Jacques Ellul. Trans. Geoffery W. Bromiley
Wipf & Stock, 2011
Jacques Ellul’s book is driven by the question of, 'How has it come about that Christianity and the Church has given birth to a society, a civilization, a culture, that are completely opposite to what we read in the Bible?' Ellul’s answer to his question is that Christian practice has constantly been a subversion of the truth in Christ. Then Ellul sets out his understanding of how this came about.
For Ellul the first Christians were attacked by the political power of the Roman Empire as dangerous. They were rejecting and questioning all power, desiring a transparency in human dealings that manifests itself in bonds of family and social relationships of a completely new kind. Then the change as Christians move to obey the ruling powers and actively support those powers against all that threatens them in the political, economic and social areas.
The Christians and the church wanted an alliance with this world whose powers could be used in service of the gospel, the church and its mission. But the exact opposite happened, with the church and mission being penetrated by the worldly power and completely turned aside from their gospel truth.
For Ellul everything goes back to a change in the understanding of revelation in the transition from history to philosophy. The theologians are in the Greek philosophical circle with its metaphysical problems. So answers are sought by way of ontological thinking, and theologians now regard the biblical text as departure points for philosophy in intellectual, metaphysical, and epistemological questions. The biblical texts are used for the theologians’ philosophical needs rather than listening to the biblical text.
Everything in revelation is formulated in an antithetical way, a dialectical way, uniting two contrary truths that are the truth only as they come together. Paul says about salvation that we are saved by grace through faith but we are then to work out our salvation. This appears contradictory and we are tempted to say that we are either saved by grace and our efforts are worthless or we are saved by our works and we do not see how grace does anything.
This way of understanding is contrary to the Western world for we think analytically and are unable to accept the existence of opposites or hold together logically exclusive ends. We have a primal desire for unity, we try to reduce diversity to one, hence Greek philosophy as an expression of the human spirit that cannot tolerate diverse things that cannot be classified.
Another factor in Christian practice being a subversion of the truth of Christ arose in the very quick uptake of the gospel by the many poor, slaves, urban proletariat, and a few women in high society. At the end of the third century Christianity had become fashionable and the desire for success was in the church yet society was inverting Christianity instead of being subverted to it.
The church became wealthy with investment power. Wealth makes possible the doing of good works. The commands of the gospel are expressed in the rendering of service and the display of generosity in social action.
For Ellul there are two damaging consequences of this Christian practice subversion, expressed in resacralisation and morality.
Christianity desacralizes the world with radicalized transcendence since the break between God and the world can only be healed by Incarnation, God can only be known in Jesus Christ, the Word, living not ritualized.
When Christianity defeated the religions of the Roman pagan, its traditional form of the sacred was transferred to the conqueror as temples became churches with the division of sacred and “pro-fane” (Latin profanum means “before the sanctuary”).
In the Medieval church this resacralisation is shown in the sacrament that works autonomously depending on neither celebrant, recipient, nor God’s action. The water of baptism is efficacious washing away original sin, and infusing theological virtues once and for all and receiving the indelible character of belonging to Christ. Faith is not decisive, as the church ritual brings transformation.
Secondly, as Christianity brought the population of the empire to the church there was little hope that they could all live as if they were in the kingdom of heaven. They would have to be trained and their manner of life controlled by morality. This is the very opposite of what was intended by Jesus and by God’s revelation in Israel. This morality corresponds to the society of the day, with conduct conforming to a certain moral code. The criterion of the Christian life, piety and prayer, were now all transformed into moral rules. The Christian now appears as a moral system, rather than a living faith in Jesus Christ.
Ross Jones, WA