A Critique of Charles Hodge on Lying

Critique of Charles Hodge on Lying

Henry Clay Trumbull
A Lie Never Justifiable (1893)
pp. 144-156.

Dr. Hodge begins with the recognition and asseveration of eternal principles, that can know no change or variation in their application to this question; and then, as he proceeds with its discussion, he is amiably illogical and good-naturedly inconsistent, and he ends in a maze, without seeming quite sure as to his own view of the case, or giving his readers cause to know what should be their view. Dr. Thornwell, on the other hand, beginning in the same way, proceeds unwaveringly to the close, in logical consistency of reasoning; leaving his readers at the last as fully assured as he is as to the application of unchangeable principles to man’s life and duties.

No one could state the underlying principles involved in this question more clearly and explicitly than does Dr. Hodge at the outset; [1] and it would seem from this statement that he could not be in doubt as to the issue of the discussion of this question of the ages.

“The command to keep truth inviolate belongs to a different class [of commands] from those relating to the sabbath, to marriage, or to property. These are founded on the permanent relations of men in the present state of existence. They are not in their own nature immutable. But truth is at all times sacred, because it is one of the essential attributes of God, so that whatever militates against or is hostile to truth is in opposition to the very nature of God.”

“Truth is, so to speak, the very substratum of Deity. It is in such a sense the foundation of all the moral perfections of God, that without it they cannot be conceived of as existing. Unless God really is what he declares himself to be; unless he means what he declares himself to mean; unless he will do what he promises,—the whole idea of God is lost. As there is no God but the true God, so without truth there is and can be no God. As this attribute is the foundation, so to speak, of the divine, so it is the foundation of the physical and moral order of the universe…. There is, therefore, something awfully sacred in the obligations of truth. A man who violates the truth, sins against the very foundation of his moral being. As a false god is no god, so a false man is no man; he can never be what man was designed to be; he can never answer the end of his being. There can be in him nothing that is stable, trustworthy, or good.”

Here is a platform that would seem to be the right standing-place for all and for always. Dr. Hodge apparently recognizes its well-defined limits and bounds; yet when he comes to discuss the question whether a certain person is, in a supposable case, on it, or off it, he does not seem so sure as to its precise boundary lines. He begins to waver when he cites Bible incidents. Recognizing the fact that fables and parables, and works of fiction, even though untrue, are not falsehoods, he strangely jumps to the conclusion that the “intention to deceive” is “not always culpable.” He immediately follows this non-sequitur with a reference to the lying Hebrew midwives, [Ex. 1:19-20] and he quotes the declaration of God’s blessing on them, as if it were an approval of their lying, or their false speaking with an intention to deceive, instead of an approval of their spirit of devotion to God’s people. [2]

From the midwives he passes to Samuel, sent of God to Bethlehem; [1 Sam. 16:1-2] and under cover of the expressed opinions of others, Dr. Hodge says vaguely: “Here, it is said, is a case of intentional deception commanded. Saul was to be deceived as to the object of Samuel’s journey to Bethlehem.” Yet, whoever “said” this was guilty of a gratuitous charge of intentional deception, against the Almighty. Samuel was directed of God to speak the truth, so far as he spoke at all, while he concealed from others that which others had no right to know. [3] It would appear, however, throughout this discussion, that Dr. Hodge does not perceive the clear and important distinction between justifiable concealment from those who have no right to a knowledge of the facts, and concealment, or even false speaking, with the deliberate intention of deceiving those interested. In fact, Dr. Hodge does not even mention “concealment,” as apart from its use for the specific purpose of deception.

Again Dr. Hodge cites the incident of Elisha at Dothan [2 Kings 6:14-20] as if in illustration of the rightfulness of deception under certain circumstances. But in this case it was concealment of facts that might properly be concealed, and not the deception of enemies as enemies, that Elisha compassed. The Syrians wanted to find Elisha. Their eyes were blinded, so that they did not recognize him when in his presence. In order to teach them a lesson, Elisha told the Syrians that they could not find him, or the city which was his home, by their own seeking; but if they would follow him he would bring them to the man whom they sought. They followed him, and he showed himself to them. When their eyes were opened in Samaria he would not suffer them to be harmed, but had them treated as guests, and sent back safely to their king.

Having cited these three cases, no one of which can fairly be made to apply to the argument he is pursuing, Dr. Hodge complacently remarks:

“Examples of this kind of deception are numerous in the Old Testament. Some of them are simply recorded facts, without anything to indicate how they were regarded in the sight of God; but others, as in the cases above cited, received either directly or by implication the divine sanction.”

But Dr. Hodge goes even farther than this. He ventures to suggest that Jesus Christ deceived his disciples by intimating what was not true as to his purpose, in more than one instance. “Of our blessed Lord himself it is said in Luke 24:28, ‘He made as though [προσεποιεῖτο]—he made a show of: he would have gone further.’ He so acted as to make the impression on the two disciples that it was his purpose to continue his journey. (Comp. Mark 6:48).” [4] This suggestion of Dr. Hodge’s would have been rebuked by even Richard Rothe, and would have shocked August Dorner. Would Dr. Hodge deny that Jesus could have had it in his mind to “go further,” or to have “passed by” his disciples, if they would not ask him to stop? And if this were a possibility, is it fair to intimate that a purpose of deception was in his mind, when there is nothing in the text that makes that a necessary conclusion? Dr. Hodge, indeed, adds the suggestion that “many theologians do not admit that the fact recorded in Luke 24:28 [which he cites as an illustration of justifiable deception by our Lord] involved any intentional deception;” but this fact does not deter him from putting it forward in this light.

In the discussion of the application to emergencies, in practical life, of the eternal principle which he points out at the beginning, Dr. Hodge is as far from consistency as in his treatment of Bible narratives. “It is generally admitted,” he says, “that in criminal falsehoods there must be not only the enunciation or signification of what is false, and an intention to deceive, but also a violation of some obligation.” What obligation can be stronger than the obligation to be true to God and true to one’s self? If, as Dr. Hodge declares, “a man who violates the truth, sins against the very foundation of his moral being,” a man would seem to be always under an obligation not to violate the truth by speaking that which is false with an intention to deceive. But Dr. Hodge seems to lose sight of his premises, in all his progress toward his conclusions on this subject.

There will always be cases,” he continues,

“in which the rule of duty is a matter of doubt. It is often said that the rule above stated applies when a robber demands your purse. It is said to be right to deny that you have anything of value about you. You are not bound to aid him in committing a crime; and he has no right to assume that you will facilitate the accomplishment of his object. This is not so clear. The obligation to speak the truth is a very solemn one; and when the choice is left a man to tell a lie or lose his money, he had better let his money go. On the other hand, if a mother sees a murderer in pursuit of her child, she has a perfect right to mislead him by any means in her power [including lying?]; because the general obligation to speak the truth is merged or lost, for the time being, in the higher obligation.”

Yet Dr. Hodge starts out with the declaration that the obligation “to keep truth inviolate,” is highest of all; that “truth is at all times sacred, because it is one of the essential attributes of God;” that God himself cannot “suspend or modify” this obligation; and that man is always under its force. And now, strangely enough, he claims that in various emergencies “the general obligation to speak the truth is merged, or lost, for the time being, in the higher obligation.” The completest and most crushing answer to the vicious conclusions of Dr. Hodge as to the varying claims of veracity, is to be found in the explicit terms of his unvaryingly correct premises in the discussion.

Dr. Hodge appears to be conscious of his confusion of mind in this discussion, but not to be quite sure of the cause of it. As to his claim that the general obligation to speak the truth may be merged for the time being in a “higher obligation,” he says: “This principle is not invalidated by its possible or actual abuse. It has been greatly abused.” And he adds, farther on, in the course of the discussion:

“The question now under consideration is not whether it is ever right to do wrong, which is a solecism; nor is the question whether it is ever right to lie; but rather what constitutes a lie.”

Having claimed that a lie necessarily includes falsity of statement, an intention to deceive, and “a violation of some obligation,” Dr. Hodge goes on to show that “every lie is a violation of a promise,” as growing out of the nature of human society, where “every man is expected to speak the truth, and is under a tacit but binding promise not to deceive his neighbor by word or act.” [5] And, after all this, he is inclined to admit that there are cases in which falsehoods with the intention of deceiving are not lying, and are justifiable. “This, however,” he goes on to say, “is not always admitted. Augustine, for example, makes every intentional deception, no matter what the object or what the circumstances, to be sinful.” And then, in artless simplicity, Dr. Hodge concludes: “This would be the simplest ground for the moralist to take. But as shown above, and as generally admitted, there are cases of intentional deception which are not criminal.

According to the principles laid down at the start by Dr. Hodge, there is no place for a lie in God’s service; but according to the inferences of Dr. Hodge, in the discussion of this question, there are places where falsehoods spoken with intent to deceive are admissible in God’s sight and service. His whole treatment of this subject reminds me of an incident in my army-prison life, where this question as a question was first forced upon my attention. The Union prisoners, in Columbia at that time, received their rations from the Confederate authorities, and had them cooked in their own way, and at their own expense, by an old colored woman whom they employed for the purpose. Two of us had a dislike for onions in our stew, while the others were well pleased with them. So we two agreed with old “Maggie,” for a small consideration, to prepare us a separate mess without onions. The next day our mess came by itself. We took it, and began our meal with peculiar satisfaction; but the first taste showed us an unmistakable onion flavor in our stew. When old Maggie came again, we remonstrated with her on her breach of engagement. “Bless your hearts, honeys,” she replied, “you must have some onions in your stew!” She could not comprehend the possibility of a beef stew without onions, even though she had formally agreed to make it.

Dr. Hodge’s premises in the discussion of the duty of truthfulness rule out onions; but his inferences and conclusions have the odor and the taste of onions. He stands on a safe platform to begin with; but he is an unsafe guide when he walks away from it. His arguments in this case are an illustration of his own declaration: “An adept in logic may be a very poor reasoner.” [6]

[1] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, pp. 437-463.

[2] Comp. p. 35 f., supra.

[3] Comp. pp. 38-40, supra.

[4] When Jesus came walking on the sea, toward his disciples in their tempest-tossed boat, “he would have passed them by;” but their cry of fear drew him toward them.

[5] {{PJB: Hodge followed William Paley’s Utilitarian ethic in this regard, expressly citing Paley’s definition of a lie and giving examples from Scripture of alleged falsehoods, stating that they “received, either directly or by implication, the divine sanction.” (supra., pp. 441, 443-444, & 447). James Henley Thornwell thoroughly criticized William Paley’s position several years before Hodge penned his S.T. Read Thornwell here: Discourses on Truth (1855), Discourse IV. Sincerity.}}

[6] Hodge, ibid., p. 447.



2 thoughts on “A Critique of Charles Hodge on Lying

  1. Wow, that guy was way off. There are many many more incidents of deception some directly encouraged by God. It’s not a binary thing; we can lie if we are hiding Jews from the gallows. It’s much more nuanced, sad he didn’t study that issue more.


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