“Complex yet integral”: Ellul on the Bible

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.

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4 Responses to “Complex yet integral”: Ellul on the Bible

  1. Chris Jones says:

    To the extent that Elllul’s insight is valid, it is nothing new. St Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 177 AD) has the concept of what he calls the hypothesis of Scripture, its inner coherence, which alone allows us to read the whole of Scripture or any of its parts rightly. The question, then, is how we come to know this “hypothesis,” for it is not explicitly given to us in the Scriptures themselves.

    For St Irenaeus the answer is that the hypothesis is given to us in the “canon of truth” handed down in the Church. What, I wonder, would be Ellul’s answer to that question?

  2. John H says:

    Chris: Eller’s conclusion makes this point, where he writes:

    We have called Ellul’s “continuous” reading fresh and new. That is true, but we don’t want to overstate the point. After all, his approach is not so different from that of the great exegetes of the of the past whose work was able to move the church through the life and power of the Bible – men like Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley.

    Of course, the hermeneutical techniques that permit the identification of the different strands of biblical thought had not been invented in their day so it was virtually by default that they worked under the assumption that the Bible was a unity (but a simple rather than a complex one). But in modern times, under the excitement of the discovery of scientific methods of biblical analysis, the mistaken conclusion seems to have been drawn that the new hermeneutic had to displace the old one entirely.

    In other words, Eller sees the significance of Ellul’s approach in his continuing to insist on the integrity of Scripture even after the work of biblical studies that have, for many people, undermined the unity of the Bible, but without rejecting that work.

    As for Ellul’s answer to where we find the “hypothesis”, he wouldn’t put it the same way as Irenaeus, due to his scepticism about the church as a sociological body. But it would be interesting to compare Ellul’s summary of the heart of the Christian faith – which he calls “X” – with the Rule of Faith as expressed in the Apostle’s Creed. Ellul describes “X” as follows:

    If we tried to abolish the word Christianity, what would we have to say? First, the revelation and work of God accomplished in Jesus Christ, second, the being of the church as the body of Christ, and third, the faith and life of Christians in truth and love.

  3. Rick Ritchie says:

    “The question, then, is how we come to know this “hypothesis,” for it is not explicitly given to us in the Scriptures themselves.”

    Is this something that you would argue is true by definition? I think it is neither true by definition nor true in fact.

    “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me” (John 5:39).

    “Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;” (Romans 3:19-24).

    The Romans passage offers a pretty broad statement of purpose for the Law (which he finds even in the Prophets earlier in the chapter), making it serve the Gospel (which the Law and Prophets also witness to). Certain Scriptures make very broad statements about the nature of Scripture in general. I would go to those, first.

    If church teachers teach a different hypothesis, I am probably not inclined to believe their words over these. Though I think many will agree with this hypothesis. I would even wonder if they didn’t get the idea of such an inner coherence from the verses which speak of one.

  4. John H says:

    Rick: indeed. To which I’d add Luke 24:27 and Luke 24:46-47.

    Even though the Bible does not present a summary of its “hypothesis”, it does testify to its own internal coherence, and part of the “hypothesis” itself is that it is derived from, and subject to the control of, the biblical message (“according to the Scriptures…”), rather than something which stands separately from the Scriptures as an independent authority.

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