Tuesday, September 06, 2022

An exegesis of James 1:5: Response to Scott Swain’s interpretation of the same

4. ἡ δὲ ὑπομονὴ ἔργον τέλειον ἐχέτω, ἵνα ἦτε τέλειοι καὶ ὁλόκληροι ἐν μηδενὶ λειπόμενοι. 5 Εἰ δέ τις ὑμῶν λείπεται σοφίας, αἰτείτω παρὰ τοῦ διδόντος θεοῦ πᾶσιν ἁπλῶς καὶ μὴ ὀνειδίζοντος καὶ δοθήσεται αὐτῷ. 6 αἰτείτω δὲ ἐν πίστει μηδὲν διακρινόμενος· ὁ γὰρ διακρινόμενος ἔοικεν κλύδωνι θαλάσσης ἀνεμιζομένῳ καὶ ῥιπιζομένῳ. 7 μὴ γὰρ οἰέσθω ὁ ἄνθρωπος ἐκεῖνος ὅτι λήμψεταί τι παρὰ τοῦ κυρίου, 8 ἀνὴρ δίψυχος, ἀκατάστατος ἐν πάσαις ταῖς ὁδοῖς αὐτοῦ. … 17 πᾶσα δόσις ἀγαθὴ καὶ πᾶν δώρημα τέλειον ἄνωθέν ἐστιν καταβαῖνον ἀπὸ τοῦ πατρὸς τῶν φώτων, παρ᾽ ᾧ οὐκ ἔνι παραλλαγὴ ἢ τροπῆς ἀποσκίασμα. (James 1:4-6, 17 - BGT)

And let perseverance works completion, in order that you may be complete and whole, [in a state of] lacking nothing. And if one of you lacks wisdom, let him ask from the giving God [who gives] to all simply and without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith without self-doubt. For the one who self-doubts is like crashing waves of the sea, driven and blown by the wind. … Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, descending from the father of lights, from whom there is no change or shadow of variation. (James 1:4-6, 17. Own translation)

What does James 1:5 teaches? Dr. Scott Swain has recently suggested that James 1:5 teaches the doctrine of divine simplicity, focusing on the term ἁπλῶς there.[1] But is the point of James 1:5 to teach about the simplicity of God?

James 1:5 exist in the larger context of James 2-18, where believers are called to persevere through trials, with God offering gifts to his people to endure. In the midst of trials, perseverance works the fruit of the Spirit in the believer, leading to a state of completion and lacking nothing. This completion (τέλειον) has a view of perfection, thus showing the goal of the Christian life as the believer perseveres through trials. Trials are difficult to endure though, and wisdom is required to navigate through them without sinning. Thus, verse 5 show us God’s gift to us in the midst of trials. God will give us wisdom in the midst of our trials when we ask him. Verse 6 continues this train of thought by asking the one asking not to doubt of this, with the idea that one should not judge on whether God has indeed given us gifts, wavering between faith and unbelief and thus being double-minded (verse 8: δίψυχος) in his faith. Finally, in verse 17, we are told that God gives us all every good and perfect gift, contrasting Him as the Father of lights with change, shadow and variation.

What then does ἁπλῶς mean in James 1:5? A word study does show it means simply, as seen in the LSJ lexicon, thus “simply” is the most generic meaning which is why I translated it thus. Yet at the same time, the context makes it clear that, whatever ἁπλῶς is, it is an adverb modifying the giving of gifts by God. It is also put alongside as its opposite, “without reproach” (μὴ ὀνειδίζοντος). Therefore, the best word meaning is “’sincerely.” God is sincere in his giving of gifts. His sincere giving of gifts is the opposite of the double-minded man who doubts. Thus, BDAG gives the meaning of the word ἁπλῶς in James 1:5 as “pertaining to being straightforward, simply, above-board, sincerely, openly.” Louw-Nida gives its functional use in the text as under “possess, transfer, exchange,” under “give,” as “pertaining to willful and generous giving.” Certainly, there is a connotation of God’s generosity there, yet I will say that “sincerely” seems to me the main focus of that word in the context of James 1:5.

In the NIGTC series, ἁπλῶς is taken to mean sincerely. Accordingly, “God is, then, one who gives sincerely, without hesitation or mental reservation. He does not grumble or criticize. His commitment to this people is total and unreserved: they can expect to receive.”[2] Thus, this term is “a term for ‘generously’ that means ‘simple, open, sincere action.’”[3] Therefore, James 1:5 is all about God’s sincere desire to give gifts to his people, giving us every good and perfect gift for our benefit as we persevere through trials in this life.

Read in the broader redemptive-historical context, this illustrates the unchanging goodness of God in providing for His people. God does not let us live this life on earth alone, in a deistic sort of way. Rather, He is our provider, and His devotion to His people the Church is as the most perfect husband to His bride, nurturing her and providing her with all she needs.

The question then comes: Does this passage support the doctrine of divine simplicity? Divine simplicity is the doctrine that God is simple and thus without parts of any kind. If God is without parts, then there can be nothing removed from God and yet God remains. All are therefore one in God. God is His essence, and God is His attributes. “Simplicity” here is a systematic theological category, not a biblical category. Yet, the question is not whether one can find the category in Scripture, but whether the Scripture teaches it. In a certain sense, the Scripture does not teach simplicity, in that one does not, I assert, find it taught anywhere in any one particular text of Scripture. At the same time, as the truths of Scripture is systematized, the doctrine of simplicity emerges as a way to show forth how God is necessarily everything that He is and only everything that He is. God cannot “un-god” himself so to speak.

That the truths of Scripture lead to the doctrine of divine simplicity is not an issue of dispute within much of the Reformed world, notwithstanding some hysterical grandstanding by various internet Thomists. The issue is not whether divine simplicity is true, but whether one can get it from any one text of Scripture. Swain asserts that it is possible to get simplicity from texts such as James 1:5 through the analogy of Scripture. But is that possible?

The analogy of Scripture compares passages of Scripture with each other to derive truths from them. In other words, it is the immediate precursor to both biblical and systematic theology. But in order for a mere comparison of texts to allow for truths to emerge, without having actually worked on the task of systematization, the truths must be close to the surface so to speak. Therefore, for any analogy of Scripture to bring forth divine simplicity, that doctrine must be close to the surface meaning of the text so that mere comparison can elucidate it. Is that the case with James 1:5 then? I would suggest not. James 1:5 with its focus on God’s sincerity is primarily focused on God’s steadfastness and unchanging trustworthiness and love. Thus, what emerges through comparison with other texts are the doctrine of divine immutability, the doctrine of God’s love in adoption, and the doctrine of God’s gifts to his people. Even the most abstract doctrine here, immutability, is a far cry from simplicity. Swain’s citation of 1 Jn. 1:5 likewise speak at most of immutability and goodness. Just because the word ἁπλῶς in 1 Jn. 1:5 can mean “simple” in the Platonic sense (see LSJ) does not mean that it teaches divine simplicity in James 1:5, for the meaning of the text must first be established (Grammatical-historical exegesis), then its canonical or redemptive-historical meaning exegeted, prior to any analogy of Scripture. In other words, one cannot short-circuit the interpretive process by going direct from word to philosophy. James 1:5 does not directly teach divine simplicity, and indirectly supports divine immutability only.

Therefore, in conclusion, Swain’s attempt to short circuit the theological process of arriving at the doctrine of divine simplicity fails. As one reads his article, one should take note of how many philosophical concepts he smuggles into the article (e.g. “God is light and nothing but light, God is essentially x and exhaustively x”). Now, there is a place for philosophical concepts, but that is only done in the systematizing phase, where the concepts themselves are to be examined before use, not used implicitly but explicitly. Swain’s article therefore fails to prove that divine simplicity can be easily seen merely through the use of the analogy of Scripture. Perhaps we should stop all the short cuts and wrestle with the actual systematization of biblical truths and the examination of philosophical concepts instead.

[1] Scott Swain, “A biblical argument for divine simplicity: the analogy of Scripture,” Reformed Blogmatics (blog). Accessed https://www.scottrswain.com/2022/08/30/a-biblical-argument-for-divine-simplicity-the-analogy-of-scripture/

[2] P. H. Davids, The Epistle of James: a commentary on the Greek text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 73

[3] K.A. Richardson, James (NAC; Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 64

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