Over the course of several years perusing several anti-Christian sites, I have encountered several different accusations against Christianity, the Bible, and the church fathers. None of them has been more amusing to me, however, than the claim that certain church fathers openly promoted deception to “ensnare” followers into the religion. (Not very Machiavellian, I would say, but Niccolo Machiavelli was born in the 15th century, well before these church fathers would have truly understood how someone in power should act.)
There are several examples of this on the ‘Net these days, but here are a few tasty ones:
The first is from a site called positiveatheism.org, the site of Positive Atheist Magazine (which says quite a bit there; I am, however, curious whether this is a positive magazine for atheists or a magazine for positive atheists – that is, atheists who make the claim “God does not exist” positively rather than negatively – although the site seems to imply the latter). The article is actually a response to an overzealous E-mail sent to the magazine, but the juicy quote is the following tidbit from a brief discussion of the Testimonium Flavianum (the controversial passage in the Jewish historian Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews that references Jesus):
The first mention of the Testimonium is Eusebius (who died about CE 342), and a full century passes (including, most notably, the era of Augustine [CE 354-430]) before it is again mentioned by a Church Father. This leads many to believe that it was Eusebius who ordered that this passage be inserted into the copies whose transmission was under his jurisdiction. Eusebius is the first to use the word tribe to describe the Christians, just as the alleged Testimonium uses the word. Eusebius is probably most well know [sic] for openly advocating that people lie if that’s what it takes to entice people into believing in Christ. So, it makes sense to suspect that the Testimonium is just another of Eusebius’s lies for Christ.
The rest of the passage notwithstanding, the interesting part is the claim that Eusebius “openly advocat[ed]” that Christians lie in order to spread the gospel. This is important to the argument being built up, since the aversion to lie would be a strong one to overcome if Eusebius held to normative Christian ethics but not so if it was clear that Eusebius had no qualms about using deception as a tool.
Fortunately, I am not the first person to scratch my head with some skepticism. Roger Pearse at tertullian.org finds some of these claims very odd as well, and he covers questions about Eusebius’ alleged approval of lying here.
Another site that is instructive is this page (entitled “Lying for God – The Christian Way”) at jesusneverexisted.com, which uses very similar argumentation as some of these sites to “poison the well”, as it were, of Eusebius’ credibility for use elsewhere (as in discussion of the Testimonium). It accuses early Christians (and perhaps even some pre-Christian Jews, it would appear) of deception on a number of grounds, including the use of allegory and parables (no, I’m not joking) and several quotes from early church fathers like St. Jerome and Eusebius.
The first “evidence” is a quote from St. Jerome from the “Epistle to Pammachus [sic]”:
I will only mention the Apostle Paul. … He, then, if anyone, ought to be calumniated; we should speak thus to him:
‘The proofs which you have used against the Jews and against other heretics bear a different meaning in their own contexts to that which they bear in your Epistles. We see passages taken captive by your pen and pressed into service to win you a victory, which in volumes from which they are taken have no controversial bearing at all … the line so often adopted by strong men in controversy – of justifying the means by the result.” (emphasis mine)
Note my emphasis – ALWAYS BEWARE OF ELLIPSES.
The real quote, as taken from ccel.org (excluding the first line quoted for length – the subject is the apostle Paul as noted by the author):
He, then, if any one, ought to be calumniated; we should speak thus to him: “The proofs which yon have used against the Jews or against other heretics bear a different meaning in their own contexts to that which they bear in your epistles. We see passages taken captive by your pen and pressed into service to win you a victory which in the volumes from which they are taken have no controversial bearing at all.” [Note: Quote stops here.] May he not reply to us in the words of the Saviour: “I have one mode of speech for those that are without and another for those that are within; the crowds hear my parables, but their interpretation is for my disciples alone”? The Lord puts questions to the Pharisees, but does not elucidate them. To teach a disciple is one thing; to vanquish an opponent, another. “My mystery is for me,” says the prophet; “my mystery is for me and for them that are mine.”
You are indignant with me because I have merely silenced Jovinian and not instructed him. You, do I say? Nay, rather, they who grieve to hear him anathematized, and who impeach their own pretended orthodoxy by eulogizing in another the heresy which they hold themselves. I should have asked him, forsooth, to surrender peaceably! I had no right to disregard his struggles and to drag him against his will into the bonds of truth! I might use such language had the desire of victory induced me to say anything counter to the rule laid down in Scripture, and had I taken [Pick up quote here:] the line-so often adopted by strong men in controversy-of justifying the means by the result. [End quote.] As it is, however, I have been an exponent of the apostle rather than a dogmatist on my own account; and my function has been simply that of a commentator. Anything, therefore, which seems a hard saying should be imputed to the writer expounded by me rather than to me the expounder; unless, indeed, he spoke otherwise than he is represented to have done, and I have by an unfair interpretation wrested the plain meaning of his words. If any one charges me with this disingenuousness let him prove his charge from the Scriptures themselves.
The irony is stunning: In order to “prove” deception, the author of this piece has to wrangle the quote so thoroughly out of context that the meaning is entirely falsified, making it the deception.
But the author doesn’t stop there, and he quotes Romans 3:7 (chapter 3) as “evidence” that Paul was “an unabashed liar” (which he conveniently phrases as a leading question to seem impartial). The “evidence”? Another out of context quote where Paul is quoting someone who is questioning why deception couldn’t be accepted if it furthers the gospel and explicitly says, “Their condemnation is deserved”, in vs. 8!! The worst part, however, is that the author implicitly concedes this point but says that it is justified as “‘tak[ing] the passage captive’ to make a point”. It dumbfounds me.
For the purposes of length, I must stop here, but I hope that this is instructive to the reader to exercise a healthy amount of skepticism and caution. As Eusebius quotes Clinias, “Truth is beautiful, stranger, and steadfast. But to persuade people of it is not easy.”