Just finished Ellul’s The Subversion of Christianity. Some concluding thoughts:
In some ways, Ellul improved as he went along. But this “improvement” was also mixed with various levels of ambiguity, saying things that seemed contradictory to earlier statements. But this is not so surprising given the fact that he had already stated that “everything in revelation is formulated in antithetical fashion… It unites two contrary truths that are truth only as they come together… We never find a single logically connected truth followed by another truth deduced from it. There is no logic in the biblical revelation. There is no ‘either-or,’ only ‘both-and.'” (43-44) And this is not necessarily wrong, but it might be and we ought to keep up our ninja alertness.
So on to the final chapters:
First, in the chapter on “Nihilism and Christianity,” Ellul makes a lot of good sense. He lays the debt of modern nihilism squarely at the feet of the Church. In so far as the Church has successfully proclaimed the gospel, the Lordship of Christ, and the emptiness of the gods, it has successfully neutered all paganism of meaning. The success of the gospel is measured by the emptiness of the alternatives. The alternatives are increasingly ridiculous and shallow. “It is either God’s absoluteness or nothing” (140). On the flip side, Ellul insists that the need to turn to “nothing” away from the gospel and the “absoluteness of God” is also provided by the failure of the Church. “Christian convictions have prepared the ground for terrorist outrages” (144). As the Church has colluded with various strands of unbelief, we have offered a myriad of false gospels, false freedoms. We have done this through pretending that the gospel is mostly synonymous with various political movements and philosophies, whether with workers unions and socialism or Marxist materialism or capitalism and conservatism. When these collusions fail which they must necessarily do, usually with the Church’s stance co-opted and vetted for public consumption, the world turns to alternatives. If that’s the gospel, they want nothing to do with it. I met these similar sentiments first in David Bently Hart’s outstanding article “Christ or Nothing” originally published in First Things, I think.
Ellul’s chapter “The Heart of the Problem” is more of a mix. He says that the Christian faith “does not change the structure or the functioning of the state or politics” (158). And as I’ve noted previously, there’s an underlying eschatology at work here which begins to emerge more explicitly toward the last few chapters. And there is a static nature/grace duality riding the wake of many of these assertions. I have no problem with some ways of describing a nature/grace duality, but I think the most important question has to do with time and eschatology. A static duality, a permanent, changeless dualism is at odds with the doctrine of Creation and the doctrines of the Atonement, and that means it’s bad.
In defense of the changeless duality, Ellul cites the hypostatic union of the natures of Christ which is an excellent thing to do. Three cheers for the hypostatic union. But Ellul gets this plain wrong. He rightly insists that Jesus had a normally functioning human body and that the incarnation did not alter the normal circulation and digestion of His human body. Sure. But the incarnation is not static. It does not end in the womb of Mary or even on the cross of Golgotha. The incarnation even has an eschatology. The glorified flesh of the Lord Jesus is the glorification of His true human nature. Even the life of Christ had different phases leading up to the resurrection and exaltation. His incarnation played different roles throughout His life, going from one kind of presence in the world in His childhood and young manhood, taking on a particular role in His ministry of healing and teaching, finally exalted in the crucifixion and then resurrection, etc.
Ironically, all of this business of the changelessness of society and state, etc., all comes in the context of wanting to insist that the Church must change, that institutional forms and solidification are the death knells of the faith. “Salvation is not a finished thing. I never hold it. I never own it. It is not an acquired situation. I may lose it (Paul himself tells us so). Nothing is ever finished with God. I am never installed.” (162) And Ellul pushes these statements I think with the cross in mind. “Renounce everything in order to be everything. Trust in no human means, for God will provide (we cannot say where, when, or how). Have confidence in his Word and not in a rational program.” (172) And that’s fine, but how can we not allow this freedom, this renunciation to penetrate society and philosophy and politics?
This flows into “Dominions and Powers” where eschatology is again coming to the fore. He rightly challenges preterist readings of Revelation and Matthew 24 that seal up those passages as though their A.D. 70 fulfillments exhaust their usefulness and applicability. This is good and right and a real temptation for postmillennialists like myself. But here, Ellul over-corrects and undermines his basic point. Rather than using those eschatological passages as types which may be carefully applied and projected into our times as patterns that God frequently follows, Ellul projects the doom and judgment on Jerusalem as apparently a semi-permanent reality for all time. He says: “Seduction by many saviors of all types, the growth of wars, the development of rumors about wars and disasters, increased famines… treachery and injustice springing up everywhere, the loss of love… It is all there. The fabulous growth of the strength of these powers is expressly set forth for us” (188-189). He closes the chapter asking the right question, “Does it mean, then, the defeat of the Holy Spirit?” And while he qualifies his answer a touch, the answer is still “yes.”
He says that the Spirit does comfort us in our distress, but “there is never any imperial triumph. No head of state is inspired by the Holy Spirit. No capitalist achieves success by the Holy Spirit. Science and technology do not develop under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The success of the powers, then, is the direct opposite.” (190) While he is willing to grant resurrections in history (a question I asked in an earlier post), he insists that these resurrections can only be seen by faith. They cannot take the form of a success as viewed from man in his natural state.
His final chapter returns to this theme, insisting that for all the failures and compromises of the Church, Jesus and His Spirit are still there in the Church. And “because individual and collective resurrection is assured and promised and certain, then in the course of history, which is the visible, concrete expression of this resurrection, there is this astonishing survival of the church, the perceptible sign of the communion of saints” (198). Ellul knows there must be resurrection in history, but he insists on limits which is in striking contrast to the main thrust of the book, in which he argues for a faith without limits, a faith without morals, a radical freedom open to the whims of the Spirit. Why may we limit the Spirit here? Why is it OK to institute by-laws for the Spirit when it comes to the fruit of the Spirit? Only this much love, Ok? No more. Only this much peace, then stop after that. For all the hype over the Beatitudes, is there no place for the meek actually inheriting the earth? On Ellul’s reading the meek must not inherit the earth.
Ellul does seek to close on a more optimistic note, citing several examples of what he sees as hopeful signs in his day, writing in the 1980s. And his point that the Church must not sellout to political parties still needs to be learned by American Christians who continue to follow the Republican Party around like a stray dog, same thing for liberal Christians and the Democratic Party. The Church must speak into the world in its own way, and resist all of the pressures to simply become another political party. The Church is neither of the current parties and not a third party either. And Ellul is absolutely right on this count. And I agree with him that Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were some modern Protestant attempts at bringing the gospel to the political world without compromise. He notes several other traditions doing similar things in their own contexts: Roman Catholics in Poland and Latin America and Baptists in the (then) USSR.
I still think he exudes something of a perfectionist/legalistic/cranky streak, but he goes some way to correcting that in the last chapter.