Book Response: The Presence of the Kingdom, 2nd Ed

As part of his Doctor of Ministry (DMin) in Ministry to Emerging Generations (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), Tom’s written a number of book responses and given several short presentations (personal and group). In this series he not only “shares the wealth,” but also looks forward to your feedback as he refines his project: An argument for vocational discernment for graduate studies in the context of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (Stay tuned to learn more!). Earlier posts on the program: Ministry to Emerging Generations and The Big Picture of Ministry to Emerging Generations.

The Presence of the Kingdom, 2nd Edition

The Presence of the Kingdom

The Presence of the Kingdom , 2nd Edition. Jacques Ellul (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmes & Howard Publishers, Inc., 1989).

Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Bluff (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990) and The Technological Society (New York City, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964) offered excellent conversation starters for my labors at Carnegie Mellon University. What a surprise to find in The Presence of the Kingdom, 2nd Edition (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmes & Howard Publishers, Inc., 1989), the foundation for Ellul’s perspective.

In 1946, Ellul gave four lectures on “the Christian in modern society” at the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey. Birthed by the call to rebuild France after World War II, Ellul wrestled with the tension between resting upon God’s provision and active political engagement. Romans 12:2 informed the book adaption.

So I asked myself the question: If we are to take this decisive verse seriously, what, then, might be the attitude, the “stand,” in the world, for the Christian? (xiii)

William Stringfellow comments in the Forward to the 1967 edition:

Ellul laid down the perspective from which his subsequent penetrating criticism of society would be made. In a real sense, The Presence of the Kingdom is Jacques Ellul’s most astonishing book. . . . breathtakingly farsighted . . . in Ellul one finds that ideas and acts are so integral one to the other that his decisions and actions in actual life are an incarnation of what he thinks and writes. . . . Americans live, both in their society and in the churches of this society, so insulated from the gospel, therefore so distorted in the region of ethics—and in that most esoteric precinct called theological ethics—that we had better listen to the extraordinary witness that is Jacques Ellul (xv, xiv).

In the Introduction to the 1989 edition, Daniel Clendenin walks through the development of Ellul’s Marxist-Christian dialectical lens:

Although Ellul never joined the Communist Party, like Marx he remained convinced that understanding the material forces of society holds the key to interpreting our world. For him the constituent element of the society is technique, and he suggests that if Marx were alive today he would study it and not money. . . . Marx and Jesus Christ [after a radical conversion] from Ellul’s two “real sources” and catalyzed a lifelong dialogue:

I thus remained unable to eliminate Marx, unable to eliminate the biblical revelation, and unable to merge the two. For me, it was impossible to put them together. So I began to be torn between the two, and I have remained so all my life. The development of my thinking can be explained with this contradiction (xxii-xxiii)

According to Clendenin, The Presence of the Kingdom is “an introduction to his entire corpus” and “the necessary primer for all Ellul study” (xxxviii).

[H]istory is open . . . there is an ambiguity in its direction that depends in a radical way upon the choices people make. . . . today we live in the seventh day of creation [and we are to walk in] the Christian way, which refuses to separate means and ends. In Jesus Christ the means and the end are joined” (xxxviii-xl).

Ellul opens “Chapter 1: The Christian in the World” with God’s call for Christians to be salt, light, and sheep in the midst of wolves. He declares, “A major fact of our present civilization is that more and more sin becomes collective, and the individual is forced to participate in collective sin. Everyone bears the consequences of the faults of others” (6). Ellul gives the direct application of nations at war, but extends this concern to “all social situations” and that Christian perfection in such a world is an “illusion” (6). What is our hope? “[T]hroughout the course of history God uses material means—in other words, he acts by his Spirit through human instruments” (11). Ellul argues for the laity’s “contact between the ideologies of the world in which he lives and theology—between economic realities, and the forgiveness of Jesus Christ for those realities, which cannot otherwise be altered in the sight of God” (11).

The combating of Satanic powers (e.g., Hitler) is material and spiritual requiring prayer. Christians must not forget that the “will of the world,” which is to death and suicide must be countered by “Revolutionary Christianity” offering the story of life. Christianity in a permanent state of slow, deep revolution rising out of the Lord Jesus Christ’s stand against “the great modern divinity, the Moloch of fact,” which is what has even broken the revolutionary power of socialism (32, 42, 27, 29). To resist cultural absorption, Christians “must turn to God” praying for the Holy Spirit’s revolutionary force, grow in knowledge of the world, and create a Christ-centered style of life leading to a new civilization (italics in original, 46).

In “Chapter 3: The Ends and the Means,” Ellul confronts the loss of end and truth in a “fact” and means (i.e., useful technique) “progress” driven culture. “Everything that succeeds is good; everything that fails is bad” (57) afflicts not only Communism and Socialism, but also the Christian tradition when it fails to act out of the heart guided by faith (76). “‘Seek ye first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all things shall be added unto you’ (Matt 6:33)” (78).

In “Chapter 4: The Problem of Communication,” Ellul underscores the importance of the Christian intellectual (guided by the Holy Spirit) in destroying myths, finding objective reality, grasping reality on the human level, looking at present problems as profoundly as possible, and engaging the world (98-100). Ellul begins “Chapter 5: Prologue and Conclusion” by underscoring that his “aim was not to give ready made solutions, but only to open the way for a work of the renewed church.” (113). “We need a revolution”—“a new style of life”—because of “the fundamental weakness of our evangelization” to penetrate “into the reality of human life” leading people to “seek other solutions, listen to other promises, to other gospels” (118, 120, 114). What will enable the people of God to overcome, even in contemporary conflicts shared by Ellul in the afterward given in 1989, e.g., anti-colonialism, Cultural Revolution of China, Islam? Christ alone—a Lord who transforms by Spirit and intellect, including sufficient political maturity to come to the table.

Amen!

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Tom Grosh IV

Enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa, four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he hosts the Christian Scholar Series), on campus as part of InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry (serving fellowships such as the Christian Medical Society/CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine), online as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network, in the culture at large, and in God's creation.

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