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]

2 responses

  1. Two bits I especially liked:

        And what about another concept that seems to be essential in the life of Jesus Christ, that of weakness, which is linked with anti politics? What can be more the opposite of what we are? Is not the spirit of power at the heart of all our actions? I concede that it may not exist among some so-called primitive people in tribes that know no violence and seek no domination. But these are such an exception that we certainly cannot take them as a natural example of what humanity is in general—if there is such a thing as “humanity in general.” (164-5)

        There is also another element that is intolerable for different reasons, namely, freedom. It is true that people claim to want freedom. […] It is not true that people want to be free. They want the advantages of independence without the duties or difficulties of freedom. (166-7)

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