Monday, 28 August 2017

Job’s Three Friends, Ethical Issues, and our Guiding Metaphors for God

Here’s a quotation from David Atkinson about Job’s three friends, taken from a wider passage that I thought very interesting:

All [of Job’s friends] have begun with their conception of God, and all have moved on to the practical implications of their view of God for this pastoral need [i.e., Job’s plight]. And they are different. That seems to be of very significant pastoral importance. The picture we have of God, and the metaphors that guide our understanding of him are crucially important in the way we frame the moral and pastoral questions which confront us. If with Eliphaz we think of God primarily as holy, we will approach the pastoral situation in one way. If with Bildad we begin with God’s justice, we will approach it another way. If, with Zophar, God’s omniscience is the major theme, our approach will be different yet again. . . .
Our guiding metaphors for God dictate the ways our moral and pastoral questions are framed. If we begin with God as Creator and law-giver we may find ourselves talking mostly about obedience to divine commands, about sin and the need for repentance. If our starting-point is the compassion of God the Redeemer, we may see moral issues in terms of falling short of divine ideals and the journey of faith. If our starting-point is the love of God, we may primarily stress a personalistic ethic and the need for mutual acceptance and understanding. Many participants in various debates about personal morality, for example, never really engage with one another because their starting-points are different, and they are facing in different directions. The moral and pastoral conclusions we come to will depend to a very large degree on the guiding metaphors for God with which we start.

David Atkinson, The Message of Job: Suffering and Grace. The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: IVP, 1991), pp. 61–62

This is stating the obvious, I know, but the various ethical quandaries currently being debated in the Church of England and other denominations are unlikely to be resolved until the various parties involved are able to reflect on their guiding metaphors for God and how these affect their various interpretations of human experience and biblical texts. Where are the forums for these sorts of discussions?


  1. This has made me think about my own starting point for God. I think of him firstly as the ultimate logic, which appears to be different from most other believers' views. That's the scientist in me, I guess.
    I actually own Atkinson's book on Job but have yet to start on it. I look forward to doing so.

    1. I found it quite a good book, Josie, one of the best commentaries I've read in recent years. I liked Atkinson's approach, even if I found myself disagreeing with some of his conclusions.