The Medieval Review 17.10.27

Kerns, Brian, and Mark DelCogliano, eds. Gregory the Great / Moral Reflections on the Book of Job, Volume 3 (Books 11-16). Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2016. pp. vii, 333. ISBN: 978-0-87907-358-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Ken A. Grant

While there is much to be said about spending as much time as possible with the work of a gifted writer and thoughtful exegete, there is at least as much to be said about an author who recognizes the need, at times, for "extreme brevity" (5). The third volume of Brian Kerns' clear and engaging translation of Gregory the Great's Moralia in Iob, begins with the briefest of introductions from Gregory, in which he comments that he will be changing tack in his explication of the Book of Job. The change makes itself apparent from the beginning, as Gregory dispenses with the patient exposition of each verse with each of the three senses of interpretation used in Part One, and to a lesser extent in Part Two, and moves with greater focus and speed through his examination of chapters 12:6 to 24:20 (the largest number of verses commented upon in the six parts of the work), which continues the conversation about guilt and sin between Job and his three friends. (Please see Carol Straw's excellent review of the first volume for an effective recapitulation of Gregory's works, influence, and methodology in the Moralia--

After a short defensive grumble, wherein Gregory notes that "no one should blame me for changing my style in an extended work like this one" (5), Gregory's introduction to the resumption of his commentary on the Book of Job deftly explains this change of style when he states that, "(F)or the person who is not free to read and study, however, the brevity of this part may well be congenial, where we do not so much say what we think as indicate what should be said" (5). This distinction is an important departure from the other five parts of the work, all of which received significant editing and revision after Gregory reviewed the transcripts from the oral discourses. As indicated in Mark DelCogliano's concise and informative introduction, Gregory offers "an outline or sketch" (3) in this volume, not the detailed, multi-layered interpretation of the other volumes, but a more focused and straightforward interpretation that sought to provide guidance for individuals and the Church at large.

This change in style, which Gregory equates to a "diversity in cooking methods" because such diversity "pleases those who eat the same food" (5), is welcome not because the five other parts are excessively prolix, but because this concision sharpens the focus of Gregory's thinking and exegesis, and presents the reader with a volume that is more direct and immediate. The patient, at times painstakingly particular, interpretation scheme of the first volume, interpreting each verse historically, typically, and morally, is exhaustive, but also potentially exhausting. In this volume Gregory moves with purpose and a sense of lightness, dexterously moving from verse to verse, trenchantly revealing what he perceives to be the kernel of each passage, and expanding only on those topics that he believed to be central to Christians' lives.

Gregory illustrates this concision by offering, in quick succession, two important premises for this work: One, "blessed Job is called a sufferer, and therein is the passion of the Lord and the sufferings of his Body the church portrayed" (5). Two, "his friends play the role of heretics, who, as I have said often enough, when they try to defend God end up displeasing him...Not everything heretics say, however, is foolish or strays from the knowledge of truth; rather they mix prudence with stupidity and falsehood with truth...The same holds true for blessed Job's friends: sometimes their speech is contemptible, sometimes admirable" (5, 6). These statements shape Gregory's interpretive task, and illustrates a more fluid relationship between the three senses of interpretation. In the first, Gregory is making an explicit typological connection, directly linking Job to Christ. In the second, Gregory makes a fascinating historical and moral connection, highlighting the need for Christians of his day to not simply dismiss the ideas and arguments of the heretics, just as Job did not simply dismiss his friends. Gregory does not belabor these points, but makes them simply and clearly, and then moves on, trusting that his audience will remember these basic points as the commentary unfolds.

We note this fluid interpretation, for example, when Job, asks, 'do you think a dead man will live again?' (Job 14:14), Gregory explains what he believes the question reveals, stating plainly that, "(I)t is the practice of just people, because they hold sure and firm knowledge themselves, to say things as though they had some doubt concerning them, in order that they might transfer the words of weak people to themselves. Then by a decisive answer they directly contradict that weakness and doubt" (68). In the next paragraph, he quickly moves from a moral to typological interpretation by tying this idea to Christ's prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, 'My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me,' (Matt 26:39) by noting that, "(H)e took up their fear so that he might rid them of it. Then through obedience he showed them the strength of fortitude and said, yet not my will but yours be done" (68). He then returns to straightforward moral interpretation stating, "the words of the weak should sometimes be used by the courageous; in this way the hearts of the weak might be inspired to make robust declaration and thereby be gratefully strengthened" (68). This is representative of the ease and economy with which Gregory utilizes the various interpretive senses in this volume, cycling through the senses in a more organic, less systematic, style.

This volume is a welcome next step in the series. This is a highly accessible translation of an important work, a translation that allows those without a strong grasp of Latin to truly immerse themselves in Gregory's exploration of the human condition, the Church, and the natural world, all of which are incorporated into a fascinating dialog with Job's profound and personal struggle to understand his relationship with God. Additionally, through Gregory's different 'style' the reader can more readily apprehend Gregory's understanding of what is central to the Christian life. The dialog between Job and the three friends provides Gregory with an ideal opportunity to succinctly articulate the most troubling questions and difficulties confronting a Christian. The conclusions drawn by Gregory's hermeneutic provide the twenty-first century reader an effective window into Gregory's perspective of sixth century Christianity.

This volume, like its two predecessors, is organized effectively, presented cleanly and efficiently, with ample margins for scriptural references, and provides a thorough scriptural index.

Copyright (c) 2017 Ken A. Grant

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