This blog is devoted to discussing the pursuit of eternal life.
Discussion and participation by readers is desired,
but contributions should correlate to the book,
The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology
of Perseverance & Assurance

by
Thomas R. Schreiner
& Ardel B. Caneday



Wednesday, October 18, 2006

"God Cannot Lie." A Meaningless Statement?

I realize that this entry may seem off theme for this blog. I could make a case that it is not off theme, for if God could lie, speak falsely, then the entire argument of The Race Set Before Us collapses. After all, the argument is grounded in the truthfulness of promises covenanted by God who cannot lie.

I stumbled on to Tony Jones' blog by clicking a link from God's Politics Blog by Jim Wallis and Friends. Tony Jones posted an entry titled, "Don't Utter Meaningless Statements." Ponder his posted entry. Admittedly, it comes off as cute and clever. But, is it not fundamentally erroneous, if not verging on blasphemous? Here is Tony's entry.

A friend emailed me today, wondering about something I said at the late night theological discussion at the Austin National Youth Workers Convention. I said, "Human beings should not make meaningless statements like, 'God cannot lie,' or ask meaningless questions like, 'Can God create a rock so big that even God cannot move it?'"

Len wrote that he must have misheard me, because
Numbers 23:19 states, "God is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of man that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?"

"God cannot lie" is a meaningless statement, I replied. It shouldn't be uttered. Look more closely at Numbers -- it doesn't say that God cannot lie, but that he should not lie. The point is ethical, not ontological. That is, it's a statement about God's trustworthiness, not about his being. As a human, I should never start a sentence with "God cannot....," because, "God can..." is the only accurate statement.

I believe, ontologically, that God is capable of all things. Thus, human statements that attempt to retard the agency of God are nonsensical and should not be uttered.


Several things could, and perhaps should, be said in response to Tony Jones' comments. I will say a few things.

First, technically speaking, Tony is correct to point out that Numbers 23:19 does not say, "God cannot lie." Instead, the passage declares, "God is not a man . . . nor a son of man. . . ." This is an ontological statement, not an ethical statement, contrary to what Tony states.

Second, grammatically speaking, Tony is incorrect when he says that the passage does not say that "God cannot lie but that he should not lie." The passage does not say that "God should not lie." The passage places the negative, not with the verb lie but with the verb is. Once again, the negation underscores the ontological distinction and contrast between God and humans. Tony fails to recognize that the passage does make an ontological statement. The ontological statement is this: "God is not a man . . . nor a son of man. . . ." For anyone who wonders what ontology is, it is concerned with the nature of being.

Third, Tony fails to understand the conventions of grammar. Indeed, English translations of Numbers 23:19 do not read "cannot lie" but "should not lie." This hardly supports Tony's case, though, because, as I have already shown in my first two points, Tony fails to read the passage correctly. Just as his friend wrongly placed the negation with the verb lie, so also Tony does. The passage does not read, God cannot lie, but the passage also does not say, God should not lie, as though God could lie but should not lie, as Tony thinks. Tony fails to understand the conventions of grammar in that he fails to recognize that the verb "should not lie," as with the verb "should not repent," are not ethical prohibitions, as in the statement, "You should not lie." As with so many people today, Tony seems not to realize that the auxiliary verb "should" has numerous grammatical functions. In neither clause of Numbers 23:19 does the auxiliary verb "should," preceding the negative "not lie" or the negative "not repent," function as a negative command or a prohibition against. Instead, the auxiliary verb functions to project a hypothetical thought that is negated: "God is not a human that he should lie." What does this mean? The principal statement is this: God is not a human. What do humans do? Humans are fickle. Humans waver. Humans do not hold steady. Humans lie. God is unlike humans. God does not lie. Thus, God is not a human that he should lie. Likewise, God is unlike mere humans. What do mere humans do? Mere humans change their minds. Thus, God is not a son of man that he should change his mind. In other words, Numbers 23:19 declares that we are not to conceive of God as though he were like humans. Humans are oscillating in character. God is not. In other words, contrary to Tony Jones' assertion, Numbers 23:19 makes an ontological point. God is unlike humans, humans who lie and change their minds.

Fourth, Tony Jones falsely and wrongly disconnects ontology (the nature of being) and ethics (the nature of right and wrong) in Numbers 23:19, as though the two were divisible. Contrary to Tony Jones' claim, the passage makes both ontological statements and ethical statements. Ontological statements: God is not a man; God is not a son of man. Ethical statements: Unlike humans, God does not lie. Unlike humans, God does not change his mind.

Fifth, Tony Jones errs, also, by not knowing the Scriptures sufficiently. Though it is true that Numbers 23:19 does not exactly say what Tony's friend claims that it says, Hebrews 6:18 explicitly states, "it is impossible for God to lie." Tony Jones goes way beyond Scripture, then, when he says, "I believe, ontologically, that God is capable of all things. Thus, human statements that attempt to retard the agency of God are nonsensical and should not be uttered." Does this not verge on blasphemy? What part of "it is impossible for God to lie," in Hebrews 6:18, is unclear?

Hebrews 6:18 brings me directly back to the themes of this blog. Following is a segment from The Race Set Before Us, page 144.

There seems to be a tension between biblical texts that warn and admonish us and texts that promise us great confidence and assurance of salvation. On the one hand we read the severe, perhaps frightening, warning of Hebrews 6:4-6. “For it is impossible for whomever were once enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift and have been granted to be partakers of the Holy Spirit and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be renewed unto repentance, because they crucify the Son of God again for themselves and they hold him in contempt.” On the other hand, in the same chapter, we read words of strong encouragement to confident assurance. “And we intently desire each of you to show the same diligence for full assurance of hope until the end, lest you become slothful, but be imitators of ones who inherit the promises through faithfulness and longsuffering” (Heb 6:11-12). And this “assurance of hope” which belongs to “the heirs of the promise” is based upon nothing less than “the promise” and “the oath” of God who cannot lie (Heb 6:17ff).

That God cannot lie, as asserted in Hebrews 6:18, enters our considerations again in The Race Set Before Us on pages 202-203.

As intense as the warnings are in Hebrews, they do not nullify or contradict equally strong admonitions to bold confidence. In fact, Hebrews intermingles admonitions to bold confidence with warnings against eternal perishing. This is particularly noteworthy in both Hebrews 6 and 10. In Hebrews 6, after the preacher warns his audience against falling away, he concedes that he has grounds to believe that they have not taken the fatal step of departing from Christ because God is not unjust to abandon his people (6:9-10). Then he says, “And we want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (6:11-12; NRSV). The preacher follows this by assuring them that when God made his promise to Abraham, he swore an oath, in order to show “the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose” (6:17). We who are Abraham’s heirs have God’s promise and oath to assure us that the promised salvation is a sure hope, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (6:19). Clearly, the preacher expects us to take to heart both the warning against perishing (6:4-8) and the admonition to confidence (6:9-20) without any sense of contradiction.

Tony Jones claims, "'God cannot lie' is a meaningless statement, I replied. It shouldn't be uttered. . . . As a human, I should never start a sentence with 'God cannot . . .' because, 'God can . . .' is the only accurate statement." This is contrary to Scripture. Again, it verges on blasphemy. Since Hebrews 6:18 asserts, "it is impossible for God to lie," it is entirely fitting and right that we all should confidently insist the same, "It is impossible for God to lie!"

1 comment:

Chase said...

Titus 1:2 would affirm your assessment as well. Thanks for the post, it encourages my faith.
chasebowers.typepad.com