The Goodness of Job’s Bad Arguments

Nicholas Adams
University of Edinburgh

This essay treats one small question in the book of Job: is Job right to argue with God? This is a familiar question in the corpus of interpretations of Job, especially in the Christian tradition, but it is one that has often been answered negatively. I propose to investigate the arguments for and against condemning Job for arguing with God. This is bound up with the much larger, and correspondingly more complex, question of what exactly is meant when God says that Job spoke rightly. I will not treat this question in detail, but will attempt to draw attention to those aspects which bear upon the goodness of Job’s argumentativeness. The background question for this enquiry is how people should argue in the public sphere today, and what the purpose of such debate is, beyond ventilating the concerns of various interest groups.

The textual question is the relationship between Job 13:3 and Job 42:7-8. Job boldly claims, “But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God” (Job 13:3). 1 God answers, “…for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). “…for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done” (Job 42: 8). Is there a relationship between these two? Is it in respect of Job’s willingness to argue that God finds Job to have “spoken of me what is right”, or must we decide that it is in respect of something else Job says and does?

The resources used here are Christian theological interpretations of the book of Job, in particular their treatments of 13:3 and 42:7-8. Aquinas’ Literal Exposition (1261-5), Calvin’s sermons (1554-5) and Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV.3 (1959) will be investigated to see whether the three theologians suggest that Job’s willingness to argue is part of his right speaking. 2 Susan Schreiner’s study of Calvin’s sermons on Job and Martin Yaffe’s interpretation of Aquinas’ exposition will be the primary way into those texts; Barth’s commentary I tackle directly. 3 I have not taken the classic sources in chronological order, because Barth repairs some problems in Calvin, and Aquinas repairs some problems in Barth: I have thus taken them in the order Calvin, Barth, Aquinas. 4

The well-known problem for interpreting the book of Job theologically is that it contains long debates between various characters, and yet no one line of argument is specifically endorsed within the text. God certainly answers Job, but he simultaneously rebukes him and praises him. Job is overwhelmed by God’s speech from the whirlwind, and yet he is held up to his interlocutors as one who spoke rightly. Job has four interlocutors: Eliphaz the Temanite, Zophar the Naamathite, Bildad the Shuhite and Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite. The first three are told by God that they did not speak rightly (Job 42:7-8). Elihu may or may not be rebuked by God at Job 38:2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” This directly follows Elihu’s attempt at a judicial summing-up, but does it refer to Elihu or to someone else? The objects of God’s rebuke and praise are people not arguments. The reader learns that three (and maybe all four) of Job’s interlocutors did not speak rightly or spoke without knowledge, but is not instructed as to which speeches are the problem: it is left vague. Similarly, Job is praised as one who spoke rightly, yet the reader is given no help in evaluating what, exactly, Job said that was right: again, it is left vague. Interpreters of Job are thus in something of a bind. Good theology can sustain a certain respectful vagueness, but unless it is willing to make concrete judgements about the rightness and wrongness of particular arguments, it cannot be put to work. At the same time, to venture concrete judgements about the dogmatic debates in the book of Job risks ruining the carefully crafted uncertainty that characterises the text’s approach to the variety of debates it contains. It is possible that a useable theology needs to be definite and clear where the book of Job is vague and uncertain; if this is so perhaps the demands of being a good theologian mean being a poor reader of Job. This is one of the questions we will briefly investigate in the course of the argument.

The Goodness of Argument

One of the lessons theologians can learn from Walter Brueggemann is that where dogmatic theology is precisely ‘dogmatic’ and where systematic theology aims for a certain ‘systematic’ quality, Old Testament theology has a different character, which is resistant to reduction: it is disputatious . 5 The subtitle of Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament is “Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy”. 6 Brueggemann has a contemporary agenda in arguing this. Brueggemann suggests that the character of Christian theology depends significantly on how secure the Christian community is in its surrounding culture. 7 He notes that in situations where Christian life and thought are securely part of culture, the community’s theological argument tends to be dogmatic: its thrust tends to be towards generating orthodoxy. But where Christianity’s legitimacy is contested in a culture, and is one voice competing with other voices who are in conflict with it, it cannot afford to be dogmatic, and it certainly cannot afford to expend its energies on enforcing orthodoxy. On the contrary, it must be marked by testimony, dispute and advocacy, where it recognises the claims made elsewhere in the world and counters them by its own different claims. Israel’s theology was forged in this second, conflictual, cultural situation. Christian theology has had its conflictual history (most obviously in its early years) but much modern theology was produced at a time when Christianity was deeply and safely embedded in its surrounding culture. Today that has changed, and Christianity finds itself in a similar situation to ancient Israel. Consequently, Christians can learn a great deal from the conflictual responses of Old Testament theology. Brueggemann argues, in effect, that the contemporary situation of Christians means that a full-blooded re-engagement with Old Testament theology, with its rich resources for thinking through the theological nature of disputatious testimony, is timely and necessary. The contemporary situation to which he refers is pluralist, post-modern and problematic: it calls for arguing.

Central to Brueggemann’s presentation of Israel’s rhetoric is the embrace of pain, and the tension of this embrace with struggles to legitimate social structures. Brueggemann draws the reader’s attention to the intertwinings of lament and political claims that characterises Old Testament theology. I want to draw out one small aspect of this theology. I want to focus particularly on argument as the embrace of pain. 8 Israel’s embrace of pain can be discovered, as Brueggemann shows, in a number of key texts. One can point to Psalms, or Lamentations, Isaiah 53, or Job. Because I want to highlight the significance of argument, rather than other forms of lament, I intend to look at the book of Job, a text where the embrace of pain is expressed argumentatively.

Brueggemann’s distinction between the embrace of pain and legitimation is useful precisely because contemporary western culture separates these two kinds of speech. It separates them whenever it encounters a bid for legitimation, and addresses it only as such a bid, rather than addressing any other dimensions that lie behind it. While they are distinct, however, it is far from obvious that they are separate. One of the first lessons of a trainee psychotherapist is to learn to hear bids at legitimation (“I am in the right and they are all in the wrong”) as expressions of pain that are evidence of a task, whose working-through will be the goal of psychotherapy. Similarly, many cases that come to court are ostensibly about legitimation (“I should have custody of this child”; “This land belongs to our people”) and yet they simultaneously embody and express a history of painful disagreement and alienation. Legitimation matters: the others may indeed all be in the wrong; the child needs to be given into someone’s custody; the land rights need to be settled. At the same time, the pain expressed in bids for legitimation can only be disregarded if one is willing not to undertake the work that pain demands, and the cost of this is high. For our purposes, we need only notice that the embrace of pain and the need for legitimation are often expressed in one compressed form: argumentation. When interpreting someone’s argumentation, therefore, one often needs to be willing to pay attention to the multiple tasks it may be discharging. I shall argue that the book of Job teaches this willingness.

When Christian theologians read scripture they often know in advance what they want to find there, and this essay is no different. I want to find in the book of Job an endorsement of argument as a divine practice which brings healing to human lives. Good theology, however, does not force scripture’s hand. It is appropriate to know in advance what one wants to find, but at the same time pay attention to the resistance that scripture offers. In the case of the book of Job, theology is not merely resisted, but constantly interrupted. This essay will try to do justice to these interruptions.

Calvin on David and Elihu

Does Calvin think Job is right to argue with God? Before answering this question, it is worth bearing in mind that Calvin’s interest in the book of Job arises because of his overarching interest in the doctrine of providence. The controlling theological theme is that of God’s absolute sovereignty and this acts not only as a lens for focusing discussion, but as a filter to remove any trace of theological error that might suppose that God is anything other than in complete control of history. It is important to remember this, because otherwise Calvin comes out badly before we even begin: the biblical portrayal of a man’s life of affliction, full of questions and complaints, is treated by Calvin as an exposition of God’s sovereign rule and command of history. Calvin’s interpretation of Job will be placed in question in what follows, but this is not because he understands the book to be about divine providence. There is no reason prima facie why a Christian theologian should not read Job in this way. If there are any questions, they arise because of problems in the detail of the discussion and because of suspicions that Calvin is not paying attention to scripture with the carefulness that he himself would advocate. I propose to take Calvin on his own reformed terms when investigating the question of the goodness of Job’s arguing with God.

Calvin preached 159 sermons on Job between 1554 and 1555 in Geneva during a period of significant religious and political upheaval. By any standards, that is a large number of sermons on an Old Testament book that, while influential, had hitherto not been at the centre of debates about Christian doctrine. It is, however, not difficult to see why Calvin should have found Job so generative for his account of divine providence and, at the same time, such an obstacle to its clear articulation. The book of Job raises questions of divine sovereignty, permission, hiddenness and goodness. It is thus an ideal vehicle for exploring questions relating to divine providence. The problem is that it is, for Calvin, precisely a vehicle, and one that he drives down a predetermined road. Calvin’s problem with the book is that it does not say quite what it ought to say, if it is to be read as support and encouragement for a reformed doctrine of providence. There are, to be sure, many excellent statements of reformed theology in it. The difficulty is that they are often to be found in the mouths of Eliphaz and his two friends and, above all, in the mouth of Elihu. This is a difficulty because these men are not praised by God in chapter 42; Job is. Indeed, Eliphaz and his two friends (and perhaps Elihu) are rebuked by God for not speaking rightly. Calvin’s problem is thus that, at first sight, preachers of solid reformed doctrine are rebuked by God and are placed in the wrong, whereas Job himself, who has the temerity to argue with God, is held up as a model. Admittedly, Calvin is not the first Christian theologian to have grappled with this problem. Figures in the previous tradition such as Gregory the Great and Thomas Aquinas had also noticed that Eliphaz and his two friends, and Elihu, were bearers of orthodox beliefs, and they had found ways of making sense of this. Gregory, in his Moralia in Iob (579-c.586), suggests that Eliphaz and his two friends say things that are true, but falsely connect them with Job’s situation. Read allegorically, they are representative of a kind of heresy which mixes true and false statements in order to confuse people. Elihu is not rebuked in 42:7-8, and so Gregory sees in him the kind of teacher whose speech is correct, but whose attitude is arrogant. 9 Aquinas, in his Literal Exposition , takes a different tack. He notes that, at times, Job agrees with Eliphaz and his two friends, and that therefore there is considerable overlap between their views. The error of Eliphaz and his two friends has two dimensions. First, they understand providence as applying primarily to this life, and fail to understand that God’s providence extends to immortality; they are wrong to think that God settles all matters in this life. Secondly, they claim that God’s providence can be unproblematically read off from the world; in this they are mistaken, because God’s providence is not always easily discernable and sometimes has to be a matter of as-yet unseen hope. Understanding that God’s providence extends beyond this life frees one from having to assert implausibly that God’s right ordering of the world is just obvious, when often it is not. 10 As for Elihu, Aquinas takes 38:2 (“Who is that man wrapping his opinions in ignorant speeches?”) to be a rebuke of Elihu’s inappropriate and presumptuous attempt to conclude the debate; furthermore he “had wrapped in many false and frivolous words the true opinions which he had proposed”. 11 Calvin also wishes to rescue the content of the teaching of Eliphaz and his two friends and of Elihu, but his approach is bolder than that of Gregory and Aquinas.

Calvin, like Aquinas, finds the main point of difference between Job and Eliphaz and his two friends to be that of immortality of the soul, and the importance of not implausibly asserting that God’s providence is plainly visible, when sometimes it is hidden. 12 Schreiner notes that this train of thought provokes a “continual uneasiness”, because Calvin wishes to affirm the Law, such as is articulated clearly by Eliphaz, and he is careful in his criticism of this, which concerns Eliphaz’ rash claim to be able to read off the Law from people’s desserts in this life. Calvin’s criticism is that “If the judgements of God were all clear there would be no hope of salvation.” 13 This emphasis on hope echoes Romans 8:24-25. In addition, this has consequences for attempts to discern the state of another’s soul: it is because not everything is so clear that one should not judge that sufferers are obviously sinners. For Calvin, Eliphaz and the two friends see things too clearly . Job, on the other hand, reasons the other way round. He starts from his knowledge that he is not a sinner, and therefore concludes that the visible world is in disorder. Calvin rejects this too: he wants to tread a middle path where God’s providence is visible in part , and is neither merely obvious (Eliphaz) nor inscrutable (Job). 14

The boldness of Calvin’s approach is most clearly seen in his approach to Elihu. Elihu tries to wrap things up and close the debates down by rebuking Job and Eliphaz and his two friends, and by summing up in the manner of a legal judgement. The prior tradition, at least in Gregory and Aquinas, had assumed that God’s intervention in chapter 38 shows how premature Elihu is. Elihu’s speeches are set aside and replaced by God’s own speech. Calvin denies this outright. Elihu is, for Calvin, a model theologian of providence, and there is no room for any criticism of him. At 34:2, Elihu says “For truly my words are not false; one who is perfect in knowledge is with you”. Calvin agrees. At 38:2, God says “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”. Calvin denies that this is aimed at Elihu; rather, they are a reproach of Job. 15 By taking Elihu’s self-description at face value, and by denying that God rebukes Elihu at all, Calvin thus makes things easy for himself in his exposition of Elihu’s reformed theology. Schreiner goes so far as to suggest that Elihu simply becomes a mouthpiece for Calvin’s own theology, and that the sermons on chapter 32-37 “provide a summary of Calvinist theology”. 16 Basically, Elihu gets right what Job and the others get wrong: he has a balanced account of the visibility and hiddenness of God; he exhibits a sure faith in the Law; he correctly chides Job for complaining while not attributing his suffering to sin. Alone of any figure in the book of Job, Elihu is blameless: “God has not condemned him. He condemns Job. He condemns Job’s friends and shows that they all have erred in one way or another. Nevertheless Elihu alone is justified.” 17

Even if one accepts Calvin’s reading of 34:2 (Elihu’s claim to perfect knowledge) and 38:2 (God’s rebuke as aimed at Job, not Elihu), there is still a significant obstacle to this reading. It would be better for Calvin if God’s later speech had read

After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Elihu has.’ (Not Job 42:7)

Indeed, Calvin’s interpretation proceeds as if this is precisely its content. Calvin’s problem, then, is to find some way of making sense of Job’s rightness rather than annihilating him through overwhelming endorsement of Elihu.

What, then, does Calvin make of Job’s right speaking? More importantly, might it have something to do with Job’s willingness to debate with God? No. Schreiner summarises Calvin’s approach to this question:

In Calvin’s thinking, the godly person does not ‘rail against God’ nor ‘break forth into impatience and expostulate with God.’ Rather, by considering the righteousness and gentleness of God’s chastening he will ‘recall himself to forbearance.’ Such a person is so ‘composed in mind’ that whatever happens he ‘will not consider himself miserable nor complain of his lot with ill will toward God.’ Such a person ‘permits every part of his life to be governed by God’s will.’ Calvin concludes by saying that ‘whatever happens, because he will know it to be ordained of God, he will undergo it with a peaceful and grateful mind.’ 18

This is a summary of the Calvin of the Institutes , not part of any of the sermons on Job. Nonetheless, Calvin has serious difficulties in making sense of Job’s willingness to argue with God. We shall see shortly that Calvin feels compelled to compare Job unfavourably with the David of the psalms. Before that, it is worth noting that Calvin denies that Job means what he says when he complains bitterly. If this seems like an attempt to protect Job from himself, this is made more complicated when Calvin says he also considers Job to have blasphemed during his scourges; Calvin finds that Job spoke words that were confused, excessive, unbridled, rebellious, and condemnable. 19 Aquinas had tried to rescue Job’s argumentativeness by making a distinction between ‘contending’ ( contendere ) and ‘debating’ ( disputare ) with God. 20 Aquinas points out that at 13:3 Job has claimed he wished to ‘debate’ with God, whereas Elihu at 33:13 claims Job wanted to ‘contend’ with God. Aquinas spends some time showing how Elihu misinterprets Job. Calvin, in stark contrast, simply agrees with Elihu’s account.

Calvin’s preference for Elihu over Job is not an isolated incident. When considering the question of the model sufferer, Calvin does not give Job a good hearing. Instead, he compares Job’s laments with David’s laments in the psalms, and finds Job wanting. Calvin prefers the much clearer, and less risky, structure of lament in the psalms, where the opening lament is transformed into praise. Schreiner summarises it clearly:

In describing the search for a way to trust in God’s justice during times of God’s hiddenness, the Joban text is simply more obfuscating than the Psalter. In comparison to Calvin’s David, Job took longer to arrive at this trust; he travelled more detours, complained more bitterly, fell into blasphemy, argued his own self-justification, accused God of wielding a tyrannical power, and challenged God’s justice more deeply than did David. Frequently Calvin notes that David began a psalm by expressing his sorrow and doubts about divine providence but concluded by conquering temptation and celebrating the order, reason, and justice of God. 21

It is worth wondering what is going on here: in the middle of a discussion whose purpose is to make sense of Job, Calvin finds himself talking at length about David.

Some criticism of Calvin is called for. Elihu’s is a human voice that alone is justified . This distorts things. In the prior tradition, every human voice is a contribution to a debate whose outcome is uncertain. The pursuit of wisdom allocates generous space for views to be developed, objections to be raised, replies to be attempted, even metaphysical speculations to be tried out. All participants are rebuked, and God’s ending of the debate leaves all human voices somehow in the wrong, although Job alone is held up by God as one who “spoke of me what is right”. In Gregory and Aquinas, Elihu is a human participant who receives his share of rebuke. In Calvin, however, Elihu is a human participant who, alone, is not placed by God in the wrong. The debate is unbalanced and one is left with the impression that Calvin almost thinks it is a mistake that God singles out Job in 42:7 and 8. In being so definite about Elihu, he stretches the text by inventing a participant in debate who is never rebuked by anyone . Job was rebuked by everyone, including God. Job’s wife was rebuked by Job. Eliphaz and his two friends were rebuked by Job and Elihu. Even God is rebuked by Job’s wife and perhaps by Job. In Gregory and Aquinas, Elihu has his share of rebuke, by God. For Calvin, however, Elihu is rebuked even less than God.

Job is not an exemplary sufferer, for Calvin. David is. Job is not an exemplary theologian of providence, for Calvin. Elihu is. The best that can be said of Job is that he understood the need for trust in God in the face of the darkness of history. It seems difficult to avoid the judgement that while Calvin is an excellent reformed theologian, he is a poor reader of Job. When things go well for Calvin, for example in the cases of David and Elihu who conform to and confirm Calvin’s theology, things work well. When scripture is resistant, Calvin seems to rush things. The practice of switching to David when things don’t work smoothly with Job is evidence of an interpretive task. The task is to interpret the text without being prematurely deflected into other texts which distract from the problems at hand. Calvin seems unwilling to be interrupted by Job. At best, he seems to consider his theological task to be one of getting rid of the problem rather than wrestling with it. Similarly, the enormous weight borne by Elihu in Calvin’s discussions seems a very drastic short cut. The book of Job is all about interruptions: of arguments, of speeches, of doctrines, of law, of lives. The character of Calvin’s reading seems to be a refusal of such interruption. In part, therefore, Calvin’s reading is a refusal of the book of Job. Of course, this is an overstatement: Calvin certainly wrestles with the text. The problem is that he defeats it, or is defeated by it (perhaps to defeat it is to be defeated by it) too quickly. The book of Job throws up intractable problems because it is vague and unpredictable. Calvin solves these problems by reading it as precise and providential. This task is impossible, and it is not surprising that Calvin should find himself talking about David and Elihu instead of tackling the questions that refuse to go away.

The relationship between 13:3 (“I desire to argue my case with God”) and 42:7 (“…for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has”) is not merely denied by Calvin. Both texts are, independently, a problem for Calvin: Calvin does not consider the possibility that there might be any connection between Job’s arguing and God’s praise. For Calvin the desire to argue is wrong. God’s praise of Job is difficult for Calvin to interpret, because Job’s friends, but above all Elihu, seem to articulate superior theology.

What does it mean for theology to be interrupted by scripture? Walter Brueggemann once remarked wittily at a conference that “in the Psalms God is allowed to be the God he is forbidden to be in systematic theology”. In the case of Calvin, things are a stage more serious: in the Psalms Job is forced to be the David he refuses to be in the book of Job.

Barth on Job’s Complaint

Barth’s interpretation of Job is interspersed between discussions of truth and falsity, especially the human tendency idolatrously to claim knowledge of God. Job is examined as an analogue to Jesus Christ as one who witnesses truly to God. Barth’s primary interest in Job concerns the relationship between knowledge and ignorance, and Barth finds Job remarkable because he experiences his pain not as an abandonment by God, nor as evidence that there is no God, but as something received from God. Job’s pain is great not because he is in acute physical distress (although he is), nor because he has lost his social status (although he has), but because he experiences it as an encounter with the God he knows is good, and he laments the unexpected and alien form this encounter takes. Barth’s main point is that Job would have suffered less if he had not attributed his pain to the God with whom he is already in relationship. God does not ‘permit’ Job’s pain, nor does he treat it with indifference: Job’s complaint arises because his very relationship with God is now formed in the medium of suffering and pain rather than blessing and honour, and he does not know how to make sense of this. Barth admires Job because in the midst of this, the one Job calls on for help is the same God whose relationship is currently experienced in the alien medium of suffering and pain. Job never doubts that God sustains this relationship with him, even in an alien form, and for his part Job remains faithful to the relationship. Barth does not quite say it, but he comes close to suggesting that just as praise and joyful worship is the appropriate human form of communication in times of blessing, so lament and crying out is the appropriate human form of communication in times of suffering. It is this line of reasoning that starts to repair the problems in Calvin, for whom praise and joyful worship is the appropriate human form of communication whatever the situation. 22

Barth’s interpretation of Job is unsurprising in its general outlines. It follows Barth’s characteristic practice of showing that attempts to judge God against a supposedly higher standard are a betrayal of the Gospel. At one level, Job is merely an instance of this, and Barth deftly sketches the ways in which Job’s criteria for judgement are received from God, even when Job attempts to judge the quality of relationship with God under the circumstances of what Barth calls the “bare minimum of blessing”, when Job is afflicted. On the surface, Job is in Barth’s hands merely an example, albeit a striking example, of a witness who does not stray beyond the bounds of God’s self-revelation. There is, however, more to say than this. Although Barth does reach the conclusions he desires, and although he has in clear view the direction he intends his discussion to take, there are some twists and turns that are instructive for our investigation of Job’s argumentativeness. These twists and turns are, I think, more interesting than the places he ends up.

Barth’s discussions are long, and our interest is only in one aspect of them, which can be presented here in a brief form. Barth has a problem which he attempts to solve dogmatically. The problem is this. On the one hand, Job understands God’s freedom and expresses his commitment to obeying God. At no point does Job curse God (although he freely curses his own birth). Job makes no attempt to constrain God, or try to judge God. He knows God is free to dispense good and to dispense evil. And Job knows that he himself is free to accept both good and evil, according to God’s will. But on the other hand, Job’s correct knowledge of God is sharply at odds with his experience of suffering, and he complains . Barth characterises this conflict as the result of a deficit in Job’s intellectual competence : between Job’s knowledge and his ignorance ( CD IV.3 , 401).

Barth’s conclusion, at the end of his second discussion of Job, is that Job experiences the contradiction between God’s goodness and his own suffering as pain, and is right to articulate this pain, but wrong to express this in the form of an argumentative claim. It is wrong because it attempts, arrogantly, to force God to conform to Job’s expectations. Job’s dogmatic error is to subordinate his evaluation of God’s sovereignty beneath his understanding of God’s goodness, whereas the dogmatically correct response is to recognise their identity. Barth poses the crucial question:

In view of the unmistakeable positive aspect of his complaint as one who contests with God, are we to agree that Job is excused and even justified in relation to the negative aspect in which he contests against God and therefore without Him? ( CD IV.3 , 401)

Aquinas distinguishes between ‘contending’ and ‘debating’, whereas Calvin conflates the two. Barth is closer to Aquinas is distinguishing between ‘contesting with’ and ‘contesting against’ God, and adds that the latter is a kind of rejection of God. This is suggestive, but there are perhaps some problems. It matters how one spells out the difference between these two modes of contestation. Contesting ‘with’ perhaps means advancing arguments which conflict with other arguments, in a manner that confirms rather than threatens the relationship that makes such contesting possible. Contesting ‘against’ perhaps means advancing one’s person against another, in a manner that intends to redefine, in some aggressive way, the relationship between the two persons. If this is what Barth has in mind, and admittedly Barth offers little help in interpreting the difference, it seems a contrived reading of Job, because Job’s lament is inseparable from his person: his call for his accusers (argument) is bound up with his desire never to have been born (person).

Like Calvin, Barth exerts himself hard (too hard?) to argue his point. The character of Barth’s prose in this section is striking: it twists and turns many times, with long sections in which very little of substance is said, as if he were taking in breath ready for the next difficult effort. Along the way he makes some remarkable discoveries.

At times, Barth himself seems to tire of dogmatic insistence. For example:

Materially, however, Job’s final word is to be found neither in the question nor request, nor even in the protestation, but in his constant sighing, which is both painful and angry and even scornful, at the obvious incongruity and impotence of all these forms of complaint, and especially of his protestation of innocence ( CD IV.3 , 403).

In the course of this, Barth has begun to solve his contradiction. And here, I want to draw attention to a struggle that Barth seems to be having with himself. He wants to be dogmatically ‘correct’. Thus he says that Job freely accepts what God gives, whether good or evil. Barth also wants to do justice to Job’s sighs, not merely attend to them. With this, Barth finds himself in trouble. Job’s sighs are not an obvious indication of free, faithful acceptance . The dogmatic side of Barth wants, therefore, to attribute these sighs to Job’s ignorance – his ignorance about the extent of God’s dealings with him. But this is unsatisfactory: there is more to it than this. Barth’s attentive reading of the text suggests to him that Job’s complaining is presented, in the book of Job, as right. This places Barth’s reading sharply at odds with Calvin, who is forced to appeal to David’s more becoming conduct, and it blocks any simple dogmatic assertion. Such a line of thought threatens the dogmatic integrity Barth has achieved so far. Barth struggles to find a way to say that Job is right to sigh and complain. He suggests the following:

…it is in the name of God that he complains against God, i.e., against the strange form in which God encounters him, rejects him, disputes against him, and persecutes him as an unjustly disowned and ill-treated servant. Even though from the very outset he knows that he has neither competence nor power to mount this attack, yet he presses it to the bitter end. This is the remarkable and indeed honourable complaint of Job in all its rights and wrongs ( CD IV.3 , 405).

Barth sums up: “[Job] would not have been obedient if he had not raised this complaint and carried it through to the bitter end in spite of all objections” ( CD IV.3 , 406).

This – in the middle of the second of Barth’s discussions of Job – is perhaps the profoundest part of Barth’s discussion: he has found a way to say that Job is right to argue with God. Barth adds something extraordinary. He suggests that Job is right to argue, but that his arguments are inadequate. Barth forbids cherry-picking amongst the text, applauding Job here, castigating him there. Again, this is quite different from Calvin, and shows not just an attentiveness to the text, which Calvin clearly shares, but a willingness to be interrupted by it. He also rules out focusing upon passages of reflection where Job is obviously right: because at these moments Job is not complaining, but reasoning. It is the complaining, rather than the reasoning, for Barth, which is both right and wrong.

Using Brueggemann’s categories, Job’s complaint is right insofar as it embraces pain, but wrong insofar as it makes a bid for legitimation. Barth makes a definite separation between the two. This is dogmatically neat, and later on I wish to make such a separation problematic. Barth, unfortunately in my view, is not content with identifying the strange rightness/wrongness of Job’s argument. Perhaps he continues to worry that Job’s complaint challenges his dogmatic scheme. After all, Barth is unable to produce a dogmatic justification for complaining to God. His sense that Job is right to complain arises not from his dogmatic project, but from his serious engagement with the complexities of the text. Whatever the reason, Barth ends up flattening out what I want to call the ‘real contradictions’ by asserting a dogmatically neat conclusion. Barth insists that Job was right to say that God is righteous, but Job is wrong to insist that God demonstrate this righteousness here and now. 23 This amounts to just the kind of cherry-picking Barth previously outlawed. It appears that Job was not right to complain, but only right about God’s righteousness. His complaint is just wrong. Barth purchases dogmatic clarity, but the cost is great. 24

What, then, is learned by attending to the character of argument between God and Job? We learn from Barth that argument is not only ‘understandable under the circumstances’ but positively required. We do not learn why it is required. It is worth noting in passing that unlike interpreters in the preceding tradition, Barth considers Job’s speeches about his own virtue to have “no intention of self-righteousness or self-boasting” ( CD IV.3 , 385). The task of such argumentation is not to defend one’s own shortcomings, but is demanded of those whose lives are most exemplary. We still do not know why. In God’s judgement of Job in the concluding chapters, God both silences with overwhelming questions and blesses his servant Job, who spoke what is right concerning the Lord. We are never told in the text when Job spoke what was right or when he spoke what was wrong. In summary, one can learn from Barth, perhaps partly against Barth, that it is good that Job argues with God, but his arguments aren’t any good .

The relationship between 13:3 (“I desire to argue my case with God”) and 42:7 (“…for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has”) is handled most interestingly by Barth. Barth does make a connection between them, but is not sure how to specify it. This is surely right: it mirrors the vagueness of the text while refusing to be put off by it. Barth’s approach is to see God’s condemnation and God’s praise as applying to everything Job says and does, rather than praising some and condemning others. Job is simultaneously in the right and the wrong. Admittedly, Barth has difficulty with this: at times he tries, despite himself, to distinguish different kinds of arguing (contending ‘with’ and contending ‘against’). But at the same time, Barth wants to do justice to the one divine act of placing Job in the right and the wrong. It is this side of Barth’s argument I wish to draw attention to, and learn from.

To say that Job is right to argue but that his arguments aren’t any good is rather confusing. I think that some (not all) of this confusion arises because Barth identifies the contradictions with Job’s intellectual shortcomings. Barth thinks, in essence, that Job makes a dogmatic mistake: Job fails to acknowledge that God’s sovereignty matches God’s righteousness. It may, however, be possible to give an even better account than this. To help show how, I turn now to Aquinas’ exposition of Job.

Aquinas on Wisdom and Debate

Commentaries are never just commentaries. They are commentaries for particular communities at particular times, addressing particular questions. Calvin’s comments on Job were directed to laypeople in Geneva in the midst of religious upheavals. Barth’s remarks on the book of Job were directed to a church in danger of assimilating to a secular society which worshipped something other than God, at a time when many churches had done precisely that, and asking what it means to be a true witness to God in the face of suffering and pain.

When Aquinas wrote his Expositio super Job ad litteram in the mid 1200s, he was writing for a church in which theology was being taught boringly. 25 Martin Yaffe has indicated that there is a strong similarity of purpose between the Summa Theologiae and the Exposition on Job. 26 Aquinas’ intention in the Summa was to teach students of theology how to argue philosophically as well as answer theological questions correctly. There was no shortage of theological learning in Aquinas’ time, according to Yaffe, but theologians were not equipped adequately to reason their learning through in ways that address the practical problems of everyday life. Yaffe describes Aquinas’ interests as ‘protreptic’, that is, intended to introduce his readers to philosophy. 27 Aquinas’ Exposition on Job betrays these interests too. Aquinas’ Job is a man who is perfectly equipped with sound theological learning. 28 His speeches to Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are perfectly correct (that is, they are not corrected at any point). But Job himself – his whole life – is corrected by God.

The ‘history’ of Job is thus the history of a man who is perfectly wise in the divine truth as taught by the Church, yet who must reconsider the possible sinfulness involved in professing that truth to others in society. 29

Here is Aquinas himself, advancing an interpretation intended not to teach dogmatics, but to draw attention to the relationship between intellectual and practical knowledge; he elaborates upon the role of the three friends who come to comfort Job. Aquinas lays unusual stress on the practical actions they perform, drawing attention not to their words (at this point the comforters have come to Job but have not yet begun to speak) but to their actions. The exposition relates to Job 2:12-13:

Now that the friends of Job just mentioned have come to console him is shown from what follows: For they had agreed that, coming together, they would visit him and console him , and in this agreement they showed themselves true friends, not failing him in his tribulations, for the text of Ecclesiasticus 12:9 says that “In a man’s sadness and bad fortune is a friend recognized.” And indeed, at first the visit was consoling, for to see a friend and to feast with him is most pleasant. They also console him by deeds, by showing signs of their compassion toward him. To these signs of compassion is premised an incitement to compassion when the text says And when they had raised their eyes, from a distance they did not recognize him, for his face had been transformed by ulcers, his dress and the rest of his general appearance by the loss of his property. Now the expression from a distance should be understood as that distance at which a man can still be recognized. Now this transformation of their friend provoked them to sadness and compassion which they showed by signs, for there follows and crying out , namely, from the greatness of their pain, they wept, and having rent their garments, they scattered dust over their heads as a sign of humility and dejection, as if they reputed themselves cast down by the dejection of their friend. Now the text adds into heaven , so that by this humiliation, as it were, they might provoke the mercy of heaven. Now one should consider that the compassion of friends is consoling either because adversity, like some burden, is borne more lightly when it is carried by several, or more likely because every sadness is alleviated by the admixture of pleasure, but it is very pleasant to have the experience of someone’s friendship, especially that which is derived from compassion in adversity and therefore affords consolation.

Now they consoled him not only by showing their compassion but also by offering him their company, for there follows And they sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights . 30

Yaffe suggests that this kind of emphasis on the relationship between intellectual and practical knowledge is typical of Aquinas’ treatment of the Book of Job throughout. It reaches a point of particular intensification, however, when Job is called by God to account for his arguments. It turns out that Job is learning something other than new or better dogmatic information . For Yaffe, Aquinas’ Job “is perfectly able to refute his friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, for what amounts to their intellectual shortcomings regarding Christian theology. But he cannot do so without revealing a practical shortcoming of his own. Namely, though perfectly wise, he is somewhat sinful in his manner of communicating his wisdom.” 31

It is crucial to Yaffe’s reading of Aquinas that the whirlwind speech in which God calls Job to account is a point of intensification, and not the solution of a puzzle. Aquinas himself describes the whirlwind speech as God’s ending of the debate between the various parties. First God rejects Elihu’s presumptuous attempt at “determining the debate”. He then himself offers a “determination” or “decision”. 32 Aquinas does not read Job as a source of information that the dogmatician might absorb. Rather, he presents it as a man’s journey, in which practical knowledge is gradually acquired. Practical knowledge means ‘knowing how’ rather than ‘knowing that’. It includes all activities where one learns by trial and error, for example turning wood or playing the cello. Such knowledge cannot be taught as information, but must be learned through practice. For this reason, Aquinas does not summarise his understanding of Job but rather takes the reader on the journey, as a skilled guide. The point is that the reader must precisely take the journey, as Job did: she cannot arrest the process and demand information. That is why Aquinas writes a literal exposition, line by line, rather than offering a dogmatic summary of its teachings. This is also why the whirlwind speech is not a dénouement, for Aquinas, but the ending of a journey. The surprising thing about Aquinas’ account of this speech is that God’s determination of the debate is not the correction of dogmatic errors, which one might expect, but an intervention that reveals the extent of Job’s deficiency in practical wisdom, a deficiency that is repaired over time by the journey on which Job discovers he has been embarked.

Job’s encounter with God is a model for the reader:

Thomas’ exposition induces the student or professor of Christian theology vicariously to re-examine the wisdom he would profess. Learning from Job’s example, Thomas’ reader too must approach that wisdom in a fuller way than his merely academic education may have provided him with until now. 33

Yaffe’s interpretation of Aquinas on Job is compelling. Aquinas is motivated, in effect, by the question: what good is theology? Just as Job discovers that his knowledge is not adequate to confront God, so the student of theology must discover that the purpose of theological learning is the assistance it offers in living God’s own life and acquiring a deeper wisdom. Job needs to journey, not attend lectures, and the same is true of the reader.

There is a similarity between Barth and Aquinas. Both of them attend to the process that is rehearsed in Job. Both treat Job’s arguing as good, in some sense, because it rightly teaches the reader something about the importance of engaging with God in time, in creation, on a journey. For Barth, as I read him, Job is right to argue, although his arguments are no good, because it is an appropriate mode of relation to God when God appears in an alien form. For Aquinas, Job is right to argue because this is the form his journey towards practical wisdom takes, and the rightness or otherwise of his dogmatic assertions is irrelevant. For Barth, Job’s mistake lies in the lack of fit between his understanding of God’s goodness and his attempt to force God to express this goodness in accordance with his own expectations. For Aquinas, by contrast, it is not so much that Job makes a dogmatic mistake, so much as his need to learn a practical wisdom that matches his intellectual knowledge. Moreover, this practical wisdom will enable Job to communicate his intellectual knowledge better and more truthfully . Aquinas’ Job is taught not more information (he has enough), but how to live.

The significant difference between Aquinas and Barth is that whereas Barth wants to interpret Job’s failings as a dogmatic error (failing, that is, to understand that God’s sovereignty is commensurate with God’s goodness), Aquinas interprets Job’s arguments not so much as an error as evidence of a task (that is, learning how to live, given the dogmatic knowledge he already has). This should not surprise us, as Barth was writing for a church which needed to relearn the extent of God’s sovereignty, whereas Aquinas was writing for a church whose theological learning was comprehensive but disordered and failing to equip students with ‘philosophy’. But one of the consequences of their differences is that whereas Barth pushes for closure (i.e. once one understands that God’s sovereignty matches God’s goodness the lesson is learned), Aquinas’ interpretation has only just begun when one grasps its meaning (i.e. once one understands that theology is for learning how to live, the real task then lies, precisely, in learning how to live).

The relationship between 13:3 (“I desire to argue my case with God”) and 42:7 (“…for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has”) gives Aquinas a wonderful opportunity to teach his readers how to debate. The book of Job is read as a debate which combines philosophy and doctrine in just the manner Aquinas seeks to encourage. This combination is not for the sake of better knowledge; the skill of combining philosophy and doctrine is part of a journey where one learns practical wisdom. As we saw in the section on Calvin, Aquinas is careful to distinguish between ‘contending’ and ‘debating’, and this is perhaps because the souls of young theology students are in his care: he does not wish to encourage them to set their faces against God. Aquinas remarkably suggests that Job’s arguments do not establish any dogmatic conclusions, and in this he differs strikingly from both Calvin and Barth, who do try to identify the result for dogmatics that such argument has. For Aquinas, dogmatics is the given: it is the learning how to live, which is learned through argument, on pilgrimage as it were, that is the task set before the theologian.

Arguing with God

The book of Job is all about debate. There is almost no utterance that is not a contribution to an argument. Pace Calvin, even Elihu’s attempt at making a final judgement is interrupted by God, whose own contribution to debate is surprising, overwhelming and resistant to interpretation. It is surprising because it takes the form of questions, not answers; it is overwhelming because it invites submission, not orthodoxy; it is resistant to interpretation because it leaves open all the important questions. What did Job say that was right? What did the three friends say that was not right? Was Elihu rebuked? The book of Job is a masterpiece of interruption. No speaker is not interrupted and the book ends not with the answering of the questions, but with the end of an incomprehensible and painful interruption to a man’s life. The book interrupts theological speculation, affirmation and self-questioning. It refuses to be conscripted to any particular school of legal or theological reasoning, but offers itself as an interruption to any form of thought that allows itself to be tested by it. Just as God places virtuous Job simultaneously in the right and the wrong, so it places even the best orthodox theological claims simultaneously in the right and the wrong.

The book of Job cannot be tidied up. This is a wonderful lesson for theology. One does not learn that debate does not matter, or that truth should not be pursued. Instead, it places such debate simultaneously in the right and in the wrong. It is good to argue, even with God, although all particular arguments will be no good. To say that the goodness of such arguments lies in the importance of making claims and simultaneously recognising their interruptability is a good start, but it is insufficient. The role of debate in Job is not merely to teach the reader about the fragility of theological claims. One could just as well read Job as establishing the evident truth of certain theological claims, and yet teaching that they cannot be used as vehicles of human self-legislation against God. This is Aquinas’ line of reasoning. More needs to be said. Arguing with God seems somehow to be bound up with the transformation of a life. Following Calvin’s insight that Job’s arguments achieve nothing, and following Barth’s refinement of this that nevertheless this arguing (although not the particular arguments) is good, and following Aquinas’ suggestion that Job learns no more doctrine but learns how to live, we might say that Job’s arguing teaches him how to live. Furthermore, this is not a solipsistic matter. Job’s first act after his debate with God is to obey the instruction to pray for his friends. Arguing with God shows Job something about how to debate with his friends, and its goal turns out to be something to do with caring for one another, and teaching one another how to live.

Aquinas’ interpretation of Job is an attempt to explore the relationship between two different kinds of wisdom: intellectual wisdom and practical wisdom. For Aquinas, Job’s journey is one of discovering that his intellectual wisdom, which is perfect, is one-sided. It needs to be complemented by a practical wisdom: he must repair his life.

Job’s doubts are not doubts that he himself invents; they are doubts as real as his dead sons and his boils. Yet he attempts to confront them intellectually and, indeed, judicially . He calls for his accusers, and he argues his defence. He attempts to remedy his doubts by asking for more knowledge , in this case knowledge of his guilt which he currently lacks. In my reading, the knowledge he seeks – that he genuinely thinks he needs – is knowledge in the service of legitimation, in this case the legitimation of his righteousness.

What God requires, however, is for Job to know not that he is righteous but how to live . In naming him “my servant Job” God makes plain that knowledge is required not for legitimation (he already is “my servant Job”) but for repairing his life. Job’s life needs repairing because his practical response is, wrongly, to seek intellectual answers, and to answer his comforters intellectually. And, interestingly, the repair of this life is not achieved by Job. Job does not suddenly acquire miraculous practical knowledge at the end. Rather, God repairs his life, and Job then lives it, by praying for the friends who let him down.

It is interesting to speculate when this repair happens. 34 Is it a gradual process during the debates; or does it occur suddenly when God intervenes out of the whirlwind? My own sense is that in the debates Job is given time – a long and painful stretch of time – in which to discover the limits of intellectual knowledge, and in which various forms of argument are found by Job himself to be inadequate. Indeed, it is not just his particular arguments that are inadequate: in principle, any argument at all will be placed in the wrong, because Job’s shortcomings – and our own – are not intellectual. God ends the debates. But it was already somehow apparent that the underlying problem was not addressed by appeal for, or claims to possess, dogmatic knowledge. At the same time, it would be wrong to think of the debates as somehow merely preparatory for God’s intervention. It is precisely the argument of this paper that these debates are where Job “says what is right” and shows himself to be “my servant Job”: they are the appropriate form of relation to God when God appears in this alien form. They are also simultaneously where Job is in the wrong, not primarily because he demands that God conform to his understanding, although this too, but because he demands dogmatic knowledge, whereas his true need is for practical wisdom. Such practical knowledge cannot be proclaimed. From this perspective, the whirlwind speech cannot be a sudden, if useful, lecture. Rather, I understand it as a moment, along the journey, when everything is intensified, and the journey is shown to be a journey. From this perspective, the whirlwind speech is where Job and the reader recognise (suddenly?) the nature of the true task. In my view, this is not the ending of debates, but the beginning of a transformed understanding of the role of arguing in the long journey in which we learn practical wisdom.

The plain sense of Job leads one to discover that argument with God is good, but the arguments are no good. Aquinas’ pragmatic reading seeks to interpret this with an extra-textual concern: a concern with the benefits of philosophy and wisdom, as Yaffe shows. One of the striking features of Aquinas’ Literal Exposition is its length: like Barth’s Church Dogmatics it is far longer than the communication of propositions requires. The textual practices of Aquinas and Barth suggest that their wisdom must be learned by time-consuming companionship rather than by being plundered for quotable material. This companionship teaches the reader to argue theologically rather than providing facts to be memorised.

The tendency of Aquinas’ Job is to answer that our most important arguments are poor for providing new information or yielding intellectual knowledge. Perhaps our most important arguments are not mainly for providing new information, any more than God’s answer to Job provides Job with information that hitherto he lacked. Rather, just as God heals Job and restores his life, the purposes of our argument must be therapeutic. They will, despite everything, involve legitimation and new information. After all, it will be difficult to argue for social justice, better prisons, the cancellation of world debt, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons or green energy without arguing for or against these things. Yet, at the same time, the arguments will be no good. Doubtless there are manifold occasions for problem-solving in these areas, but the more reports into bad prisons or global warming there are, the more it is apparent that the practical difficulties are of a certain sort. They are not primarily technical difficulties whose root is ignorance (although this too) but the recalcitrance of governments and corporations. If you like, the kind of argument called for is less like mathematics and more like campaigning. It calls for repentance as much as for engineering. Corporations do not need more information; they need to repair their lives.

So what is argument good for? It is good for teaching each other how to live. That is how God argues with his servant Job. Argument entails legitimation and the embrace of pain. If it is allowed only to do the first then the second will come back to haunt us, as it does in debates over healthcare, where people refuse to be ill or vulnerable or handicapped, and where the fit are encouraged to despise the unfit. In this respect, knock-down arguments are problematic: at best their bids for legitimation succeed in knocking people down.

In today’s public sphere we encounter each other in an alien form. And the appropriate relation to each other in these conditions is one of willingness to argue, in pursuit of information, certainly, but above all of practical wisdom. Yet if we encounter each other in an alien form – a form of enmity and fearful bewilderment amidst histories of suffering – we nonetheless really have to do with each other, as Barth might say, and not with someone else. We are bound in relation to each other, just as Job is bound to God, and ending that relationship should be as unimaginable for us as it is for Job to complain to someone other than God. Nonetheless, the other is not God. Our encounters with each other, however alien, are at the same time encounters before God; and that means that even the most hotly contested debates can be occasions for divine healing and the learning of practical wisdom. We have to do with each other, but we also have to do with God, and that means there is hope. In the public sphere, ignorance is certainly one of the problems, and the study of each other’s religious traditions can no longer be a mere hobby. But it is perhaps not the principal difficulty. The main problem is finding good ways to debate together. In such debate, we always find ourselves, like Job, simultaneously in the right and the wrong. Our willingness genuinely to debate with each other cannot be easily separated from our actual arguments. Often we are simply wrong in those arguments. Yet the willingness to debate, a willingness that supports the very possibility of advancing those poor arguments, is a sign of hope. Learning how to conduct such good debate, in the face of poor argumentation, is an urgent task. Reading Job might be a good way to learn how.


1. All quotations from scripture in English are New Revised Standard Version, except in the case of Aquinas where I have used Damico’s translation of the Vulgate.

2. Thomas Aquinas Literal Exposition on Job (tr. A Damico, interpretative essay by M Yaffe, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989); Ioannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia , ed. E Baum, E Cunitz, E Reuss, 59 vols., Corpus Reformatorum 29-87 (Brunswick: Schwetschke, 2863-1900), vols 33-35; Karl Barth Church Dogmatics IV.3.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, tr. G W Bromiley, Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1961).

3. Susan Schreiner Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? Calvin’s Exegesis of Job from Medieval and Modern Perspectives (London: University of Chicago Press, 1994); Martin Yaffe ‘Providence in Medieval Aristotelianism’ in The Voice from the Whirlwind: Interpreting the Book of Job (ed. L Perdue and W Clark Gilpin, Nashville: Abingdon , 1992) pp.111-128; Martin Yaffe, ‘Interpretative Essay’ in Aquinas Literal Exposition , pp. 1-65.

4. The question of influence is difficult to evaluate: Did Calvin know Aquinas’ interpretation? Did Barth know both Calvin’s and Aquinas’ interpretations? It is clear from the scholarly literature that Aquinas’ interpretation was part of the tradition of reading Job by Calvin’s time; however Calvin does not explicitly debate with Aquinas as far as I know. Barth may have known the prior interpretations, but his reading is rhapsodic and does not debate with them directly. The only books on Job Barth names are by Wilhelm Vischer, Carl Jung, Samuel Oettli, Helmut Lamparter, Gustav Hölscher and Roland de Pury. I have not checked their works to see to what extent they engage with Calvin and Aquinas.

5. I follow the convention of referring to Tanakh where the texts are treated in Jewish interpretation, and referring to Old Testament where the texts are treated in Christian interpretation. This makes it easier to see that Tanakh texts and OT texts are read quite differently, and have different histories of interpretation and thus different Wirkungsgeschichten , even though the words on the page of the Hebrew and Septuagint sources are the same for each tradition. Brueggemann is reading the Old Testament, not the Tanakh.

6. Walter Brueggemann Theology of the Old Testament: testimony, dispute, advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997).

7. Brueggemann finds the impetus for recovering conflictual interpretations in the work of Barth and its effects on Walther Eichrodt and Gerhard von Rad. See Brueggemann Theology of the Old Testament , pp. 16-20; 27-38. On the character of theology and its cultural setting see also pp. 61-71, and p. 82.

8. Legitimation and the embrace of pain are the two principal features of Old Testament theology, according to Walter Brueggemann in Old Testament Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), pp. 1-44.

9. Schreiner Where Shall Wisdom , p. 43.

10. Schreiner Where Shall Wisdom , pp. 73, 75-76.

11. Aquinas, Literal Exposition , p. 416.

12. Schreiner Where Shall Wisdom , pp. 123ff.

13. Calvini Opera 33:403, quoted in Schreiner Where Shall Wisdom , p. 125.

14. Schreiner Where Shall Wisdom , pp. 129-31.

15. Calvin is not the first to do this. Schreiner notes that Cajetan (in his 1535 commentary) thinks Elihu is rebuked, whereas Johann Brenz (in his 1527 commentary) claims it is Job who is rebuked. See Schreiner Where Shall Wisdom , n. 62 pp. 244-245. Schreiner assumes by this stage in her argument that the reader is able to weigh for herself the significance of the fact that Cajetan was a Dominican cardinal, whereas Brenz had been one of the often named ‘younger theologians’ influenced by Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation , and was one of the significant Reformation leaders. It seems possible that there might be a split between Catholic and Reformed theologians in this period as to whether Elihu is rebuked by God or not, owing to the ‘reformed’ character of Elihu’s theology. This question would merit some research. It is also worth noting that Barth joins Calvin in claiming that ‘It is incontestable that the counsel of God was very much darkened by [Job]’. See Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3, p. 407.

16. Schreiner Where Shall Wisdom , p. 132-3.

17. Calvini opera, 35:34; in Schreiner Where Shall Wisdom , p. 132.

18. Schreiner Where Shall Wisdom , pp. 107-8.

19. Schreiner Where Shall Wisdom , p. 108.

20. Aquinas Literal Exposition , p. 374.

21. Schreiner Where Shall Wisdom , p. 105.

22. Barth Church Dogmatics IV.3, pp. 383-388; 398-408; 421-434. Barth discusses various previous German language interpretations, mostly to disagree with them; the source most influential on Barth’s own account is French: Roland de Pury’s Job ou l’homme révolté of 1955 (Barth’s German translation is from 1957). See Barth Church Dogmatics IV.3, p. 424.

23. Barth Church Dogmatics IV.3., pp. 406-407.

24. Barth’s bid for dogmatic correctness forces him into battle with Kierkegaard’s Repetition . See Søren Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling and Repetition (tr. Hong and Hong, Princeton: Princeton University, 1983), pp. 197ff. Barth’s remarks on Kierkegaard are problematic because the passages on Job occur in a pseudonymous book (it is attributed to Constantin Constantius) and, moreover, are given as if penned by the young man (in an unhappy love affair) whom Constantius is counselling. It is rather difficult to say boldly, as Barth does, that the remarks on Job are whole-heartedly endorsed by Kierkegaard. The young man in question is repeatedly described by Constantius, in the context of his passions, as making the mistake of prizing the love of ‘recollection’ above the love of ‘repetition’. (See ibid., pp. 136-137.) The passage Barth cites seems to be the young man’s letter of December 14 (in ibid., p. 207): “The secret in Job, the vital force, the nerve, the idea, is that Job, despite everything, is in the right.” Barth says “This is going too far” (Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3, p. 407). However, Barth fails to tell his reader that this rightness, in the context of the young man’s letter, is not a moral rightness but Job’s insistence that while mortals cannot solve his problems, he trusts that God can, together with the confidence “that God can surely explain everything if one can only speak with him” (Kierkegaard, Repetition , p. 208). It is not clear that Barth disagrees with this. Kierkegaard’s young man does attempt to explain Job: “How, then, is Job’s position to be explained? The explanation is this: the whole thing is an ordeal [ Prøvelse ]” (ibid., p.209). He goes on: “This category, ordeal, is not esthetic, ethical, or dogmatic – it is altogether transcendent. Only as knowledge about an ordeal, that it is an ordeal, would it be included in a dogmatics. But as soon as the knowledge enters, the resilience of the ordeal is impaired, and the category is actually another category. This category is absolutely transcendent and places a person in a purely personal relationship of opposition to God, in a relationship such that he cannot allow himself to be satisfied with any explanation at second hand” (ibid., p.210). As we shall see, this has something in common with Aquinas’ interpretation of Job. Indeed, Barth’s objection to Job’s complaint bears surprising resemblance to the response of Job’s comforters as Aquinas understands them: “Job had the right opinion about divine providence but had been so immoderate in his manner of speaking that scandal was produced from it in the hearts of the others when they thought that he was not showing due reverence to God” (Aquinas The Literal Exposition on Job [on 38:1], p. 415). I cannot say if this might worry Barth himself.

25. See Martin Yaffe ‘Providence in Medieval Aristotelianism’ in The Voice from the Whirlwind: Interpreting the Book of Job (ed. L Perdue and W Clark Gilpin, Nashville: Abingdon , 1992) pp. 111-128.

26. Ibid. p. 117.

27. Ibid. p. 112.

28. Yaffe compares Aquinas’ use of Job with Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed , which transposes Job’s attributes: for Maimonides Job is perfectly just, but in need of wisdom, whereas for Aquinas, Job discovers that his perfect wisdom encounters practical challenges. See Yaffe ‘Providence in Medieval Aristotelianism’, passim .

29. Yaffe, ‘Interpretive Essay’ in Thomas Aquinas Literal Exposition on Job (tr. A Damico, interpretive essay by M Yaffe, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), p. 27.

30. Aquinas Literal Exposition on Job , [on 2:11-13] p. 98.

31. Yaffe, “Interpretive Essay” in Aquinas Literal Exposition on the Book of Job, pp. 26-27. Yaffe supports his interpretation by drawing attention to the multiple instances where Aquinas emphasises certain aspects of Job’s admission to God of his own inadequacy. These aspects are the “levity” with which Job spoke (rather than the content) or “not showing due reverence” (rather than expounding error-ridden doctrine). See Aquinas’ remarks on Job 39:33-35, 40:3, 42:1 (Aquinas Literal Exposition on the Book of Job, pp. 441-442; 443-444; 469-470; E.g. “And here one should consider that Job, speaking before God and his own conscience, is not accusing himself of falsity of speech or of haughty intention, since he had spoken from the purity of his spirit, but of levity of speech, namely, since even if he had not spoken from pride of spirit his words nevertheless seemed to smack of arrogance, from which his friends had taken an occasion for scandal’ (Aquinas Literal Exposition on the Book of Job [on Job: 39:34], p. 441.

32. Aquinas Literal Exposition , p. 416.

33. Yaffe, ‘Interpretive Essay’ in Aquinas Literal Exposition on the Book of Job , p. 27.

34. I am grateful to Susannah Ticciati for raising this question.


2004, Society for Scriptural Reasoning