This will be my last post this week — I’m off soon to Laity Lodge!    


I’ve said before that I think Anarchy and Christianity is Jacques Ellul’s worst book but I don’t think I’ve ever said why I believe that. So here goes.

I’ll start with a key passage from pp. 32–33:

Now it is true that for centuries theology has insisted that God is the absolute Master, the Lord of lords, the Almighty, before whom we are nothing. Hence it is right enough that those who reject masters will reject God too. We must also take note of the fact that even in the twentieth century Christians still call God the King of creation and still call Jesus Lord even though there are few kings and lords left in the modern world. But I for my part dispute this concept of God.

Throughout the book Ellul portrays himself as a careful reader of the Bible, which is why he begins this section by saying that theology has insisted that God is Lord of lords – he presents his argument as a refutation of theologians, not of the Bible. But this is evasive: Ellul knows perfectly well that in the Old Testament God is repeatedly described as King and Lord — e.g. “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19) — and that in the New Testament Jesus Christ is called “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6:15, the concluding phrase appearing again in Revelation 19:16). It is a mere delaying tactic. So ultimately he admits it:

I realize that [this concept of God] corresponds to the existing mentality. I realize that we have here a religious image of God. I realize, finally, that many biblical passages call God king or Lord. But this admitted, I contend that the Bible in reality gives us a very different image of God.

A rather subtle distinction, isn’t it? That the Bible can repeatedly – it would be fair to say obsessively – call God King and Lord and yet all of that is somehow not the “image of God” given in the Bible. Ellul is simply denying the relevance of everything in Scripture, no matter how prominent, that clashes with what he believes to be the genuine biblical picture of who God is. As though he can wave a rhetorical wand and make all countervailing evidence just disappear.

Why does Ellul do this? In large part because he knows that Lords and Kings give commands, and he intends to deny that God would infringe on our anarchic freedom by giving commands. Alas, the Bible continues to fight against him – he eventually is forced to admit that in the Bible we do see “divine orders. How are we to understand this?” He claims that “God’s commandments are always addressed to individuals. God chooses this or that person to do something specific. It is not a matter of a general law. We have no right to generalize the order” (p. 40). He gives the example of the “rich young ruler” whom Jesus commands to sell all that he has and give to the poor, and claims that that order is given only to that man and not to anyone else – not an eccentric reading of that particular pericope, but the denial that there are any “generalized orders” in the Bible is very eccentric indeed. Who is the “individual” whom “You shall not kill” is addressed to? Or “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”?  

So, again, why does he do this? Because he believes that universal commands would make us “robots for God who have to execute the decisions of him who made us” (41). But if commands turn us into robots, then that would make the rich young ruler into a robot. Does he really mean to say that God turns some people into robots but not most? If so, if he confines his absolute kingly commands to only a few, would that make him any less of a tyrant, any less of an infringer upon freedom?

The whole argument is just … nuts. And also, I think, based on a confusion of categories. Ellul seems to have taken the concept of anarchism – which is a political concept pertaining to the way that human beings order their common life – and seen it instead as a metaphysical principle, as a foundational truth about the entire cosmos. But why would he do that?

I think it’s because he knows the long history of politics, in which actual or would-be kings present themselves as regents of God, as having a divine right to authority over us that is rooted in God’s authority over us. But when someone says “Because God is King over all I am king over you” I don’t think the most reasonable critique of that claim is to say, “God really isn’t a King and therefore you are not either.” A more appropriate response would be that God alone is king and all human beings are servants of the same master. Ellul seems to take the hardest possible road to his desired destination, which is to undermine the tyrant’s claims to authority. And his determination to undermine that claim leads him into bizarre theology and indefensible exegesis. 

I also think he wants to claim — in this case quite properly! — that the Christian God does not insist on his sovereignty, but rather casts it away, and does so most dramatically in the sending of his Son Jesus Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2). This is of course vital. But a King who humbles himself before his people, who sacrifices himself for their salvation, need not be and indeed is not a non-King, an anarch. (And even that great kenosis passage concludes thus: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”) 

There is, I think, a serious Christian defense of anarchism, even if Ellul hasn’t found it. It’s similar to the proper Christian argument for democracy. As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “There are two opposite reasons for being a democrat. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows. That I believe to be the true ground of democracy.” A Christian argument for anarchism would begin there – though not end; there is still a lot of work to do. I’ve tried to do some of it in an essay that I think is forthcoming – though with regard to that also there is still a lot of work to do. But eventually, one way or another, you’ll hear from me on these matters.