The Devil Wins

A History of Lying from the Garden of Eden to the Enlightenment

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Dallas G. Denery, II
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , January
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Devil Wins is an eloquent survey of a vast intellectual terrain of interest to a general audience and scholars of religion, history, and literature. Dallas G. Denery II asks the question: “Is it ever acceptable to lie?” His deeper concern is the problem of right living in a corrupt world. Denery reveals the diversity of attitudes depending on who asks the question. He offers a close reading of the Temptation scene in Genesis 3, and includes commentary from Jewish exegetes, Church Fathers, and Protestant theologians. Denery finely analyzes the Fall and its implications—from the perspectives of the serpent, God, and humans. Then, he explores the question of deception in courtly politics of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. He then concludes with a lesson about the long tradition of feminine deceit and male slander.

Denery writes, “It took God six days to create the world and the Devil two sentences to undo it” (21). He shows how the biblical narrative gives no motivation for the serpent’s temptation, nor does it explain how the serpent talks. God gives permission to eat of any tree, except the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The serpent’s first line to the woman changes the command to a doubting question: “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the Garden?’” The woman proudly corrects the misquotation and adds additional prohibition: no touching. Contradicting God’s threat, the serpent promises that instead of death, the fruit will make her like God. The woman’s good judgment is confused by desire, and she eats the fruit with Adam. They feel shame, hide from God, and when interrogated, Adam blames the woman who blames the serpent. All are cursed and then God posts a guard with a flaming sword to prevent the couple from eating from the Tree of Life.

Though Catholic commentators and Reformation theologians argue for a literal and historical interpretation of the story, Philo of Alexandria advocated reading it for the character types in a psychological drama. Martin Luther rejected the allegorical mode, warning that misinterpretation is a corruption of the Word more dangerous than other infamous deeds. Differences of opinion turned into confrontations and discord: Truth into strife. Disagreements became charges of heresy and collusion with the Devil.

According to Denery, the first stage of a Christian Quest is temporary scrutiny and skeptical inquiry. This goal is a proper measure, practical knowledge for the present moment and its unique demands. In asking, “Can God Lie?”, he makes an epistemological distinction between the Hidden God of Philosophy, and the God Preached of Scripture which “teaches us almost nothing whatsoever about God” (94). Denery cites Rene Descartes’s rejection of biblical revelation in favor of God as the efficient cause of the universe, and immutable perfection. He writes “To imagine a God that speaks is to imagine God in human terms, a God who cares about individuals, who laughs, forgives, and punishes, who is invested and involved in the moment” (102). John Calvin warns against false language and anthropomorphizing God.

There is a possibility of deception in God’s Word—“The Bible includes countless stories in which God changes his mind, expresses ignorance, or promises to reward or punish individuals” (98). The most famous example of the scriptural God’s deceit is the demand that Abraham kill his son Isaac in a test of loyalty which he later rescinds. Denery declares “all the great theologians, from Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine to Bonaventure and Aquinas, to Luther and Calvin, proclaiming in unison ... God is no deceiver, except when he is, and when he is, his deceptions are never malicious, always beneficial, never inordinate, always fitting and always just” (96). The Biblical God knows in advance what will happen, prohibits false witness, yet gives consent to sin and instructs others to lie, as in Ezekiel 14:9.

Luther fanatically asserts that the Devil raises up new teachers. Calvin allows for pious fraud, if there is permission from God—a God who deceives prophets and commands them to lie. Denery contends that “Such orders cannot be ignored, put aside or left incomplete” (92). Dominican Humbert of Romans encouraged preachers in the medieval period to carefully develop a dramatic public persona, and fake an aura of sanctity for the good of the audience. Blaise Pascal satirizes post-Reformation ethics in Provinciales: Or, The Mysterie of Jesuitisme, in which the absolute prohibition of lying according to Augustine’s 3 categories and 8 types diverges into moral calculations and exemptions. In this parody, Catholics evade precepts and rules by using selective response, verbal tricks, and silence.

Denery concludes with a view of the ecclesiastical and secular courts as the clearest expression of life in a fallen world, and women as the embodiment of deception. A man of eminence must fulfill his duty with honor, cultivating a good reputation with good conscience; he must recognize what he shares in common with all humanity and develop a unique character for the role he must play in his community. He must search himself in contemplation, uncovering both his limits and weaknesses, and live in the world—skillfully shaping it toward the good, amidst intrigues, feigned gestures, and pointed gossip. Denery writes that “The man of eminence resorts to lying and simulation out of necessity, as a last expedient in a world in which no other strategy will succeed in bringing about the good ... He lies, but he is not a liar” (202). He must beware of flattery, saboteurs, and traitors.

Most of all, a man of eminence must avoid entrapment by women who “nag and whine and scheme, they break promises, they contradict and disobey” (201). Denery recalls that it is “over twelve hundred years of endlessly repeated authority transmitted in the form of religious doctrine, natural philosophy, and stories, poems and plays, jokes and anecdotes” that affirm women as adversaries who seduce with “sweet words, fallacious arguments, tears, and exposed breasts” (202-03). Aristotle and Hellenistic medicine attributed woman’s fickle attitudes, immorality, and insatiable sensory appetite to biology—excessive moisture. She’s too soggy. Her freedom is possible through chastity, ignoring a husband’s unruly temper and promiscuous flirtations, and mastering the art of conversation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Horn is a public scholar.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dallas G. Denery II is associate professor of history at Bowdoin College. He is the author of Seeing and Being Seen in the Later Medieval World: Optics, Theology, and Religious Life and the coeditor of Uncertain Knowledge: Scepticism, Relativism, and Doubt in the Middle Ages.


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