James H. Job, Sr.: I Can’t Help It: Do We Do What We Must Do?

I was in Indiana from February 16-25, attending my sister’s wedding and visiting with family.  I stayed for some time at my Grandpa and Grandma’s house.  For years at that house, I’ve noticed a pamphlet on one of the shelves.  It dates to 1925 (though there was an earlier edition in 1924), and it’s by James H. Job, Sr., a pastor, who also was my great-great grandfather (not that he was alive when I was born).  It’s entitled I Can’t Help It: Do We Do What We Must Do? 

The title long intrigued me.  I had heard that James Job, Sr. was a rather cold and hard man, and I thought that his pamphlet might be about our human struggle to fulfill our moral obligations to God and to our neighbors.  I tend to gravitate towards the theme of people who have weaknesses, and yet deep inside of them there is a humanity, love, and a desire to do what is right.  How many times have I felt that underneath my cold and aloof exterior is someone who genuinely cares for other human beings, but who struggles to express that care in his day-to-day life?  I can easily exclaim at times that “I can’t help it”, while asking if I do what I must, and, if not, why?  I thought that Job’s pamphlet would wrestle with those kinds of issues.

Because I wasn’t going to church when I was in Indiana, I decided to read James H. Job’s pamphlet and to blog about that on Sunday, in place of my usual Sunday post of blogging about the morning’s church service that I attended.  But, because the Internet connection was slow where I was staying, I decided to postpone my blogging for when I would return to upstate New York.  Well, I have returned, and this is my post on James H. Job, Sr.’s pamphlet!

It turned out that the message of the pamphlet was not what I anticipated.  It wasn’t about the human struggle to be good.  Rather, it was a defense of Calvinism.  It’s not that Job explicitly mentioned Calvinism or predestination, but his essential argument was that human free will is an illusion, which is why we need God to transform us unilaterally by God’s grace.  In certain respects, Job’s argument overlapped with that of Jonathan Edwards in Freedom of the Will.  Job contended that we have desires inside of us, and we follow the desire that is strongest at any given time.  We did not choose those desires, but they are just there, and we cannot help but to follow the stronger desire.  This is true of fallen human beings.  It is true of converted people, who have good and sinful desires inside of them.  It is true of God and of Satan.  It is even true of plants, which gravitate towards the sunlight.  We cannot act otherwise.

So, according to Job, how can we be held morally accountable, when we cannot help what we do?  And what is the basis for society to enact laws, if people’s acts are essentially determined?  For Job, we’re accountable when we know that something is wrong and do it anyway, though, on some level, we’re also accountable if we sin out of ignorance (since Luke 12:48 says that the one who does not know his master’s will and violates it will be beaten with a few stripes).  The reason for laws, according to Job, is to maintain societal order.  But how can laws maintain societal order, if we can’t help what we do?  According to Job, if I understood him correctly, laws can essentially influence our desires, strengthening some at the expense of others.  Remember that Job said that we follow the stronger desire.  Suppose that (say) Ralph desires to rob the bank.  Ralph has a desire for money.  But the law against theft means that Ralph could go to jail if he is caught.  That reality brings another desire into play: Ralph may want money, but he may also want his freedom.  If Ralph’s desire for freedom is stronger than his desire for money, Ralph would be discouraged from robbing the bank.  The law throws another desire into the mix, and that could dissuade Ralph from doing wrong.  Job is deterministic, but he realizes that the desires that we have come from a variety of factors, including the impact of other people upon us: we, as we are, are shaped by our environment, and we also have an influence on others.

That’s Job’s overall argument.  But there were a variety of side issues in his pamphlet that intrigued me.  Here are some examples:

—-When Job was comparing humans with vegetables and animals, I wondered if he was open to evolution.  It turned out that he was not, for he said that evolution was unable to explain the existence of the male and female sexes, whereas the Bible was, and that evolution could not account for the variety of organisms in certain environments.  Actually, my understanding is that evolution does explain why there are certain organisms in particular environments.  I don’t know how evolutionists would account for the existence of the two sexes, however, but I’m open to learning about this.

—-Many biblical scholars contend that Genesis 1-2 has two different creation accounts, by at least two authors.  Those who don’t accept that have to deal with a problem: God creates human beings in Genesis 1, and God creates human beings in Genesis 2.  So did God create human beings twice?  Some say that Genesis 2 is a microscopic elaboration on the creation that occurred in Genesis 1: Genesis 1 says that God created human beings, and Genesis 2 shows how God did so.  Arnold Murray (if I understand him correctly) maintains that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 present two acts of creation: the people whom God creates in Genesis 1 are not the same as the people whom God creates in Genesis 2 (which, according to Murray, would explain where Cain got his wife!).  Job has another proposal: Genesis 1 is about the creation of the soul, whereas God in Genesis 2 places that soul in a body.

—-I appreciated Job’s discussion of how we often act according to the knowledge that we have at the time.  When we make a mistake, we can learn from its consequences, but, unfortunately, we can’t go back in time and tell our earlier selves about the wisdom that we have gained.  We can advise others right now, however.  Again, Job is talking about how we are shaped by our environment, and how we shape our environment.  There is a determinism in Job’s scenario, but that determinism is consistent with human interaction and the messiness of life.

—-Job says that people should disobey unjust laws, and he cites Prohibition as an example of an unjust law.  Job says that, under Prohibition, Jesus Christ would be thrown into jail for turning water into wine!  This surprised me because my Grandma said that Job was a Baptist.  This would be consistent with his Calvinism, since there are Baptists who are Calvinistic.  (They’re called primitive Baptists.)  But why would a Baptist think that Jesus turned water into alcohol?  My reading of Job, on some level, was predictable, but there were a few surprises!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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