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Religious Dissemblers and Theological Liars

A book review, with commentary, by

Kevin Reed

Ways of Lying: Dissimulation, Persecution, and Conformity in Early Modern Europe by Perez Zagorin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990. Hardcover, 337 pages.

Throughout history, religious dissidents have often concealed their inner convictions, in order to avoid the unpleasant social or legal consequences of departing from the majority opinion. Whether to avoid outright persecution, or merely to avoid social stigma, there is always pressure to maintain common opinions and practices.

In Ways of Lying, Perez Zagorin focuses upon an important theme: the incongruity between the inner beliefs and outward actions of persons who do not accept the dominant religious views of their surrounding culture. In this connection, the author discusses Jews dwelling within medieval Christendom, Protestants living within popish nations (and vice-versa), peculiar "Christian" sects, occultists, and skeptics.

At times, dissidents within these despised minorities were forced to react to life amidst hostile surroundings. Many resorted to modes of speech and action which concealed or obscured their inner convictions: some went along outwardly with prevailing customs, leaving the impression that they shared common opinion; while others, when pressed, denied their secret beliefs outright, reserving their real convictions to themselves and others of a kindred mind.

Perez Zagorin does not give us merely a chronicle of duplicitous speech and actions. Rather, he investigates the rationale, including appeals to scripture, which were set forth in defence of dissimulation. The author unveils numerous "ways of lying" employed by dissidents, as well as the defences offered in behalf of such behaviour by theologians, casuists, philosophers, and political theorists. It is the art of theological lying which proves especially intriguing throughout the narrative.

In the first chapter, the author gives an introductory statement, distinguishing between general lying and religious lying. His book is designed to focus on religious deception: that is, cases where religious writers have defended deception as an appropriate posture in certain circumstances.

In chapter 2, Zagorin discusses the difference between hiding the truth, and outright deceit. He mentions an ancient dispute between Augustine and Jerome, over the proper exposition of Gal. 2:11-14. Jerome explained the encounter between Paul and Peter as a staged event, designed to teach a lesson to the church; from this perspective, both Peter and Paul were practicing dissimulation, and their actions were commendable and imitable. Conversely, Augustine maintained that Peter was guilty of sin, for actions inconsistent with known principles of the gospel; thus, Paul rightly rebuked Peter for dissimulation.

As their dispute unfolded, Augustine and Jerome treated many passages in scripture, giving special attention to the historical narratives. Other writers followed a similar course. Ultimately, a familiar stock of biblical examples became the focal point for any discussion on the theme of deception and dissimulation: Abraham's pretence that Sarah was his sister (Gen. 12), Jacob's deception of Isaac (Gen. 27), the lie of the Egyptian midwives to Pharaoh (Ex. 1), David feigning madness (1 Sam. 21:13), Jehu pretending to worship Baal (2 Kings 10), Jesus indicating to the disciples that he "would have gone further" (Luke 24:28), Paul's statement that he became "all things to all men" (1 Cor. 9:22), etc.

Zagorin traces such appeals made to scripture up through the middle ages, in order to prepare for his subsequent treatment of the Nicodemite controversy, casuistry, and mental reservation. Next, he describes the plight of Jews living in medieval Christendom, and the ways in which some of them dissembled, in order to survive in the surrounding culture. Many readers will be surprised to learn that the Inquisition had its inception with the persecution of Jews; only later did it became an institution for the torture and murder of Protestants.

There are four chapters devoted to the Nicodemite controversy, with considerable attention given to Calvin's role in opposing the "Nicodemites." Zagorin surveys Calvin's "Anti-Nicodemite" writings, and provides a useful synopsis of the various arguments of the reformer. Zagorin notes that Calvin "showed clearly not only his unyielding attitude toward Nicodemism but also his thorough knowledge of its concepts and rationales" (p. 75).

The term "Nicodemites" was applied to pseudo-Protestants who hid their convictions by attending the Mass and other Romish ordinances of worship. These secret Protestants lived in popish lands, and feared that an open declaration of their faith would bring persecution, or result in a loss of their possessions and social status. Some had appealed to the example of Nicodemus (who came to Jesus by night), as a pretext for keeping their views secret, even to the point of pretending to be Romanists in their outward deportment. Calvin rebuked the Nicodemites, by showing that the scriptures require believers to remain undefiled by idolatry (such as the popish Mass).

Of course, the issue of dissimulation in times of persecution was not new to the Christian church. It was a serious matter in the third century, when the Roman emperors violently attacked Christians. At that time, church leaders like Cyprian wrote about the problem of dealing with church members who lapsed by actions which amounted to a renunciation of the faith.

It was left to Calvin, however, to provide the most extensive treatment of dissimulation during the era of the Protestant Reformation. The reformer rebutted the rationale of the Nicodemites by dealing extensively with biblical precepts of worship, as well as the scriptural principles respecting truthfulness and lying. "He rejected the distinction between inner intention and outward conformity, insisting that God must be worshipped purely in body as well as in spirit because both were God's and the body must not be polluted by worshiping idols" (p. 72-73). Calvin admonished believers to hold fast the good confession, by accepting martyrdom or flight, rather than apostasy.

Those who have read Carlos Eire's book, The War Against the Idols,[1] will recognize familiar themes here. Eire provides more information about Calvin's opposition to idolatry; but Zagorin furnishes additional information on the subterfuges of the Nicodemites, by extending the discussion to include Nicodemism in Italy and among later controversialists, sectarians and Familists. In this manner, Zagorin carries us into the 17th century, where the phenomenon of dissimulation takes on new dimensions.[2]

We enter Elizabethan era, where the English political and ecclesiastical settlement forced Roman Catholics to conform to Anglican worship, or risk prosecution. This was a time when Jesuits began sending secret missionaries into England, in an effort to reclaim England for the papacy. Test oaths were instituted to flush out Papists, who were regarded as enemies of the state.

In a related vein, Anglican leaders sought to diminish Puritanism within the English church by imposing a series of oaths, requiring ministers to express adherence to Anglican worship and polity.

Thus, both Papists and Puritans were faced with a dilemma, of how to react to oaths of conformity. Some Jesuit authors maintained the propriety of lying under oath, through the use of mental reservation, in order to escape detection or personal harm. In contrast, because of their higher moral standards, Puritans could not justify outright lying, although some of them explored the limits of evasion and equivocation.

Zagorin summarizes: "Protestant casuists recognized the practical exigencies and moral claims that sometimes made dissimulation necessary and excusable. But they were more concerned than the Catholic advocates of equivocation and mental reservation to limit its effects, and showed a higher regard for truthfulness as an essential religious and moral obligation" (p. 254).

Should this conclusion surprise us? Zagorin's account clearly demonstrates the insidious nature of Jesuitical reasoning. In fact, the Jesuit methods of deceit became so notorious, that other Roman Catholic authors spoke out against Jesuit sophistry. Blaise Pascal wrote a stinging satire, The Provincial Letters, in which he targeted the Jesuits. Zagorin observes, "The brilliant wit and outstanding literary qualities of Pascal's satire achieved an enduring success in convincing the world of the laxity of Jesuit moral teaching" (p. 155).

Returning to Puritan dilemmas: during the mid-17th century, Puritans resorted to oaths of conformity themselves, most notably in the Solemn League and Covenant. Yet, after Oliver Cromwell subverted the Solemn League and Covenant, he imposed a loyalty oath which ran contrary to the preservation of the monarchy enjoined by the Solemn League (p. 245). Ah! perhaps we should all consider the words of the wise man: "Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay" (Eccl. 5:5).

After the restoration of the monarchy, non-conforming Puritans were expelled from the ministry of the established church. This bitter experience, regarding religious test oaths in England, may explain why American Christians gave support to the "neutral" federal constitution of 1789, which forbids the use of religious tests for federal office. Many American Protestants identified with the plight English non-conformists and Puritans; also, some American colonies were officially Anglican, and non-conformists suffered disadvantages there as well. Of course, these facts do not mean the U.S. constitution is biblical; but they provide clues for understanding why some Christians were persuaded to support a secular federal constitution.

Toward the end of his book, Zagorin examines the activities of leading skeptics, as well as pseudo-scientists who sought to unlock the hidden powers of nature through occultic arts. These men often camouflaged their true convictions, in order to avoid stigma or harassment; they lived dual lives, expressing common opinions in public discourse, while advancing opposing views in private among other dissidents. Some of these dissidents were elitists, believing that ordinary citizens were simply incapable of receiving the esoteric truths which they had discovered.

Thus Zagorin looks beyond differences in time, geography and religion to illustrate both the similarities and distinctions of notable dissemblers throughout Europe. By the end of the book, Zagorin has made a powerful case that the 16th and 17th centuries might appropriately be designated the Age of Dissimulation

In general, the author's style is crisp. When Zagorin offers analysis, his comments are helpful and concise. He wades through a host of obscure historical details, yet without excessive intrusions of his own opinions.

Indeed, the book is provocative, precisely because many intriguing questions are left unresolved, especially for readers sensitive to the biblical issues at stake. Just what are we to think of the scriptural examples of Abraham, Jacob, the Egyptian midwives, Rahab, David, Jehu, Peter and Paul, etc.? There are additional matters to ponder, such as Paul's conduct in Acts (23:6), and the Lord's use of parables (Matt. 13:10-17), which had the explicit design of obscuring the truth to one group while illuminating another.

Some of these biblical cases do not admit easy solution. The problem is only exacerbated when the difficult cases are seized by persons of dubious commitments, in order to justify their predisposition to deception.

Many readers will be content to regard this book as a curious historical narrative about disputes which are long past. Yet, the relevance of this book goes beyond what the author presents. I offer the following considerations.

1. The problem of dissimulation reaches fully into our present era. Today, many so-called "reformed" church members, church officers, and pastors go along with the crowd, in spite of their claims to better knowledge. They often conform to corrupt practices of evangelism and worship prevalent in their denominations, in direct contradiction to important principles which they profess to believe.

Moreover, the problem extends beyond the mere acts of conformity. Compromisers often rationalize their conformity by dubious explanations of scripture, or general appeals to the denominational unity. Perhaps someone should write a sequel to Zagorin's book, and analyze the apologies used to support dissimulation among modern Protestants. Then again, it is doubtful that the contemporary arguments would add much to the old medieval and Jesuit subterfuges.

2. Closely related to the above-mentioned compromisers are those who make religion an interior matter of the soul, so that outward ordinances are regarded as simply irrelevant. In this case, a different justification is offered for conformity. The conformists appeal to the spiritual nature of religion, stressing the preeminence of belief over action. Thus, they are willing to participate in religious practices which run contrary to their professed principles, precisely because they consider acts of worship and service to be secondary or unimportant.

3. In his book, Zagorin describes cases of elitism: that is, situations where members of an intellectual elite develop a language of double-speak to mask their real meaning. An elitist may promulgate his views in a "coded" fashion. Insiders know what the writer really means, but outsiders are left with the impression that the author is generally orthodox. It is a way to cloak aberrant views behind orthodox-sounding language. This has long been a standard practice among cultists and theological modernists; and the tactic seems to be gaining popularity among heterodox seminary professors who wish to retain their stations in evangelical seminaries.

4. Another form of deception is mental reservation, as regards subscription to creedal statements. Church officers in Presbyterian churches are required to take an oath affirming their allegiance to the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Standards. Yet, among the perverse subterfuges of modern ecclesiastical politics, this vow is often treated as a negation. It is regarded by some men as an escape clause, as if its purpose was to enable church officers to assent to the confessional "system" in general, without a commitment to the particular articles of the confession. According to this line of thinking, church officers are free to disregard individual articles of the creed at their pleasure, with impunity, so long as they pay lip-service to the "system" contained therein. Thus, the ordination vow is turned upside down, and employed as an instrument of denial.

In this connection, Zagorin's treatment of "mental reservation" is most illuminating. The book furnishes important background data, for understanding the Westminster doctrine of oaths and vows, where it is states, "An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation or mental reservation" (WCF 22:4).

5. Many contemporary "evangelicals" are quite naive in their dealings with Papists, taking at face value the statements of popish apologists. These "evangelicals" are willing to accept Romish assurances about common beliefs, values, and social goals; they are oblivious the the subtleties of popish sophistry in respect to inter-church relations.

6. This reviewer can remember a discussion he had, several years ago, with some reconstructionists, in which they defended the propriety of lying, in various circumstances. (I trust that the views expressed were not typical of all reconstructionists.) As I read Zagorin's book, I immediately realized that the arguments rehearsed before me several years earlier were merely a restatement of the discredited theories of older authors in defence of dissimulation. Let us hope that reconstructionists generally will not follow the Jesuits in support of tactics of deception.

7. In the final analysis, this book can challenge us on a spiritual level. It prods us to consider the ways in which we may not be giving full place to the truth in our dealings with others. Human nature is so corrupt, and the human heart is so deceitful, it is only too easy to drift into disingenuous language and behaviour. The principle of deception, once admitted into the human soul, can easily lead to mind games by which both the practitioner and the recipient of the guile are deceived. Zagorin's book is aptly titled, Ways of Lying. It is stunning to consider the ingenious devices which men contrive in order to promote falsehoods, while simultaneously claiming they have technically avoided the telling of a lie. As it is written, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jer. 17:9).


1. Carlos M. N. Eire, War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge, 1986).

2. There is room for further exploration at this point, as regards the early ministry of John Knox. In the context of Bloody Mary's persecution of Protestants, and with a view to the plight of Protestants in Scotland prior to 1560, Knox wrote several public epistles condemning Mass attendance. The reformer admonished those who had previously professed the Protestant faith not to partake of Romish rites of worship.

Zagorin does not deal with Knox's battle against Nicodemism in England and Scotland. The reign of Bloody Mary is memorable, because there were numerous faithful witnesses who sealed their testimony with blood, dying as martyrs. Many Protestants fled the country, to avoid conformity to Roman Catholicism. These faithful witnesses may obscure the fact that others, less willing to risk their lives and possessions for the sake of the gospel, reverted back to the popish rituals.

Copyright © 1997 by Kevin Reed
Presbyterian Heritage Publications
P.O. Box 180922
Dallas, Texas 75218

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