Good Deceit

Puritan Casuistry, Dolus Bonus, and Trueman v. Crenshaw

Lying is a sin. It is to speak with a “double heart,” saying what you know to be false or intending truth for falsehood. This does not include mistaken declarations if they are earnest but does include negligence. The ninth commandment in particular calls out false testimony, i.e., “a mind or intention to deceive or hurt,” the epitome of lying. And no man should ever sin willfully, as William Perkins says in his treatise on the conscience, that is, “in contempt of the Law of God,” or with “malice and spit against God himself,” or presumptuously, that is “upon an erroneous perswasion of God’s mercies.”

To be clear, when we designate something sin, we are not, as good Augustinians, granting sin formal existence–God cannot be the author of sin–but rather are ascribing the absence of goodness to an act. Nor, as good Protestants, do we erect a hierarchy of sins, in principle (as Roman Catholics do), insofar as all are mortal, yet some sins are more circumstantially damaging and heinous than others via perpetuation and aggravations.

When it comes to lying or deceitfulness, this is especially ascribed to the intent and concomitant knowledge behind speech or non-speech. The end (or direction) is also in view, just as they are with theft or homicide, and just as war can be waged if for the right purpose.

That said, further distinctions can be made, most of which are intuitive. Perkins provides a good breakdown in his Commentary on Galatians. (Perkins is a fair selection here because he does not embrace a theological speculative-practical dualism that some other Protestant ethicists did.)

A parable or fairy tale (i.e., “things feigned”), we might say, is not a lie. Neither is concealment a lie. “Thus, Abraham speakes the truth in part, calling Sara his sister, an conceales it in part, not confessing her to be his wife… Thus, Samuel by God’s appointment reveales that hee came to Bethlehem to offer sacrifice, and conceales the anointment of David.”

There is also “good deceit,” the dolus bonus. This is another type of “faining” (feigning) which, “if it bee not to the prejudice of truth against the glory of God, and the good of our neighbour, and have some convenient and reasonable cause, is not unlawfull.”

The first example provided by Perkins of this is when God tells Moses in Exodus 32:13 to “Let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot, and I may destroy them.” Them, meaning Israel. Now, God does not destroy Israel, and given a good doctrine of God’s immutability and impassibility, we cannot suppose that he changed his mind contrary to his original intent. Rather, “this he spake, that he might stirre up Moses to fervency in prayer for the Israelites, and the Israelites to unfained repentance.”

Joshua drew his enemies out by faking retreat (Joshua 8:5). This is good deceit, like why doctors deceive their patients in order to administer medicine for the good of the patient. Perkins does not provide a specific example here, but the reader can think of when doctors set a bone on the count of two instead of the expected three. Parents make up ridiculous tales about the woods at night and the like to keep their children from danger. “And this may be done without fault, for it is one thing to contrary the truth, and another to speake or doe something divers unto it without contrariety.”

What of the Hebrew midwives and Rahab? We must distinguish between their work and their execution, says Perkins. Saving children and the allied spies was “a fruit of faith and the feare of God, and it is commended: but the manner of putting these works in execution by lying, is not approved.” And yet, “the faith and the feare of God are imperfect in this life, and therefore they are joined with many frailties: and actions of faith are mixed with sundry defects and sinnes.”

This is inevitable. But Perkins treats the Rahab story again in A Cloud of Faithful Witnesses. One takeaway is that in times of “persecution and danger,” the Christian man is to protect, even through concealment, his “fellow brethren.” Like Rahab, this must be done “not in treachery but in faith.” For “we daily labour to search and find out the secret counsels, practices and enterprises of our enemies, and withal seek to prevent them.” This requires that we keep watch on our own hearts as well. And yet, “We must give place to the sway of the times wherein we live, so far forth as may stand with keeping of faith and a good conscience.”

In other words, we must be shrewd, prudent, and even, at times, deceitful, concealing the truth and feigning myths but without losing our souls. This is not the same as justifying any reprehensible action by favorable results. But this casuistry does take circumstances and aims seriously. As William Ames distinguished,

“Besides actions good, evill, and indifferent, some doe observe that there are some acts that do Sonare in malum, have an evill sound, that is being absolutly considered they doe impart a certaine inordinatenesse, but by some circumstances comming to them they are sometimes made good, as to kill a man, & the like: but even those acts ought to be referred to indifferents; for they o[n]ly seeme to have some evill in themselves: as also to free a man from danger of death seemeth to have some good in it selfe, with which shew also ma∣ny that are not evill are deceived: but the true goodnesse, or pravity of these actions depends upon the object, and other circumstances: to slay the innocent or set at liberty the guilty is evill; to slay the guilty justly, or deliver the innocent upon just reason is good.”

He went on to emphasize the condition of the inward man over that of outward action: “the goodness of an action depends first and foremost on the will, which is often accepted with God, though outward work itself be absent.” Speech complicates this formulation because of its inward origin, which is not to exempt it, for speech is a type of action. In all cases, a truly good action is one “referred to God as the chief end.” True goodness requires, ideally, integrity of all causes, and yet, “in time of danger” we may look not “so much upon the means which God uses,” since God can use any means for good. Sin, for Ames, is at bottom a resistance to God and conscience.

In any case, sometimes, being aware of the times in which we live, we must use crude means out of necessity with prudence according to good ends. Necessity may, for example, force men to break the Sabbath to survive, for the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, etc. John Goodwin’s Right and Might Well Met, a defense of Pride’s Purge, transfered this principle into the political context. Much of Goodwin’s argument is simple lesser magistrate stuff found in the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos. But he adds that sometimes formal–we might say constitutional–strictures can be violated for the sake of attending to a higher end, viz., the protection of the nation itself.

“as our Saviour saith, that the Sabbath was made for man (for the benefit of man) and not man for the Sabbath; so certain it is, that callings were made for men, and not men for callings. Therefore as the law of the Sabbath, though enacted by God, was of right, and according to the intention of the great Law-giver himselfe, to give place to the necessary accommodations of men, and ought not to be pleaded in bar hereunto; in like manner, if the law of callings at any time opposeth, or lyeth crosse to the necessary conveniences of men, during the time of this opposition, it suffereth a totall eclipse of the binding power of it.”

Fitting means to ends is always complicated; morally, the ends govern and the intent behind the means exonerates them, per Perkins, which is not to insinuate a blank check offering. For if a man speaks the truth but intends to lie, he is nevertheless a liar. “[The] nature of sin lies not in the action but in the manner of doing the action,” as Perkins said, following Augustine. As Glenn Mosse discerns, “The result of this approach was to justify, not lying, but feigning.” That is, good deceit. As Thomas Wood put it, summing up seventeenth century English casuistry, “The lie is the less evil, and therefore it is no sin when it is chosen to avoid that which for aught we know is the greater.”

We must be like Abraham, Samuel, Joshua, Hebrew midwives, and Rahab. Such are the times.

Carl Trueman, in his response to Ben Crenshaw, questions whether Rahab’s behavior is normative for Christians, recognizing that in some situations it may be permissible. Weirdly, the only “tag” on the article at Ad Fontes is “Friedrich Nietzsche,” a name which never appears in the body of Trueman’s piece except in a block quote wherein Crenshaw is defending himself and others from the charge. Similarly, Trueman’s initial First Things piece, despite the title, was not really about Nietzsche at all. What is going on here? Contrived guilt by association? Bizarre. I seem to remember Trueman encouraging all of us at Westminster to be well and broadly read, which included Hegel, Nietzsche, and other authors now on the “right-wing” watch list. But I won’t blame Trueman for the strange habits of editors.

Anyway, Trueman does not deny, in general, the ethical import of the Old Testament. But he seems to further suggest that the redemptive historical import of Rahab decreases the likelihood that her action is replicable. At bare minimum he is introducing an hermeneutical limitation not imposed on the text by Perkins, et al. When he criticizes Crenshaw for his assessment that, as Trueman puts it, “America in 2024 is analogous to Jericho in redemptive history,” he does, again, seem to be erecting a sort of parenthetical. Perhaps, he is not, or does not mean to—intent matters here, after all—in which case, I retract. The odd move from Trueman is to perform a “Jesus juke,” as they say online, right after suggesting that the present is, maybe, sort of, kind of, different from any Old Testament scenario. If anything is exceptional redemptive-historically, it has to be the earthly ministry of our Messiah.

Early, Trueman hits Crenshaw with his own quote which justifies “crude memes [or means], subterfuge, and even deception” in “war against evil.” See the above on whether that checks out traditionally. Notice that Crenshaw did not advocate for “lying,” but “deception.” What he is referring to is “good deceit.” Never yet addressed in these discussions are sins of omission or compliance with what we all agree are awful policies being enacted in our country. Perhaps, subterfuge and deception make you uncomfortable, but what about inaction, tacit affirmation? Should not these be even more offensive? Of course, the Puritan casuistry had a category for “inoffensive compliance” when necessity demanded under persecution, but this allowance is justified on the same basis as good deceit–they are two sides of the same coin, it’s just that evangelicals are more practiced in one and not the other.

But this is what it comes down to, ultimately: where is America at in light of past examples, redemptive historical or not, and relative to her origin? Decline is always relative, after all. The appropriateness of our political posture is informed by this assessment. Are we all friends divided simply by a question of right means to achieve shared ends frolicking about in an unrestricted marketplace of ideas in search of the truth?–sounds almost like Rousseau’s forest. Or are we rather in the midst of violent contentions about the most basic facts of social existence? A state of war or of peace?

This is the divide in evangelicalism. I count both Trueman and Crenshaw friends. I’ve learned much from both of them. This is merely descriptive; it’s where we’re at and the division explains much of the discourse. How bad do you think things are? (Doubtless, there is a generational component here too, per usual.)

I tend to demand that the tradition supply our metric of assessment. What is a healthy commonwealth, nation, polity, people? Simple: true virtue, morality, and religion. Everyone said so until yesterday. Johannes Althusius (Politica) said it was the ruler’s chief and first duty to establish, foster, and protect these things. Richard Baxter said a commonwealth was not properly so called unless it was oriented toward God and true religion. Even “Machiavellian” Jesuits thought so: “True religion is the end towards which man and commonwealth is ordained,” wrote Thomas Fitzherbert, in The First Part of a Treatise Concerning Policy and Religion (1615). The body always serves the soul, etc. The trick—no Jesuit pun intended—is to find someone who disagreed. (Read also Jeremy Taylor’s The Serpent and the Dove for unrivaled commentary on Christian prudence and similar results. Everyone should read Taylor on the conscience as well to cleanse themselves of modernist understanding of “religious liberty.”)

Of course, the longevity of the commonwealth itself, along with the endurance of the honor and rule of the state itself is in play. But religion and morality were historically paramount. If you need an American example, well, of course the seventeenth century New Englanders and Virginians said the same, but see also the repeatedly (and flippantly) used John Adams quote regarding our particular constitutional order and its structural inability to replicate essential preconditions. Nothing else matters if the people are immoral and irreligious.

If that’s the ideal, what did we have? I’ve described it before. Namely, a pan-Protestant establishment. That’s our historic baseline. A certain degree of liberality is both possible and desirable within a highly homogenous polity. As Giovanni Botero pointed out, in that situation, liberality will both free the needy from want and promote virtue. But none of this to the detriment of the polity itself. Anyway, we had all that, at unprecedented rates. Now all gone. Now, the particular, Providential blessings of that situation are now turned into perennial principles of politics by idealogues. True statesmen, people trying to think like our founders, rather than woodenly parroting what they said, are ostracized, to our detriment. Anyone raising the alarm about the loss of necessary preconditions of the above are beaten from the conversation; anyone admitting that any means of return will be uncomfortable is castigated as radically immoral. This is all backwards.

How far we’ve fallen. In light of the above two data points, can an honest man really insist that things are going even decently well? But let’s scrap all that aspirational stuff. Assume a more meagre baseline. What’s happening right now?

Families dissolved, sexual licentiousness rampant, political corruption, war on the majority population, unfettered immigration, effeminate rule, insolvency, and, most of all, not simply an amoral public square (to use a liberal term), but a war on Christianity itself. That is, a war on the very history, foundations, and life of the nation. All the “classical liberals” want to assert “popular sovereignty” and “individual liberty” as the basis of our constitutional order and republic–a specious theory, in my view–but they simultaneously want to deny the responsibility for national maintenance and order necessarily ascribed (by that theory) to the people who, in the rather simplistic liberal view, have reserved ultimately political sovereignty to themselves. It makes no sense. The more basic question is: what, if any, recourse is there when the covenant is broken? Prudence must guide the reaction to the answer to this inquiry, but first there must be an answer.

Back to our current condition: any historic, biblical-theological analysis would indicate that this is God’s judgment—indeed Jericho and America are not so different—and that Christians, along with their allies, the coalition for sanity, indeed, has political enemies on par with those faced by Rahab, et al. What other conclusion is there? Pray tell. This isn’t a call for violence or whatever else Big Eva wants to pin on us. It’s a statement of fact and an admonition unto political awareness. And, yes, it might call for a casuistry not exercised for a long time in this once great nation. Is that so extreme? Nietzschean? Whatever that means anymore—one suspects it’s just a way to rope anyone and everyone in with suspect online figures. Or, maybe, it’s just Protestantism. We have the resources in our rich tradition for our moment–unique to us, but not unique historically–we need but consider and apply them. That’s all I ask.

Image Credit: Painting by an unknown artist inscribed 1602.

Print article

Share This

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

2 thoughts on “Good Deceit

  1. It seems we live in a world that has been purposefully designed to create situations that make it very difficult to save the lives of the innocent.

    For example imagine CPS shows up at your door and says because you don’t enthusiastically affirm the degenerate sexual agenda, they have deemed you unfit parents, and are going to take your children from you. Hopefully every parents instinctive reaction is to lie and say the kids aren’t there, or otherwise protect their children. However we have been indoctrinated since almost from birth to defer to officials. Normally that would be good, but increasingly the authority is a bureaucratic figurehead, an appendage of the system, and as in this example completely divorced from serving any good. Even the good parent, is going to be weighing the cost/benefit of resisting a state official (ultimately backed by armed enforcers) in the moment vs a tactical retreat and battling in the courts later. It ought not to be that way, but here we are.

  2. And so picking other options in terms of belief and behavior than what Christianity teaches constitutes a war on Christianity? Would that also mean that because Christianity teaches a moral code that disagrees with what unbelievers live by, that Christianity is at war against unbelievers? If the answer to that question is ‘yes,’ then we have a moral imperative to rule over the world. But neither is such a role nor status is not taught in the New Testament. If we remember what Jesus said to his disciples when he told them how to react to those who would not receive their message. Jesus told them to move on.

    There have been and are wars against Christianity in the world. But here in the U.S. is not one of them. We Christians are not asked to rule over any nation; we are asked to preach and teach the Gospel. But Cline is telling us here that rejection of Christian hegemonic rule is a war against Christianity because of some covenant that was made in the past. But it is God who makes and defines covenants with His people, not us. The Puritans could in no way bind others to a covenant of their own creation. And even when there is an actual war against Christianity, such as in the Roman Empire during the times of the Apostles, the examples and teachings of the Apostles teach a different interpretation of the situation and a different response to actual hostilities against Christianity than what Cline teaches. And that is what was in Trueman’s response to Crenshaw.

    BTW, how can Cline, with a straight face, complain about political corruption while seemingly supporting a Presidential candidate who was demanding at least some of his appointees to take personal loyalty pledge and who believes that the President should be immune to any legal action that could be taken for breaking our nation’s laws? Is what Trump has been doing provide examples for the ‘good deceit’ about which Cline wrote the above article?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *