Thursday, October 09, 2008

Ellul on God and human freedom

God does not mechanize man. He gives him free play. He includes issues of every possible kind. Man is at the time independent. We cannot say free. Scripture everywhere reminds us that man’s independence in relation to God is in the strict sense bondage as regards sin. This man is not free. He is under the burden of his body and his passions, the conditioning of society, culture, and function. He obeys its judgments and setting. He is controlled by its situation and psychology. Man is certainly not free in any degree. He is the slave of everything save God. God does not control or constrain him. God lets him remain independent in these conditions.

- Jacques Ellul, The Politics of God and the Politics of Man
(trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Eerdmans, 1972 [1966]), 16.

I wonder how Ellul understands Paul's discussion of being "slaves to righteousness" in Romans 6. Immediately after using the phrase, Paul does mention that he considers it imprecise. So Ellul is certainly onto something important here in how God exercises his authority. Being a slave to sin is a very different kind of service to being a slave of the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose service is perfect freedom.


Anonymous said...

perfect as in virtuous excellence - virtue as a theory of ethics. i.e. perfect freedom is having the virtue of being a slave to Christ

And to have this virtue one must be proud of it (pride in the Aristotelian sense). The Apostles were overflowing with pride in their position as servants of Christ. Paul thought apostleship was something to be deserved on account of one's behaviour; vanity was not an option.

As for most Christians, they either do not care for this virtue; are vain; or have resigned and excused themselves from this virtue, seeking instead comfort in pitiful debasement of themselves, navel-gazing, arguments from impotence and the like.

Show me an Apostle and I will show you a proud man.

Anonymous said...

Byron. Thanks for posting this. Ellul is always worth reading, and this quote reminded me of something that Bromiley himself wrote in 2002, which was published in CT and which I reproduced at

byron smith said...

Paul thought apostleship was something to be deserved on account of one's behaviour; vanity was not an option.
I'm not sure I've followed you. What do you make of 1 Corinthians 15.8-11? And are you equating apostleship with being a servant of Christ?

Jason -thanks for the link. It's an interesting paper making an important point.

Anonymous said...

I think Paul does a good job of flaunting his credentials for the job elsewhere (cloaked in outward humility, of course). Even that passage requires some sort of 'fitness' for the apostle and distinguishes the apostles in terms of status ("least").

I think the apostles were the best examples of servants of Christ, although you could throw St Francis and the like in there too.

Like Paul, I distinguish amongst servants of Christ according to their actions, as does Kierkegaard (quote via Jason's blog):
"'Protestantism is the crudest and most brutal plebeianism. People will not hear of there being any difference of quality between an apostle, a witness to the truth and oneself, in spite of the fact that one's existence is completely different from theirs, as different as eating from being eaten'."

I think it is vanity that one could call themself Christian yet do little in allegiance to Christ.

byron smith said...

Yes, I agree that virtue is not egalitarian, and the plebeian desire to drag everyone down to one's own level of failure is a destructive form of, well, pride - that can't stand to see oneself as anything but at least equal with the best.

Yet at the heart of a virtuous life for the citizen of the pilgrim city of God are repentance and humility, expressed not least in a daily petition that our sins be forgiven. Even and especially for the greatest in the kingdom of God (i.e. the most servant-hearted, the most like a child, the most humble), there is no room for pride. Paul says those who are mature will show it by not thinking of themselves as mature! (Phil 3.12-15)

That said, I don't think Paul was necessarily the most virtuous of the saints. That is not how one is qualified to be an apostle. It is not through a higher level of sanctification or a track record of good deeds (Paul of all the apostles knew this clearly!), but simply through the call of God (Gal 1.1, etc.). Thus, that a suspicious reading may discover flashes of pride beneath a "cloak" of humility is no justification of pride, but a demonstration of the very grace to which Paul so repeatedly points when discussing his calling.