I can’t remember what brought the subject up, but last Sunday night at our Heartland Strategy game Marten expounded on the concept of lying.  He said that his view was grounded in the teaching of respected philosophers.  I don’t question his assertion, and am not being critical of his view.  It is just that there may be other views, and I am wondering what you may think about the subject.   

This basically is what he said, “there are untruths and there are lies.  A lie is distinguished from an untruth in that it is intended to harm.” 

I have heard a whole bunch of catechism sermons on the Ten Commandments and particularly the commandment “Thou shall not bear false witness”.  I never heard that distinction made before.  Maybe I was dozing when that concept went by me.  I do remember such things as, “is lying warranted when, as for example, the Gestapo comes to your house and asks ‘are you hiding Anne Franks in the attic?”  The answer is obvious, you have a choice between obeying the commandment “thou shall not kill”, or “thou shall not bear false witness”.  Not a difficult choice.

Webster’s dictionary isn’t aware of Marten’s distinction.  It’s definition is “an assertion of something known or believed by the speaker to be untrue with intent to deceive”.  It says “deceive” not “harm”.  I have the impression that Marten’s concept tends to lessen the seriousness of lying.  Untruths are not all that bad, and possibly not addressed by the Ten Commandments.

A letter in the public pulse written by what I would guess is a conservative man of the cloth, made this distinction.  When GWB stated there were WMD in Iraq, he wasn’t lying because he honestly thought they were there. (I don’t know how he knew that,  he was probably hoping that to be the case.)  However, that isn’t in harmony with Webster.  It goes on to say a lie is, “an untrue or inaccurate statement that may of may not be believed true by the speaker”.  I really like that last part, now I don’t have to speculate whether GWB was lying!!!!







  1. ruberad said,

    March 15, 2006 at 5:07 pm

    Come on! EVERYBODY thought Saddam had WMD! Why would he obstruct UN inspectors if he didn’t? (Actual answer we eventually learned: Saddam pulled off the Mother of All Bluffs — and it blew up in his face (so to speak))

    It is interesting to think about the implications of defining lies as including unwitting untruths, but I think that goes against what the common conception of a lie is. But then again, we get a ticket for speeding even if we didn’t see the sign, so maybe there’s something to that.

    I have also wondered why the commandment is Thou shalt not bear false witness, instead of Thou shalt not lie. Does Hebrew not have a single word for “lie”, so it had to resort to a multi-word phrase, with legal implications? Or is the commandment trying to express this distinction between harmful lies (lies in situations where untruth has bad consequences, like when providing testimony in court (bearing witness)) and harmless lies (no, honey, those jeans don’t make you look fat)?

    On a side note, I also wondered about why/whether/how the terminology Adultery might include Fornication. I hope you can address that when you get around to that commandment.

  2. setty said,

    March 15, 2006 at 6:24 pm

    Well I have read a number of explanations why Saddam continued to lead the world into thinking he had WMD. But not everyone thought as much. Colin Powell is captured on video tape saying that Saddam did not have nucleaR capabilities a long time before 9/11. Same is true of Condi. A prominent Canadian professor who was one of the leaders of Saddam’s nuclear program left Iraq after the first gulf war and has appeared several times on USA talk shows stating unequivocally that the bombing of the first gulf war destroyed all the nuclear facilities and the nuclear scientist after the war were busy trying to restore the oil and electrical power grid, and nothing was being done to start the nuclear program up again.

    And if I may be considered as one of “everyone” then it is not true that everyone thought he had WMD because I didn’t think he had them. But who am I!!!!! I am certainly not Dick or Rummy who thought so, but for a reason.

  3. setty said,

    March 15, 2006 at 6:42 pm

    Getting back to your second observation. I don’t know why the commandment is “thou shall not bear false witness”, rather than the simple word “lie”, but I know someone who takes it literally. I was having a discussion with this friend about politics as usual and I commented upon the fact that Clinton was certainly a liar, but I offered the observation that so was GWB. Interestingly, he didn’t say that GWB was not a liar. He said, ” but Clinton lied under oath”. Which I take it is bearing false witness. I wonder if God regards a lie that is not under oath as less of a violation of the commandment.

    Finally, as you know, the Heildelberg Chatecism lists the Commandments one by one and give each one its own “Lords Day”, which refers to the practice in our church of preaching on that given Lords Day roughly once a year. Well, if a preacher is limited to a very narrow understanding of the commandment that would make his yearly (or nearly so) sermon very repetitious. Fortunately, the meaning of the commandments are expanded and then sermon subjects can have more leeway. When it comes to “commiting adultery” things can go very far afield. Let’s say looking at Playboy for instance.

  4. Bruce said,

    March 16, 2006 at 2:14 am

    I don’t recall WMDs ever referring to nuclear capabilities WRT Hussein. He certainly was never known to use nukes on the Kurds.

    Aside from using Webster as a hermeutic for Scriptural understanding, which I find strange coming from a man of the book, my early returns on ‘lie’ are as follows: 1 : to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive 2 : to create a false or misleading impression.

    I also find it strange that you keep bringing up Mr. Bill in these ‘liar’ discussions. Everybody knows that part of being a politician is being a liar. What we didn’t know, and thanks to Mr. Bill now we do, is that it’s not just their words that you ignore, it’s what goes on under the desk.

    For the love of God, get your mind out of the culture and into the sanctuary, Dad.

  5. setty said,

    March 16, 2006 at 2:21 am

    Seems like I remember Condi saying something about a mushroom cloud over New York. Was that just a scare tactic? Do you suppose?

  6. Bruce said,

    March 16, 2006 at 2:22 am

    New spelling for hermeneutic. You saw it here first.

  7. classnotes said,

    March 16, 2006 at 2:35 am

    There is always the possibility that she was scared. You are question begging, you know. Why would anyone suppose a scare tactic if the question as to ‘lying’ is undetermined.

    From your chair as head of the department of ethics, answer me this: If I ‘suppose’ incorrectly have I lied to myself?

  8. classnotes said,

    March 16, 2006 at 2:41 am

    Oh, you mean this mushroom cloud?

    The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly Saddam can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.

    This quote makes utterly clear that Rice didn’t believe he had nukes but that he would have them again, eventually.

  9. classnotes said,

    March 16, 2006 at 2:43 am

    Forgive me if I have been breaking the 4th commandment.

  10. classnotes said,

    March 16, 2006 at 2:51 am

    Let me ask you this: Were you this outraged when the theory abounded that the U.S. government purposely allowed Pearl Harbor to be attacked so that public opinion would be swayed in favor of going into WWII?

    If not, why not. Be very careful with your answer. Any inconsistencies will reveal an irrational bias that you may want to keep quiet. It also might reveal to your readers that you are yourself bearing false witness.

  11. setty said,

    March 16, 2006 at 1:37 pm

    Are you saying you play golf on Sunday? Tsk, tsk.

  12. Bruce said,

    March 16, 2006 at 4:13 pm

    My own sanctification has a long way to go including ways in which I am inconsistent and ways in which I deceive myself. But I don’t have a problem when politicians play golf on Sunday. In fact, it is a feature of common grace that God allows them time for relaxation and enjoyment.

    The way I play golf, it would be a crime regardless of the day on which I played it.

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