Against "Christian Morality"? Ellul on Paul's Freedom Doctrine

St. Paul (ca. 1520)
Attributed to Lucas van Leyden
(PD-US, via Wikimedia Commons)
In 1951 the French sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul published a seminal theological essay on "The Meaning of Freedom According to St. Paul" -- an exposisition of Romans 8. As commentator Marva Dawn explains, early on Ellul had been drawn to the works of Karl Marx, but he came to find Marxist theory was insufficent to address ultimate questions about the meaning of existence; for that, the transcendent perspective of religious faith is necessary. While reading Romans 8, he had a sudden "watershed" experience in which the words of the Bible came alive as a liberating word addressed personally to him. This essay, she writes, reflects some of the early fruits of that conversion.

Sources and Trajectories: Eight Articles by Jacques Ellul that Set the Stage, Trans. & Ed. by Marva J. Dawn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eeerdmans, 1997).

Like so many interpreters of Paul, from Luther to Barth and beyond, Ellul discerns in this text a liberating word that casts a shadow of judgment over all human efforts to create a moral and just social order. In its more radical forms, at least, this move has often elicited the charge that it enables antinomianism (disregard for the law) and moral relativism.

Yet the dialectical razor's edge of this Gospel of freedom is easily blunted; even such an exemplary Protestant martyr like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Ellul's view, risks undermining Christian liberty by ranging it among the among the virtues (p. 118). (I'm not going to try to unpack or evaluate this critique here.)

The young Ellul expresses his view rather trenchantly:

When we try to make more precise the rules of the Christian life, to construct a moral code, a model that can be imitated and accomplished, we betray Jesus Christ himself. We despise this freedom that he acquired for us with such difficulty by his death; we fall back into the old enslavements, and we repudiate the title of children of God (p. 128)

Ellul's exposition of this theme dovetails with his emergent theology of the principalities and powers, which I introduced here. The effort to establish an ethical code based upon abstract rules and principles, in his view, reflects a submission to one or more of the myriad heteronomic would-be authorities that oppress and afflict human beings and societies.

Ellul explains:

One can lose the freedom that is accorded us by grace by reintroducing into our life some other lord, by our submission to the Spirit of the World, which is always possible, and of which the epistles of Paul (especially the pastorals) give several examples (ibid.)

Ellul doesn't limit his broadside to questions of individual morality -- as if that ever existed in isolation anyway) -- but clearly he targets broader ideological currents and sociopolitical programs.

We alienate this freedom when we commit ourselves to a sociological current, to a current social conformism, in pretending that it is the manifestation of the Christian life (e.g., the political conformism founded on a Christian political doctrine, adhesion to an economic system as an expression of the revealed truth or of love, etc.), each time that we justify with Christian motivations, for example,
one of our political attitudes (almost always taken for motives of sociology or passions): we thereby cease to be free in Christ (ibid.).

To be honest, I find that passage a little difficult to decipher -- especially the part about "motives of sociology or passions." Nonetheless, clearly, Ellul is groping toward a definition of faith and freedom that is stridently anti-ideological -- that is, an iconoclastic stance that stands in tension with any systematic schema for thought or behavior

I get it (I think). I'm not in a place yet to parse and parlay Ellul's claim here; such a response awaits more careful study and rumination. But these passages exercise some abiding questions of my own. To wit: To what extent is it actually possible -- for anyone -- to realize a stance so cleansed of ideological taint and so free from the compromising entanglements of some program or another that she could be said to exhibit the freedom commended here? All human existence, after is, is ineluctably embedded in specific social, political, and economic circumstances. We are, all of us, already committed to something -- "It might be the devil, and it might the Lord," as Dylan croons. But, if I might be a little cliche here, is the devil not in the details? Might those details include, at least from time to time, specific admonitions and injunctions? Our milieu is suffused with cultural and political mores, and that includes even "counter-cultural" ones (assuming such a phenomenon truly exists and is not itself just another rhetorical or ideological gesture). To be sure, just how, in any given circumstance, the Gospel of God's free grace in Christ, which never changes (or does it?) will interface with any particular set of social or political commitments is, on the face of it, often far from being self-evident. But certainly the indicative of the Gospel must, somehow, ramify in the imperatives of ethics and morality, whether we construe these as divine commandments, transcendental principles, exigencies of practice, or something else altogether. Or am I completely off-base here?

But please don't let's give up on the hope that our theology might establish norms for our actions. I find it helpful -- call it pragmatism or whatever -- to operate with the assumption that some things simply are right and wrong, despite the complexities and perplexities embedded in such a bald-faced claim. Now I find myself driven back to the quest for normative principles for behavior in individual and social life. Call them virtues, if you prefer. Social conventions would seem to have some necessary role in fostering and cultivating patterns of human flourishing. Do I really abdicate my freedom in Christ if engage such questions in the sphere of the penultimate. Might there be a "Christian morality," however tenuous, partial, and culturally relative its proscriptions and prescriptions my prove to be, under examination over time?

These matters keep me up at night and (more's the pity for you, gentle readers) blog posts. Who will save me from the body of death? Probably not Jaques Ellul -- or any other theological ethicist, for that matter. But the Gospel just might. Or so one can hope.

At any rate, Ellul's diatribe against "morality" dovetails with his point on the following page, where he insists that the Gospel cannot be purloined by any philosophy or worldview.

It is the same when we pretend to regain human freedom by a philosophy of Nature or of Being. As soon as we seek to ensure, explain, demonstrate this freedom on the basis of a system, that means that we necessarily abandon Jesus Christ and his liberating action, eternal and present (p. 129).

And his specific example of this kind of selling out drew a smile, and perhaps also a slight grimace, from me:

Among a hundred examples we may point out that the system of [the French Jesuit natural philosopher] Teilhard de Chardin is certainly the most efficacious intellectual means of alienating the freedom acquired in Christ. It is one of the most dangerous anti-Christian enterprises of our days because of the pseudo-demonstration of the accomplishment of the cosmic (?) Christ by a sort of necessity intrinsic to nature, because of its volatilization of the Incarnation, and because of its confusion between freedom and historical necessity (p. 129).

That's pretty harsh, and a bit sweeping, n'est-ce pas?



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