{NB: This is an old unedited paper from seminary. There is much I would probably change in it now that I have read more primary and secondary literature since then. However, I don’t have time to go back through and make adjustments so I am keeping it the way it was. I hope it is still of some use to someone somewhere.}


While Augustine’s attempt to understand the nature of lying is insightful, it fails to offer sufficient reason for Christians not to lie for a greater good. The argument from those who do say that it is right to lie will be divided into four parts: Old Testament examples of lying, lying for the preservation of chastity, explicit Scripture against lying, and truthfulness of heart. Augustine’s argument will be divided into three parts: what a lie is, fighting heretics with the truth, answers to his opponents, and whether or not a lie is ever useful. His answers to his opponents will cover Old Testament interpretation, preservation of chastity, fighting heretics with truth, interpretation of explicit scriptural prohibitions against lying, and truthfulness of the heart. Finally, the weaknesses and strengths of his argument will be assessed to show why he has not given sufficient reason not to lie for the greater good.

The Useful Lie

The two treaties De mendacio and Contra mendacium were written at different times for different purposes. De mendacio (henceforth, DM) was written in a speculative manner and, as Augustine himself admits, lacks his typical rhetorical flare.[1] It is concerned with the question of lying in general and whether or not a lie is ever useful. Contra mendacium (henceforth, CM) was written to give advice to Consentius in how to rightly handle the Pricillianists. The Pricillianists were a heretical group who taught, among other things, that it was right to lie about one’s religious beliefs making it difficult for the Catholic Church to control them.[2] Consentius thought he could expose the Pricillianists by lying, and so CM addresses whether it is right for him to do this. Thus, while both treaties were written for different purpose, they address the same issue: whether or not lying is ever useful.

The following will sketch why the Pricillianists and Augustine’s imaginary opponents in DM think that lying is at times useful. Their arguments can be organized under 1) an appeal to Old Testament examples such as Sarah, Jacob, Jehu, the Egyptian midwives, and Rahab. Underlying these examples is the idea that lying is appropriate or even praiseworthy if it produces a greater good. The issue of rape is also raised being a case in which harm can be inflicted upon the soul of the person defiled. 2) Scriptural passages which appear to explicitly condemn lying such as Exodus 20:16, Ephesians 4:25 and Psalms 5:6 can be understood as condemning specific instances of lying and not lying in general. Finally, 3) the distinction between speaking the truth in ones heart and speaking the truth with ones mouth which is essentially an appeal to intent.

Old Testament Examples of Lying

There are many examples in the Old Testament where lying produces a good and the individual who lies is either commended for his/her actions or is not explicitly condemned. For instance, in Genesis 18:15 Sarah denied that she laughed at the idea of conceiving in old age but was not condemned for lying about it. Her lie produced no harm on herself, the three messengers, her husband, or Isaac. Granted, Isaac received his name because of Sarah’s laughter, but this did him neither physical nor spiritual harm. Therefore, by not condemning Sarah’s lie explicitly one can infer that the Old Testament legitimates a lie if it inflicts no harm.

Then there is the example of Jacob’s deceit of Isaac in Genesis 27:19. Here, when his father is old and blind, Jacob not only dresses as Esau but even says with his mouth that he is Esau. When Esau returns to discover what has happened, Isaac does not revoke the blessing from Jacob but confirms it to the detriment of Esau.[3] His lie was not condemned even though it did bring harm to someone. If lying were always wrong, then the just thing for Isaac to do would have been to condemn Jacob for his deceitfulness and give the blessing to Esau. However, this did not happen which means there may be instances in which lying is permissible even if it brings harm to someone.

In CM II.3, Augustine says the Pricillianists cite the actions of Jehu as legitimating lying about religious beliefs for a greater good.[4] The event, recorded in II Kings 10, is when Jehu called all of the servants of Baal together claiming that he would serve Baal more than Ahab.[5] Instead, Jehu had them slaughtered. With Sarah, her lie caused no harm and it was not condemned. With Jacob, his lie caused Esau some harm and it was still not condemned. One would think that lying would never been vindicated if it took someone’s life. Yet, this is exactly what happens with Jehu. God says in II Kings 10:30, “Because you have done well in carrying out what I consider right, and in accordance with all that was in my heart have dealt with the house of Ahab, your sons of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel.” Yes, Jehu fell out of God’s favor later in his life, [6] but it was because he did not follow God’s law not because he lied and killed the servants of Baal. It appears, then, that God permits a lie even if it accomplishes a greater good at the expense of human life.

A more positive example is that of the Egyptian midwives who protected the Hebrew boys from the Pharaoh in Exodus 1:15-22. Pharaoh had commanded the midwives to kill the Hebrew boys, but instead they let them live and then lied to the Pharaoh claiming the Hebrew women gave birth to quick before they could arrive and kill the boys. God not only commended the actions of the midwives, but he also blessed them with families. In the case of Sarah and Jacob, there is no explicit words from God to indicate whether he approved of them or not. So, it is an argument from silence to say that they were justified. Here, however, God blesses the midwives for their actions. Such blessing would be a stronger indication that their lies were justified.

Finally, there is the story of Rahab hiding the Israelite spies in Joshua 2. Like the Egyptian midwives, Rahab lied in order to protect multiple lives. More over, like the midwives, she was blessed by God for her actions by being spared the destruction of Jericho and living with her family in Israel.[7] While some may argue that she was blessed for saving the lives of the Israelite spies, one must remember that she was only able to protect them through the instrument of lying. Therefore, as with the midwives and Jehu, such a blessing would be an indication that her lie was justified.

From these few examples, one could then conclude that God permits lying if it does no harm or produces a greater good. The good could be the saving of lives as with the midwives and Rahab, or the destruction of false religion as with Jehu. It is less clear as to how Jacob’s lie produces a greater good, but Romans 9:11-13 seem to indicate that Jacobs actions produced a good beyond his life.

The Preservation of Chastity

Augustine’s opponents also raise the issue of chastity. Suppose a Christian was asked to reveal the location of another person. The Christian knows that if he/she reveals the location of the individual, he/she will be raped. The persons life is not at stake, but their soul is. The soul is inflicted because chastity would be lost either before marriage, which is fornication, or outside of marriage, which is adultery. Since fornication and adultery are sins, the soul is damaged if the body is raped. If God allowed lying for the purpose of saving someone’s life (i.e., the Egyptian midwives and Rahab), then it is reasonable to conclude that he would allow a lie to protect someone’s chastity. Indeed, even Augustine declares, “If anyone who can be concealed by a lie is sought for violation, who dares to say that such a lie should not be uttered?”[8] There is no justice in a truth told at the expense of someone’s chastity. Again, Augustine himself admits that “a lie which does not violate the teaching of filial piety, or piety itself, or innocence, or kindliness, must be permitted for the preservation of bodily chastity.”[9]

Scripture against Lying

There are some texts of Scripture which seem to prohibit or condemn lying explicitly. The most obvious of which is Exodus 20:16 where God commands the Israelites not to bear false-witness. However, those who justify lying argue that Scripture here is not saying that one should not lie in general, but is giving a specific instance in which lying is not permitted. It could be understood as follows. To bear false-witness refers to speaking the truth in a court setting. This passage is explained by verses such as Exodus 23:1-2, Leviticus 5:1, and Deuteronomy 19:15-21. In these examples, one can see that the point of not bearing false-witness was that justice might not be perverted not that the act of lying was in itself wrong. For example, Exodus 23:1-2 says, “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness. You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing; when you bear witness in a lawsuit, you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice.” If the commandment in Exodus 20:16 is referring to a court setting and is concerned with the preservation of justice, then it follows that it is not a command against lying in general.

In Ephesians 4:25, Paul says that Christians should put away all falsehood, which might be understood as an indictment against all forms of lying. However, as the Pricillianists note, the verse continues with this: “let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.”[10] The command to speak truth to ones neighbor must refer to only those within the Christian community for it follows with “being members of one another.” In case one thinks this could refer to all people, in Ephesians 5:30 Paul says that Christians are “members of his body.” That “his body” refers to Christ and the church is a common metaphor in Paul.[11] For Paul to affirm honesty within the community does not necessarily mean that the Christian must have the same standards with those outside the community. Thus, this verse turns out not to be an indictment against all forms of lying, but on lying within the Church.

Psalm 5:6 seems to be another verse opposed to lying for it says that God “destroys those who speak lies.” This statement could apply to lying in general and not to specific instance such as Exodus 20:16. However, as Augustine himself states, the meaning of this verse is elucidated by the following line: “the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.” [12] Therefore, one can understand this passage as speaking not against lying in general, but the person who lies in order to commit injustice. To speak a lie in order to save someone’s life is good, but to lie for the purpose of injustice is wrong.

In these few examples, one begins to see that God is not against lying per se, but against those who lie for the purpose of committing injustice. The individual who lies to steal or kill is unjust, but the one who lies to save a life is just. The Christian is responsible to tell the truth to fellow Christians within the church for the sake of justice within the community, but not necessarily to those outside the church. To understand these verses in this way, in addition to the positive examples of lying in the Old Testament, allows one to see that lying for a greater good is sometimes the right thing to do. The means by which an individual may justly tell a lie must now be examined, which can be called “truthfulness of heart.”

Truthfulness of the Heart

Those who approve of lying in certain circumstances see an important distinction between speaking truth in the heart and speaking truth with the mouth. Psalms 15:2 states that “those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart,” will dwell in Zion. If the Psalmist can say that one speaks truth from his/her heart, then there is a distinction between it and speaking truth with the mouth. Thus, there are two “mouths” with which one may speak: the heart and the physical mouth.[13] One must then determine which mouth is being referred to when Scripture prohibits lying. Since this verse specifically prohibits lying with the heart, so that option is excluded. Therefore, when speaking a Christian can either: 1) speak the truth with both mouth and heart or 2) speak the truth with the heart but not the mouth. While the first possibility would be the ideal, the second is best in situations where a lie would produce a greater good. Since the Christian must never lie in his/her heart, and sometimes a lie of the mouth can produce a greater good, it follows that telling truth in one’s heart takes priority over telling truth with one’s mouth. The heart is able to remain truthful because it can recognize that the wrong a person may commit and the lie told to prevent it are both evil.[14] However, it recognizes the greater good, acts accordingly, and is therefore justified. Thus, the key factor for an ethic of lying is truthfulness of the heart, which is another way of saying intention.

Augustine’s Argument

Augustine’s argument will be divided into three parts. First, it will be important to describe how Augustine defines what a lie is. Secondly, Augustine’s responses to his opponents will focus on important Old Testament hermeneutical methods, the priority of the chastity of one’s soul, the importance of fighting heretics with the truth, a different interpretation of explicit prohibitions against lying, and a discussion on the issue of intention. Finally, Augustine’s reason’s for rejecting the useful lie will be summarized.

What a Lie Is

While Augustine does not have specific opponents in DM, the preceding sketch should have given a basic idea of the questions with which Augustine is wrestling. Yet, before Augustine’s responses to his opponents are discussed, it is important to summarize what Augustine thinks a lie is, which he does in DM I.1-IV.5. First, it must be stated that truth is the overriding principle for Augustine’s inquiry. Augustine thinks of truth as the antidote of error,[15] so if there is any choice between mercy, honor, or duty and truth he will always side with truth. He says that “it is better to err by an excessive regard for truth and by an equally emphatic rejection of falsehood.”[16] Secondly, Augustine excludes all forms of joking from his inquiry. The nature of a joke is that, despite its falsehood, the speaker has no intention to deceive the hearer.

In DM III.3-IV.4, Augustine weighs each factor to determine which should be given priority in determining whether or not a statement is a lie. He first evaluates the importance of the truth-value of the statement. The truth-value is determined by how much a statement corresponds with reality. For example, if one claims to be a man, the statement is true in so far as that person has the qualities of a man. If the individual does not (i.e., it is a woman), then the statement does not correspond with reality and is therefore false.

Augustine considers whether or not a statement is a lie because it is false. This would be an easy and objective way to determine a lie, but there is one weakness. Suppose someone says something false which is believed to be true. That is, if it was spoken out of ignorance. The question then becomes whether the statement should still be considered a lie or not. The truth-value of the statement is false, but the speaker said it believing it to be true. Augustine still thinks this person culpable for not knowing what is actually true, but he is not willing to call it a lie because even though the thing spoken is false, there was no intention to deceive on the part of the speaker.

The second factor of determining a lie is to determine the intention of the speaker. This criterion is more subjective than the first and more difficult to determine because it requires knowledge of the speakers heart. A lie, then, would be a lie when it is spoken with the intention of deceiving someone. It does not matter whether the statement is true or false, what matters is whether the person speaking it intends to deceive the hearer. Augustine says: “a person is to be judged as lying or not lying according to the intention of his own mind, not according to the truth or falsity of the matter itself.”[17] Thus, by focusing on the intention of the speaker, one is able to avoid the weakness of determining a lie solely on the truth-value of the statement.

One weakness, however, of determining a lie on the basis of intention is that one could speak what is false with a good intention. For example, imagine a man who tells a friend that there are no bandits on a certain road.[18] The man knows that the friend distrusts him and will therefore not believe what was said. Therefore, the speaker knowingly says something false but in order to protect the friend. If a lie were determined by the intention alone, this situation would not be a lie. However, Augustine does not seem convinced that this criterion is sufficient because it would render the truth-value of any statement superfluous. If truth is his overriding principle, then a false statement knowingly spoken cannot be treated so lightly.

The difficulty of this issue becomes more apparent when Augustine switches his example around imagining a man who wants to harm his friend and so tells him there are bandits down a certain road knowing that the friend will distrust him and go down that road.[19] In this scenario, there really are bandits on the road so what the speaker says it true. However, he spoke it with intention of deceiving his friend and bringing him harm. Augustine admits that this is blatantly a sin, but the question still remains as to whether or not it is a lie.[20] As with the example above, intention alone renders the truth-value of a statement superfluous. Augustine wants to say this is a lie, but his commitment to truth does not allow such bad intention to go unnoticed.

Augustine does not doubts that to say something false in order to deceive is a lie. However, the problem is whether this is the only instance of lying. The truth-value of a statement cannot alone determine a lie as in the case of something spoken out of ignorance. Likewise, the intention of the speaker cannot alone determine a lie either, because one could say anything as long as his/her intention is good as the example of the man who told a lie to save his friend. Augustine is hesitant to say whether or not these situations are lies. Yet, when in doubt, Augustine will call all of them lies while recognizing differing amounts of culpability. [21] For instance, he categorizes eight different types of lies, the worst being lies in the teaching of religion and the least worst being a lie which harms none but protects another from being defiled (i.e., rape). He does this because he thinks it important to consider the reason why a person is speaking the lie. Augustine says, “A lie told for lust is worse than a lie told for want, and a lie told for one’s self is worse than a lie told for another.”[22] Nevertheless, recognizing that every lie is contrary to truth, he still considers them evil.[23]

Answers to Opponents

Augustine’s responses to his opponents are scattered throughout DM and CM. Here, they will be organized under five sections. The first will deal with some important hermeneutical principles that are important for understanding the Old Testament. The second section considers his opponents appeal to bodily chastity as a reason for lying and replies by prioritizing the chastity of the soul over the body. The third section deals specifically with the concerns of Consentius and the right way to handle heretics and why. The fourth section challenges his opponents understanding of the explicit prohibitions against lying in Scripture and argues that they are indeed prohibitions against lying in general. Finally, the fifth section tries to show that truthfulness of the heart alone (i.e., intention), is an inadequate criterion for judging the usefulness of a lie.

OT Interpretation

Augustine makes two important distinctions when interpreting Old Testament texts. The first is that not every lie presented is actually a lie. Augustine understands that many of the Old Testament texts can be interpreted metaphorically following the example of Paul in Galatians 4:22-24.[24] Thus, Sarah’s lie could also be understood metaphorically as well as Jacobs or the Egyptian midwives. Because they are understood metaphorically, their meaning resides beyond the actions described in the texts. This means that the specific actions described are not actually prescribable because they do not mean what they say. For example, Augustine understands the story of Jacob and Esau not to be about individual people, but a prophetic enactment of the Churches replacement of Israel.[25] Thus, Augustine states that “it is not a lie when signs signifying one thing are put for another to serve the understanding of a truth.”[26] Jacob did not lie because the events described are not what they really mean. And because Jacob did not lie, this story is not an example of a useful lie.

The second distinction is that not everything in the Old Testament should be imitated.[27] Just because the Old Testament describes the actions of certain individuals does not necessarily mean that they are prescribed, even if they are not interpreted metaphorically. He gives the example of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38. Here, Tamar lies (with actions but not words) in order to justly receive what had not been given to here: a child. Those who think lying is useful would find an example to emulate in Tamar. However, while they will follow the example of Tamar in lying, they do not follow the example of Judah in fornicating.[28] Augustine admits that Judah’s actions were not just, but suppose someone commit fornication for a greater good. According to his opponent’s logic, the action would be justified. If his opponents do not admit this, then they are inconsistent, choosing only the examples that suit their position and ignoring the rest. If it is not reasonable to commit fornication for the good of another, then neither should it be right to lie.

Augustine also notes that it is important to consider the state of the individual who spoke the lie. For instance, if someone is accustomed to speaking lies in order to harm someone, and then speaks a lie in order to help someone (e.g., the midwives and Rahab), that person is making considerable progress.[29] One may compare this to the way a parent discipline his/her children. A child is weak, ignorant, and controlled by his/her emotions, but one judges them with this state in mind. A cranky child may act disobedient, but only because he/she is tired, hungry or needs a diaper changed. Likewise, the Old Testament is full of examples of people, pagans and Jews, who are children in the truth (i.e., they do not yet know Jesus Christ). One could then interpret the story of Jehu with this hermeneutical principle in mind. Jehu lived among idolatrous kings, yet he fought against them. His lie was a sin, but God rewarded him because he acted contrary to the society around him. However, the Christian has the example of the Jesus and the apostles in whom no justification for lying can be found.[30] Therefore, whatever may have been commended by God in the Old Testament must be seen in light of the individual’s situation and the new standard of Jesus Christ and his Apostles.

Chastity of the soul

Those who think lying is justified propose a situation in which lying protects someone’s chastity. Augustine himself sees this as a difficult situation as stated above and by his relegation of a lie which protects someone’s chastity to the least culpable of his eight lies. In response to this idea, Augustine makes an important distinction between chastity of the body and chastity of the soul. One could have the chastity of his/her body forcibly taken from him/her, but chastity of soul can only be given by consent of the will. Augustine defines chastity of the soul as “good will and pure love, which,” he explains, “is not corrupted unless we love and seek that which truth teaches should not be loved and sought.”[31] Thus, when faced with the dilemma of telling a lie or preserving chastity of the body, one must remember that whatever may happen he/she still has the power to preserve chastity of the soul. If it is a sin to lie, then it does more harm to one’s soul to lie to avoid being defiled than to have one’s bodily chastity taken by force. Indeed, since “eternal life is lost by lying,”[32] there is no gain in lying for the preservation of either bodily chastity or ones temporal life.

Heretics better fought with truth

In speaking with Consentius, Augustine makes the point that lying to bring one into the true religion is self-defeating.[33] Consentius wondered if he could lie about his beliefs (i.e., pretend that he was a Pricillianist) in order to root out the Pricillianists. First, Augustine notes, if the Christian could expose the heretics in such a manner, the heretic could still lie about what he/she believed after the fact. They could claim to be rooting out the Pricillianists by pretending to be one just as Consentius thought of doing. Yet, even more dangerous is what could happen if the Pricillianist was found out and converted. The deception would be discovered at once and the new Christian would henceforth suspect all that was taught to him/her. There would be no way to tell what teaching was true and which was false because the source of that teaching is dishonest. When one comes into the true Church one receives from those who came before the teachings of true religion. An element of trust is necessarily for instruction in the doctrines of the faith. By lying to bring people into the faith, the Christian creates distrust which hinders the growth of the new Christian. Augustine’s contention that truth cannot be learned from untruth is seen by comparing it with chastity, piety, and love. He asks, “How is it that, while no one learns from chastity that he ought to commit adultery or from piety that he ought to offend God or from loving kindness that he ought to harm his neighbor, we should learn form truth that we ought to lie?” Therefore, lying to root out heretics does more harm than good.

Augustine also wants to compare the actions of the Pricillianists with those of the Catholic who lies to see which is the greater sin. The Pricillianists believed that the human soul was of the same substance as God.[34] In order for the Catholic to pretend to be a Pricillianists, he/she would have to claim to believe this doctrine. Both speak the same error but from two different motives. In the case of the Pricillianist, he/she speaks blasphemy out of ignorance of the truth. But in the case of the Catholic, he/she knowingly speaks blasphemy. The Pricillianists speaks what is believed because he/she does not know the truth. The Catholic speaks what is known to be false. Thus, the Catholic’s sin is greater for in order to help someone, he/she “knowingly blasphemes God.”[35]

Interpretation of Scripture examples

Now Augustine’s interpretation of explicit Scriptural prohibitions against lying will be discussed. In regards to Exodus 20:16, Augustine thinks that the imagery can exceed the realm of the court. “For,” Augustine says, “whoever pronounces any statement gives testimony to his own mind.”[36] What he means is that the individual who speaks is his/her own judge so that whether one is in court or in a field, he/she is a witness to the truth. To speak a falsehood in any situation could then be considered a false-witness. More so, Augustine shows how ridiculous it is to restrict bearing false-witness to only the court. For instance, imagine a man who is questioned by an interrogator about the location of an innocent man sentenced to die. The Christian would lie to the lie to the interrogator justly. However, when brought before a judge, he tells the truth.[37] Either way, the person is betrayed and so the good aimed at by lying to the interrogator is defeated.

In regards to Psalm 5:6, Augustine does not think that the term bloodthirsty describes the liar. Instead, he takes the evildoers in verse five as the genus, and those who speak lies as a species of evildoers. Thus, the bloodthirsty in the following verse does not describe the liar, but is another species of evildoer. If a lie is a type of iniquity, then this verse is not speaking about a specific type of lie (i.e., those of the bloodthirsty), but of lying in general.

Augustine disagrees with the Pricillianist interpretation of Ephesians 4:25. Even if Paul was speaking about the issue of lying within the Christian community, the principle should also apply to those outside as well. First, Augustine shows that under the Pricillianst interpretation, the martyrs died a superfluous death. There is no glory in confessing the name of Christ in the midst of torture if one could be justified in lying to save their temporal life. Secondly, it renders void this saying of Jesus: “whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”[38] It would be of no use for Jesus to say this if he thought it was right to lie to those outside the community he was building. Such an interpretation would contradict the basic sense of the passage. Jesus is speaking about those who are opposed to him, which, ideally, would be outside the Church. Thus, Jesus’ words, which the martyrs faithfully kept, indicate that telling the truth extends beyond the borders of the Church.

Augustine also sees the Pricillianist’s interpretation of Ephesians 4:25 as having a shallow view of what it means to be a neighbor. First, they are ignoring Jesus’ parable of the good Samaratian. Secondly, they do not realize that everyone who is outside the Christian community is potentially a member of the Church. Thus, Augustine states, “each one of us ought so to count a man as we wish him to be, even if he has not yet become what we wish.”[39] So, even if one allows that Paul is speaking only of truthfulness within the Church, he/she must realize that one may end up lying to a future member of the community, the danger of which was already addressed above.

True truthfulness of heart

Those who commend lying think that a lie is justified because the person speaking it retains the truth within his/her heart, that is, they have a good intention. Augustine critique’s this argument by showing that the things which come out of the mouth find their source in the heart. He quotes Matthew 15:17-20:

Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.[40]

If the mouth and heart are so connected, then to say that one can speak the truth in the heart but not with the mouth is absurd. More so, if such a thing is possible, then there was no reason for Peter to repent for disowning Christ. It is evident that he believed that Christ was the Messiah for he confessed as much,[41] but the fact that he repented is indication that one is not justified in holding truth in ones heart alone.

Contrary to those who lie, Augustine understands Psalms 14:3 not to mean that one can lie if the truth is spoken with the heart, but that one can speak what is true even if it is not believed in the heart. The difference is subtle but important. What Augustine is say is that the Psalmist knows that many speak the truth with their mouth, but that it is only those who speak it in their heart as well who will enter Zion. [42] Indeed, as Paul says in Romans 10:10, “For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” If truth of the heart is the only thing necessary, as those who lie believe, then Paul’s addition of speaking with the mouth is asinine. However, since Jesus taught that what comes out of the mouth finds its source in the heart and with the example of Peter’s repentance, Augustine has shown that truthfulness of heart does not justify a lie.

Augustine acutely sees that there is a fear of culpability by telling a truth that will bring harm upon someone else. It is thought that if the reason a person is killed is that a Christian told the killer where that person was, then that truth told by the Christian was the instrumental cause of the person’s death. Because it is instrumental in the person’s death, the Christian would then be guilty of that person’s death. However, Augustine argues that this is not the case. Just because someone is instrument in the death (or defilement) of another does not mean that he/she is guilty. A sword is not tried and found guilty for killing someone, the person who used the sword is. The only one who is guilty is the person who committed the act as Augustine says, “The sin belongs to the person who does the deed.”[43] What should be avoided is the sin one may commit against oneself since the sins of another is not imputed about the one who speaks truth. Since, as Augustine believes, a lie is a sin, to lie for the sake of another brings harm upon one’s own soul.

Why Lying is Never Useful

The question still remains whether or not a lie is ever useful. The Pricillianists and the imaginary opponents in DM think that there are some situations in which lying can produce a greater good and is therefore justifiable. Augustine, on the other hand, understands that to say that a lie is just is the same as saying that sin is just, which is absurd.[44] For example, suppose someone steals in order to feed the poor. The theft would produce a greater good and under the scheme of Augustine’s opponents, it would therefore be justified.[45] The implications of such a system are disastrous as any deed could be justified if it produces a greater good. Augustine rejects this and proposes that a distinction be made between sin and culpability. While all lies are sinful, not all lies are judged equal. Augustine agrees that a lie told for the preservation of someone’s life is better than a lie told to take another’s life. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the lie is therefore justified. Therefore, there is no such thing as a useful lie.


Now the strength and weaknesses of Augustine’s argument will be discussed. His major strengths are his refutation of a consequentialist ethic (those who say a greater good can justify a deed) and his distinction between chastity of the body and chastity of the soul. His major weakness is his interpretation of Old Testament examples. His attempt to justify their actions by a metaphorical interpretation and accommodation does not sufficiently solve the problem of God commending such actions. Finally, while he rightly criticizes the consequentialist ethics of his opponents, his scale of culpability allows a Christian to commit what appears to be smaller sins out of love for another person.


Augustine’s major strength is his critique of his opponent’s theory that actions are justified if they produce a greater good, here called a consequentialist ethic. First, he shows that it if a lie is determined to be good upon its consequences, then all possible deeds can likewise become good if it is for the greater good. When Augustine is trying to figure out what a lie is he proves that a lie cannot be determined solely upon the truth-value of the statement or the intent of the speaker. Instead, excluding statements said in ignorance, to lack in either truth-value or good intent is to lie. This is seen by analogy with stealing or committing adultery. For his opponents to say that a lie is justified by the intent of the speaker is to say that all actions are morally right if done with good intent. However, they do not say that one can steal or commit adultery for a greater good. Implicitly, then, his opponents agree that the truth-value of an action (spoken or not) is necessary for determining the rightness or an act.

Augustine also is strong in his distinction between chastity of the body and chastity of the soul. His opponents want to say that being raped is equal to fornication or adultery and is a sin which harms the soul. Augustine challenges this by distinguishing between the chastity of the body and chastity of the soul. While it is ideal to have both, chastity of the soul is the only thing that remains under the control of the will. The only thing that stains the soul is a person’s own will. Thus, if the person being raped consents to the action or takes pleasure in it then he/she has sinned, but if they do not consent then their soul remains unharmed. This distinction allows one to be free of sins committed by other people. It is also a more humane way to counsel those who have survived rape.


It is in the area of Scriptural justification that Augustine’s argument is the weakest, namely his metaphorical interpretation of Old Testament passages which vindicate lying. First, this solution would allow someone to claim metaphorical interpretation for every example of Scripture which contradicts his/her position. For example, one could say that he/she believes killing to be wrong and when confronted with Old Testament passages which justify killing merely interpret them metaphorically to resolve the conflict between his/her belief and Scriptural evidence. While Augustine may critique his opponents for believing in a just sin, Augustine could rightly be criticized for poor methodology which opens the possibility of justifying any action prohibited by Scripture. A man could say that his act of fornication is not a sin because, like certain Old Testament passages, it is done prophetically to be a sign against the Church today.

Augustine would have done better to say that Christians should be more concerned with following the example of Jesus (after whom they are named) and the Apostles. He seems to want to say that, but he does not put enough emphasis on the fact. First, there is no example of them lying to produce a greater good. Secondly, he could have appealed to Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:24 that the Law was a guardian until Christ, implying that there is a new standard in the Christian era. Thirdly, he could have appealed to II Peter 2:21-22 in which Christ is said to be an example to follow by committing no sin and having no deceit in his mouth. His argument would have been stronger if he avoided resorting to a metaphorical interpretation and focused on how the Old Testament is to be interpreted in light of the New.

Augustine’s second weakness in interpreting the Old Testament is his idea of accommodation. That is, the people in the Old Testament were not condemned for their lies because of the progress they made within their own situation. If Romans 1:18-21 is taken to mean that no one has any excuse for not living justly, Jews with the Law and Gentiles without it, then no Old Testament example can be justified on the fact that God was merely accommodating to the persons specific situation. God is merciful, but to say that some sins are justified because the person ignorance defeats the need of Jesus Christ. By appealing to accommodation, Augustine ignores the fact that God 1) does not condemn the lie and 2) that he is really rewarding the individual for their lie. God saved Rahab (i.e., made her one of His people) because she lied. Jehu’s example is even more devastating to Augustine for God verbally justifies murder. One must take serious the fact that these events occurred through the means of a lie. These instances are not just where people are condemned less harshly because they intended a greater good, but these their actions produced a greater good which God vindicated.

Finally, Augustine’s conclusion that all lies are sinful (but with varying amounts of culpability) will not keep Christians from lying for a greater good. He has created a no win situation in which, when faced with the issue of lying or not to save someone’s life, the average Christian will commit a “less” serious sin and ask for forgiveness later. In this way, Augustine’s conclusion concerning the nature of lying defeats his conclusion about its usefulness. It even appears selfish for one to not commit a small sin than to allow someone to be killed or raped. Following the example of Christ, the Christian could say that he/she is loving their neighbor at the expense of his/herself. Even Paul says that he would damn himself if that would save his fellow Israelites![46] If a lie said for a greater good is less culpable than a lie said for evil, and if Christ’s example is one of self-sacrificial love, then Christians have a reason for lying for a greater good.


Augustine’s attempt to determine whether or not a lie is useful does not give sufficient reason for Christians not to lie in order to protect someone’s life. Those who say that lying is justifiable do so on account of Old Testament examples where lying is justified, by understanding explicit texts to be speaking against lying of a certain kind, and by giving a priority of intention over truth. Augustine dismisses their interpretation of Old Testament examples by interpreting them metaphorically, by understanding that God accommodates to people where they are, and by distinguishing between actions that are described and actions that are prescribed. He challenges their interpretation of explicit texts and understands that Christians are responsible to tell the truth to all people, including those outside the court and the Christian community. He also shows that a lie cannot be judge on intention alone. While his attempt reveals the difficulty of this issue, his argument suffers by his use of a metaphorical interpretation of Old Testament texts and by not discussing adequately how the Old Testament should be understood in light of Christ. His conclusion that all lies are sins but of differing culpability allows Christians to justify lying to save a life because the lie can be understood as a lesser evil. He is right to argue that actions are not judge on intention, but this alone does not resolve the issue of whether or not a lie is useful.


Augustine. Contra mendacium. Translated by Harold B. Jaffee, in Saint Augustine: Treatise on Various Subjects, edited by Roy J. Deferrari, 125-179. Washington, D.C.: Catholic    University of America Press, 1952.

Augustine. De mendacio. Translated by Sister Mary Sarah Muldowney, R.S.M., in Saint Augustine: Treatise on Various Subjects, edited by Roy J. Deferrari, 53-110. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1952.


[1] Augustine, De mendacio, trans. by Sister Mary Sarah Muldowney, R.S.M., in Saint Augustine: Treatise on Various Subjects, ed. by Roy J. Deferrari (Washington, D.C.: CUA Press, 1952), 53-4.

[2] Augustine, Contra mendacium trans. by Harold B. Jaffee, in Saint Augustine: Treatise on Various Subjects, ed. by Roy J. Deferrari (Washington, D.C.: CUA Press, 1952), 126-7.

[3] Gen. 27:36-40. All scriptural quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Edition, 1989.

[4] Augustine, Contra mendacium, 128.

[5] II Kgs. 10:18.

[6] II Kgs. 10:31.

[7] Joshua 6:25.

[8] Augustine, De mendacio, 76. Cf., 68-9, 77, 104-7.

[9] Ibid., 105.

[10] Augustine, Contra mendacium, 127. Emphasis added.

[11] For other references where Paul uses the term “member” to indicate someone who belongs to the Church, see Rom. 12:4-5; I Cor. 6:15; 12:12, 18, 25, 27; and Eph. 2:19.

[12] Augustine, De mendacio, 66.

[13] Ibid., 92-3.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 53

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 55.

[18] Ibid., 57.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 58.

[21] Ibid., 86-7, cf. 109.

[22] Augustine, Contra mendacium, 119.

[23] Ibid., 129.

[24] Augustine, De mendacio, 88-9.

[25] Ibid., 155.

[26] Augustine, Contra mendacium, 154.

[27] Ibid., 157.

[28] Ibid., 164.

[29] Augustine, De mendacio, 62.

[30] Ibid., 62-3, 65-6.

[31] Ibid., 104.

[32] Ibid., 67.

[33] Augustine, Contra mendacium, 133-4.

[34] Ibid., 134.

[35] Ibid., 35.

[36] Augustine, De mendacio, 61.

[37] Ibid., 83-4.

[38] Matt. 10:33, cf. Augustine, Contra mendacium, 137.

[39] Augustine, Contra mendacium, 141.

[40] Augustine, De mendacio, 94.

[41] Matt. 16:16.

[42] Augustine, Contra mendacium, 140.

[43] Augustine, De mendacio, 75.

[44] Augustine, Contra mendacium, 164.

[45] Ibid., 145.

[46] Rom. 9:3.


19 thoughts on “Augustine and the Useful Lie by Ryan Clevenger

  1. What if the person you’re addressing has an evil understanding of the key word used in framing the question? For instance, in the often used example of Nazis looking for Anne Frank, whose hiding in your basement: The Naze henchmen ask if you are hiding any Jews in the house. But they understand the word “Jew” to mean an enemy of the Third Reich who is liable to be interned and killed. But you know from God that an otherwise innocent Jew is a person. No innocent person is liable to be killed simply because someone erroneously believes that being a Jew deprives them of the right to life. If you say yes to them, you are therefore lying about the nature of the person hiding in you house– you are falsely abetting the Nazis’ willfully evil misconstruction of the significance of being a Jew. Knowing that they understand the word in a way that contradicts truth, you say “No, no Jews are hiding here.” Given the consequential Nazi meaning of the word Jew, you speak the truth, not a lie.

    The weakness in what seems to be an absolutist argument to the contrary is that it is not actually arguing from what is absolute. The absolute must include God’s understanding of terms, not just the human understanding. If an individual is using any word for a person (Jew, black, homosexual, Christian, etc.) in a way that denies the true meaning of that person’s existence according to God, and you know that they intend to treat them in a way that corresponds to that denial, tacitly accepting their false understanding, and revealing what you know will lead them gravely to sin against that person, is itself gravely sinful. Since we know the truth, we must act according to the true meaning, God’s meaning, not any human error masked with a word using the same syllables, but ascribing to them in thought and/or action a meaning that contradicts what God has determined.

    1. Interesting proposal. I’m not sure what Augustine would say, but I could make some guesses. I think the problem with your proposal is that if reference is descriptive, it is possible to have to different descriptions that refer to the same thing. So while the Roman soldier might have an inaccurate description of the person he is looking for‚ he can still be referring to what you know by an accurate description. So if the referent is the same, it would be a lie to say that the referent is not there, even if the soldier used an inaccurate description.

      1. But only one description is real, the one according to God’s will, since God is the principle of reality (apart from His being, nothing is in truth.) The Nazi is therefore acting on a false understanding. His action is therefore the lie, not the refusal to cooperate in it. Wouldn’t both Aquinas and Augustine agree that, where God has determined it, true knowledge, is never simply theoretical and never in any way false.

      2. But the issue is about the referent. In the context of the question to which one is responding, whether or not the description is accurate, one could still know that that to which the questioner refers is the same as what is in my mind. The answer one gives isn’t to what God knows but to what the questioner asks and what the context determines the referent, and so the utterance given in response is true or falses in response to the question. Your proposal erases the questioner and the context, but that is the very thing that needs to be dealt with.

  2. One always answers first and above all to God. The difference between right and wrong never actually depends human erroneous human doctrines, only on God’s truth, as He gives it to us to know it. A question posed by someone based on error doesn’t permit us to take the error for granted as the basis for our moral judgment. That’s why it is right for the baker to refuse to make a cake for a homosexual wedding. The state’s definition of marriage doesn’t relieve one of the responsibility to obey God, not human authority. Otherwise, in our day, we would conform our actions to relativism of the worst sort, and end up wallowing, or letting those subject to our moral authority wallow, in sin and wrongdoing.

    1. My point is that despite the error one can still refer to the same thing. When the question is posed, I “translate” it in my head. I know what the person is talking about. I know what the questioner said, I know what (or whom) the question refers to, and I know the truth about the referent (e.g. the true description). The questioner’s description is not the “basis for our moral judgment” because it is about the referent, that to which the questioner’s description points.

      Person 1: “Is [X] in this home” (where [X] is understood by the questioner inaccurately)
      Person 2: “No, there is no [X] here” (where [X] is understood by the respondent accurately)

      Despite the two different understandings, Person 2 has lied because the referent is the same.

      1. The same by what criteria? If Person 1 thinks the “referent” has no intrinsic worth or rights that oblige respect, and Person 2 knows all human persons are endowed by God with inherent worth that must be respected for God’s sake, (a difference as a great as that between a smear of pond scum and an infant), the one who knows the truth acts falsely if by their action they affirm and validate the notion that falls short of God’s meaning. The whole controversy over abortion turns on this difference, such that Person 1 thinks the inhabitant of the womb is a mass of cells and person 2 knows that he or she is informed by the image and likeness of God, i.e., a person. Since we are discussing moral judgment, what moral basis is there to say that the referent is “the same”? Someone who has fallen into a swamp may smell like slime, but that doesn’t justify the notion that they should be handed over to someone whom we know intends to treat them as such. The true meaning of the being in question is determined with reference to God, not some perverse human understanding, false in light of God’s information.

      2. I think we are just going around in circles now. I’m not sure how else to explain what I’m saying. It sounds like you want to try to “trick the lie detector” by reinterpreting the question into the question you want to answer. It might trick an old lie detector, but, at least for me, I can’t trick myself. I would know to whom the questioner is referring even if I think their understanding is false.

      3. Ask yourself a simple question: Where abortion is concerned, is the child in the womb simply a “mass of cells”, with no moral significance, like a blob of grape jelly on the sidewalk? Or does God’s determination inform human nature from the beginning of life in His being, mind and intention, so that the humanity of the cells demands respect for the image of God in human nature? In both cases the “referent” is a mass of cells, but in the latter case destroying the cells is a mortal sin.

        How can this be true of the cells and not of Anne Frank in our discussion? The Nazi at the door is the abortionist come to rip her from the womb of God’s protection. But the Nazi doesn’t see it that way. He sees only the figment in which his indoctrination and ill will lead him to believe. which is something to be quarantined and destroyed not respected. One understanding accords with God’s truth, the other imposes a willful human perversion of truth, yet you assert that speaking and acting according to the lie (as measured according to God’s rule) is somehow required in order to “tell the truth”? No lie detector is needed for reason to discern the absurdity of your assertion.

        Christ was condemned as a blasphemer by the Sanhedrin on account of the claim that he is the Son of God. In the minds of the High Priest and those others who condemned him the “referent”, a blasphemer, was worthy of death. When their minions entered the garden to take him, was it Judas who lied with his kiss? Or was the disciple or Apostle moved to deny their charge with his sword, telling the truth? The “referent”, as you say, is the same in both cases, but one act accorded with God’s truth and the other falsely betrayed and denied it. There is no trick involved in that conclusion, just a willingness to accept God’s information as the standard of action.

      4. So you can admit that the referent is the same. The question is then whether any true thing can be said (or asked) of the referent despite wrong descriptions. You keep bringing up abortions, so let’s take the example of a baby. My daughter was born two months early because of a placenta previa. Let’s imagine that two doctors have the ultrasound of my daughter and are trying to analyze the situation. In our hypothetical situation, one thinks it is a clump of cells, the other thinks it is a person. Let’s also say that as they look at the ultrasound they are trying to determine exactly the position of the baby and how close it is to the cervix. On your account, is the doctor who thinks it is a clump of cells unable to say anything true about the location of the baby in the uterus to determine whether or not it is a placenta previa? I think the doctor can even if the doctor is wrong in thinking it is just a clump of cells. The referent is the same for both doctors so they can discuss the location of the baby. It seems to me that you are saying that a doctor who does not recognize the baby as a person (i.e., God’s truth), would be unable to say anything true at all. That is untenable, I think, which is why I am not convinced of your position.

      5. You confuse empirical and moral knowledge. As a moral concept, lying is not simply about facts as perceived by our faculties of material perception. Its about denying or affirming the truth about the being or beings only partially made manifest by those faculties. The aspect of our judgment as human beings that affirms the intrinsic worth of each person is not simply a matter of material perception. It arises from our recognition of our own inner experience, which includes the sense of being, present but not fully perceived even by our “inner” perceptual faculties, because it corresponds to the one perceiving, the one that remains, as it were, behind the camera but is therefore never included among the things bound by the rules of empirical knowledge.

        Yet all the operations of pure reason, which condition our empirical perceptions, are functions of that being, functions we know in consequence as perceptions, and immediately as the being itself within us. But in the latter form we know without fully perceiving it, intuitively, i.e., without being conscious of how we know what we know. This is the being in itself as such for the sake of which mystics strive to eliminate every shred of empirical consciousness, in order simply to “let it be”.

        The operations of this being unperceived includes the force by which reason convinces the mind, giving us our primordial experience of right and wrong. From whence does this force arise? What is its way of being? Aren’t the pursuits that arise with these questions the paths by which we wend our way to God, as the being in which the attributes required even to frame them are necessarily united? God is the origin of right and wrong, of truth and falsehood, in the sense that transcends empirical knowledge in order to validate and enforce the determinations that make such knowledge possible, that make it knowledge, at all.

        It is in this ultimate sense that God is the arbiter of right and wrong, good and bad– and therefore of the meaning of things in moral terms. You err in thinking that two things which are the same in this or that way within the limit and rules (frame of reference) of our faculty of empirical knowledge simply remain the same when, in God’s frame of reference, they are definitively distinguished from one another. This may make sense to those who deny God, and especially to those who deny His Word made flesh. But I thought it safe to assume that our discussion begins and ends with the faith that accepts the first decisive truth, which truth affirms the being of God, beyond all knowledge except His own, which He extends to us in Christ Jesus.

      6. You haven’t answered my question. It was a sincere question to understand your position. Can the doctor who views the baby as a clump of cells say anything true about the location of the baby in the uterus by looking at the ultrasound? Yes or no?

        As for God: God is Truth and the source of all being. To be is to participate, to some degree and in some way, in that truth. Thus in as much as something exists, it can truly be referenced even by those with inaccurate understandings of the object. Our faulty understandings of the world have no bearing on the existence of the world for it exists in relation to God not to us. It seems to be that you want to say that someone’s faulty understanding necessarily makes the act of reference fail (i.e., my faulty understanding refers to a non-existent object that is only a figment of my mind and not of reality) whereas I’m saying that it is a matter of degrees (i.e., the more we participate in God’s truth the more we know the world around us as it is, but in as much as we exist we still can point to reality even if only to a small degree).

      7. I did answer your question. You, however, have not addressed the moral dimension of the discussion of lying, and the difference our access to God’s information makes in our appraisal of objects. You pay lips-service to God as Truth and Being, but decline to wrestle with its consequences, particularly when it comes to our moral reasoning and responsibilities.

        Thus you continue to argue as if God’s true and definitive understanding has the same status as our limited understanding, considered apart from the information God provides. Yet that information transcends our limitations. As far as I can tell, you think God’s information, as communicated to us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in His Word, written and Incarnate, makes no difference. That is a dogmatically secular understanding premised, at the very least, on the irrelevance of God as Truth and the source of all being, you profess not to share. In what respect is this appraisal of your position mistaken?

      8. You didn’t answer it before, and you are avoiding answering it now. I even made it a simple “yes or no” question and you still refuse to answer. My last response explained how I think God fits into the picture. It is not secular because, as I explained, the more one knows God the more one knows the reality God created. I just allow that it is possible to successfully communicate to some degree with those around us who do not know or refuse to know God. Yet even that, I said, is founded only on the fact that God is Truth and the creator of all things. How is that secular?

  3. “As a moral concept, lying is not simply about facts as perceived by our faculties of material perception. Its about denying or affirming the truth about the being or beings only partially made manifest by those faculties. The aspect of our judgment as human beings that affirms the intrinsic worth of each person is not simply a matter of material perception.” This is what I wrote in my first reply, and it answers the question. On its own our understanding goes so far and no farther. It does not reach truth, in the sense the God alone provides, which is the sense required for moral judgment about the true nature of empirical objects, including we ourselves.

    We know nothing that is not of God. Therefore, when God informs us about an object, that information isn’t true to some extent, (i.e., in the manner of our limited understanding). It is simply true. In this respect, God’s information enlarges our knowledge, or at least confronts us with the task of doing so, in accordance with the information He provides. This has proved true even of the empirical pursuit of knowledge. But it is inescapably true of all reasonable moral conclusions– like the conclusion that distinguishes the true understanding of Anne Frank’s God informed humanity, from the false understanding that degrades and fails to take account of it.

    1. So your answer is no. The doctor who sees the baby as a clump of cells is unable to say something true about the location of the baby in the uterus because he or she lacks the requisite knowledge to successfully refer. I’m guessing you would also say that even if the proverbial Nazi were to come to the door and ask for Anne Frank by name, the person housing her could say “no” and not be lying because the Nazi’s conception of Anne Frank is inaccurate. I’m still not convinced that this is correct, despite your admirable attempt at explaining it.

      Thanks for taking the time to read my post and to comment, but at this point I’m going to have to bow out. I have other responsibilities that I have to attend to and I can’t devote any more time to this conversation. Thanks again, and all the best!

      1. You are not thinking this through. What we know by way of our material understanding human beings can be true, but without the information of God is not the truth. True is the doctor’s observation of the cells in relation to the uterus. Truth is our observance of God’s information of the cells (or anything else for that matter) in light of His being, purpose and will. What takes no account of that observance is false, no matter how true it seems to the darkness that knows not His light, shining brightly upon it. Godspeed.

  4. Really interesting that you should mention this post on twitter at the same time I’re-reading De Mendacio myself as part of writing a paper on what it would take for a robot to lie. I find it frustrating that he never actually comes down on the side of necessary and sufficient conditions, only sufficient ones, and I’m glad to read from your post that it’s not just me failing to find them, he doesn’t actually give them.

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