Review of Jacques Ellul’s The Presence of the Kingdom

Ellul, Jacques. The Presence of the Kingdom. Translated by Olive Wyon. Second Edition. Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard Publishers, 1989.

Jacques Ellul explains in his 1989 Preface that Romans 12:2 forms his guiding principle for answering the question of how the Christian is to live in the world: “Do not be conformed to this present age….” This “present age” is not an unchanging metaphysical reality but the specific, concrete moment in which one lives (xi). Ellul thus writes the work for his own time, in the years subsequent to the Second World War.

Born in 1912 (d. 1994), two early influences that permeated Ellul’s thinking were the teaching of Karl Marx and Jesus Christ. He never resolved the two into a synthesis, but kept them in dialectic relationship. Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth also played a powerful role in his development. Dialectic is central to Ellul’s thought, i.e. the notion that two competing realities meet to form a new situation, “a procedure that does not exclude contraries but includes them” (xxvii). Though denying Marx’s vision of historical “progress,” Ellul affirms Marx’s observation concerning dialectic, while affirming the presence of dialectic in biblical revelation as well.

This is dialectical mode of thinking, however, seems to land Ellul in a contradiction. On the one hand, he sees history as undetermined and guided by the free choices of men who are never constrained by God. On the other hand, he resolutely espouses universal salvation (xxxix). Perhaps Ellul would revel in such a tension, but the free will of man has traditionally been used as the central argument against universalism.  

As he explains in chapter one, Ellul understands the place of the Christian in the world in terms of opposition between the claims of revelation and the demands of the world (9). Indeed, “theological truth has no point of contact with the world” (11). These two spheres—that of the theologian and the world—can be bridged by the layman who lives in the world. But the stark difference between the material realm and spiritual realm remains. The Christian cannot improve the world, but only slow its disintegration. Moreover, the Christian ought never to use the world’s methods (“techniques”) to preserve the world, but only God-prescribed spiritual means, like prayer (16). The world carries the weight of sin and tends toward death; it cannot preserve itself (25). The world needs, rather, the spiritual influence of a Christian who embodies God’s will in human action.

Perhaps Ellul could benefit in this first chapter from a discussion of the image of God. What part might the image of God, common to all man, play in the theologian’s task? Does not this reality provide some point of Christian connection with the world?

Ellul argues in the second chapter that a true revolution can never be made from within the world’s own ideological framework. Instead, the Christian must incarnate a revolutionary truth through an unconventional, sacrificial effort that cuts against the given course of history (29-30). From a surface reading, Ellul’s call to revolution could seem to contradict the teaching of Romans 13 to submit to the government. However, the revolution he prescribes is more fundamental, seeking to change “the very framework of a civilization” (33). This revolution will have a prophetic quality because it’s eschatologically informed (38), that is, christologically shaped (40). Jesus Christ and his Lordship form the true reality in relation to which all passing phenomena of the logical, historical process, including all social ideas and political movements, must be judged.

Perhaps the strongest critique of Ellul could be leveled at this point. If circumstances of the world should not be judged by an attachment to the past nor by loyalty to a doctrine, but only by its relation to the Eschaton (41-42), how does one decide what the character of the Eschaton is? Does not the Church’s historical doctrine provide the framework to describe the eschatological person of Christ? Who is this Person of Christ and what is the character of His Lordship?

Ellul argues in chapter three that contemporary culture has lost a sense of telos; everything has become a “means,” even man himself (51). Technical, scientific means have replaced the search for truth (52). These material means are judged according to how efficient they are, but what is needed is a spiritual end by which to measure them (55). However, in Christ the means and the end are identical, for Christ is both the means of establishing the Kingdom and the Kingdom in Person (64). Thus, the spiritual ought not be separated from the material, but the end (God’s Kingdom) should be integrated into the means (70-71). Ellul reveals his thesis most clearly here: the presence of the Kingdom determines the virtue of any technical means. Mere utilitarian action is of no value; what matters is being alive in the Holy Spirit (76).

A Christian approach to the current ecological crisis could benefit from Ellul here. Only through a robust eschatological approach will the Church faithfully serve the world in our ecological “activism.”

The theme of chapter four is that the Christian intellectual must be transformed by faith in order to break with conformity to the world and to discern the will of God (80). He cannot submit to the world’s “explanatory myth” which seeks to bring coherence to the “mad kaleidoscope” of surface-level phenomena (84).  Modern man, enthralled by constant distractions in work, politics and amusements is severely ill-equipped for contemplative ways of thought (87).

Ellul argues that many commit intellectual suicide, i.e., they “shut their eyes, and accept the myth, in order to remain in fellowship with the majority” (88). Intelligence now operates in the mode of “technics,” which aims exclusively at efficiency and practicality (90), univocity and rationalism (92). No reality lies behind the appearances of the world in this technical outlook, making the material world the sole object of rational techniques. The technical mode of intelligence ultimately breaks down personal relationships of communication (95). Only an intimate awareness of “the Event” who is Jesus Christ can quell this break down and bring cohesion “in the midst of these whirlwinds of facts” (109). The Christian intellectual is therefore called primarily to a life of prayer and meditation “rooted in the concrete” (112).

Perhaps Ellul answered most of the critiques made above in his Prologue and Conclusion. He argues that the connecting point between Christians and the world is a style of life (119-122). This reviewer completely agrees. No mere doctrinal construct or set of principles and theories will commend Christian faith to our culture. An entire lifestyle must be embodied, for the preservation of the Church and the “adornment of the gospel” to our world. Ellul seems to miss the mark, however, in that he intimates the creation of a Christian style of life. Such a creation is unnecessary, however, at least for the more ancient ecclesial traditions.

The Eastern Orthodox Church, for instance, provides a complete style of life, including: morning and evening prayers, the icon corner as a normative part of the home, the Jesus Prayer as a “ceaseless” mode of daily prayer, daily lectionary readings, a weekly fasting schedule, and Sunday liturgical worship that includes numerous embodied elements (e.g. standing for worship, making the sign of the cross, bowing, prostrating, incense, and veneration of icons), all embedded within a yearly calendar that leads the faithful though various Feasts and Fasts reflecting the narrative truths of salvation. Of course, conciliar doctrinal truths inform this “way” at every step. But the Orthodox Way provides not merely a theological system but a complete culture that has been practiced, essentially unchanged, since the time of the Apostles. There is no need to create a Christian style of life from scratch.

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