was a strategic retreat. But Israel did retreat and there was no unreality to that action of withdrawal. Israel was under no obligation to inform the people of Ai what the meaning or intent of this retreat was. Joshua suspected or knew beforehand that the men of Ai would have interpreted it in a way that was contrary to fact and to Joshua’s intent. Joshua was taking advantage of Ai’s unwariness and lack of proper reconnaissance, that is to say, of Ai’s failure to interpret the action of retreat for what it truly was. But are we to say that Joshua was under obligation to act on the basis of their misapprehension of the meaning of his movements rather than on the basis of his own interpretation which had been dictated by all of the facts? The men of Ai were deceived as to the meaning of the retreat of Israel, but that deception arose from their failure to discover its real purpose. So when we view the action concerned in terms of truth, that is, in terms of consonance with all the facts which the agents of that action were not only justified but obliged to take into account, we are at a loss to find wherein untruth resided. That is to say, we are at a loss to find untruth. The case is somewhat similar in the sphere of action to what we found in Elisha’s case in the sphere of utterance. When Elisha spoke to the Syrians he spoke, as we found, in accordance with the facts which he knew and envisaged, and any misapprehension on their part arose from their ignorance of the facts which came within Elisha’s purview and which he rightly took into account. When Joshua acted in retreating he acted in accordance with all the facts which his strategy embraced and the misapprehension on the part of the men of Ai arose from their ignorance of the facts which Joshua rightly took into account.
The allegation that Joshua acted an untruth or a lie rests upon the fallacious assumption that to be truthful we must ’under all circumstances speak and act in terms of the data which come within the purview of others who may be concerned with or affected by our speaking or acting. This is not the criterion of truthfulness. It would oftentimes be incompatible with justice, right, and truth to apply this criterion. When we speak or act we do so in terms of all the relevant facts and considerations which come within our purview, and if we are misunderstood or misrepresented we are not to be charged with falsehood. When mutual understanding is one of the relevant or requisite considerations, then we are under obligation to do our utmost to insure that we speak or act in terms of the understanding of others. But this is not the indispensable criterion of truthfulness. And it could not be imposed as the criterion of truth and truthfulness in making a moral assessment of the actions of an opposing force in time of war and in the exigencies of battle.
’The sustained emphasis of Scripture is upon the condemnation of untruth and falsehood and upon the necessity of speaking the truth.13 ‘Wherefore having put away lying speak truth each one with his neighbour’ (Ephesians 4:25). It is fully admitted that Scripture confronts us with difficulties. In this study an attempt has been made to deal with these difficulties as they appear at various points in the biblical record. In some instances it might appear that Scripture condones or approves untruth when untruth promotes a higher end. Hence many interpreters have taken the position that the Scripture recognizes the legitimacy of the lie of utility, exigency, necessity (mendaciuin officiosum as distinguished from mendacium perniciosum). It has not been difficult to show how unwarranted such an inference is in some of the instances which might appear to lend it support. Other instances give more plausible support to the inference. But the upshot of our examination has been that no instance demonstrates the propriety of untruthfulness under any exigency. We would require far more than the Scripture provides to be able to take the position that under certain exigencies we may speak untruth with our neighbour. In other words, the evidence is not available whereby we may justify deviation from the sustained requirement of the biblical witness that we put away falsehood and speak truth. We would need the most explicit evidence to warrant such deviation and it is that evidence that is wanting. How then could we justify it?
It is quite true that the Scripture warrants concealment of truth from those who have no claim upon it. We immediately recognize the justice of this. How intolerable life would be if we were under obligation to disclose all the truth. And concealment is often an obligation which truth itself requires. ‘He that goeth about as a talebearer revealeth secrets; but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth a matter’ (Proverbs 11:13). It is also true that men often forfeit their right to know the truth and we are under no obligation to convey it to them.
But these facts of the right and duty of concealment and of forfeiture of certain rights are not to be equated with our right to speak untruth. Forfeiture of right to know the truth and the right of concealment in such cases do not mean that our obligation to speak truth is ever forfeited. There is a chasm of difference between the forfeiture of right to know the truth, which belongs to one man, and the right to speak untruth on the part of another. The latter is not an inference to be drawn from the former. Those who argue for the right to speak untruth on the basis that others have forfeited their right to know or be told the truth have committed an egregious logical error and have sought to justify a deviation from truthfulness which the Scripture does not support.
No claim is more basic or ultimate than that of truth. We cannot regard any other sanction as higher on the altar of which truth may be sacrificed. By what warrant may we plead, as many have done,14 that love is a higher end out of consideration for which untruth is sometimes justifiable and dutiful? Is life itself more sacred than truth? God is love (I John 4:8, 16). But God is truth also (cf John 1:5; John 1:9; 17:3; I John 5:20; John 14:6; I John 5:6). Love and truth do not conflict in him and his truth is never curtailed or prejudiced in maintaining and promoting the interests of his love. God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son and sent him into this world of sin and misery and death. This was love. But nothing could be more significant than this that when the Son came and was embarking upon the climactic commitment of his mission he said: ‘For this end am I born and for this purpose am I come into the world, that I might bear witness to the truth’ (John 18:37).
Truthfulness in us is derived from, and is patterned after, ‘the truth’, and ‘no lie is of the truth’ (I John 2:21). It is because untruth is the contradiction of the nature of God that it is wrong.15 Truth and untruth are antithetical because God is truth. And this is the reason why truthfulness and untruth do not cohere.
Professor John Murray was born in Scotland and was at the time of this writing a British subject. He was a graduate of the University of Glasgow (1923) and of Princeton Theological Seminary (1927), and he studied at the University of Edinburgh during 1928 and 1929. In 1929-1930 he served on the faculty of the Princeton Theological Seminary. After that he taught at the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia where he served as Professor of Systematic Theology.
He was a frequent contributor to theological journals and is the author of Christian Baptism (1952), Divorce (1953), Redemption Accomplished and Applied (1955), Principles of Conduct (1957, The Imputation of Adam's Sin (1960), Calvin on the Scriptures and Divine Sovereignty (1960), and The Epistle to the Romans, Vol I, Chapters I-VIII (1960).
The occasion for the preparation and publication of this particular article in the field of biblical ethics was an invitation, extended to Professor Murray in the Fall of 1953, by the faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California to deliver the Payton Lectures for the year 1955. There were a total of five lectures given in March 1955.
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