Lying in the Heidelberg Catechism
Recently, I presented a culmination of re-draft work entitled A Lying Spirit. In the work, I defend the concept of "holy deception" — deception that subverts injustice and supports righteous judgment. In the final chapter, I address many oppositions against my thesis. Though satisfied with the outcome, one of the things I did not address was confessional adherence.
To some, this would not matter. But I am writing from a decisively Reformed perspective. In this spirit, I have decided to address portions of the confessions and catechisms of my tradition concerned with deception and lying. I start with my favorite catechism — The Heidelberg Catechism,
Q112. What is the aim of the ninth commandment?
A. That I never give false testimony against anyone, twist no one’s words, not gossip or slander, nor join in condemning anyone rashly or without a hearing.
Rather, in court and everywhere else, I should avoid lying and deceit of every kind; these are the very devices the devil uses, and they would call down on me God’s intense wrath.
I should love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it.
And I should do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.
Those who argue against holy deception might quote "I should avoid lying and deceit of every kind." This seems to end the discussion. However, I do not think that this is the case. Eventually, I will address the proof texts associated with this statement (Lev. 19:11-12; Prov. 12:22; Prov. 13:5; John 8:44; Rev. 21:8a). But before that I would like to address what this statement does not imply. The content of the answer will help us understand how to interpret the proof texts away from a condemnation of holy deception.
One of the important portions of this catechism answer is the insertion of the word "rather." This word splits the question in half to create a contrast. This contrast reveals what the catechisms is strictly prohibiting. When we are commended to "avoid lying and deceit" it is in associated with false testimony, twisting individuals' words, gossip, slander, and falsely condemning. These are behaviors intent on hurting one's neighbor. At no point does my thesis of "holy deception" endorse these behaviors. The contrast to "lying and deceit" is to love truth, openly acknowledge it, and guard your neighbor.
I will confess that "holy deception" might face some issue with the phraseology of openly acknowledging the truth. However, these go hand in hand with a defense of our neighbors from false accusations and unrighteous judgments like slander and gossip. Read this way, my proposition for "holy deception" does not come under condemnation from the Heidelberg Catechism. To further prove this, I will address the proof texts associated with this answer. I will demonstrate that these texts are primarily concerned with protecting one's neighbor.
The Proof Texts
It is unfortunate that I am writing this post after the release of A Lying Spirit. Many of the proof texts used in this answer were addressed in the final chapter of the work. I will attempt to re-address these text but will admittedly do so quickly. For further insights, I recommend reading A Lying Spirit.
Leviticus 19:11 says we should not "‘steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another." John Frame has taught that this ethic is principally for God's covenant people dealing with one another. If this defense holds then many Old Testament passages are quickly covered. However, I am convinced there is a better understanding that emphasizes the behavior that hurts our neighbor. It is embedded in "nor lie" that we would take advantage our neighbor.
Proverbs 12:22 is similar in content to Leviticus when it says, "Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD, But those who deal faithfully are His delight." The base word used for "lying" is also found in the Exodus rendition of the Ten Commandments. This is primarily concerned with false witness in a courtroom. The verb is associated in the book of proverbs, including the proof text Proverbs 13:5, with shedding innocent blood (Prov 6:17), causing strife (Prov 6:19), conceals hatred (Prov 10:18), and many other destructive things. All of these can be summarized in one who accuses his brother falsely (Deut 19:18). This is not the type of holy deception that preserves a neighbor from unrighteous judgment.
John 8:44 is the first of the New Testament proof texts. It describes the devil as a murder and liar. There is no Biblical text that convicts the devil of being a murder. So it would seem best to understand Jesus as referring to the original fall. The devil was a liar to Adam and Eve in an attempt to subvert God's righteous commands. Upon success, the devil became a murder for in that day all mankind died with Adam and Eve. The depiction of the devil is an enemy of God and God's people. His murderous and deceptive ways are solely meant to undermine the authority of God and His righteous judgment. This is hardly the same as deception to preserve life as demonstrated as praised in the Old Testament. My thesis remains that sometimes only holy deception can uphold the authority and righteous judgment of God.
The final New Testament proof text is Revelation 21:8. In this passage, a litany of sinful behaviors is described. Each one undermines God's righteousness. One must bring a "lying and deceit of every kind" connotation to the verse to arrive at a proof text against holy deception.