True reformation: X marks the spot

One of Jacques Ellul’s concepts which I’ve mentioned in comments occasionally but never blogged about is his summary of the essence of Christianity, which he calls “X”.

Ellul’s argument in his book The Subversion of Christianity is that much of what we call “Christianity” – in French christianisme, “Christianism” – is an ideology and sociological phenomenon, an “-ism”, that is a “deviation and subversion” of “X”. X has three elements to it:

  • 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.

(See The Subversion of Christianity, p.11. Bullet points added.)

To a large extent this reflects Ellul’s iconoclasm, a Reformed desire to strip Christianity back to what are perceived to be its bare, first-century essentials.

However, I don’t think we need to go along with Ellul’s Reformed iconoclasm in order to derive benefit from his understanding of X. For starters, if Ellul’s only aim here were minimalist and reductionist, he would have been able to stop at the first component: “the revelation and work of God accomplished in Jesus Christ”. Restoring X thus becomes a matter of “turning the clock back” to the first century, as we have seen so many Christian groups attempt to do since the Reformation.

However, his inclusion of “the being of the church as the body of Christ” and “the faith and life of Christians in truth and love” – not to mention his far from reductionist understanding of “the revelation and work of God accomplished in Jesus Christ”, as we saw in my previous post – excludes this, throwing us back on the messy indeterminism of church and Christian life.

Second, Ellul’s main concern in formulating X as against “Christianism” is to oppose forces within the church such as moralism, political power, Mammon and so on, as delineated in Subversion – not to oppose the singing of hymns rather than metrical psalms! Though he has the occasional swipe at “liturgy” and “ritual”, most of what he regards as subverting X are matters which Christians of all traditions should be keen to see removed from the life of the church.

Third, Ellul’s description of “X” does not seem that far removed from the summary statements on the nature of the church found in the Lutheran confessions, which could be seen as similarly reductionist:

The church is the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly. (Augsburg Confession, VII)

God be praised, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is: holy believers and “the little sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd.” (Smalcald Articles, III.12)

The purpose of these statements was not to say that the church should be purged of everything that is not expressly included within them, but to help identify those things that obscured or contradicted the essence of the church’s life. X can be taken in the same way: not as a call to a “bare-bones” Christianity, but as a means of identifying those forces which easily creep into the church’s life and obscure (or even overthrow) the gospel.

Reformation Day is a good time to bring these things to mind. It is not a time to celebrate an ideological or sociological triumph of one doctrine over another, but a time to be grateful for “the revelation and work of God accomplished in Jesus Christ” that was made clearer as a result of the Reformers’ work; and to recall that the true work of reformation is never about ideological purity, but about restoring “the being of the church as the body of Christ” and promoting “the faith and life of Christians in truth and love”.

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