Justice or Wisdom?

John Walton and Tremper Longman III have slightly different takes on the book of Job as outlined in the introductions to their  new commentaries (Job (The NIV Application Commentary)) and Job (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms)). Both the areas of agreement and the areas of disagreement are informative. This is not a simple book with a single straightforward interpretation.

Longman emphasizes the fact that Job is wisdom literature. He concludes that the book of Job as wisdom literature serves primarily to allow a discussion of the source of wisdom. “The main question addressed by the book of Job, is who is wise?” The answer according to Longman is that wisdom is found only with God and that the only appropriate human response is fear of the Lord.

The book of Job also tells us something about suffering, although this is not the purpose of the book, at least in Longman’s view. Perhaps most importantly it serves as an important warning not to proof-text an argument for retribution theology from the bible.  While the Old Testament can be used to make a case that connects prosperity and blessings with righteousness while failure to obey brings divine retribution, the book of Job throws something of a monkey wrench into this theme and causes us to approach it with a level of caution.

Thus one of the important contributions of the book of Job (as well as Ecclesiastes) is to undermine the idea that retribution theology works absolutely and mechanically. Sometimes  sin does lead to negative consequences, but not always. Similarly, sometimes proper behavior leads to positive outcomes, but not always. …

But Job himself never receives an answer to the question of why he has suffered. At the end of the book, after hearing and seeing God, he submits to the power of God’s great wisdom. The book of Job reminds us that we will not always, or even perhaps typically, be able to explain our suffering or the suffering of our loved ones. It remains a mystery to us. (p, 67 – Longman)

Walton sees things differently on a couple of different levels. First he does see the purpose of the book of Job as addressing the question of suffering in the world. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is still a wisdom book, wisdom and the role of wisdom shapes the understanding of suffering.

The book shifts our attention from the idea that God’s justice (represented in the RP) is foundational to the operation of the world to the alternative that God’s wisdom is the more appropriate foundation. It does not offer a reason for suffering and does not try to defend God’s justice. … instead we are to trust God’s wisdom … (p. 22 – Walton)

As far as I can tell Walton does not see the primary question of Job as “who is wise?” but does see the primary conclusion as the need to trust in the wisdom of God.

Walton discusses the theme of retribution in more detail, but unlike Longman he separates the idea of the retribution principle (RP) as theology and retribution principle as theodicy. Here Walton is using theodicy not as a philosophical argument for or against the existence of God (the definition I get when I look up the term), but as an effort to reconcile God and Justice with the facts of real life in the real world. A theodicy is a defense of God as just and good.  The retribution principle is found in forms throughout Scripture, but we need to look at these passages carefully in order to properly understand what they teach about the nature of God and his action in the world.

The affirmations of the RP in the text are intended to be theological in nature, and they serve well in this capacity. By this I mean they offer a picture of God’s nature: He delights in bringing blessing to his faithful ones and takes seriously the need to punish the sinful. In contrast, the Israelites were inclined to wield that theology in service of a theodicy, a role for which it was singularly unsuitable. That is, they wanted to apply it to their experiences in life, and in the process understand God’s justice and the reasons behind suffering. The role of the book of Job is to perform the radical surgery that separates theology from theodicy, contending that in the end Yahweh’s justice must be accepted on faith rather than worked out philosophically. He does not need to be defended, he wants to be trusted. (p. 41 – Walton)

And he returns to the idea of wisdom:

The book of Job in effect takes a contra-theodicy position (i.e., refuses to offer a theodicy) by defending God’s wisdom rather than his justice. Though the book is not a theodicy, it is interested in the RP and its legitimacy. The RP is finally rejected as a foundation for divine activity in the human realm (i.e., as a theodicy) but it is reclaimed on the proverbial and anecdotal level as representing the character of the deity (i.e., as a theology). (p. 45 – Walton)

Whether suffering is or is not the central theme of the book of Job, and on this Longman and Walton see things slightly differently, both see the central conclusion to the book as a need to trust in the wisdom of God.

Is the retribution principle a part of Christian theology?

Where does it sneak into either our understanding of God or the nature of the questions we ask about the world?

Scot had an interesting post on Monday, Evolution and Evil/Morality. Many Christians will dismiss evolution as inconsistent with the nature of God because of the pointless suffering of countless creatures throughout the deep stretches of time. I think one of the things that Job teaches us is that such logic is, for the Christian, misguided. Justice, benevolence, righteousness, and suffering are not so easily disentangled. Evolutionary creation has to stand or fall on other grounds. God is just and good, but God’s wisdom is the foundation through which we understand the world. This will come up again when we get to God’s tour of creation in the final chapters of Job.

If you would like to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you would like to comment, please see Justice or Wisdom? on Jesus Creed.

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