Book Review: Dialectical Theology and Jacques Ellul

elluldialecticalvleetTitle: Dialectical Theology and Jacques Ellul

Author: Jacob E. Van Vleet

Bibliographic info: 248 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Fortress Press for the digital review copy.

For about past six months I’ve been reading through the books of Jacques Ellul. I came across some of his works in April when I attended the annual Wheaton Theology Conference and saw a shelf of his books in the college bookstore. Having read through about a dozen of his books now, I am quite surprised that his books would be found in a conservative Christian college’s bookstore. After all, Ellul was an anarchist, had a disparaging attitude towards Christianity as a religion, and was an overt universalist.

In this study Jacob Van Vleet provides an examination of the theology of Jacques Ellul through the “skeleton key” of dialectics. Vleet states, and I wholeheartedly agree, that “dialectic is the skeleton key to Ellul’s philosophy and theology; it is the hermeneutical principle by which one can clearly and coherently explore all of Ellul’s work.”

In the first chapter, Vleet discusses three key influences on Ellul: Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, and Karl Barth. I was not at all surprised to see Barth and Marx named as primary intellectual influences on Ellul (and the only reason I can’t say the same about Kierkegaard is due to not being that familiar with his writings).

Marx’s dialectical view of history and critiques of capitalism are readily apparent in Ellul. Vleet says that there are, “three primary ideas that Ellul takes from Marx: his critique of capitalism, his concept of alienation, and his theory of ideology. These are crucial to Ellul’s sociological and philosophical discussions of technique.” Vleet also correctly states that despite the importance influence Marx had on Ellul, he is not a Marxist and ultimately “accuses Marx of slipping into ideology and making unfounded assumptions about the nature of history and society.” An interesting way in which Marx’s dialectical view of history can be seen in Ellul’s work is that while for Marx this dialectic ends in the freedom of a classless and stateless society, “for Ellul, history ends in universal salvation and redemption for all, the ultimate freedom.”

Vleet shows that while Marx wielded a great influence on Ellul’s sociological hermeneutics, Kierkegaard did the same on Ellul’s theological hermeneutics (specifically Kierkegaard’s philosophical anthropology and his accent on paradox). In fact, Ellul apparently read every work of these two thinkers (and they were the only people Ellul could say that about). Vleet sees Karl Barth’s influence on Ellul in the fact that for both Barth and Ellul, “God and reality can only be fully understood through a Trinitarian lens. This lens is a central hermeneutical tool that Ellul inherits from Barth.” Vleet calls this “dialectical inclusion.” I was somewhat surprised to see this as Barth’s influence on Ellul. I mean, Bart’s influence on Ellul can clearly be seen in his emphasis on the self-revelation of God and the difference between revelation and religion, yet I haven’t really noticed a strong undercurrent of a trinitarian hermeneutical tool in Ellul’s theological project.

The second chapter delves more into Ellul’s own dialectical worldview and methodology. Of particular interest was the elucidation of how Ellul’s dialectical view “maintains that all things ultimately end in reconciliation. … Ellul maintains that salvation is universal. In other words, the process of being reunited with God is the logical and necessary outcome of the historical process. … all things – humans, animals, the earth – will ultimately be reunited with God.” I enjoyed this because while I have seen Ellul state a few times that he sees a universalistic outcome, I have not seen him go into any detail as to why he thinks this is. Granted, Ellul may very well do this somewhere in his oeuvre, but I have not come across that place as of yet.

 The third chapter delves more into Ellul’s understanding of God, salvation, God’s freedom, and the logic behind Ellul’s explicit belief in universalism. In regards to how Ellul sees God, Vleet summarizes: “Throughout Ellul’s work, God is usually discussed in one of four ways. These are as follows: God as Wholly Other, God as living, God as Trinity, and God as love.” I was somewhat surprised by God as Trinity (mainly because I haven’t seen a trinitarian emphasis in Ellul so far, not to mention that he seems quite modalistic), but the other three points are clearly important aspects of God to Ellul. Vleet also examines Ellul’s relationship to other dialectical theologians, specifically by looking at these dialecticians through six axiomatic principles of dialectical theologians (e.g. the absolute transcendence of God, the difference between religion and revelation, the rejection of the analogia entis for the analogia fidei, etc).

Vleet discusses Ellul’s view of Scripture, noting that:

For Barth and Ellul, the Scriptures are the Word of God in that they contain God’s revelation: divine communication. The Scriptures are not the Word of God in and of themselves. If approached in this manner, the Bible will be seen as divine and will lead to bibliolatry. Ellul refuses to divinize the Scriptures, but because they act as a conduit for the living God, he looks to them as a central guide for his theology.

The fourth chapter discusses Ellul’s philosophy of technology, including his conception of technique, and also compares Ellul to two other two thinkers who were concerned about the technological society, Hebert Marcuse and Martin Heidegger. “Technique” is a pivotal concept to be found in Ellul’ theological and sociological works. Vleet describes it as:

technique refers primarily two aspects of modernity. First, it refers to the modern mindset guided by a desire for greater efficiency, instrumentality, and control. Second, technique refers to the technological milieu of contemporary industrial society. Overall, technique is the pernicious force underlying modern forms of capitalism, socialism, and other economic systems. As the foundation beneath our values and intellect, technique leads to grave alienation.

The fifth chapter is on Ellul’s view of propaganda and politics, and the sixth chapter discusses Ellul’s understanding of hope, nonviolence, and Christian anarchism.

For anyone who is a reader of Ellul this book is obviously a must-read. If you’re not into Ellul but want an accessible introductory work on Ellul then I would definitely recommend this book as the one to get. Granted, there are not a great deal of introductory works on Jacques Ellul’s theology (in fact the only one I can think of off the top of my head is Understanding Jacques Ellul), but this study by Vleet approaches Ellul’s theology from the most useful angle that one could approach Ellul’s theology: Ellul as a dialectician. And Vleet has provided an excellent study wherein he elucidates the importance of dialectical thinking to Ellul and shows how it brings together his theological and sociological work to form a coherent whole.

3 responses

  1. Thanks for this review, and thanks for turning me onto Ellul! I very much appreciated Subversion of Christianity as well as Humiliation of the Word; I’m working through other bits here and there (I got distracted by Charles Taylor, Alisdair McFadyen, and Emil Brunner).

    Os Guinness turned me onto the idea that sociologists had something useful to say for Christians via The Gravedigger File. I just met with my pastor and we talked about how sociologists are very useful for descriptive analysis, not so much for prescriptive action. I think Ellul would agree with this. One way I am tempted to summarize his thought, although I have not read all that much of it, is: “Either Christianity is subverting culture, or culture is subverting Christianity.” Peter Berger solidified the first half of that with his The Precarious Vision: A Sociologist Looks at Social Fictions and Christian Faith and A Far Glory.

    • “…sociologists are very useful for descriptive analysis, not so much for prescriptive action.”

      “Either Christianity is subverting culture, or culture is subverting Christianity.”

      These are both accurate and succinct summaries.

      I will have to add Berger to my “to read” list. I’ve found Ellul’s sociological perspective to be quite illuminating at times, so maybe I will find other sociologists to be beneficial too.

      • A few snippets from A Far Glory:

        No one, Jew or Gentile, would have been taken aback at a statement that the power of God is greater than that of men; Paul’s scandalous proposition is that the weakness of God reveals His true power, including the power to triumph over sin and death. (6)

        Talk about zeroing in! Ellul says something similar in Subversion:

        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.” (164–165)

        Back to Berger:

        I am suggesting that there is a middle ground between the “progressive” surrender to the age and the fundamentalist denial of it. The first only “reads,” the latter only “writes.” Or, to change the image, the one listens and has nothing to say, the other speaks without having ever listened. It seems to me that Christian wisdom must always comprise both attitudes. (16)

        I could never have said it so succinctly, although Newbigin’s Foolishness to the Greeks does deal with this particular issue extensively. One more quote, which is something many intellectuals would prefer not be said:

        Another exaggeration may have been the conventional view of the reach of scientific rationality. One does not have to look at religion only in order to find this thought plausible. It is amazing what people educated to the highest levels of scientific rationality are prepared to believe by way of irrational prejudices; one only has to look at the political and social beliefs of the most educated classes of Western societies to gain an appreciation of this. Just one case: What Western intellectuals over the last decades have managed to believe about the character of Communist societies is alone sufficient to cast serious doubt on the proposition that rationality is enhanced as a result of scientifically sophisticated education or of living in a modern technological society. (30)

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