Wednesday, August 09, 2017

God tempts no one

 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death (Jas 1:13-15).

Jas 1:13 is an Arminian prooftext. (I'm using "Arminian" as a loose synonym for freewill theism.) I've discussed this before. Now I'd like to approach it from a different angle.

1. Before exegeting the text, I wish to make some methodological observations. There are many scriptures which state or imply that in some sense, God tempts/tests people. And you don't have to be a Calvinist to see that. For instance, in his magisterial commentary on James, Dale Allison cites a long list of scriptures which state or imply the very thing that James seems to deny, viz. Gen 22:1; Exod 7:3; 11:10; 16:4; 20:20; Deut 2:30; 13:4; 2 Sam 24:1; 1 Kgs 22:19-23; 2 Chron 34:24; Job 2:10; 5:18; 9:17; 10:8; 12:14-16; 42:11; Isa 45:7; 63:17; Jer 6:21; Lam 3:38; Ezk 3:20; 14:9; 20:25-26; Amos 3:6 (237; 237-38n148; n246n192). And this list could easily be extended. 

Allison takes the position that "here one part of the canon is a odds with other parts" (246n192). I think that's the wrong solution, but it does illustrate the problem when freewill theists cherrypick prooftexts. 

If we affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, we can't use Jas 1:13 as a high card to trump other scriptures. Moreover, we can't simply use that as the filter to interpret other scriptures. Why not use the other scriptures as the filter to interpret Jas 1:13? It's not as if one particular scripture ipso facto functions as the hermeneutical standard of comparison, controlling our interpretation of other scriptures. If we affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, then we need an interpretation that's consistent with all related scriptures. 

2. It's understandable that freewill theists deem Jas 1:13 to be incompatible with Calvinism. But it's not as if James says predestination makes God a tempter. It's not as if James says meticulous providence makes God a tempter. That's something which freewill theists infer from Jas 1:13. 

Jas 1:13 isn't like the Five Articles of Remonstance, which specifically target Calvinism. James isn't opposing his position to predestination or meticulous providence or divine hardening. At least that's not the stated point of contrast. It's understandable from their viewpoint why freewill theists deem Jas 1:13 to be incompatible with Calvinism, but it's illicit to automatically impute their viewpoint to James. 

3. Moreover, even if we grant, for argument's sake, that the Calvinist God is a tempter, this doesn't imply that the Arminian God or Molinist God or open theist God is not a tempter. To say "God tempts no one" is ambiguous. Does putting someone in a tempting situation make you a tempter? For instance, Joseph found himself in a tempting situation with Potiphar's wife. Combine that with a classic Arminian model of providence:

God's concurrence is his consent to and cooperation with creaturely decisions and actions. No creature could decide or act without God's concurring power. For someone to lift his or her hand requires God's concurrence; God loans, as it were the power sufficient to lift a hand, and without God's cooperation even such a trivial act would be impossible. R. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (IVP 2009), 117. 

[Arminius] even went so far as to say that every human act, including sin, is impossible without God's cooperation. This is simply part of divine concurrence, and Arminius was not willing to regard God as a spectator (121). 

For [Arminius] God is the first cause of whatever happens; even a sinful act cannot occur without God as its first cause, because creatures have no ability to act without their Creator, who is their supreme cause for existence (122). 

4. So what does Jas 1:13 mean? What does James deny when he denies that God tempts anyone? In theory, it could mean James rejects predestinarian theology because he thinks that makes God complicit in evil. However, James doesn't actually say that. And even if a freewill theist takes that to be a logical implication of Jas 1:13, it doesn't follow that James himself thought predestination, meticulous providence, or divine hardening had those entailments. Since he doesn't use those examples as his stated point of contrast, a freewill theist can't justifiably substitute those examples as the presumptive or implicit point of contrast. 

5. Some commentators try to relieve the difficulty by driving a wedge between "testing", which is more objective, and "tempting", which is more subjective. God is said to "test", but not to "tempt". Yet that won't work:

i) For one thing, it's a false dichotomy. On the one hand, a temptation is a test of faith. On the other hand, to be tested is to be tempted to do the wrong thing. 

ii) In addition, v14 clearly has a psychological thrust. 

6. Some commentators qualify the character of the ordeal by saying God won't tempt someone to commit evil. But while it's possible that James has that unstated distinction in mind, that's not what he says, and it's hard to deduce that from what he actually says. 

Moreover, that claim is overly broad, for there are prima facie examples in Scripture to the contrary. 

7. There may, however, be an element of truth to (6) if the principle is more narrowly drawn. The general teaching of Scripture is that God tests his children, not to bring about their destruction, but to refine them. 

8. The immediate and explicit point of contrast is supplied by the next verse. In theory, that could mean James thinks the temptation originates in the human agent. The psychology of the human agent is the ultimate source of what makes a situation tempting. 

However, nothing in the statement requires that interpretation. And that interpretation is difficult to harmonize with so many other scriptures to the contrary.

9. Or it may simply mean that when a person gives in to temptation, he succumbs willingly rather than against his will. The experience wasn't coercive. He wasn't acting at gunpoint. Rather, he did it because he found it so appealing. 

Indeed, James employs the extended metaphor of sexual temptation and resultant consequences because that's such a natural and accessible illustration. If someone commits sexual immorality, that's because the desire to resist–assuming there even was a desire to resist–is overpowered the heat of the moment, viz. "All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter, or as a stag is caught fast till an arrow pierces its liver; as a bird rushes into a snare; he does not know that it will cost him his life" (Prov 7:22-23).

That's entirely consonant with the wording of the passage. And that's entirely consonant with predestinarian theology. 

A freewill theist might find that morally objectionable, but the exegetical question at issue is what the sentence means, and not extraneous assumptions a reader may bring to the passage. Exegesis isn't contingent on the ethical or philosophical bias of the reader. 

The best interpretation is probably a combination of (7) and (9). 


  1. Forgive the fact that this is partly OT, but I couldn't resist. I recently learned that some in the Christian anti-modesty camp use these verses to argue that men are never tempted by underdressed women but only by the lust in their own minds. Hence, even a woman in a bikini, or naked, cannot be said to be tempting to any man, because "every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lusts and enticed." Therefore, women should never be told to watch their dress lest they create a temptation to lust in a man.

    I think this exegesis of the passage is so silly as to deserve to be laughed at, which is why I'm bringing it up.

    1. Interesting. Of course, that interpretation falsely dichotomizes the subjective and objective aspects of temptation, as if objective circumstances are irrelevant.


    2. Jesus told his disciples to pray that their Father in heaven not lead them into temptation. That would seem to presuppose that God on occasion does lead people into temptation, or at least that He could yet without tempting anyone himself. Then there's Matthew 4:1 which couldn't be more explicit: "Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil." There we have the Third Person of the Trinity leading, yet not tempting Jesus.

      I think the James' passage actually corroborates Calvinism. Given that God meticulously and sovereignly leads people, the natural objection would be something like we find in Romans 9, how can he yet find fault? For who can resist his will? An appropriate reminder from James on the backdrop of Jesus' teaching would be that we are still culpable even though God may be pleased to lead us into temptation. James puts it back on our being drawn away freely, according to our own inclinations.