“But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.” (2 Cor. 11:3)
What does Paul mean in this passage by “simplicity?” We often understand words in contrast to their opposites. For example,
- hot – cold
- wet – dry
- far – near
Think for a moment—what is the opposite of the word “simplicity?” The most immediately recognizable opposite for “simplicity” in English seems to be either “complexity” or “difficulty.” My thesaurus (Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus) lists numerous synonyms for “complex:” involved, elaborate, perplexing, delicate, sensitive, requiring special care. The synonyms for simple include: undemanding, uninvolved, unexacting, straightforward, uncomplicated, basic, elementary, child’s play, kid’s stuff, no sweat, a cinch, as easy as pie, a cakewalk, a breeze, a snap, painless, trouble-free, effortless, easy.
When I look up “simplicity” in my dictionary (New Oxford English dictionary), there are three main senses:
- being easy to understand – in contrast to “complexity”
- being easy to do – in contrast to “difficulty”
- being plain or natural – in contrast to “ornateness”
The aspect of “being easy to understand” plays a major role in the contemporary English usage of the word, as illustrated by an excerpt from the opening of the Wikipedia article on the term:
It usually relates to the burden which a thing puts on someone trying to explain or understand it. Something which is easy to understand or explain is simple, in contrast to something complicated.
Considering the predominance of “simplicity” being used in contrast to “complexity” or “difficulty” in contemporary English, with special reference to relative ease with which it is understood, how does this come to bear on the Biblical text we are looking at? If we assume for a moment, that this is the meaning of the term here, Paul is warning the believers in Corinth to be careful about over-complicating their devotion. His admonition thus is to keep things simple – keep it easy to understand and easy to do.
The main point of this article is: Words in the New Testament mean what they mean in Greek, not what they mean in English.
Allow me to illustrate. The word in 2 Cor. 11:3, often translated “simplicity,” is ἁπλότης (aplotēs). It is the noun form of an adjective ἁπλοῦς (aplous) whose opposite is διπλοῦς (diplous). In diplous you may recognize the prefix “di-” which makes its way into English in “carbon DIoxide,” also known as CO2 – a molecule with one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms (hence di-oxide). You also might know another word in English which is actually related to diplous. As a hint, “p” and “b” are “cousin” letters, so if you switch those and remove the vowels and the word ending (which flux a lot in language history), you get “dbl.” What English word is this? If you guessed “double” you would be correct. Because diplous actually means “double” or “two-fold.” Diplous, meaning double, is the opposite of aplous, because aplous literally means “single.”
In our given verse, the word “simplicity” works as a translation as long as we understand its opposite, not to be “complexity” as described earlier, but rather “duplicity (also related to the Greek diplous).” This is the usage we see uniformly reflected in all the occurrences of aplous and aplotēs the New Testament, which are listed below in their entirety. The person who is “simple” (aplous) is not “double-minded.” They don’t have a second ulterior motive. They don’t have split intentions, but rather are whole-hearted and sincere.
Matt. 6:22 – “ The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is single (aplous), your whole body will be full of light.
Rom. 12:8 – if one is the giver, [let them give] in singleness (aplotēs)…
Eph. 6:5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singularity (aplotēs) of heart, as you obey Christ;
Col. 3:22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but in singleness (aplotēs) of heart, fearing the Lord.
2Cor. 1:12 – Indeed, this is our boast, the testimony of our conscience: we have behaved in the world with frankness and godly singularity/sincerity (aplotēs), not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God—and all the more toward you.
2Cor. 8:2 – for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of singleness/sincerity (aplotēs) on their part.
2Cor. 9:11 You will be enriched in every way for your great singleness/sincerity (aplotēs), which will produce thanksgiving to God through us;
2Cor. 9:13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the singleness/singularity (aplotēs) of your sharing with them and with all others,
In this verse we are dealing with, that the author intends aplotēs to be in contrast to duplicity of allegiance, motive, or intention rather than someone making their devotional practices or theology too complicated is confirmed by the surrounding context:
11:2 – for I promised you in marriage to one husband (note the emphasis on “one”)
to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ (note the emphasis on purity)
11:3 But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning (was the problem with Eve and the Serpent an issue of “complexity” or that she was lead away from single-hearted obedience to God?)
11:4 For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus…a different spirit…a different gospel (notice the emphasis – there is ONE Jesus, ONE spirit, ONE gospel)
In all, Paul is not admonishing the Corinthians against being led into an “over-complicated” Christianity, or one that is “difficult to understand.” His concern is not even remotely to make sure they stay focused on a version of Christianity that is, to use our thesaurus list from above: “undemanding, uninvolved, unexacting, straightforward, uncomplicated, basic, elementary, child’s play, kid’s stuff, no sweat, a cinch, as easy as pie, a cakewalk, a breeze, a snap, painless, trouble-free, effortless, easy;” and avoid that which is “involved, elaborate, perplexing, delicate, sensitive, requiring special care.” His concern is not with complexity creeping into the Church, but something much more serious: duplicity. They were being led to stray from their single-minded devotion and allegiance to Christ and the Gospel.
Let’s face it—the world in which we live is filled with remarkable diversity and complexity. There are so many questions, in so many different fields of knowledge, to which there are no clear-cut answers, where people have been searching, exploring, debating, discovering, and experimenting for centuries. And no less when it comes to the Christian faith, or matters of the Bible. So much ink has been spilled over nearly every possible topic, that one can only conclude that it is all “unexacting, straightforward, uncomplicated,” by screening out everything that disagrees with one’s own position and by making the presumption of unfettered arrogance that one has undiluted and direct access to absolute truth. The testimony of the saints throughout history, and the admonition of our Lord that “the way is narrow and difficult,” should preclude the notion that Christianity, and no less the interpretation and understanding of Christian revelation, is “a cakewalk, a breeze, a snap, painless, trouble-free.” The apostle Paul himself, who potentially had the most direct access to divine revelation of any human, said even with his revelation, we only “see through a glass dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12).
This does not require we see ourselves lost in a quagmire of confusion or that to know anything with confidence is hopelessly beyond the realm of possibility. It does, however, require us to cultivate the central Christian virtue of humility in our pursuit and communication of truth in an ongoing openness to discovering the richness and multidimensionality of our faith.* The claims we make are not nearly so one-sided, clear and obvious as we would like to confess. Our world, our beliefs, and our lives are filled with ambiguity that require us to acknowledge them as such if we are to speak with any kind of authenticity and credibility in a culture that unquestionably sees them in this manner. The shrill and harsh tones that so often encumber Christian speech need to be tempered with a humility that listens deeply to and a grace that sympathizes profoundly with the diversity of people, ideas and experiences one encounters. Unless we can see and feel the ambiguity and complexity of our world’s experience within our own selves and within our own experience, we will have nothing to say to them. And it is in this context of authentic engagement with an uncertain and often perplexing world, riddled with suffering, conflict, confusion, and strife, that we reaffirm the singularity of our devotion to the world’s true Lord, who alone will lead the entire cosmos to the time when all wrongs will be made right, and all hurts will be healed.
* This specific form of humility is often referred to as epistemic humility – humility regarding what we know and what we can know.