Book Review: The Subversion of Christianity (Jacques Ellul)

subversionellulI’ve recently begun reading through the Jacques Ellul Legacy Series published by Wipf and Stock. The Subversion of Christianity is one of Ellul’s more well-known books (translated from the French edition, La Subversion du Christianisme, 1984).

Ellul’s basic thesis in this book is that Christianity has been radically perverted from its original spirit. He shows this perversion by discussing how the church has been adversely affected by success, morality, money, Islam, and most important of all, political power. In a nutshell, he proposes that Jesus’ simple and clear teachings were subverted by Greek philosophy, among other things, and turned into an ideology, an “ism.” Ellul wants to make clear the distinction between actual Christian faith and the institutional religion of Christianity (in that way it is reminiscent of Barth’s Römerbrief).

The chapter on Islam was the most bizarre in my mind. I think he grants far too much credit to Islam for negatively impacting Christianity. The chapter on morality was quite interesting, discussing how the life in the Spirit is antithetical to living on the basis of a morality or ethic (and it seemed to me that Ellul may hold to some sort of “divine command theory” of ethics). One idea of his I found intriguing was his contention that Christianity has substituted a faith built on revelation to a faith that is really just a facade of human construction. Another idea of his that was interesting is that Christendom was (at least) partly responsible for the rise of nihilism.

There were a few notable peculiarities (to put it nicely) that I noticed. For example, he says that, “Nothing allows us to think that the disciples of Jesus expected an immediate realization of the kingdom of God” (9). That is at odds with the (practically) axiomatic view that Paul and the earliest Christians (and Jesus himself) were all expecting an imminent eschatological parousia. He also asserts that “it is well known that Jesus was often very close to the Essenes, if not one of them” (119). What the?!

Other eccentricities: In a footnote on page 25 Ellul explicitly rejects the idea of an incorporeal soul, and in a footnote on page 11 he rejects the traditional Trinitarian understanding of God, instead suggesting what sounds like some sort of (dynamic) modalism. He offers up an unconventional interpretation of the “abomination of desolation” passage in Matthew, seeing it as referring to the corruption of Christianity rather than the Temple in Jerusalem. He rejects Christian mysticism, saying that “in its final form it is more anti-Christian” (105). At one point he also said that “in the Gospels Jesus never presents himself as a sacred or divine person and rejects all adoration of himself” (64). And while not explicitly stating it, it did sound like Ellul was an open theist.

In saying all this, I should also mention that Ellul is actually only more of a lay-theologian, as he was actually a sociologist and was Professor Emeritus of Law and of the History and Sociology of Institutions at the University of Bordeaux. Perhaps this explains some of the eccentric things he says. Personally, while I disagree with some of his positions, I think that such oddities only makes the book more interesting, kind of like how adding spices to your meal makes it more interesting.

All in all, despite the ideas which are questionable, heterodox, and outright unorthodox, this book is a great read and provides plenty of good food for thought. I will leave you with the following two quotes.

There is a radical incompatibility between money and Christ. Jesus recommends to his disciples that they have none. Paul shows that it is there simply to give away. James argues that the money heaped up by the wealthy inevitably results from theft that victimizes the worker. Money is in itself a force of deviation. It is one of the main objects of covetousness, and covetousness is the root of all sins and evils. (13)

The following quote is on Constantine’s “conversion” (where he had the miraculous vision of the cross in the sky with the words “In hoc signo vinces” – ‘in this sign conquer!’).

The actual story of the conversion [of Constantine] bears witness to the profound corruption of the gospel. Much of the perversion has taken place already. For how is it that the cross, an instrument of punishment, especially for slaves, and the sign of a historical defeat for Jesus on the human level, can now be presented as a sign of political and military victory? The cross signifies salvation by attesting to the love of God even to death for us. It has this meaning and no other. It cannot possibly be a sign of military victory. Above all, it cannot be a sign given by a powerful political leader. What the cross signifies is the weakness and humility of God.

Throughout the Old Testament we see God choosing what is weak and humble to present him (the stammering Moses, the infant Samuel, Saul from an insignificant family, David confronting Goliath, etc). Paul tells us that God chooses the weak things of the world to confound the mighty. Here, however, we have a striking contradiction. In Constantine God is supposedly choosing an Augustus, a triumphant military leader. This vision and this miracle are totally impossible. But they are not impossible in the context of a Christianity that is already of the rails… [123]

Proving the Resurrection of Christ

Easter is almost upon us!

There are many Christian scholars who contend that the resurrection of Christ is a historical event open to the process of historical investigation, with the outcome being that we can assign a very good probability that Jesus was in fact resurrected from the dead. For instance: The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach by Mike Licona; The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T. Wright; The Resurrection of God Incarnate by Richard Swinburne; and The Physics of Christianity by Frank Tipler. Amongst these authors there are some who would say the resurrection is historically probable (Wright), quite likely (Licona), and historically inevitable (Tipler).

This historical view of the resurrection is a quite popular attitude amongst the brethren and is found in some popular lay-level books. For instance, Timothy Keller wrote in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age for Skepticism, that “the resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact much more fully attested to than most other events of ancient history we take for granted” (219). Is it true? I would say that such an assertion as Keller’s is blatantly false (and horrendous apologetics). But what about the less positive statement that the resurrection of Christian is historically verifiable? This ultimately views the resurrection as a question of obtainable knowledge (i.e. can I prove it happened) and I think this is a completely wrong way of looking at Christ’s resurrection, because the likelihood of a supernatural occurrence in antiquity will (and should) always be considered less likely than a natural explanation (e.g. mass psychosis) under the historical method.

But neither do I agree with a purely spiritual interpretation (see e.g. Bultmann and Schleiermacher) that views the resurrection of Christ as more of a spiritual happening in the bowels of the disciples rather than a (physical) event that actually occurred. In other words, in this view it is not so much the question of whether the resurrection actually occurred, the question is rather one of meaning. Tangent: I do think Bultmann was hitting the nail on the head by emphasizing that it is the resurrection of the crucified Lord (something which Moltmann definitely picks up and runs with), as well as his placing an accent on the eschatological nature of the resurrection. Though unlike Bultmann, who seemed to view the crucifixion and resurrection as a single event (i.e. the resurrection did not actually occur), I would want to stress the crucifixion as being temporally prior to the resurrection.

So what does that leave us with? The eschatological view of Christ’s resurrection. This understanding places an emphasis on how the event is without parallel and thus ‘historical’ is an inadequate way to speak of it, for Christ’s resurrection is a history-making event that redefines what history is. In the words of Moltmann, “[The resurrection of Christ] breaks the power of history and is itself the end of history.” This is not to say that it did not happen (for it was indeed a ‘historical’ event in the sense that it actually occurred), but since it was a unique breaking-in of God into this world – a history-making event that transcends history – the resurrection can not (and should not) be described as provable history; historical research (i.e. history) in and of itself cannot confirm Christ’s resurrection. Furthermore, I would say that judgments of faith cannot (and should not) be founded on historical judgments based on probability.

Book Review: Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (Part IV)

Part IV of my review of the gigantic volume Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (ed’s Stanley Porter and Tom Holmén). Read Part I, Part II, and Part III).

This part of the review will just be a look at just two chapters. The first is Petr Pokorný’s contribution titled, Jesus Research as Feeback on his Wirkungsgeschichte (pp. 333-59). Pokorný begins by briefly discussing the sources on the historical Jesus and their nature (e.g. the Synoptics, Q, John, Thomas, a few papryi fragments, some agrapha, Paul, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, the Letter of Mara bar Serapion, Josephus, and a few rabbinic sources). However, he does note that “much of our material is found in only one source” (as Mark, Q, M, and L only overlap in a few places).

A feature in this essay I found particularly interesting was Pokorný’s application of the criterion of dissimilarity. He uses it in regards to the analysis of “the stylistic and rhetorical peculiarities of the early Jesus traditions”. He mentions that while the criterion of dissimilarity has been heavily criticized in recent times, it “does not mean that [it] should be abandoned” (338). But regarding the criterion of multiple attestation, Pokorný notes that its validity “is limited” and that he “would almost warn against it” (339).

In an attempt to sketch an image of Jesus, Pokorný analyzes the Pauline evidence, the Synoptic traditions, and the Johannine traditions. I will quote the first paragraph on Paul because it is an nice little incisive jab against Jesus mythicism:

Paul is a meager source with regard to Jesus’ life. Jesus was important to Paul as the crucified and Risen Lord. Yet, Paul’s letters were written about twenty years earlier than the Gospel of Mark, and he may have obtained some first-hand knowledge about Jesus from Peter, whom he is said to have interviewed (Gal 1:18) (Historesai means to get information [testimony]; cf. historia). According to Gal 1:19, Paul also met James the Righteous, and did not hesitate to mention that James was the brother of the Lord (ho adelphos tou kuriou). This is a decisive argument in favor of Jesus’ historicity. When Paul proclaimed that “we do not know Jesus according to the flesh (kata sarka)” in 2 Cor 5:16b, the “according to the flesh” must refer to the act of knowing (ginoskein – to know), instead of to Christ, as many older translations suggested. (340)

Pokorný has a discussion on Paul’s lack of direct quotes of Jesus’ sayings, from which is the following snippet:

Paul’s reluctance to use Jesus’ sayings to support his arguments may partially be influenced by the way in which some Christian thinkers used Jesus’ (the Lord’s) sayings to argue against Paul’s interpretation of the gospel. It would have been difficult for Paul to argue against the enthusiasts’ use of Jesus’ sayings and to use the same weapons against his adversaries. If he had done this, Paul would have raised questions about his own firm foundation: the kerygma of the crucified and Risen Lord. (343)

Pokorný provides a list of some “widely accepted data regarding Jesus’ life”. Here are a few things he includes on the list that I found interesting:

Jesus was from Nazareth in Galilee. The narratives about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem in the gospels of Matthew and Luke are legends supporting the confession regarding his Davidic origin and his messianic role. Their authenticity is theological, rather than historical. The literary nature of these texts does not allow us to use the star, the census, or Herod to date Jesus’ life. (344)

Aramaic was Jesus’ mother tongue; however, as a pious Jew, he also read Hebrew and probably spoke Greek [...] (344)

Jesus became a follower of John the Baptist, a prophet, and the most popular representative of the Baptist movement [...] Unlike John, Jesus chose a positive strategy [...] (345)

Jesus performed miraculous healings and exorcisms, which, according to our contemporary criteria, could be interpreted as shamanism [...] (346)

Pokorný then discusses the message and teachings of Jesus, the self-understanding of Jesus, the reason for his death, and finishes with his application of the criterion of dissimilarity to analyze “the lexical and stylistic singularities” of texts containing the oldest Jesus traditions.

The next chapter is Stanley Porter’s, The Role of Greek Language Criteria in Historical Jesus Research (pp. 361-xx). If you are familiar with the criteria of authenticity in historical Jesus studies, you no doubt have heard of the criterion of Aramaic. There is another language criterion, though it is probably lesser known, which is the criterion of Greek. Porter has developed three Greek language criteria which he lists as, “the criterion of Greek language and its context, the criterion of Greek textual variance and the criterion of discourse features”. (362) In this chapter, Porter provides a look at the history and development of language criteria (Greek, Aramaic, and Semitic), develops those three criteria I quoted earlier, and then applies them to some passages. Regarding Jesus’ use of language, Porter says:

All of the three criteria assume that the Palestinian linguistic milieu was multilingual, and that Jesus could have spoken Greek. [...] Greek was the first language for many in Palestine, but certainly a second or acquired language for many more. [...] The evidence indicates that, while Jesus’ first language was Aramaic, he was productively bilingual, with Aramaic and Greek, and possibly Hebrew, with Greek and possibly Hebrew being acquired or second languages. This sociolinguistic description best reflects the linguistic situation of Mediterranean life in the first century. (377)

He then applies these criteria to Mark 7.25-30, 8.27-30, 12.13-17, 15.2-5 (and parallels). Porter summarizes: “In these four passages, I believe that we have found the words of Jesus in Greek (as well as the words of Pilate). They not only fulfill traditional criteria for authenticity, but they can be analyzed on text-critical grounds to establish a stable core tradition that indicates the ipsissima verba of Jesus” (389). He then goes on to give a brief analysis of the Sermon on the Mount, in which he sees at least two levels of core tradition present. All in all, quite an interesting contribution!

Book Review: Roman Imperial Texts – A Sourcebook

reasonerTitle: Roman Imperial Texts: A Sourcebook

Author: Mark Reasoner

Bibliographic info: 224 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Fortress Press for the digital review copy.

When it comes to background material for New Testament studies, I’m much more acquainted with the Jewish world than the Greco-Roman world. I’ve read my fair share of primary and secondary literature on the pseudepigrapha, Philo, Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and so forth, yet I am definitely not as familiar with texts pertaining to the Greco-Roman world (e.g. Homer, Hesiod, Orpheus, Virgil, Julius Caesar, Plotinus, etc). Although, the Roman Imperial Cult is one area in that sphere of studies that I am at least reasonably acquainted with.

Roman Imperial Texts consists of various texts from the Roman world, including speeches, poems, inscriptions, and more. The author provides a look at the Emperors from Augustus to Hadrian, and discusses a whole range of topics such as games, war,  commerce, community, and social life. He doesn’t just draw from literary texts, but also utilizes archaeological and numismatic evidence to validate certain details. The book is quite visual. I read this book on my Kindle Paperwhite and the images were very good quality, though not as good as seeing them in color in the print edition (of course).

The author doesn’t explicitly state (as far as I can remember) whether the apostle Paul (and other early Christian writers) was directly opposing the Roman imperial system. Reasoner does discuss the two different views of this issue in the introduction: one view being that of N.T. Wright who sees Paul and company directly opposing empire, and the other view being that of John Barclay who thinks empire was basically ignored. Reasoner does seem to come down more on the side of Wright, though he leaves the question open. He says that “the fact remains that the Roman Empire found something wrong with Paul, even if he did not oppose the Roman Empire as directly as N.T. Wright suggests.” For my two cents on this issue, I think it is (at least somewhat) erroneous to think that Paul wasn’t concerned about the power and politics of the Empire, as in his perspective the terrestrial powers are inextricably tied in to the spiritual powers (e.g. this interconnectedness is important to understanding the NT phrases “rulers, principalities, and power”).

He states in the conclusion:

Did Rome’s hold on its empire influence the ideas found in the New Testament? Certainly it did in the sense that the New Testament describes Roman officials, such as the procurator Pontius Pilate or the centurion Cornelius, encountering Jesus or his followers. But are the New Testament’s descriptions of Christ’s rule, its records of the church’s growth, or its pictures of end times written in light of or in reaction to Roman rule and the golden age that Roman propaganda traced back to Augustus? If the texts and images in this volume motivate readers to discern new dimensions in the New Testament’s voices, then this sourcebook’s venture to Rome will bear some fruit.

I think Reasoner approaches this whole issue of empire, in this book at least, with the understanding that regardless of whether the early Christians were directly opposed to the Roman empire (and all the stuff related to it), it is nevertheless worthwhile to have an adequate knowledge of the Roman imperial system.

All in all, I think that anyone interested in New Testament studies, who has not already delved into Roman imperial studies to any great depth, could benefit from this book. The intro books to the New Testament that I remember reading years back didn’t cover the Roman world to the same depth as they did the Jewish world (which is understandable), so this would actually be quite a useful supplemental text.

Aronofsky’s Noah Movie

[note: a few spoilers ahead]

I watched Darren Aronofsky’s Noah film yesterday. Some aspects I really enjoyed and others I thought were quite strange.

Chief amongst the strange things was how the shedded skin of the serpent in Eden was portrayed as a magic talisman. It was handed down from Adam to Seth, all the way down to Noah. And then Noah blesses his newly born grandkids with it at the end of the movie. Bizarre. It was one of a few things that came off like some sort of neo-gnosticism.

Another thing was the Watchers (fallen angels) in the movie. I thought it was kind of cool how they were made into giant Ent-like rock monsters (and the explanation for why this happened). It didn’t get into the whole Jewish tradition (see 1 Enoch) about how the Watchers copulated with women and produced unnatural offspring, but it was faithful to the Watchers tradition insofar as they are depicted as providing forbidden knowledge to the humans. But this selective use of the Watchers tradition seemed (to me at least) to be with the intention of basically portraying them as good guys who were just trying to help the humans survive and thrive, but the (big mean) Creator God punishes them for this. Again, it kind of reeks of a gnostic sort of thinking.

Something I liked was Aronofsky’s portrayal of Noah having a psychological breakdown on the ark. I thought was a good exploration of his character, i.e. can someone really go through the whole ordeal Noah had to (such as letting everyone die apart from his family) and not have big mental problems?!

Minus the neo-gnosticism, I enjoyed the movie. But keep in mind that I don’t go to movies with the expectation that I can derive good theology from them. I’m also the kind of guy who thoroughly enjoyed Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. So yea….

Wheaton Theology Conference Next Week On ‘The Spirit of God’

This year’s annual conference at Wheaton College is on The Spirit of God: Christian Renewal in the Community of Faith. It is being held April 3-4 (Thurs-Fri) and yours truly will be attending. Here is the page detailing the topics being discussed and who will be delivering them.

So if you’re at the conference and you see a devilishly handsome guy roaming around, wearing neon blue jandals…. that’ll be me.

Snippets from Yoder’s ‘Radical Christian Discipleship’ (Part II)

A few more quotable quotes from Yoder’s Radical Christian Discipleship.

If our purpose in life is to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God and to fellow human beings, what is the best possible use of our time, talents, and wealth?

Sometimes Christians find themselves in complicated situations where the choice between good and evil is not clear. Many economic questions are of this sort, especially when no effort is made to face them as a community. But the first question before every Christian is clear: Am I ready to trust in God’s care sufficiently to forsake all and follow Christ?

It is worth noting that both the list of heroes in the “faith chapter” [Heb. 11] and the sketch of Israel’s history given by Stephen before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7) stop with the beginnings of the political kingdom under David. The Jewish national kingdom of the Old Testament is not considered by the New Testament to have been the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Christ himself continually resisted the tendency of his contemporaries to understand his kingdom as a matter of Jewish national loyalty.

Precisely because the American government leaves room for the specific act of refusing military service, often making that refusal easier than military service, the temptation is great to forget that the real evil is the whole attitude of nationalism and the willingness to attach one’s loyalty to something less than the kingdom of God with its impartial love of neighbor. If our conscientious objection leaves us just as materialistic, just as anticommunistic, just as willing to accept a one-sided view of world affairs, just as “at home” in business and the community, just as accustomed to thinking our way of doing things is right, then our objection to military service is not “conscientious” at all, but inconsistent and legalistic.

If the state thinks that by its planning and direction of society and economy it can achieve an ideal social order, the Christian’s witness is a reminder of how human sinfulness corrupts even the best of plans. Christians will therefore oppose the concentration of power in the hands of a few and will prefer forms of government and social order that, without guaranteeing perfect justice, provide the most effective checks and balances against individual ambitions. Christians will be dubious about the values of either “free enterprise” or the “planned economy” as a matter of economic doctrine. Both are subject to the same flaw – human sinfulness – and Christians will be most interested in workable ways of keeping planners and free entrepreneurs from taking advantage of their power.

When we say “love,” we should not forget, despite all that the world around us would have us believe, that love is not the way we feel inside. We sometimes encounter the claim that it is possible to love our enemies while at the same time as killing them, to love members of another race without associating with them, or to love people of another class while refusing to treat them as equals. This kind of stance is only possible if one thinks that love is some kind of well-meaning feeling that involves no personal commitment to a way of acting. … Love is not a vague hope that things will go well for everyone (James 2). It is an action that assumes the responsibility and costs of doing good.

What is wrong with theft is not, first of all, that it is an offense against the institution of private property. In that case the alternative to theft would have been leaving other people’s things alone. Paul condemns stealing because those who steal are not working. Such persons receive their livelihood without making a contribution to the economy. Their efforts subtract from rather than add to the total well-being of society.

Christians must be clear in our judgment on all human “isms,” including communism. In many respects we will prefer, relatively, the American economic and political system to that of Soviet Russia. Yet we will see deeply enough to understand that the faults of communism lie not in the system, but in sinful humanity. We will be careful to see the same faults just as clearly when they show themselves in capitalism. Discussions about the ideal economic system are of minor interest for the Christian. What concerns us is living in love where we are. This means being more aware of worldliness surrounding us than of the sins of an “enemy” on the other side of the globe.

We use the word ‘cross’ in our hymns, in our piety, in our prayers, and in our pastoral language. But we use it too cheaply. We say that a person has to live with some sort of suffering in life: a sickness that cannot be cured, an unresolvable personality conflict within the family, poverty, or some other unexplainable or unchangeable suffering. Then we say, “That person has a cross to bear.” Granted, whatever kind of suffering we have is suffering that we can bear in confidence that God is with us. But the cross that Jesus had to face, because he chose to face it, was not – like sickness – something that strikes you without explanation. It was not some continuing difficulty in his social life. It was not an accident or catastrophe that just happened to hit him when it could have hit somebody else. Jesus’ cross was the price to pay for being the kind of person he was in the kind of world he was in; the cross that he chose was the price of his representing a new way of life in a world that did not want a new way of life. That is what he called his followers to do.



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