A Brief Introduction To Jacques Ellul

July 24, 2018 — Leave a comment

Jacques Ellul’s books have moved up on my ladder of reading priorities with an ever increasing pace. My acquaintance with his work began last year when, after reading Roger Scruton’s, ‘The West & The Rest’, I was prompted to dig further into the relationship between Islam and Judeo-Christianity. From there, I’ve continued to casually seek out Ellul’s work and study it. Since I voluntarily publish a lot of discoveries, and discuss their impact on my own theological study here, I thought it appropriate to introduce Jacques Ellul and explain my interest in his work.

Ellul was a student of Karl Barth[1]. This discovery was a bonus and it’s padded the desire to explore Ellul’s work. Out of particular interest is finding the point of contact between Ellul and Barth. (Political theology is ground zero, but the topic is large and best left for an essay solely dedicated to the subject.)

Ellul was a French theologian. He majored in philosophy and made a career out of lecturing on Marxism.

He was once involved in the French resistance, but unlike the equally fantastic breakaways from the Left, such as Simone Weil and Albert Camus, Ellul never appears to have been granted the same status (read: given the same time of day) by the predominantly Leftist French and Western academy.

I gather that the reasons for this dismissal come down to the fact that Ellul was a critic of Islam and wasn’t a Marxist[i]. In addition to this, he took orthodox Christian theology seriously.  Ellul wasn’t without his own criticisms of the institutional church or Christendom, but he never abandoned Jesus Christ for Karl Marx. The content and response to his works ‘Islam and Judeo-Christianity: A Critique of their Commonality’ and ‘Jesus & Marx: from theology to ideology’, present evidence of this.

Ellul worked with the understanding that every human, even if that man or woman wasn’t aware of it, has a theological viewpoint. Whether a person is agnostic or atheist, both hold to theological conclusions about the world around us, within us and beyond us.

For many, those conclusions are usually arrived at via loose information and deliberate misinformation. They have some basic knowledge of Christian theology, but this knowledge is limited, and often built on fragments, gossip or whatever ideological lens they’ve been taught is superior to all the rest.

Elluls work, so far as I’ve deciphered, sought to engage that inherent theological knowledge in conversation with relevant topics. So much so, that under the microscope placed over contemporary Western politics, it’s tempting to look at a good portion of his subject matter and consider it prophetic.  However, like Karl Barth, Ellul, was no prophet and so it’s a temptation that proves to be an unhelpful trivial speculative distraction.

Whilst Ellul took orthodox Christianity seriously, he wasn’t someone who was absorbed by any particular Protestant denomination. He wasn’t a puppet of the Left, nor a product of conservatives or sectarian dogma. He lived out his faith, and applied the science of dogmatics to his own theological viewpoints. Living out what he termed, Christian anarchism[ii], Ellul came to his own conclusions based on the bible and a working dogmatics.

As David W. Gill’s, (President of the I.J.E.S[2]), recent lecture pointed out,

‘Ellul was of the view that “we must come to Scripture asking “what does God wish to say to us through these texts? He insisted [as did Karl Barth] that the Bible should be read with Jesus [the revelation of God] at the Center. Any separation of a text from the totality of God’s revelation will inevitably cause us to distort the Bible.” (Gill, 2018. Words parenthesis are mine)

According to Gill,

‘the grounding of Ellul’s conversion was in reading Scripture. One day at the age of twenty-two, Ellul was reading the Bible, and “it happened-with a certain brutality.” Not a sermon in a church, not a celebration of the sacraments, not a mystical vision, bu the private reading of the Bible was decisive in Ellul’s decision to become a Christian.’ (Ibid, 2018)

Ellul wasn’t a blind follower of high-minded Biblical Criticism. Gill reports that Ellul ‘took biblical scholarship including historical criticism seriously, but was feisty in challenging its excesses’[3]:

  “I fail to see the justification for accepting as legitimate all the questions about the revelation while at the same time refusing to question those systems, methods, and conclusions from the point of view of Revelation.” (Jacques Ellul, Hope in the Time of Abandonment).

Gill concludes his lecture with two main areas of consideration for those being introduced to Ellul. First, not everyone will agree with Elull’s theology. Second, one area we will agree on is ‘one of Ellul’s most powerful points about the Bible: let it put us in question rather than for us to constantly put it in question.’ (Gill, 2018)

It’s here that Jacques Elull first finds some shared ground with Karl Barth. As a result, I’m keen to read more.

I think that Jacques Ellul picks up where Barth stopped (had to stop]). I wouldn’t go as far to say that Ellul finished what Barth started, only that, from what I’ve read so far, Ellul gives Thomas Torrance some serious competition for the top spot as Barth’s successor.


Notes & References:

[1] ‘After his conversion, Ellul was drawn to the Reformed Church and to the theology of Karl Barth.’ (David.W Gill, Scripture & Word In Ellul’s Writings, 2018)

[2] International Jacques Ellul Society

[3] Ibid, 2018

[i] This is a tentative conclusion I base squarely on Roger Scruton’s tenacious and meticulous research about the French and Western Academy in, ‘Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, 2015’.

[ii] At this point, Christian Anarchism is where I depart from Ellul. I need to read more about what he thinks Christian Anarchism is. His chapter in ‘Jesus & Marx’, whilst it explains some of his ideas about Christian Anarchism, I’m yet to be convinced that it’s a good thing.

Gill, D.W. 2018 Scripture & Word in Ellul’s Writings, IJES Conference, Vancouver BC Canada (Sourced 3rd July 2018 from http://ellul.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Scripture-and-Word-in-Ellul%E2%80%99s-Writings.pdf)

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