Thursday, 21 May 2015

Ian McFarland on the Portrayal of Evil in Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes

There’s a wonderfully compelling treatment of evil in the fifth chapter of Ian McFarland’s From Nothing. I have to say that I don’t find McFarland’s conclusions especially novel (evil is that which God does not will; evil is an impediment to creaturely flourishing; God continually rejects and counters evil; evil cannot be explained, and attempts to do so risk legitimising it), and some of his presuppositions are surely contestable (divine permission (of evil) is not divine enactment (of evil); God doesn’t will evil but does allow suffering (as a correcting good)). But the majority of this chapter is, in effect, a theological interpretation of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, and it’s McFarland’s readings of these books that captured my attention.

Proverbs. McFarland recalls the idea that evil is a privation of being or the good, and the book of Proverbs appears to support such an idea. In Proverbs, evil equates to actions or dispositions that lead to destructive consequences. The distinction is between the wise person, who is connected with the order of things and in tune with the Wisdom by which God created all things, and the foolish person, who disregards the order of things and lives in a way that undermines his or her own existence. The destructive consequences of the foolish person’s actions entail that person’s suffering, in which God may be seen as ‘reprov[ing] the one he loves’ (Prov. 3:12; remember, according to McFarland, Proverbs connects evil to ‘foolish’ actions or dispositions, not with the consequences of those actions or dispositions). Thus evil does not come from God; nor is it intrinsic to creation. Rather, evil – and Proverbs is only really concerned with moral evil – arises from humans rejecting God and refusing God’s ways.

Job. McFarland introduces his overview of Job with an observation that true worship of God is largely thanksgiving. This is a position necessitated by the doctrine of creation from nothing, which testifies to the fact that all things, including existence itself, are given by God. Giving thanks is the proper attitude and response towards God for everything we receive. But how should we regard loss, especially the sudden, violent loss experienced by Job? Like the goodness in his life to that point, Job believes the woe he suffers is from God’s hand, and none of the narrative elements in the book of Job appear to correct him. Thus Job is not concerned to charge God with evil; his focus is rather on seeking an explanation for his predicament, given that he is innocent of wrongdoing. However, God isn’t persuaded that a definitive explanation constitutes the best response to Job, and the concluding chapters appear to suggest that a humble relationship with God is what matters most in the face of catastrophe. The only ‘answer’ to Job’s questions that matters is God.

Ecclesiastes. Neither Proverbs nor Job addresses natural or systemic evil. For both of these books, evil is somehow related to agency, whether divine or human. However, Ecclesiastes appears to locate evil within the created structures of the world itself. This is not a problem at face value, for Ecclesiastes is convinced that there is a time for everything, and everything is good in its time. But time passes. And so everything is subject to vanity, to meaninglessness, to futility – and this is evil, an insubstantial evil. According to McFarland, an understanding of creaturely finitude that posits each creature’s place in space and time is not a problem in and of itself, but it does suggest that the goodness of creation is not equivalent to its perfection, which is ultimately an eschatological concept. It is only when God eschatologically transforms the conditions of creaturely existence so that each creature can flourish without jeopardising the integrity or reality of other creatures that creation can be said to be perfect(ed). McFarland draws from Romans 8:19-25 to counterbalance the realism/pessimism of Ecclesiastes.

As I said earlier, I find some of McFarland’s more general conclusions about evil to be commonplace. Moreover, I didn’t detect any explanation or account of the distinction between suffering and evil, which I think would further clarify McFarland’s own thoughts. And the Trinitarian–Christological emphasis that has permeated From Nothing to this point is noticeably absent – though that could be due simply to McFarland’s reliance upon Old Testament literature. However, the strength of the chapter lies in McFarland’s recognition that Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes each has its own take on the problem of evil (Proverbs: evil is due to human ‘foolishness’; Job: God is (unfathomably and transcendently) sovereign over evil; Ecclesiastes: evil is the futility of finitude) and that the canon of Scripture does nothing to smooth the sometimes-jarring distinctions between them other than to point to their eschatological resolution (Rom. 8). This in itself poses an interesting question for me: If creaturely finitude locates a creature in a particular space and time, then (a) does the creature’s eschatological renewal do away with its spatio-temporal locatedness; and (b) will the concept of creaturely finitude therefore be done away with, too? I’m all for thinking that the age to come has its own physics, and perhaps McFarland will address matters of this sort in his later chapter on ‘Glory’.

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