Review of A Companion to Job in the Middle Ages

We are grateful to Prof. Mark Elliott for this review of a new book in Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition series. Prof. Elliott serves as Professor of Historical and Biblical Theology in St Mary’s College at the University of St Andrews. You can find his research profile here.

Franklin Harkins and Aaron Canty, A Companion to Job in the Middle Ages (Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition, 73; Leiden-Boston: Brill,2017.

This is a truly outstanding collection of essays, one of those rare cases where the word ‘Companion’ is well deserved, because it leads the reader over the ground so well, mixing information with insight. Even where there is not detailed inspection there is at least a sketch and pointers towards further research.

The second chapter (K. Steinhauser, ‘Job in Patristic Commentaries and Theological Works’) is to be singled out for the wide-range and depth and ease with scholarship. Job as ‘athlete of God’ was the Pelagian poster boy. For Julian of Eclanum (57) ‘God permits the good to suffer in order to demonstrate their devotion and increase the merit’, and Ambrose while taking sin and Job 14:4-5 seriously held that Job was not a type of Christ but rather a virtuous example for Christians. (Job and David in the Psalms complement each other in Ambrose’s treatment.)

All this helps explain the pre-history to what many assume to be the starting point: Gregory the Great’s Moralia. Carol Straw then takes this on and shows how Gregory viewed Job’s suffering as excessive, being more than his sin-virtue account deserved, such that (analogously to Christ) Job was due recompense for that amount. Yet on the other hand Job in his protesting was ignorant, due to an incomplete submission and thus in danger of pride, such that restoration required forgiveness by God of Job. The lesson was: ‘When something bad happens, blame yourself, confess, and do penance’ (100) The Glossa Ordinaria draws heavily on the Moralia and could be held to be ‘128 ‘better than Gregory himself at transmitting his blunt moral lessons.’ Yet there is an issue that Lesley Smith deftly shows us: we do not have a proper critical edition of the Gloss (apart from the late Mary Dove’s edition of The Gloss on the Song of Songs), and Rusch’s early modern printed edition cannot simply be relied upon.

Franklin Harkins then offers a masterly treatment of Job in Lombard’s Sentences and Albert and Thomas’ commentaries. Whereas Albert sees Sir 24:5-6 as framing subject matter of Sentences, ‘Thomas and Bonaventure understand Job 28:11 as determinative of the material of Book I and of the fourfold causality if the Sentences, respectively.’ (133) The one who ‘probes the depths of the rivers and has brought hidden realities out into the light’ is applied to both Christ and the theologian.
Albert liked Job 26:14 (‘since we have hear barely a drop of his word, who will be able to behold the thunder of his greatness?’) The ‘small word’ is that about creatures; much trickier to comprehend is the ‘thunder’ that is the doctrine of God. ‘It is precisely because human words are inadequate to explain fully the theological mysteries set forth in the Sentences that Albert, Bonaventure and Thomas have repeated recourse to divine discourse-the words of Job and other scriptural books-in their efforts to shed as much light as possible on these sacred truths.’ (135) So it is on hard questions such as ‘whether God enjoys himself’ that theology has to give way to biblical exegesis. This is a surprising and fascinating theme. Is the similitude to God a vestige? Well yes, in that it represents God in a ‘confused’ way. Let the mystery ‘sink in’.

A second chapter on Albert (by Ruth Meyer) traces how the great Dominican viewed the dialogue in terms of a formal disputation. Elihu claims to have received revelation such that his statements should be regarded as first principles: but that is precisely not how to practice theology, and he badly misrepresents Job’s position. However, Job himself finally receives such illumination. Eliphaz contends that one receives recompense in this life, Bildad thinks that happens only after death, while Zophar is agnostic about that. As with the previous chapter, Scripture is held by Albert to be deeper than theology in its symbolic form. Job is morally exemplary and mirrors God’s wisdom-led providential ordering of the world. Job’s testing built up his faith. Lyra too has a sympathetic view of Job who is praised for honesty and speaking truthfully about God: A. Canty is a sure guide in leading us through Nicolas’ interpretation.

The chapter by Ronald Rittgers on Job in the German Reformation is a model piece of scholarship, pointing the way to uncharted territory (e.g. Lavater on Job), while making good use of what scholarship is available (e.g. Clines on Luther’s interpretation. Luther liked the Vulgate’s (mis-) translation of Job 9:28 ‘verebar omnia opera mea’. Rittgers traces how the importance of humility receded in Luther’s interpretation. The point was that for the righteous, any suffering does not proceed from divine wrath. Testing means more something like ‘strengthening’ ‘Job felt utterly abandoned by God and yet was in fact very close to God’s heart.'(269) God even allows saints to falter in adversity in order that a deeper salvation emerge. The presentation of J. Brenz’s exegesis is disappointing, only because, in the form of a continuous commentary, it is so similar in content to the Wittenberg Reformer: one should know one’s poverty apart from God’s sustaining presence. Likewise, for Osiander, Job’s cursing the day of his birth meant ‘he learned that the vice of impatience was deeply rooted in his nature, something he would not otherwise have recognised’ (275). Tantalisingly, we only get a snippet of the Catholic Eck’s response to this: Job was actually cursing the “day” of human mortality and sin as he looked forward to the eternal day of salvation. Reinforced by the brief study of lay Lutheran theologians like Linck and Weller is the notion that Job is indeed sinful and in that risks the removal of God’s protection, a hypothetical possibility for believers. It would have been good to have had the Catholic riposte to ‘Job the sinner’ outlined, but perhaps that was not that different from Gregory the Great’s observations.

This reviewer’s lack of expertise means that Part 2 of the book (roughly one-third) is devoted to ‘Vernacular and popular perspectives’, i.e. non-theological reception of Job, will be treated cursorily. One learns about: Church architecture and Job’s relationship to purgatory, Peter of Riga’s presentation of Job as a prototype for Christ, whereas in Old English Literature ‘Job’ speaks of Christ and the Church. For Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales Job is an illustrious penitent and for Lollards one whose virtue reflected adversely on the 14th-century church as it proudly ignored God’s law.

The book is well supplied with a bibliography although it is odd to see a number of primary sources listed under ‘Johannes’.


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