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The Book of Job: betwixt and between Irenaean and Augustinian theodicy

Job 1:1 , 2:1-10

1There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

2One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. 2The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 3The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” 4Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. 5But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” 6The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

7So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. 9Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

In times of crisis, we are driven to look for relief from danger by seeking some kind of interpretation of the crisis. There are generally two responses: (1) people will look for scapegoats to put the blame on, or (2) look for ways by which the crises can be justified as something worthwhile.

We notice these two coping mechanisms in Christian history and tradition.

To deal with the contradiction between the notion of an omnipotent (all-powerful) and omnibenevolent (all-loving) God on the one hand and the lived experience of pain and suffering, on the other, our forebearers went for a solution known as theodicy, justification of God even with evil in the world.

In early Christian theology, the two most competing schools of thought were the Irenaean and the Augustinian. Irenaeus of Lyon (130 AD) was a Christian theologian, as was Augustine of Hippo (354 AD). The Irenaean answer is to justify evil and suffering by relating them to a higher and better goal. Suffering is seen as character development for humanity. Irenaeus taught that God causes suffering but for the advantage of humankind: to learn a truth, grow spiritually, or prove the real character of one’s faith. Slightly differently, Augustin wants us to leave God alone. The reason for suffering is humanity’s free will. Our suffering is the result of our choices. And since we are directly responsible for our suffering, why should we blame God? We should leave God alone because it is our responsibility to stop it or cope with its consequences.

In both instances, the onus is on the person who suffers. In the first instance, one can simply accept the problem of existential suffering, evil, and pain of everyday life and use it for character development. In the second instance, take the responsibility or at least look for someone, perhaps a scapegoat, who can bear all the burden for the ills of our world. This scapegoat method is rooted in the Old Testament. Leviticus 16 informs us that once a year, a goat is saddled with the sins of the people of Israel and is cast into the desert as a symbol of atonement for the sins of the collective.

The book of Job offers a different perspective. Job is a righteous man. He is blessed with good health, a good family, a secure business, and a vibrant community. But then he suffers a dramatic reversal of fortunes. His children die, his wealth is gone, his marriage is in turmoil, and his health is drastically declining. His friends who came to console him ended up blaming him for his predicament. They are the embodiment of the Irenaean and Augustinian schools of thought. They attempt to convince Job that there is something wrong with him. That he is a sinner and must learn from this evil. But sinner against what? The friends have no idea. Yet, they want Job to realize from his suffering that he is a sinner anyway. Job rejects their claim, calling them: “You are miserable comforters, all of you!” (Job 16:2). The Book of Job rejects the idea advocated by all of Job’s friends.

Instead, Job takes the matter into his own hands. He decides to put God on trial, blaming God for the evil he is experiencing. But Job’s attempt is fruitless. Not that his protest against evil is unfounded or because God cannot be held accountable for his actions, but because Job’s accusation is misguided.

The author of the book of Job does not reveal God as the one responsible for evil, but as the one who, together with Job, is wrestling with evil and struggling with it amidst creation. The creation, despite God’s best efforts, seem prone to falling into chaos.

We notice this insight in G.K Chesterton’s “Introduction to the Book of Job.” Chesterton goes as far as to suggest that the chaos of Job is the extension of the chaos God is facing. For Chesterton, the world is more incomprehensible than Job thought it was. Moreover, the issue is not that Job cannot make sense of his suffering but rather that Godself cannot entirely understand it all.

The point for Chesterton is the following one. God is not a spectator of our suffering but a participant. Secondly, there is no deeper meaning in suffering because the guarantor of all meaning, namely God, is part of the suffering. The pain of humanity is as much as the pain of Godself.

Thus, the response to suffering is not the one put forward by Irenaeus, accepting it passively as a character-building exercise, the sort we get from gurus, motivational speakers, and mindfulness coaches. Nor is the Augustinian solution, to look for scapegoats while leaving the godheads alone to run the show. In contrast, the book of Job shows us that the struggle of humanity is also the struggle of God. That God is as much involved in seeking answers and wrestling with evil as we are.

The book of Job asks more questions than we can answer or even more than the book itself can ever answer. But questions are an invitation to enter the labyrinths of personal reflection. One that hopefully leads us to awe and wonder of creation and creator.


A Christian Theology of Religions: The Rainbow of Faiths, John Hick.

Suffering and Soul‐Making: Rethinking John Hick’s Theodicy, Mark S. M. Scott.

Introduction to the Book of Job, G. K Chesterton.

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