More Ellul-at-one-remove goodness, with a fascinating article by Vernard Eller on How Jacques Ellul reads the Bible. (Yes, it’s Eller on Ellul: I’ll try not to get the two confused…)
The whole article is worth reading, but here are some points I found particularly helpful.
“Complex and yet integral”: Ellul’s “continuous” reading
Ellul’s approach to the Bible is a “continuous” one, in which he insists that – rather than there simply being “John’s message” or “Luke’s message” and so on – the Bible has a message.
This isn’t to dismiss the work of scholars who have dug down into the meaning of each biblical text on its own terms, but to insist that once we have looked at the trees, it is necessary to take a step back and look at the forest. As Eller writes:
If one customarily comes to the text looking for distinctions, these are what [the scholar] will find and it is with these he will be impressed. However, without necessarily disputing these findings at all, the scholar looking from a holistic perspective will find and be impressed by connections, developments, continuities, supplementaries.
This message is, in Ellul’s phrase, “complex yet integral”. Liberal scholarship tends “to deny (or at least ignore) the integrity of the biblical message”, while conservative scholarship tends “to deny (or at least ignore) the complexity of the biblical message”. Hence:
Ellul’s approach … comes through as fresh and as different from that of either the typical liberal or the typical conservative.
That provocative distinctiveness is certainly a large part of Ellul’s appeal for me (though also a source of disagreement at times).
Ellul on inspiration
Eller argues that, for Ellul, the Holy Spirit’s work of inspiring the biblical text is not merely something local to the time and place in which the text was written. Rather, it is:
…a continuing and cumulative activity [that] accompanies a text from the occurrence of the events it will later record, through the transmission and interpretation of the oral tradition; through the act of its being written down; through its consequent arrangement, supplementation and redaction; through its ultimate finding of a place in the canon; and clear on to its being pondered and understood by the believing reader.
Hence Ellul tends to be more interested in how a text fits into the overall thrust of the biblical message, rather than what it meant to the writer at the time. In particular, what controls our interpretation of the text is not “the linguistic, semantic, literary, historical, cultural, ideological, religious context of the act of the passage’s originally being written”. Rather:
because … the heart and focus of the Spirit’s revealing work lie in Jesus Christ, the history of Jesus inevitably must become the center out of which the continuity and coherency of the whole are to be sought.
Jonah as Christian Scripture
Eller shows how Ellul applies these principles to the book of Jonah, whose formation “seems to have been quite circumscribed and self-contained”, but whose interpretation has not been. Ellul argues that the Spirit’s work of inspiration was continuing throughout this process of interpretation, culminating in Jesus’ use of the story:
Jesus’ own words about Jonah become an invitation to explore what the book might signify – a parable of Jesus. Ellul’s exposition is utterly christocentric. Yet Ellul is clear about what he is doing. He does not even pretend to be exegeting the book that was written by an ancient Hebrew; he expounds the book that has been transformed by Jesus’ citation of it and as it now stands as an integral element in Christian Scripture.
Ellul is “is dealing [with] interpretations that the Holy Spirit brought into the book at later times and through other hands including Jesus’ own”, Eller continues:
The difference here is that between a drama critic’s treatment of a playwright’s script and his treatment of a performance of the same play. Modern scholarship confines itself to the original script of Jonah; Ellul evaluates its performance as Christian Scripture. And he knows that not everything finds in the performance was necessarily present in the script.
However, as Eller observes in his conclusion, Ellul does not wish to “displace current microscopic-precision studies with wide-angle viewings”. Rather:
…the Bible will be most free to speak clearly and meaningfully if the two hermeneutics are allowed to operate side by side – indeed in concert. Working so, we should be able to do even better than did our forefathers who lacked the advantages of the scientific method.
This is one reason why I find Ellul so stimulating, even if I don’t always agree with him. Like him, I don’t reject the work of those who work closely with the biblical text – quite the opposite – but I’m more interested in what Dick Lucas would call the “melodic line” of the Bible.