James makes an interesting comment about God in the middle of a paragraph about God being the trustworthy source of all good gifts, God who is bringing forth in us his life as truth. The curious phrase, not altogether simple, comes at the second half of v. 17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (NIV) The curious claim that God “does not change like shifting shadows” invites us to imagine a picture of it, shadows that is. Objects outdoors on a sunny day cast shadows. As the sun moves (or as the Earth rotates, the difference is of little consequence), objects cast a changing, shifting shadow. The relevant point is made from the perspective of the objects as measured with respect to the Sun. Objects cast a changing, shifting shadow.
The phrase is variously translated:
NLT: “He never changes or casts a shifting shadow.”
ESV: “…with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
NASB: “…with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.”
RSV: “…with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
RSVn: “with whom there is no variation due to a shadow of turning.”
David Bentley Hart has a wonderful meditation (“No Shadow of Turning: On Divine Impassibility,” Pro Ecclesia, Vol. XI, No. 2) based on James’ description. And while the general point of the paragraph is clear enough (viz., God is the unchanging source of every good gift, preeminently the gift of new life), I’d like to reflect on this from a slightly different perspective.
I’d like to suggest that the point of the illustration is to make it clear that God is unlike objects which cast a shadow when held to the light of the sun because God cannot conceivably be thought to stand in the light of any reality or truth other than himself. Objects cast shadows because they are passive in relation to a source of light outside themselves which they reflect and according to which they cast a shadow, revealing their form. The only thing that can cast a shadow is that object whose substance reflects light cast upon it from a source outside itself, and its shadow is the outline of its reflected form. Its shadow shifts and changes as light strikes it at various angles. Everything on earth reflects the sun’s light in this way.
To say God “casts no shifting shadow” or that God is he “in whom there is no variation of shifting shadow” is to say that God does not stand in the light of some measurement, that God’s reality and substance cast no shadow because there is no reality outside God whose light or presence or truth God can be said to reflect and in reflecting reveal his form or substance, that God’s gifts do not reflect a goodness other than God.
God cannot be objectified in the light of anything.
He reflects no light, reflects no image, casts no shadow in light of any truth or reality outside himself. This is the point of saying every good and perfect gift comes from God who created the lights that cast our shadows. The point, it seems to me, is that God is the Source (of life, of light, of truth, of beauty, of goodness), and as Source he can stand next to nothing as compared or contrasted “in the light of” ______ (fill in the blank with whatever best, most virtuous thought, source, or standard other than God you wish to imagine).
Another way to express the experience of this is Jean-Luc Marion’s notion of the “saturated phenomenon,” that is, experiencing “an excess of presencing that so overtakes and overwhelms the knower that she cannot objectify the source of this saturation and enclose it within her cognitive grasp.” Nothing other than God can cast the light of its truth upon God and see reflected back its own truth and in the transaction thus reveal the form of God. God casts no shadow because he stands in the truth of nothing outside himself.
Just a thought.