For over a millennium, some of the most influential theologians and philosophers debated the problem of divine deceit. Imagine that God can lie, asks the early fifth-century bishop Augustine. Imagine that God has decided to include falsehoods throughout the Bible. How would we know what parts to believe and what parts to reject? With the best of intentions, we might unknowingly condemn ourselves to eternal damnation, accepting heresies as truths, rejecting truths as heresies.
The dangers of a deceiving God extended far beyond the pages of scripture. The 14th century Oxford-trained theologian John Wyclif feared that if God could lie to us, he could give us false visions, reduce reality to mere appearance and undermine all our knowledge of the world. These are important questions, but they also proved difficult to answer because the evidence seemed to contradict itself. On the one hand, people could look to the narrative of scripture for clues. Scripture reveals a God who acts and reacts to events in the world, who destroys cities, makes covenants, and speaks to Moses in the guise of a burning bush.
On the other hand, people could think about God in more philosophically inflected terms, using ideas borrowed from Plato and Aristotle and other Greek thinkers, although these borrowings always had to be adapted to the demands of scripture. Omnipotent and perfect, this philosophically conceived God existed at a distance, aloof from his creation, unchanging and immutable. A perfect being, after all, lacks for nothing and, lacking nothing, never needs to do anything. To be honest, no one — except the German reformer Martin Luther in his most religiously angst-ridden moments — ever asserted that God could lie.
The debate centred around the question of whether God could deceive. The distinction between lies and deceptions was never entirely clear-cut. Perhaps every lie was a sin, but there was also widespread belief that there was nothing wrong with dissimulating, misleading and concealing the truth when necessary. Murkiness confronted anyone who looked carefully into these terms. What is the difference between concealing and lying?
A popular definition, already found in Thomas Aquinas and endlessly repeated throughout the Renaissance, distinguished between virtuous dissimulation and sinful simulation. We dissimulate when we conceal something about ourselves, we simulate when we pretend to be something we are not. Concise, yes, but was this distinction any distinction at all? But what about God? Everything God does, God does well, and whatever God does well he does justly. If God really is all-powerful, if God possesses all possible perfections, then it is impossible for God to be a deceiver. A truly omnipotent being not only would never do such things, it would not even be capable of doing such things.
God cannot lie or deceive, because God is God. Robert Holkot, a 14th century Dominican theologian, popular in his day, now unjustly neglected, suggested there were any number of places in the Bible where God deceived demons, sinners and even the faithful. He deceived Abraham, father of the Jewish people, when he ordered him to sacrifice his son Isaac, only to revoke that order at the last moment, as Abraham held the knife over his rope-bound and trembling son.
For Calvin, this bit of scripture was particularly powerful. Ever since Augustine, theologians had sought to absolve God from whatever evil might be laid at his feet by invoking a distinction between what God wills and what God permits. God does not will evil things to happen, he merely allows them to happen.
No good here, Calvin would retort, because scripture states that God does much more than merely allow the Devil to lie to Ahab. God might well never lie, Calvin concludes with palpable frustration, but how this is so is forever beyond our comprehension. Historians often miss this sort of theological backpedalling because it almost always takes place off the philosophical stage, so to speak, not in theological treatises but in commentaries on the Bible, in sermons and in letters, especially when those commentaries, sermons and letters concern the life of Christ.
Why, after all, did God need to send his only son to redeem mankind? And why did Christ conceal his divinity, appearing on Earth not as God, but as the man Jesus? Making a bad deal seem good, he promised them that contrary to what God had told them, they would not die if they ate the fruit, that they would be like God himself.
To undo this tangle of despair, Gregory argues, God decided it would be best to deal with the Devil much as the Devil had dealt with Adam and Eve. The Devil had disguised himself as a serpent, so God disguises himself as a sinless man, the only sinless man in the world, a man whose virtuous purity is worth more than every other sinful person combined. And so, much like the Devil, God makes a bad deal sound good as he tempts the Devil to overreach, to crucify the innocent Jesus and, in so doing, to lose his grip on all of humanity.
Of course, the Devil would act in so foolhardy a fashion only if he failed to recognise that Jesus is Christ. It was an odd state of affairs, one that was never fully resolved.
source url S ubsequent theologians would add layers of nuance to this devious divine plot. He offers up a variety of reasons — boys need father figures and turn-of-the-millennium Jews would not have looked too favourably on an unwed mother. The 13th century Franciscan theologian Bonaventure argued that the Devil was like an evil and cunning sophist, Christ a virtuous and prudent orator.
The difference had everything to do with fit and intention. The morally upright orator fits himself perfectly to the circumstances at hand, adapting his words and deeds, his gestures and expressions, to the demands of the moment.
He takes into account his nature and that of the audience, his goals and the obstacles before him. The sophist, by contrast, uses corrupt and ill-fitting means to achieve equally corrupt and ill-fitting ends.
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Successful or not, transforming God into the perfect rhetorician, the perfect orator, heightened the tensions between the two ways of conceiving God. Rhetoric, after all, is the art of adapting oneself to the moment; it requires adjustments and reactions, a constant recalibrating of our interactions with others. It was precisely this need to adapt, to change, to act and react, to speak and deceive, that seemed so foreign to the philosophical conception of God as eternal, perfect and unchanging.
As it turned out, miraculous interference proved hard to distinguish from deception. At the turn of the 14th century, another source of tension between scripture and philosophy made the threat of divine deception more pronounced. But Aristotelian philosophy often cut across scripture, not with it. Theologians could hardly sit by idly as students and teachers absorbed this deflated image of God.
If scripture taught anything about God, it taught that God transcended a universe that he had created ex nihilo , out of nothing. God is omnipotent, they asserted, he can do anything. Early in the 14th century, William of Ockham, known to posterity for his razor, asked his readers to carry out a simple thought experiment. Imagine you are looking at a star. Now, imagine that God, who can do anything, destroys the star while maintaining your vision of it. What you now see is a non-existent star. When, recently, President Taft praised the bible by saying that "Our laws, our literature and our social life owe whatever excellence they possess largely to the influence of this, our chief classic," he was, I am sure, quite sincere.
But, evidently, all he knows about the bible is what was taught him in the nursery, the Sunday-school, or the church. The majority of people who exalt the bible above all other books have not studied the book—not even read it, except a chapter here and a passage there. If the bible had been a smaller book, people would have been more familiar with its contents, but being a book of ponderous size, the generality of people have only a dilettante acquaintance with its contents. Really, the size of the book has been its best protection.
From the very lips of Jesus, the new Moses, man is once again given the commandments of the Decalogue. He told the Romans that "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest [evident] among them, for God has shown it to them" Romans — You and Geena were commenting on EN about the reason that people do drugs. Who would you rather have in complete control, a gracious and compassionate God who is righteous and all-knowing, or sinful man, enslaved by Satan and the flesh? Christ is "the way, and the truth, and the life" Jn
There is scarcely any other book which is more reverenced, and less known, than the bible. The bible societies, however, claim that for long centuries the bible has been the best seller. About twenty million copies a year have been disposed of during the past three hundred years. But selling a book, and getting it read, are not the same thing. There are reasons which explain the enormous traffic in bibles.
A great deal of money is expended every year to push its sale. Great legacies are devoted to the translation and dissemination of the bible in every country.
Powerful corporations exist all over Christendom to introduce the bible into new territories. Besides, the book is sold at a nominal price, often below cost, which is made possible by large endowments and legacies. Another reason which explains the vogue of the bible is the fact that it is protected against all competition. The king is behind the book; the press is behind it; and a halo of divinity is thrown about it to scare people from examining their own holy book with the same freedom that they examine the holy books of other countries.
What other book has ever received the patronage which the bible commands, even to-day?
And what would have been the fate of the bible had no more been done for it than has been done for Shakespeare, for example? Not until all artificial helps and props have been removed, will we be in a position to say whether the bible sells on its own merits, or whether it is indebted for its popularity to special privilege. But, as already intimated, notwithstanding these enormous sales, the bible is read so little by the present generation that it may well be called The Neglected Book.
To prove this, we are not going to quote Rationalists, but clergymen. The complaint from every pulpit is that the bible is being ignored by the people more and more every day. The Rev.