Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The hideous beauty of good theology

We are reading Job in the mornings. So far, we have got as far as Zophar the Naamathite's first speech in chapter 11, and feel that we are at the stage where the gloves are coming off. Job has suffered a terrible loss - wealth, family, health - and the friends' readiness to come and simply be with him in his misery was so impressive at first. But now, their determination to say, in effect, "You brought all this on yourself" "You deserved it!" is coming through loud and clear. 

The thing is, the vast bulk of what they say is truth. Their theology is good, and beautifully expressed. Some passages are sublime, in fact. There are sections which are close parallels to the very things God himself says about himself towards the end of the book.

Here is Zophar:
11:7-9  “Can you fathom the mysteries of God?
Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? 
They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do?
They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know? 
Their measure is longer than the earth and 
wider than the sea. 

And here is the Lord:

38:4-7  “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand. 
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it? 
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone— while the morning stars sang together 
and all the angels shouted for joy? 

Just occasionally the three friends give themselves away with some questionable theology:

11:6b God has even forgotten some of your sin. 

Really, Zophar? 

But the way they really give themselves away is in attitude. They purport to know the mind of the Almighty, and to some extent they really do, but they err when they speak on His behalf, not knowing the full picture or purpose. Their theology is good, but incomplete, mistimed and insensitive in delivery. 

Zophar again:

11:2-6a “Are all these words to go unanswered?
Is this talker to be vindicated? 
Will your idle talk reduce others to silence?
Will no one rebuke you when you mock? 
You say to God, ‘My beliefs are flawless 
and I am pure in your sight.’ 
Oh, how I wish that God would speak,
that he would open his lips against you 
and disclose to you the secrets of wisdom,
for true wisdom has two sides.

Job's friends appear to have adopted the tone of a debate on social media long before the dawn of the Internet. Their theology is broadly good, but the spirit in which they say it is ugly and gets uglier. All that is missing is for them to compare Job's "arrogance" to that of Hitler...!

I am taking several things away from this book already. 
- Theology which is 98% good can still be very bad theology. The yeast works through the whole lump of dough; the curate's egg - "good in parts" - is not a good egg. 
- Theology which is all good, but partial, applying to situations that are not the one facing us, can be very bad theology. Where we don't know, far better to say so and keep our traps shut. 

- Theology which is all good but spoken with a desire to score points, to bring down, to win an argument rather than a soul, is bad theology. Job's friends cease being friends during the conversation. They have an agenda - and it isn't God's. 

The book of Job stands as a great warning to those who say too much. Even good stuff said at the wrong time or in the wrong way can do great damage. The rest of the Bible is more concerned with rebuking bad theology; Job rebukes the good. It makes you stop and think. 

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