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OF THE THOUGHT AND WRITINGS
OF JACQUES ELLUL
I was first introduced to the thought and writings of Jacques Ellul in 1986 or 1987 when I observed a quotation in a theological periodical and checked out the bibliographical footnote to observe that it was taken from his book, The Subversion of Christianity. I purchased the book, and though I found it difficult reading, it sufficiently piqued my interest to read other books which Ellul had written, until eventually I had acquired all thirty-two (32) books of his writings which have currently been translated into English, as well as the seven (7) books which comment on his thought and writing. A bibliography of these primary and secondary sources is included at the conclusion of this article.
To give some context to Jacques Ellul's thought and writings, a brief biographical sketch is in order.
Jacques Ellul was born January 6, 1912 in Bordeaux, France, the only child of Joseph and Martha Ellul. Jacques' father, Joseph, was born in Malta with British citizenship, but grew up in Trieste which was then a port city under Austrian rule. Joseph's father was Italian and his mother was Serbian. Joseph's father had been a wealthy ship owner with several large ocean-going cargo ships. In the 1890s one ship was sunk, one was captured, and one was pirated. Without adequate insurance, he went bankrupt. Aristocratic honor being very important to him, he committed suicide, and his wife subsequently secluded herself in her home and never came out again. I include this detail because Jacques' father held up his grandfather as an example, saying, "This is what an honorable man is like." Joseph, Jacques' father, went on to study law in Vienna, and then went to business school, which is how he ended up in Bordeaux, France, where he was sent to gain trading experience with a wine merchant. There he met Jacques' mother, Martha, whose father was Portuguese and also in the wine business. Martha's mother was a French Protestant.
Jacques Ellul was basically a "foreigner" in a country where heritage is prized and nationalism runs deep. Though both the paternal and maternal sides of his family had known great wealth, they had come upon hard times. Jacques considered this one of the decisive elements in the development of his life and thinking that he was acquainted with poverty.
He spent his boyhood on the docks and wharves of Bordeaux, a seaport city, and aspired to be a sea-captain. Though a conscientious student under the strict supervision of his parents, he had to earn his own living from the time he was fifteen years of age due to the meager family means.
As a child Jacques recalled that he had only a "remote knowledge of Christianity." His father, though he had some religious background in the Greek or Serbian Orthodox Church, thought that religion was nothing but myths and fairy stories, and was essentially a Voltairian skeptic. He had asked Jacques' mother not to influence their son with religion. But since a Bible was one of the limited books in their home, Jacques did recall reading the Bible periodically from the time he was seven or eight years of age particularly because he observed his mother, a devout Christian woman, doing so in conjunction with her daily personal prayers.
At age eighteen, after completion of his secondary schooling at the lycee, Jacques' father projected his desires and expectations for his son by declaring, "Now you are going to study law." Jacques wanted to go to sea, but he began university studies in the history of law and institutions.
In the summer prior to commencing university studies Jacques reluctantly relates that he had a pre-conversion experience. He had completed his secondary school finals, and was engaged in translating Faust, when "all of a sudden I knew myself to be in the presence of something so astounding, so overwhelming, that had entered me to the very core of my being. I jumped on a bicycle and fled. I thought to myself: 'You have been in the presence of God.' I started to run for my life from the One who had revealed himself to me. I realized that God had spoken, but I did not want him to have me. I did not want to be controlled by another." You can see why he appreciated the story of Jonah, and wrote a book on the prophet.
A year later, at age nineteen, Jacques Ellul read Karl Marx's Das Kapital. This was at a time when he was particularly disturbed at the family's poverty, the social inequities around him, and the injustice of his father being such a brilliant man but unable to find work. This was 1931, after the financial collapse of 1929. He appreciated Marx's dialectic materialism, and later credited Marx with forcing him to study the Church sociologically.
Three years later, at age 22, Jacques Ellul relates that he experienced what he called the "second stage of my conversion." He was reading the Bible in the eighth chapter of Romans, and "I was converted with a certain brutality." "I saw a perspective beyond history." When he told his mother (who had avoided any overt religious influence as a promise to his father), he said, "I believe in Jesus Christ. I have converted." His mother replied (without looking up), "I am not surprised. I have been praying for that every night since you were born." Although Ellul was reticent to discuss his personal conversion, it is reported that he wrote an account of such that was not to be published until after his death.
Jacques Ellul began to read theology, both Catholic and Protestant. He admits that he was briefly enthralled with Calvin's writings. "He beguiled me with his rigor, intransigence and total use of Scripture. It fit my strict personality. But he was deadly boring, extremely 'closed,' and too systematized. Pluralism in any form is incompatible with Calvin's thinking." Ellul became acquainted with the writings of the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, through his friendship with the French Protestant theologian, Jean Bosc. He appreciated Karl Barth's dialectic approach, and said, "Once I began reading Karl Barth, I stopped being a Calvinist." He admitted that he was more influenced by Luther, Kierkegaard and Barth, than by Calvin. (Even thought he was an active member of the Reformed Church of France.)
From the hardships of his upbringing Ellul seems to have had an underlying reactive, rebellious and revolutionary attitude toward "the powers that be." He participated in several revolutionary movements, including the Popular Front and the Spanish Civil War in the mid-30s. It was in the midst of such activities that he met Yvette Lensvelt, a Dutch girl who held British citizenship, who later became his wife in 1937. She had been schooled in a Catholic school, but had rejected Christianity when the priests refused to answer her prying questions. She became very anti-Christian. Having already trained as a nurse, she was studying law when Jacques met her.
In the same year that he was married (1937), Jacques Ellul was appointed Director of Studies at the University of Strasbourg. He held this position for three years, until 1940, when the Vichy government, under the Nazi influence, determined that he was the son of a "foreigner", and had made statements hostile about German intents.
His father, Joseph, was arrested by the Germans for being a "foreigner", and Jacques saw him one more time through the prison bars, thanks to the kindness of a German guard. His father died in 1942 at the hands of the Nazis.
Learning that his wife, Yvette, born in Holland and carrying a British passport, was to be arrested as a "foreigner" also, Jacques took his bride, departed Bordeaux, and vanished into the countryside into the "free zone" just beyond the area controlled by the Nazis. They eked out an existence from 1940 to 1944 by growing potatoes and corn, and raising sheep, chickens and rabbits. All the while they were participating in the French Resistance Movement, assisting Jewish people and others to escape the German forces.
In 1943 he completed the requirements for a doctoral degree in Roman law and history. His doctoral thesis was written on the Roman mancipium, the right of a Roman father to sell off his children.
In 1944 he participated in the National Liberation Movement, and became Professor of History and the Sociology of Institutions on the Faculty of Law and Economic Sciences at the University of Bordeaux. This assignment was expanded in 1947 to include the Institute of Political Studies.
From 1944 to 1946 he served as Deputy Mayor in Bordeaux, but soon recognized the powerlessness of politics. From 1946 to 1953 he served on the National Synod of the Reformed Church of France, and was active in the World Council of Churches. These political and ecclesiastical experiences led him to become disillusioned with political and ecclesiastical reform.
Ellul's teaching responsibilities and writing endeavors occupied most of the years of his life, but he never ceased to be engaged in the praxis of social involvement, pastoring home churches and providing oversight of a ministry to juvenile delinquents over a period of many years. The "prophet of Bordeaux", as he was described by some, died May 19, 1994 in Pessac, a few kilometers from the Bordeaux campus. It is reported that Ellul wrote a two volume autobiography which was to be published only after his death.
Ellul's legal training and his theological interest were combined in his first published book, The Theological Foundation of Law, published in French in 1946. His second book, The Presence of the Kingdom, was published in French in 1948, and was the first of his books to be translated and published in English in 1951. That book, The Presence of the Kingdom, provides an over-all schematic of the themes that were to be developed in all of his subsequent writings. Ellul admits that "the sum of my books constitutes a whole consciously conceived as such."
The over-all theme of his writings seems to be concisely expressed on the first page of the first chapter of that first book published in English, The Presence of the Kingdom. In a chapter entitled "The Christian in the World", Ellul writes,
Those words summarize many of the basic themes that Ellul addresses in the books that he wrote over the next forty (40) years. We find in those initial sentences...
Additional themes are also found in that first book, including his identification of "technique" as the primary threat to human freedom and Christian faith in the modern world, the world's use of propaganda, and the ineffectual method of revolution. Anyone looking for a succinct primer on Ellul's thought should read The Presence of the Kingdom, even though some of his thought had evolutionary variances in his later writings.
Before we consider some of Ellul's themes in more detail, we should first address his method of thought that of "dialectic." He admitted that "since my two intellectual origins are with Karl Marx and Karl Barth, dialectic is central for me." "The whole of my writing is a composition in counterpoint. I am a dialectician above all; I believe nothing can be understood without dialectical analysis."
The word "dialectic" has a broad range of meaning. It can mean dialogue, dichotomy, and dualism. For some it is equivalent to paradox, antinomy, or on the other hand, logical analysis or synthesis. For Ellul it implies a method of thought that views coexistent contradictory factors which are not to be synthesized or reconciled in a linear logic of cause and effect. Dialectic presupposes the dynamism of history whereby the tension of the two contradictory factors is lived out in the historical development of a new historical situation. Some would refer to this as an objective form of existentialism.
There is no doubt that Ellul fits into the tradition of "dialectic theology" which finds its roots in Soren Kierkegaard, and includes Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Rudolph Bultmann. Although he expressed his debt to Karl Barth, Ellul insisted that he was not an "unconditional Barthian." His critique of Barth was that he failed to penetrate the actual, lived situation; that the ethical consequences of Barth's theology were not sufficiently drawn out because there was an insufficient knowledge of the world and of politics. He did credit Barth with putting mankind back into the theological equation, after the Calvinists had eliminated the human element by over-emphasis on divine sovereignty. The two primary ideas that he claimed to have taken from Barth were those of human freedom and universal salvation.
Ellul was convinced that "Jewish thought, and subsequently Christian thought, are, and can only be, dialectical. It is there, and not with the Greeks, that the dialectic is enrooted," he asserted. "The Biblical text cannot be understood except by inserting it in the network of contradictions, the crises and the historical resolution of the crises." "Only dialectic thinking can give a proper account of scriptural revelation."
He faulted theologians in general for always seeking a synthesis, a singular answer, a unique and ideal explanation, the reduction to a single dimension. "I believe this is intellectually impossible, spiritually wrong, and concretely dangerous," he wrote. "I am viscerally opposed to all unity. The Jewish Elohim is plural. The Christian trinity is plural. This should guarantee a pluralism of thought and an acceptance of contradiction."
Daniel Clendenin notes that "those who do not appreciate or understand Ellul's commitment to a dialectic method will not go far in interpreting his project."
The over-arching dialectic that pervades Ellul's thought seems to be that of the dialectic of necessity and freedom. The fallen world-order or society is the order of necessity. Necessity is not the same as fate or some mechanistic determinism. Necessity, as viewed by Ellul, is the enslavement of men by the "powers" of this world, the enslavement of men in sin. Before the Fall of man into sin, creation was characterized by a total absence of necessity. God was free to be God within His creation, and man was free to be man as God intended. Necessity had its origin in the Fall, in a transition from the order of freedom to the order of necessity, as man lost his free, spontaneous communion with God and was no longer able not to sin, but necessarily and rigorously determined spiritually by his sinful condition. There is a solidarity of all men in sin, and this solidarity is not only spiritual and spatial, but social and historical. All men are "shut up in sin" (cf. Gal. 3:22; Rom. 3:9; 11:32).
Ellul's cosmological perspective posits that contemporary society lives in the domain of the "ruler of this world" (cf. Jn. 12:31; 16:11), "the god of this age" (II Cor. 4:4). The diabolic powers of the exousai, archai, kratoi, stoicheion, kuriotetes, and dunameis permeate the God-ordained institutions of human society, separating man from God and driving man toward death. Satan leads men in a suicidal "will to die", intellectually, morally, and socially; driven to self-destruction by the destroyer. In his writings prior to 1954 and the publication of his book, Money and Power, Ellul seems to have accepted a personified spirit of Satan, but after that time denies a personal devil and refers to the "new demons" as but abstract forces at work in the world. Recognizing these "powers, rulers, and forces" as legitimate cosmological realities, rather than merely the out-moded, superstitious remnant of a bygone culture, Ellul does align himself with other theological thinkers such as Hendrik Berkhof, Martin Hengel, Oscar Cullman, Karl Barth and G.B. Caird.
Ellul's thesis is that the natural man is incapable of seeing the spiritual reality in which he is struggling (cf. I Cor. 2;14). He only sees the surface issues of social, political and economic problems, and he attempts to work and find solutions with the methods of technique, and in accord with moral standards. The world of modern society is not capable of preserving itself or of finding remedies for its spiritual situation. The more so-called "progress" man makes, the more he is aware of the inadequacy of human solutions, which all fail, one after another, and only increase the difficulties in which he lives. The social catastrophes of our age are not due to accident or "bad luck", but they are the inevitable products of the essential necessity of our fallen world and the misguided blunders man makes in attempting to cope with the world. The world situation is hopeless. It is useless to keep trying to discover remedies for our present distress. The ever-increasing activities of man to apply false-remedies only complicates the situation until the collapse of what he calls his "civilization."
The only chance for a legitimate critique or presence of change within the framework of this world is to seek a reference point outside of the fallen world-order. Ellul uses the illustration of a speeding train, the speed of which can only be known by reference to a fixed and stable point outside of the train, viewable from within the train. Coincidentally, this is the same illustration that Einstein used to illustrate his theory of relativity. Einstein's constant within physical science was the speed of light, directionally perceived from the singularity of the imploded origin of matter. Ellul's constant within social science was the activity of the transcendent Light of God, directionally perceived from the singularity of the incarnational restoration of spiritual life in Jesus Christ. This certainly elevates Ellul into some "heady" company, but his ability to view the social situation from "outside the box," from beyond the parameters of confined thinking, seems to merit such a parallel.
The Christian, then, who is "in Christ," must not define the problems of society in the same terms as those who have no faith. Understanding spiritual realities with the "mind of Christ" (I Cor. 2:16), they must recognize that world situations can only be addressed by the gospel of Life in Jesus Christ. As "watchmen on the wall" of the world, Christians can "stand in the gap" by placing themselves at the point where the suicidal death-wish of society is most prevalent, manifesting the presence of life in the midst of death, the joy of freedom in the context of necessity, and that by the grace of God.
Ellul's primary explanation of how necessity determines and dominates contemporary society was to attribute such to the methodology of "technique." He credits his life-long friend, Bernard Charbonneau, as having drawn his attention to "technique" as the most important phenomenon of sociological understanding back in 1935, and notes that had Karl Marx understood this sociological factor, he would have posited "technique" as the thrust of his social dialecticism rather than material inequities.
Many critics have misunderstood Ellul's diagnosis of the world's social ills via "technique", because they have wrongly perceived that he was attacking technology. This is understandable among English speaking readers and critics due to the mistranslation of his books. His most influential sociological book with the English title, The Technological Society, was originally entitled in French, Technique, the Stake of the Century, for example. Technique is not the same as technology; not in French, nor in English.
Ellul's issue was not with technological machines but with a society necessarily caught up in efficient methodological techniques. Technology, then, is but an expression and by-product of the underlying reliance on technique, on the proceduralization whereby everything is organized and managed to function most efficiently, and directed toward the most expedient end of the highest productivity. Ellul's own comprehensive definition is found in the preface of The Technological Society: "Technique is the totality of methods, rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity."
According to Ellul, technique necessarily came into play at the Fall of man into sin. But the place of technique began to change dramatically in the eighteenth (18th) century with the quest for efficient procedures to find the "one best means" in every human endeavor. By the nineteenth (19th) century the bourgeoisie recognized technique as the key to their material and commercial interests. The industrialized technical employment of technique became a monster in the urbanized and technological society of the twentieth (20th) century, "the stake of the century" as Ellul termed it. Technique became the defining force, the ultimate value, of a new social order in which efficiency was no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity. Technique became universally totalitarian in modern society as rationalistic proceduralism imposed an artificial value system of measuring and organizing everything quantitatively rather than qualitatively. Like cancer in a living organism, the systematization of technique pervades every cell of our modern technical and technological society.
The subtle illusion of this invasive methodology of technique is that people view technology as the liberator of mankind, the operational instrument that sets them free from natural function. Quite the contrary, says Ellul, "technique enslaves people, while proffering them the mere illusion of freedom, all the while tyrannically conforming them to the demands of the technological society with its complex of artificial operational objectives."
The means of manipulating modern man to accept this state of affairs and regard it as freedom rather than necessity is the employment of propaganda. Propaganda, according to Ellul, is not just fallacious rumor employed in brainwashing, but is the calculated explanation of the social situation in such a way that individuals think they are making free personal choices while they are adapting and conforming to the orchestrated society. Propaganda is not so much the modification of ideology as it is the influencing of behavior in definable and predictable ways in order to provoke specific acceptable responses and actions which bring about the mass participation of individuals in the collective organizational structure. Propaganda subtly influences individuals to accept the myths and presuppositions of technicized society, reassuring them that they are moving "within the stream of society and history," and persuading them that they are on the verge of entering a new, perfected society, "a new heaven and a new earth". It is the "spin" of collective hope, offering pre-formed, simplified opinions on complex issues so that people will not consider their programmed lives to be too oppressive, but will submit with good grace because they are convinced they are "going somewhere" that there is a destiny attached to this exertion. As the social engineers stage and condition fact to fit with the prevailing climate of predetermined public opinion, the one thing they want to avoid is private opinion which goes against the stream. Their true goal is thus to subvert individual liberty as they facilitate collective adaptation.
A total environment of public acquiescence is orchestrated through the informational mass media of the press, radio and television; through sports, amusements and entertainment that disallow personal reflection and evaluation; and particularly through the disciplines of education, vocational guidance, psychology, sociology, and public relations, all designed to reinforce the administrative, political, economic and educational institutions as the deified guardians of life.
A primary agent for the propagandizing of technique in modern society is the involvement of people in participatory politics, especially in democratic societies where people are led to believe that it is "governance by the people for the people." Politics gives the individuals within society the illusion of freedom by having a sense of effectual participation. The "political illusion" of popular participation, popular control by the people, and collective problem-solving of social problems, falsely fulfills the need that individuals have for meaning, importance, effectiveness and security, leading them to surrender themselves all the more to the politicized state and the technicized system.
When all values are cast in political form, and all hopes are directed toward political solutions, believed to be on the verge of realization, politics becomes the "supreme religion of this age," propagating its "myth of the solution" for all social problems, despite the inability of politics to deal with good and evil, personal character, or the meaning and quality of life.
One of Ellul's most unique sociological interpretations is the positing of the spiritual factor of "technique" that behind the visible, physical, social phenomena are spiritual "powers" that invest certain things and actions with "sacred" meaning. The "sacred" is that in which individuals find their "faith, hope and love," that calms their fears, feeds their imaginations, and is perceived to provide meaning, value, fulfillment and abundance.
Ellul explains that in the early centuries of Christian history, Christianity desacralized nature as it was understood in Greek philosophy, and in its place the Church became sacred. The Protestant Reformation desacralized the Church in the name of the Bible, which then became the "sacred book." Since the eighteenth (18th) century, a new act of desacralization has been under way in the name of scientific and technical reason, which has now become sacred in the modern secular religion. It is not that our society is any less religious that any previous civilization, but the sacred has now been invested in the secular.
Religious mythos is no longer transmitted by ancestral tradition, but by the mass media propagating the fictive statements of the sacred myth by propaganda. As the political chief priests preach the myth of progress, happiness, extended youth and utopian dreams, they do so by appealing to the twin truth-pillars of history and science. History is cited as foundational for all present action. Science is espoused as the bearer of the possibility of all good things in the future. As these political priests attempt to bring people into harmony with their sacralized world, they inculcate commitment to the absolutized power and values of the secularized system.
As with all sacralized religion, there are morality expectations bound up in the secular, technical religion of modern society. The secular sacred develops a technical ethic that demands discipline, self-control, loyalty, devotion, commitment, dedication, responsibility, involvement, sacrifice, and hard work. Good and evil become synonyms for success and failure. Secular morality requires acceptance of, and submission to, the organizational techniques of efficient management, and adaptation to the "normal", i.e. "moral", behavior that assimilates harmoniously into the collective standard of acceptable virtue and political correctness.
Ellul explains that all morality finds its origin in the necessities occasioned by the Fall the necessities of social duties, obligations, rules and restraints. These are never acts of freedom, he argues, for they require no critical reflection, no decisive response to the situation, but only patterned conformity to social mores.
Christian behavior, on the other hand, is not moral but spiritual; not imperative, but indicative. Christian living is not alignment with a standard of goodness, but is expressive of the character of God. Christian conduct is not conforming to an ideal description or a prescribed system, but is always a living response to the Word of God, which for Ellul is always the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The Christian life is always a unique, spontaneous, novel, ever-new expression of the Spirit of Christ. "Christian faith," according to Ellul, "tells us that we should live, not how we should live." The responsibility of every individual Christian is to be available to discover how the Spirit's Being in action can be embodied in today's world conflicts and events. Christian living is the freedom of incarnational expression, rather than the bondage of moral conformity.
We turn now to the opposite pole of the necessity/freedom dialectic. Jacques Ellul states, "If there is one value which I regard as most important, it is freedom." "Nothing I have done, experienced, or thought makes sense if it is not considered in the light of freedom."
Ellul maintains that God is not first and foremost a God who orders, commands and constrains, but the Biblical God is a God who liberates. God does so exclusively through His Son, Jesus Christ, who as Christus Victor, has won the victory over the powers of slavery, bondage and necessity. Jesus Christ is the essence of freedom. "Free, He chose to keep the law. Free, He chose to live out the will of God. Free, He chose incarnation. Free, He chose to die." Thus He became the perfect source and paradigm of freedom, revealing the freedom of God which is formed in every Christian by His presence within.
Freedom is always on the individual level for Ellul. In his words, "Freedom is indeed an individual act and lifestyle. There is no collective freedom; Christ has not liberated man or mankind in general." Although freedom is individual, it is not an isolated, private life. It is not withdrawal or retreat from the world. "We have no right to dissociate ourselves," Ellul states. "Freedom is not merely an inward or purely 'spiritual' experience." "Freedom is not sitting back and letting God work." Freedom is the incarnated expression of Christ within the unique actions of Christian individuals as they take their places in the specific socio-political realities of everyday life in this world.
Christian freedom, and that is the only kind of freedom Ellul admits, is always relative to the particular circumstances and situations in which one finds himself. Freedom is analogous to the skill of a yachtsman who takes into account the wind and the tide, and uses these to navigate his course. The only thing the yachtsman dreads is the calm, for then he can do nothing.
Ellul's concept of freedom exists only in dialectic tension with necessity. Freedom can be defined only in terms of revolt against the given order of things, a refusal to be conformed, a sabotage of the world's efficiency objectives, a demythologizing of the illusions and myths of technical society, a desacralizing of the false gods in which the world has placed its faith, hope and love. Freedom is always expressed through Christian acts which transgress the specific determinants of one's concrete situation. Christians are "leaven" which rises and aerates society. They are "salt" which introduces a foreign element into the world. They are "light" which exposes and dispels the darkness. They are "sheep among wolves."
There is no expectation that the world forces will be eliminated, or that a new perfect order will be inaugurated in the world. The contradictions and tensions remain, but Christian freedom introduces the counter-tension that holds the reign of death at bay and prevents its total domination over mankind, so that human history is open to the future.
So, how do Christians go about living out the freedom to which they are called; the freedom which is the essence of the Christian life? They live in the spontaneity of the Spirit's leading completely free in every respect. In accord with Augustine's dictum, they "love God, and do as they like." Or as Paul explained, "All things are lawful, but not everything is useful, expedient, or constructive" (I Cor. 10:23). There are no prescribed acts of freedom that is morality! Freedom is alive and unlimited without restriction or constraint, admonition or obligation. Does that sound antinomian? It is grace! It is spiritually exhilarating and psychologically unbearable. It is a risk with no cover; a perilous acrobatic feat with no net. Ellul states it this way: "You are liberated. You are called to be human beings before God in the world. Now decide for yourselves what is to be done. I cannot dictate praxis."
Nevertheless, Christian freedom is not arbitrary or undefined. While freedom in Christ is totally open-ended, it is not without specific orientation or direction. It will always consist of love for one's neighbor and be directed towards the glory of God. God is absolutely and unconditionally free, for example, but He is also "the same yesterday, today, and forever" always true to His character and nature. But His character allows for a wide latitude of opinion and action among Christians. One Christian may be a monarchist and another a communist; one a conscientious objector and another a militarist. One Christian may interpret the Scriptures literally while another demythologizes them, as long as they are exercising their options as an expression of freedom in Christ.
There were Christians who owned slaves, and Christians who opposed slavery. Christian freedom allowed for such, but Christian freedom also subverted the slave-master relationship by asserting the equality of all men. This becomes a paradigm for how freedom can function in society. Slavery was not changed by the collective, mass action of institutional reorganization or religious campaign, using the techniques of political propaganda or ecclesiastical proclamation, but rather by the inconspicuous decisions and actions of Christian individuals which cumulatively led to the disappearance of slavery as a social institution.
Acting locally in one's specific situation, individual Christians can cumulatively have a global impact. See the big picture, "think globally," Ellul advised, but "act locally", initiating revolutionary acts that undermine the enslaving necessities of the world-system. Individual, local action is the only antithesis to collective, universal society otherwise, we play by their game rules.
Ellul was unflinchingly convinced that God's intervention into the world in His Son, Jesus Christ, was the supreme act of freedom which is the only counter to the world of necessity. Fallen mankind in their inborn enslavement to sin, and absorbed into the all-embracing system of bondage to technique, could only experience freedom if it was introduced from outside, from a transcendent "Wholly Other." Human freedom is not innate in man by birth or nature, and cannot be discovered in natural law, but is derived only from God through Jesus Christ.
The incarnation of Jesus Christ is THE act of freedom proffered by God. In his own words again, Ellul states, "The incarnation of Christ has shone a ruthless light on the artificial system that man has established in compensation for his break with God (in the Fall). The incarnation has changed human history." The incarnation culminated in the historical death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In His "finished work" Jesus completes His victory over the "powers" operative in the world (cf. Col. 2:14), as well as the inward slavery to our pride, selfishness and egocentricity (the Biblical concept of "flesh"). Jesus thus frees us from the objective/external and subjective/internal factors which enslave us. This is not to say that the world-powers or the patternings of the "flesh" are eliminated or annihilated, for they remain a constant tension factor which allows for the exercise of freedom. The culmination of Christ's work only occurs in the end when the external powers and the internal tendencies are finally obliterated.
Ellul's references to the Church seldom pertain to the institutional organizations of ecclesiasticism, which he had, for the most part, determined to be but another representation of the world's expression of technique. When he says, for example, that "it is the responsibility of the church to be the body of Christ incarnated in a sociological reality," he is really referring to the plurality of individual Christians. The collective actions of the world are always set over against the individual freedom of the Christian.
He explained that "the established church is not the equivalent of the body of Christ." In fact, it is 180 degrees opposite. Along with Karl Barth, he set the Revelation of God in Jesus Christ in antithesis to religion in all forms. "Religion is a natural phenomenon", part of the necessities of the fallen world which serves a purely sociological, psychological and natural function to hold society together and attempt to give it meaning and security. Religion inevitably enslaves people, demanding static conformism, and developing into a bureaucratic machine. The Church has professed to liberate people, but it has most often fettered and crushed them, serving historically as the enemy of freedom, and the agent of necessity, oppression and intolerance. The Revelation of God in Jesus Christ, on the other hand, is a dynamic investiture of the Divine "Wholly Other" into man's situation the very opposite of religion.
Those calling themselves Christians have always attempted to transform the Christian Revelation into a Christian religion, to force the reality of Christ into the sociological functions of all religions. The deformation of Revelation and faith in christianisme, the French word for "Christianity", has always occurred, explained Ellul, but it is more serious than ever because of the method of "technique." Techniquism attempts to reduce and marginalize the Christic revelation into a fundamentalistic belief-system, to mere mystical inner-spirituality, to the subjective salvation of the soul. These are a negation of revelation for they evacuate the Christian faith into the ethereal or into existential subjectivism which are not consistent with the incarnational expression of the Revelation of Christ in the world. Liberal Christianity, on the other hand, attempts to be relevant, but embraces the secular, technicized society, and adapts to its political organizational structures as well as its techniques of propaganda by making public proclamations of social concern and engaging in the power-plays of boycotts of those regarded as unorthodox or not politically correct.
"The decline of the Western Church seems fortunate to me," Ellul confided, "for those who drift away from the church never really belonged to it. By God's grace, it is no longer useful to be a Christian or to make reference to the church and the Bible." This forces Christians to live in risk, insecurity and contradiction, to act in subversive freedom that challenges every feature and premise of the world around them. Christians are subversive iconoclasts, setting out to shatter and destroy the deified and sacralized idols of technicism. The Christian is called to question unceasingly all that society calls "progress, discovery, facts, results, success, reality, etc." Christians must plunge into the social and political problems of their society in order to have an influence on the world, but not in the hope of making it into a paradise, but simply in order to make it tolerable; not in order to diminish the opposition between the world and the kingdom of God, but simply in order to subvert the opposition; not in order to 'bring in' the kingdom of God, but in order that the gospel may be proclaimed in the world context, so that all may hear the good news of salvation in Christ." Christians live on the edge of this totalitarian society, not simply rejecting it, but passing it through the sieve of God's judgment. They are "in the world, but not of the world." They are citizens of another kingdom, and from that King they derive their way of thinking, judging and feeling. They are ambassadors of that kingdom on earth. They are witnesses to an Event on which all other events are based; an event which took place in history; an event which sums up and guarantees all other events, personal or historical, and renders history and life absolutely irreversible. This event is the intervention of God in the course of human history; it is Jesus Christ. The Event is that in the living man, Jesus, the living God has incarnated Himself."
The continuation of that incarnated reality is what Christian faith is all about. "We do not need prescribed procedures (techniques) for Christian action; just a willingness to live. What matters is to live; not to act. The world only desires utilitarian action, and has no desire for life at all. We cannot exaggerate the significance of the fact of being spiritually alive. This life is the expression of the Holy Spirit working within us, expressing Himself in our actual life, through our words, our habits, and our decisions. All human action is only effective if it is filled with the fullness God gives, and if it accomplishes anything it is only because God empowered it."
Ellul admitted that in his correlation of sociology and theology, he seemed to be a sociological pessimist while at the same time being a theological optimist. On one occasion he asks, "Am I a pessimist? Not at all. I am convinced that the history of the human race, no matter how tragic, will ultimately lead to the Kingdom of God. I am convinced that all the works of humankind will be reintegrated in the work of God, and that each of us, no matter how sinful, will ultimately be saved." This is, of course, an explicit statement of his belief in "universal salvation" or "universal reconciliation".
As explanation and justification for this tenet, Ellul writes: "Salvation is universal because the love of God encompasses all. If God is God and if God is love, nothing is outside the love of God. A place like hell is thus inconceivable. The difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is not one of salvation. Salvation is given by grace to everyone. Christians are simply those charged by God with a special mission. The meaning of being a Christian is not working at your own little salvation, but changing human history." Elsewhere he states, "It is inconceivable that the God who gives Himself in His Son to save us, should have created some people ordained to evil and damnation. There can only be one predestination to salvation. In and through Jesus Christ all people are predestined to be saved. Our free choice is ruled out in this regard. God wants free people, except in relation to this last and definitive decision. We are not free to decide and choose to be damned." "Being saved or lost does not depend on our own free decision. An explicit confession of Jesus Christ is not the condition for salvation. Salvation is always for everyone, by grace. All people are included in the grace of God. A theology of grace implies universal salvation."
Regardless of whether one agrees with all of Ellul's theological formulations or sociological diagnosis, one has to admit, and I think admire, the extent of his work. He integrates law, sociology, history, theology, biblical exegesis, and whether he wanted to admit it or not, philosophy, in his extensive and comprehensive analysis of the cosmic context in which the Christian must live out his or her faith.
My personal perspective is that there is no voice throughout Christian history that has clearer insight into the fallen sociological necessities of the world-system. I cannot think of another author or thinker that more comprehensively addresses the Christian's obligation to be "in the world, but not of the world."
Ellul is elusive, though. About the time one thinks he has Ellul figured out, like a slippery eel he will be taking another tack. When asked to write the book, What I Believe, Ellul admitted that he found it extremely difficult to articulate what he believed, and much easier to explain what he did not believe. "What I do not believe is clear and precise; what I do believe is complex, diffuse, and theoretical," he confessed. Could this be a weakness in Ellul's thought that he defines by privation and asserts by negation?
Ellul has ardent advocates and adamant detractors. He is too controversial to permit neutrality. What most Western Christians find most maddening is his unwillingness to give precise or positive behavioral prescriptions, to provide any ready-made answers, formulas, procedures (techniques). "I refuse to construct a system of thought, or to offer up some Christian or pre-fabricated socio-political solutions. I want only to provide Christians with the means of thinking for themselves the meaning of their involvement in the modern world." "My purpose is to provoke a reaction of personal reflection, and to thus oblige the reader to choose for himself a course of action." I do not want disciples. I do not want people to follow me. I want to incite people." And without a doubt he accomplished that objective!
Jacques Ellul challenges us to make sure our theology always serves a practical, existential, sociological and ethical purpose. As Christian individuals, he challenges us to formulate a unique style of life that impacts the modern world in which we live to be "in the world, but not of the world."
· Does Ellul's emphasis on individual Christian action diminish the importance of the collective Body of Christ, the Church?
· Does Ellul make liberation and freedom the all-encompassing criteria of the Christian life, to the neglect of other soteriological concepts?
· Do Ellul's views of freedom and universalism create a static rather than dynamic understanding of salvation?
· Does Ellul's exclusive reference to the "powers" of necessity, fail to take into account the Power of God?
· If freedom is defined only in tension with necessity, does such an existential definition of freedom diminish or deny the objectivity of freedom in Christ?
· Does Ellul's denial of a personal devil arbitrarily disallow the contradiction or dialectic of God and Satan?
· Does Ellul's repudiation of the destiny of hell arbitrarily disallow the contradiction or dialectic of heaven and hell?
· Does Ellul's universalism impinge upon his dialectic of necessary collective universalism in the world vs. individual freedom in Christ?
· Does a universal necessity of destiny in Christ, in contrast to a universal necessity of determinants in the world, create a dualism that in effect negates Ellul's entire method of dialectic?
· Does Ellul's universalism make him liable to the charge of his spiritual mentor, Kierkegaard, that of "doing away with Christianity by making all people, in the final outcome, Christian"?
Ellul, Jacques, Anarchy and Christianity. Grand Rapids:
William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. 1991.
Christians, Clifford G. and Van Hook, Jay M. (editors), Jacques
Ellul: Interpretive Essays.