Posts Tagged ‘theodicy’

Some Thoughts on Job

I recently made a promise to a class at one of our church’s training schools to spend a little bit of time talking about the book of Job, <sarcasm> because if any book of the Bible can be discussed in a short amount of time, its Job </sarcasm>.  Of course, we ran out of time anyway, so I was unable to offer some thoughts on this ever-perplexing book.  In the interest of mitigating my risk of being known as a big liar, some thoughts  (i.e., my notes for the class) on the book of Job follow.

  • Job is largely a book of what Douglas Stuart calls, “speculative dialogical wisdom.”  This is evident in the long exchanges between Job and his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu.  It is largely poetry, save the prologue, epilogue, and a brief sections that introduce the next speaker.
  • High-level structure of the book:
    • Prologue (Chs.1-2)
    • Job’s opening lament (Ch. 3)
    • Dialogue and dispute (3 cycles: Chs. 4-14, 15-21, 22-27)
    • Wisdom interlude (Ch. 28; unidentified speaker, perhaps the author)
    • Monologues (Job: 29-31; Eluhu: 32-37; God: 38-42)
    • Job’s contrition (40:3-5; 42:1-6)
    • Epilogue (42:7-17)
  • How has Job offended God?  Why does God speak to Him so harshly?
    • Job is calling God to account, most explicitly in 31:35: “Oh, that I had someone to hear me! / I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me; / let my accuser put his indictment in writing” (emphasis mine).
    • This might remind us of Romans 9, esp. v.20: “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (c.f., Is. 29:16; 45:9).  All of these texts speak negatively of the one who questions God in this way.
    • Bottom line:  It is completely backwards for us to question God – as if we’re His judge.
    • Note a distinction: questioning God can be demanding an answer from Him (implying that you think He’s wrong), or questioning God can be expressing a lack of understanding, and asking for clarity or peace.  I would content that only the former (Job’s response) is sinful.
  • How do the others (Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar) sin?  (Aside: It’s interesting that Elihu isn’t mentioned in the epilogue; some contend that because of this, his speech was a later addition).
    • Some of what they say seems right on, no?
    • Ultimately, the book teaches that nobody knows the mind of God.  All these characters offer answers as to why Job suffers, but they’re all wrong, supposing to know the answer Job seeks, but only God does.  P.S.: He doesn’t tell them, either.
    • N.b., An important life lesson here:  Don’t dare try to explain God’s actions unless its explained clearly in Scripture:  Talking about God’s plans in redeeming humankind is one thing, saying that hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment on the sinfulness of New Orleans is egregious folly!
    • A funny paraphrase of something Stuart said, “We don’t even know what chipmunks are thinking, why should we think we know what God is thinking?”
  • More thoughts on suffering (tons more could be said):
    • Remember two “levels” to suffering:  The pastoral/emotional level, and the philosophical/intellectual level.
      • This should affect how we respond to people engaging with the problem of suffering.
      • If they just lost a loved one, we oughtn’t make the mistake of Job’s friends and theologize about it; this is rarely helpful at all.
    • By trusting God – not cursing or questioning Him – through suffering, we are glorifying Him.
    • Job makes as clear as any other book in Scripture that we won’t always know why or whence suffering; this doesn’t need to affect our response to suffering, which is the same whether we know why or not: Run to God.
    • We must never (ever!) forget the Christ when we suffer:
      • We cannot look at the cross and say that God doesn’t care, or love us with unfathomable love.
      • We cannot look at the cross and say that God is not just, and one who deals with evil, and will ultimately eradicate the suffering of those who love Him.
      • We must remember that God became man and suffered for us, so we wouldn’t have to.
      • I’ve always found comfort in an adaptation of an illustration by Alvin Plantinga:
        • The classic viewpoint of the problem:
          • A good God would not allow pointless suffering.*
          • There is pointless suffering.
          • There is no good God.
        • The viewpoint from the cross:
          • A good God would not allow pointless suffering.*
          • There is a good God.
          • There is no pointless suffering.
        • (*The statement “A good God would not allow suffering,”  is itself a highly questionable statement; one many accept without question, yet it is highly suspect.  E.g., as a good father, there are times when I allow my son to suffer.  There are actually some very compelling arguments for a good God precisely because evil and suffering exist; but that’s out of scope here).

I am officially no longer a liar :)  Of course, so much more could be (has been!) written about Job, evil and suffering.  I make no claim that this is a well-nuanced or complete treatment here.  Hopefully, however, it is helpful as food for thought, if nothing else.

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In his book, Defending God: Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil, James Crenshaw seeks to search the Bible for an adequate response to the problems of evil and “God’s perceived injustice” (p.18).  Here I wish to address the common thread which Crenshaw himself notes as unifying his work: “the abiding tension between justice and mercy” (p.18).  We shall argue that justice and mercy are harmoniously intertwined within God’s character; two parts of a whole which are not in conflict.

Before proceeding, one introductory comment is in order:  Crenshaw’s Biblical search, when subjected to the Biblical canon espoused by orthodox Protestantism, is simultaneously deficient and inflated.  Crenshaw’s search takes place almost entirely within the Old Testament Scriptures; a paucity of references are made to the New Testament (deficiency).  In addition, Crenshaw includes many extracanonical writings (e.g., 4 Ezra, Sirach, 1 & 2 Macabees) under the umbrella of the Bible (inflation).  For the purposes of this post I shall largely ignore this disagreement, save to note here that it cannot be without effect on Crenshaw’s conclusions.  A much more serious aspect of Crenshaw’s view of Scripture, and its consequences, shall be addressed later.

Crenshaw makes his view of justice and mercy clear: the two oppose each other.  The two are “in tension;” they manifest “conflicting demands,” and are even “irreconcilable” (pp.18;91).  Crenshaw opens his book with the dilemma:

Strict justice requires that I get what I deserve, no more and no less.  Mercy allows my just deserts to be set aside, my transgression overlooked or forgiven.  How can the deity perfectly embody both? (p.3).

Crenshaw sees this conflict evident in YHWH’s great self-disclosure:

The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation (Ex.34:6-7).

The problem, according to Crenshaw is that we have compassion “in astonishing juxtaposition” with God’s judgment (p.92).  Even more, how does one square the notion of transgenerational punishment with texts like Ezekiel 18, which seems to invalidate said punishment?

We might first ask where the “conflict” is in this text.  God is one who forgives; God is one who judges.  Are these qualities indeed mutually exclusive in a personality?  Must God be all one or the other?  A straightforward reading would simply indicate that God is revealing balance or fullness to His character: He is a God of forgiveness, but He’s no pushover.  The apparent conflict with Ezekiel 18 is resolved when one considers the different purposes of the two texts.  Where Exodus is a general and explicit revelation of God’s character; Ezekiel is a text written to a specific audience in a very specific situation purposed at stressing individual accountability.

In his fifth chapter, Crenshaw maintains that the Biblical writers struggle to depict a God of an apparent “split personality.”  He draws upon the book of Jonah and Joel in particular to stress his point.  Where Jonah grows angry with God for His compassion, Joel wrestles with the doctrine of God’s compassion while faced with circumstances that instead indicate a wrathful God.  In the end is a God characterized by “Who knows?”  Perhaps God will be merciful; perhaps He will be just.  Implicit here is that He cannot be both.

We must, or course, reject the notion that God maintains a split personality.  Crenshaw does not state so explicitly, but we can only assume that he would not adhere to such doctrine.  The Bible will not allow for such a diagnosis (c.f., Dt. 6:4; Mt. 12:25f), nor will logic: how could a perfect God withstand inner conflict?  So then, how do we answer Crenshaw’s implication that justice and mercy are conflicting aspects of God?  We might consider first his definition of justice, namely that it constitutes getting what one deserves.  We ask, then, what does one deserve?  Taking God to be the supremely holy, infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, perfect source of all that is, what is the just desert for any rebellion against Him?  Be it any sin of any magnitude, we cannot but conclude that offending an infinitely good God warrants infinite punishment.

As such, we note great mercy inherent in God’s justice: God’s justice is intrinsically merciful; in fact, He routinely underpunishes.  The two do not oppose each other, but are made manifest in concert with each other.  Even if we take an egregious villain who is bound for eternal punishment in Hell, their existence on earth will be seasoned with God’s mercy.

We could draw upon numerous Biblical examples that show these two characteristics working together in God’s personality, but space permits us to consider only the account of David and Bathsheba as a start (2 Sam. 11:1-12:24).  Crenshaw takes this account to be one of YHWH’s injustice:  David escapes (deserved) punishment while the innocent child of his affair dies, a punishment Crenshaw posits as “the ultimate penalty” (p.137).

In Crenshaw’s view, then, we have of YHWH’s mercy (thus injustice) for David and straight injustice upon his child.  Crenshaw seems to forget Nathan’s prophecy to David, however; YHWH’s punishment for his sin: “Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you” (2 Sam. 12:11a).  The following chapters in David’s life depict in vivid detail how much he did indeed suffer in the conflicts with his son, Absalom.  However, couched in YHWH’s justice is also mercy:  David is not stricken from the throne as an unjust king (as perhaps he ought to be), but further union with Bathsheba results in the birth of Solomon, who continues the Davidic line.

Furthermore, we might disagree that David’s child has paid the ultimate price by death.  Even if we were to ignore any notion of an afterlife and assume annihilationism, is being taken from a life that will no doubt entail much suffering not an act of mercy?  The point weighs in even heavier if an afterlife is considered (i.e., read the New Testament).  Herein is an additional example of YHWH’s mercy made manifest in justice.

As for the book of Jonah, indeed, God’s mercy is the focal point; but His wrath is not out of view.  With Joel, God’s wrath seems more clearly in view; but His mercy is present as well (Joel 2:13-14).  We have no theological dilemma here, but simply different texts of different purposes emphasizing two threads that intertwine to form God’s dealings with humankind.

Crenshaw’s journey through theodicy in the Bible is a provocative one.  Each of his chapters considers an approach to theodicy, and in the end, each is found unconvincing.  This result is inevitable, given the other common thread running through his book.  Namely, that Crenshaw holds a low view of Scripture.  Rather than taking the texts he searches to be the infallible Word of God, they are “mythical” (p.15) and “imaginative” (p.10); Moreover, Scriptural authors tend towards manipulation of God and reader (p.10).  Crenshaw views Scripture as human authors struggling to depict God; not God revealing Himself through human writers.

To take the Bible on terms other than what it claims for itself is to place oneself above Scripture and thus submit it to one’s own categories, rather than submitting to Scripture’s categories .  Crenshaw’s low view of Scripture is what allows him to posit what he calls a “fundamental tenet of theism, that God cannot be known” (p.181).  Indeed, in his view God was not known by the authors of Scripture, hence inherent in them is much struggle to reconcile the irreconcilable.  Since Scripture is suspect to Crenshaw, his task is juxtaposed:  rather than understanding his view of justice and mercy in light of Scripture, he understands Scripture in light of his view of justice and mercy (where have I heard this before?)

In his conclusions about the book of Job, Crenshaw suggests that “God plays by different rules from those projected on the deity by human rationality” (p.189).  Here we fundamentally agree, and wonder why this statement cannot be applied to his views of justice and mercy.  Perhaps in our economy, one cannot simultaneously exhibit both qualities, but in God’s this is clearly the case.

While I stand in radical disagreement with Crenshaw’s position on Scripture, I agree with his closing remarks: the issue of theodicy cannot be resolved, given an infinite God and finite humanity.  We equally agree that this does not relieve us from the task of eagerly seeking out understanding and knowledge; or engaging with such difficult issues.  It is not a ticket to complacency.

As a final comment, our lack of understanding ought not to be construed as a deficiency in Biblical theology.  It is rather something stated positively:  We cannot fully understand God’s ways (c.f., Is. 55:8-9; Job 42:3).  This is not “dodging the bullet,” as is suggested by some (e.g., C.S.Cowles in Show Them No Mercy, p.146).  Appealing to the mysteries of God which we cannot yet comprehend enjoys a long history.  Better yet, it is indicative of a humble posture before God against which I find no good argument.

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After hearing an excellent sermon today partly based on Job, I was inspired to look at Francis I Andersen’s excellent commentary on Job in the Tyndale Old Testament series.  Although I think he downplays the rebuking aspect of God’s speeches in chapters 38-41 too much, I found this quote helpful (though relegated to a footnote on page 270):

It is one of the many excellencies of the book that Job is brought to contentment without ever knowing all the facts of his case.  In view of the way in which the Satan brought up the matter, something had to be done to rescue Job from his slander.  And the test would work only if Job did not know what it was for.  God thrusts Job into an experience of dereliction to make it possible for Job to enter into a life of naked faith, to learn to love God for Himself alone.  God does not seem to give this privilege to many people, for they pay a terrible price of suffering from their discoveries.  But part of the discovery is to see the suffering itself as one of God’s most precious gifts.  To withhold the full story from Job, even after the test was over, keeps him walking by faith, not by sight.  He does not say in the end, ‘Now I see it all.’  He never sees it all.  He sees God (42:5).  Perhaps it is better if God never tells any of us the whole of our life-story.

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