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Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity
Paul J. Griffiths
Brazos Press, 2004
256 pp., $28.00
The Thing Which Is Not
There is a long tradition of moral reasoning maintaining that deception is sometimes justified by the context in which it takes place. A Christian household in Germany during World War II is providing a hiding place for a Jewish child. Questioned by Nazis, the family deny that they are harboring a Jew. In doing so, they are not violating God's commandment against lying. It is fair to say that most Christians accept this notion, though they will often disagree in specific cases.
But what if most Christians are wrong? What if lying is never permissible, whatever the circumstances? Such is Paul Griffiths' argument in Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity.
Augustine wrote two treatises on the subject of lying. The second (Contra mendacium) was written later in life specifically for Christians who sought to infiltrate the worship places of heretical groups; the first (De mendacio) was written relatively early in his career, before the Confessions, and has the more dispassionate tone of a classical examination of the morality of duplicity.
The early text concludes by classifying lies into eight different kinds: the most grave is the lie that pertains to religious doctrine, and the least grave is the lie that harms no one, and perhaps even prevents bodily harm such as rape or murder. But Augustine is uncomfortable with a position that might hold that lying can be permissible if it occurs with an intent to dogooda position held by certain classical as well as Christian authors. All lying, he insists, is sinful by nature, and so should be avoided by the Christian. Even the most benign lie, told in order to preserve one's spouse or one's self from violation, one's child from murder, or a stranger from the effects of a genocidal war, is a sinful act because it proceeds from an act of faithlessness. A fundamental trust is betrayed when a man judges for himself that the bodily good of another is of greater value than the truth (as he judges it to be). The result is a denial ...