Monday, October 06, 2008

Nations have no right to exist

...the right of national self-determination does not exist in the Bible. Before God nations have neither a right to exist nor a right to liberty. They have no assurance of perpetuity. On the contrary, the lesson of the Bible seems to be that nations are swept away like dead leaves and that occasionally, almost by accident, one might endure rather longer.

- Jacques Ellul, The Politics of God and the Politics of Man
(trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Eerdmans, 1972 [1966]), 27-28.

We have no divine guarantee that the present international order will not be swept away. Quite the contrary: autumn may have already begun.


Anonymous said...

That's a very gloomy post. Is Scotland getting to you?

Seriously though, I think it may indeed be autumn.

John said...

Ellul is a fascinating character. I gather his position is that Christians should tolerate Nations/States since God does but no more. I just started reading "To Will and To Do" by Ellul. It is very clear and simply written. Do you know how O'Donovan views Ellul?

- John

Vaughan Smith said...


Mike Bull said...

That's true, but a bit imbalanced. Christ was given authority over the nations at His ascension. He then shared that authority with the church (Ps. 2:9; Rev. 2:6) - head and body. The church, as seven ruling stars, a rod of iron, is His tool of dominion.

For now, the nations are merely scaffolding for the church, hooked and raised up as great beasts and despatched with His sword. But by the end of history, even these will be transfigured and incorporated into her.

Christ will continue to pound the dough until the yeast is all the way through it. Nothing accidental about it.

byron smith said...

When Ellul says that nations have no "right" to exist, he seems to intend this as an attack on idolatrous nationalism that believes national self-determination is a fundamental principle of human society. I don't think he intends this as a revolutionary call to overthrow these nations that are destined to fall. Quite the opposite; as JRS says, Christians should tolerate them without placing any hope in them.

Linden - I confess, I just wanted to write a post using the adjective "autumnal", but then decided people might miss the point and switched the autumn. The colours are starting to come out here.

JRS - I read some Ellul for the first time yesterday. I've just joined a reading group on this book, which consists of seven character studies from 2 Kings. Our first one was on Naaman - fascinating. I've heard O'D say that he finds Ellul inconsistent, yet he is a writer "one must comes to terms with".

Vaughan - to which bit are you saying "Amen"? I'm not sure that the downfall of nations is necessarily unmitigated good news for we who also live in them...

Mike - Notice he says "almost" accidental. He is speaking there from our point of view. It is not possible to predict which nations will rise or fall. History is opaque, even mysterious, according to Ellul. And yes, this quote is imbalanced, but it is not the entirety of the chapter (actually, this quote is from the intro). I assume you mean Rev 2.26-27? In which case, isn't this sharing of Christ's authority a promise to those who continue to do Christ's works "to the end" rather than something presently enjoyed by the churches?

Mike W said...

How do we communicate this to nation states? We can speak of the resurrection for individual christians and the church, how do we free nation states from the fear of their own death?

Mike Bull said...

Well put. I identify the "end" as the end of the Temple, which would "shortly come to pass." This signified the end of the Old Covenant government in the heavenlies. It was 'Tabernacles' to Christ's Passover - the reception of both Old and New Covenant saints into heaven. It was the full inauguration of the New Covenant. The governing 'sun, moon and stars' of the old creation fell. Christ now reigns until all His enemies are subdued, and this government is something presently enjoyed by the churches through our prayers. Under the New Covenant, we are included in God's council, as Abraham, Moses and David were, to deliberate judgment on the nations. When the saints pray, the Berlin Wall eventually comes down. The church changes history.
I know this will sound weird, but that's the Bible:
The Bible shows beasts becoming Man. The dominion of land animals on Day 6 was handed to Adam. The dominion of the 4 'land animal' world empires in Daniel 7 was given to the Ancient of Days (Christ) and 'one like the son of man' (the church).* The gospel wakes nations as brutes from the raging sea, and like Nebuchadnezzar, once they are humbled, their mind is returned and they glorify God. Only a nation so governed by the Spirit through the church has no fear of its own death. And judging by the history of Christendom, it doesn't even seem to take much of a church.
We have to keep 'breathing' on the waters, stirring them up, but as in John 5, it usually wakes monsters first. Once converted, such nations have a greater kingdom in mind, and unlike Adam but like Joseph, David, Daniel, Mordecai and Christ, realise that God exalts obedient servants as His faithful managers.

*Notice that the counterfeit messianic kingdom was a Roman beast horn with a man's eyes and mouth - the Herods.
**Identifying this 'one' as the church is supported by the repetition of the pattern later in Daniel 7.

Vaughan Smith said...

When Ellul says that nations have no "right" to exist, he seems to intend this as an attack on idolatrous nationalism that believes national self-determination is a fundamental principle of human society.
This is what I was aiming my "Amen!" at.


Mike Bull said...

I forgot to add the punchline at the end:

"The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!"

This fact doesn't seem to go down well when we share it.

gbroughto said...

I've read a bit of Ellul over the years, and the O'D comment about being 'inconsistent' seems a bit too general... who, having committed more than a few lines to print can't be accused of inconsistency???

His dialectic method: one book written from within sociology raising the questions, the next from within theology (as a layperson) trying to grapple with the issues biblically is a fascinating one - all the more because it was a deliberate program spanning 40 books and 3.5 decades.
Only in "Humiliation of the Word" does he deliberately merge sociology and theology in the one volume. This isn't to say that his sociological works are without theological insight and vice versa, but it is a methodology (and a library) that makes for hard work.

The other aspects of his writing that make him difficult (for me at least) 'to come to terms with' is his vast knowledge of the 'published in French only' literature, and his very sparing use of footnotes.

But given your research interests, I do think familiarity with some of his work would be very helpful.

Unfortunately he has only been noticed by the more alternative / radical discipleship people in the US (and probably Aus).

byron smith said...

Mike - good question. Survival is neither the highest goal of a human, nor of a nation. Part of the answer has to be found in Jesus being the "desire of the nations", even if they don't realise it in their self-protective terror.

Vaughan - fair enough, amen away!

Geoff - yes, inconsistency is a charge that also can't be laid too early in one's reading, especially when reading someone who is thinking quite differently from how you are used to doing so. There may yet be a cohesion that I haven't grasped and I (for now) trust the word of others who have found in this writing something worth preserving, passing on, posting. But once you do begin to get a broader and deeper grasp of someone's thought, then inconsistencies are, as you say, almost inevitable. However, there are minor inconsistencies and there are major ones. There is such a thing as ways of thinking that is deeply and self-destructively inconsistent. Whether O'D is right to label Ellul's thought as such, the category does exist. And O'D was also careful (in his admittedly quite brief remarks when Ellul came up in a group discussion) to say that it is very important to read and engage him. It was not a dismissive comment.

That said, I think you are right about his influence being particularly amongst nonconformist theology. I look forward to the rest of the book. I'm sure you can probably expect a few more quotes in the weeks to come.

gbroughto said...

yep - good call, there are major inconsistencies that need to be identified. I think I was wondering whether Ellul's fairly unique methodology makes this somewhat inevitable??

Compared to most writers who develop a 'project' / major line of inquiry throughout their life, such major 'inconsistencies' (and sometimes euphemistically called a 'turn' or identifying the 'earlier' and 'later' streams of thought - e.g. Wittgenstein) are patently obvious.

But I wonder whether cross-disciplinary endeavours might suffer when subjected to the same critique, when they are also grasping for coherence in a broader sense. Perhaps 'paradoxial' is a better description of such works.

I didn't think O'D was being dismissive, not that I really know him. When I was at Fuller, Volf was a big fan of 'Desire' when it came out, I've splashed in the shallow end of "resurrection" and am currently working thru "Ways" - oh, and I heard him at New College in '97. I like him, and think you are indeed fortunate to have him as a supervisor.


Steve Hayes said...

I'm not sure about the truth of that statement. I do read in the Bible:

When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of men, he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God (Deut 32:8).

byron smith said...

Steve - my quotes are not necessarily ones I agree with. However, in this case, do you think that the exaltation of Christ ("All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me") might have implications for the right of nations? Certainly, at the end, when Christ will hand the kingdom to the Father, he will have "destroyed every ruler and every authority and power." (1 Cor 15.24) But what of now? Christ has been granted all authority but hasn't yet destroyed all competing authorities. Mike argues from Revelation that the kingdoms of this world have already become the kingdom of God and of his Christ. Where are the nations left after the exaltation of Christ and before the final consummation? Seems like how one answers that will have all kinds of implications for your political assumptions and practices.

Anonymous said...

The book of Ellul's to study is Hope in the time of abandonment, it's a sobering read and makes some profound points to which Pannenberg is a useful corrective. I would also suggest is meditation on Ecclesiastes. It's a given that Ellul views the Christian as being brought gradually through grace into a true anarchy of knowing no god but God and thus allowing no other sway upon his decisions but the received will of God as mediated through scripture, a peculiar position for a Catholic layman who remained a Catholic despite his rather contrary views to those of the Magisterium. And doesn't he have that marvellous Gallic shrug in all his writings secular and theological, ah how we Anglo-Saxons envy them that quality to make every gesture the equivalent of a one fingered salute.