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Faith has doubt built into it

by
11 April 2014

Anthony Phillips on the paradox contained in the Book of Job

The Book of Job: A biography
Mark Larrimore
Princeton University Press £16.95
(978-0-691-14759-8)
Church Times Bookshop £15.25 (Use code CT127 )

THIS beautifully written and presented book should be compulsory reading for anyone concerned with the irrationality of life, atheist and believer alike; for, just as unjust suffering challenges the believer, so does his faith amid such suffering challenge the atheist.

There is no more profound examination of the issue of theodicy than the book of Job.

Larrimore sets out to describe the reception of the book of Job from biblical times to the modern era. For successive generations, the book has questioned both the place of man in the created order and the nature of the God with whom he (if he chooses) has to deal - though, as Larrimore points out, it is only with the rise of modernity that man has had that choice. Before then, it was not whether or not to live with God, but how.

In five chapters, the author examines the ancient interpreters; the use by medievalists of Job in philosophical discourse; the place of Job outside the text; the problem of theodicy; and the impact of historical critical biblical study on the interpretation of the text.

In his conclusion, Larrimore highlights the contemporary vitality of Joban interpretation, particularly for Jewish writers in light of the Shoah.

So, among a large cast, the author refers to the apocryphal Testament of Job, the Talmud, St Gregory the Great, Maimonides, St Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Christian liturgies, Pope, Kant, Chesterton, Blake, Elie Wiesel, and Margarete Susman.

The paradox of Job is God's charge against him for speaking without knowledge, yet vindicating him for having spoken rightly -which makes nonsense, of course, of the spurious claim that Job's restoration rested on his recantation, however one translates those difficult verses in the epilogue.

Nowhere does Larrimore make reference to the Eden narrative. Yet there - perhaps centuries before Job was written - the parameter of what it meant to be human is spelt out in the forbidden fruit. Man can enjoy neither immortality nor the knowledge of good and evil - that is the kind of knowledge which God alone possesses, through being outside his creation.

While man is free to explore that creation to establish its order, he must yet die in ignorance of all that lies beyond it, which includes the origin of evil. Our faith must, by the very nature of our creation, have within it an agnostic component.

Yet, as Job illustrates, man must ever challenge the facile answers of the friends improperly seeking to defend their God. Indeed, it is only by his challenge to God that Job's faith is made real.

This is a lesson that the Church needs to take on board, as its weekly mouthings become increasingly irrelevant to "man come of age". Job deserves to be venerated as a saint, as Larrimore's superb biography of his book confirms.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of the King's School, Canterbury.

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