Ellul – The Judgment of Jonah
Ellul’s brief book reflects his characteristic love/grief relationship
with the church, the church’s lack of discernment, and an
ecclesiastical agenda that finds the church somnolent, feckless and
desultory. As sad as he is
scathing, Ellul notes, “A remarkable thing about even the active
Christian is that he (sic)
never has much more than a vague idea about reality.
He is lost in the slumber of his activities, his good works, his
chorales, his theology, his evangelizing, his communities.
He always skirts reality….It is non-Christians who have to
waken him out of his sleep to share actively in the common lot.”
More foundationally Judgment
exudes Ellul’s characteristic conviction concerning the effectual
pre-eminence of Jesus Christ. While
the book of Jonah is deemed “prophetic” among Jewish and Christian
thinkers, Ellul understands prophecy strictly as an Israelite
pronouncement fulfilled in Jesus Christ, this pronouncement henceforth
subserving Christ’s unimpeded militancy throughout the cosmos.
As readers of Ellul know from his other books (e.g., Apocalypse
and The Political Illusion,
extended comments on the books of Revelation and 2nd Kings
respectively), Ellul has little confidence in the expositions of the
“historical-critical” guild of exegetes insofar as their
preoccupation with speculative minutiae blinds them to the substance of
the text; namely, the service the text renders the luminosity of Him who
is the light of the world.
Unlike the exegetical guild, Ellul sees the risen, sovereign (but
not controlling) One proleptically present in the Older Testament,
manifested to the apostles, and surging effectually everywhere now.
More to the point, Ellul regards the guild’s preoccupation with
the history of the formation and transmission of the text as a nefarious
work wherein the guild “dissects Scripture to set it against
typically perpetrate this abomination, therein deploying their
“expert” misuse of Scripture exactly as the tempter deployed his in
his assault on Jesus in the wilderness.
In other words, Ellul regards the work of most commentators, in
their Christ-ignoring and world-denying “scientific” approach, as
nothing less than Satanic. In
light of this it’s no surprise that only three-quarters’ way through
Judgment Ellul left-handedly
admits that the book of Jonah was “rightly composed to affirm the
universalism of salvation” (p.77), when exegetes customarily insist
that the sole purpose of the book of Jonah was to protest the
shrivelling of post-exilic Israel’s concern, even to protest the
apparent narrowness, exclusiveness and concern for self-preservation
found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
If what is crucial to most is peripheral to
Ellul, then what is the epicentre of the book of Jonah?
It is certainly not a compendium of moral truths, let alone a
test of credulity (which test Christian apologetics paradoxically
attempts to eliminate). Neither
is the book an extended allegory; nor even an instance of the prophetic
literature found in Scripture, since the book shares few of the concerns
of the prophetic books (e.g., no prophetic address is spoken to Israel)
while features of the book aren’t found in prophetic literature (e.g.,
the books named after Jeremiah and Amos don’t feature biographical
portrayals). The core of the
book lies, rather, in its depiction of Jonah himself as a figure, a
type, of Christ. Having
argued for this position, Ellul brooks no disagreement: “If one
rejects this sense, there is no other.” (p.17)
As Judgment unfolds it reflects the major themes of Ellul’s social
and theological thought as well as aspects of his own spiritual
development. With respect to
the latter, Ellul’s understanding of Jonah’s vocation –
“Everything begins the moment God decides to choose….We can begin to
apprehend only when a relation is set up between God and us, when he
reveals his decision concerning us” (p21) – pellucidly mirrors
Ellul’s self-effacing, autobiographical statements in In Season, Out of Season and What
for characteristic aspects of Ellul’s thinking, Judgment
re-states and develops them on every page.
For instance, those whom God summons are freed from the world’s
clutches and conformities in order to be free to address and spend
themselves for a world that no longer “hooks” them even as the same
world deems them “useless” to it.
In this regard Ellul writes of Jonah, “The matter is so
important that everything which previously shaped the life of this man
humanly and sociologically fades from the scene….Anything that might
impel him to obey according to the world has lost its value and weight
for him.” (P.21) In other
words, any Christian’s commission at the hand of the crucified is
necessary and sufficient explanation for taking up one’s work and witness.
While vocation is sufficient explanation
for taking up their appointed work, Christians cannot pretend their
summons may be ignored or laid aside, for in their particular vocations all
Christians have been appointed to “watch” in the sense of Ezekiel
33. Disregarding one’s
vocation is dereliction, and all the more damnable in that the destiny
of the world hangs on any one Christian’s honouring her summons:
“Christians have to realize that they hold in their hands the fate of
their companions in adventure”.(p.35)
Readers of Ellul have long been startled
at, persuaded of, and helped by his exploration of the “abyss”, the
virulent, insatiable power of evil to beguile, seduce, and always and
everywhere destroy. (See Money
and Power and Propaganda. It should be
noted here that Ellul’s depiction of evil in terms of death-as-power
– rather than in terms of “a kind of lottery…turning up as heart
failure (p.51) -- finds kindred understanding and exposition in the work
of William Stringfellow and Daniel Berrigan.)
The “great fish” sent to
swallow Jonah (God uses evil insofar as he is determined to punish) is a
manifestation of such power. While
in the “belly of the great fish” Jonah is subject to God’s
judgment upon his abdication as he is confronted defencelessly with the
undisguised horror of the abyss. Awakened
now to his culpable folly, Jonah understands that even as he is exposed
to “absolute hell”(p.45) he hasn’t been abandoned to it.
At no point has he ceased being the beneficiary of God’s grace.
Now Jonah exclaims,
“Thou hast delivered me” – i.e., before
the “great fish” has vomited him to safety.
Deliverance for all of us, Ellul herein announces
characteristically, occurs when we grasp God’s presence and purpose
for us (and through us for others) in the midst of the isolation that
our vocation, compounded by our equivocating, has brought upon us.
Percipiently Ellul adds, “[T]he abyss…is the crisis of life
at any moment.”(p.52)
Typically Ellul points out ersatz means of
resolving the crisis: we look to “technical instruments, the state,
society, money, and science…idols, magic, philosophy,
spiritualism….As long as there is a glimmer of confidence in these
means man prefers to stake his life on them rather than handing it over
to God.”(p.57) While these
instruments can give us much (especially as anodynes), they can’t give
us the one thing we need in the face of the all-consuming abyss: mercy.
No relation of love exists between these instruments and us; they
merely possess us. The
person who “loves” money, for instance, is merely owned.
The crisis is resolved incipiently when we “beg in any empty
world for the mercy which cannot come to [us] from the world.”(p.58)
The crisis is resolved definitively as we hear and heed the
summons to discipleship and thereafter obey the one who can legitimately
(and beneficently) claim us inasmuch as he has betaken himself to the
abyss with us. Here
Ellul’s Christological reading of the book of Jonah surfaces
unambiguously: “The real question is not that of the fish which
swallowed Jonah; it is that of the hell where I am going and already am.
The real question is not that of the strange obedience of the fish to
God’s command; it is that of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and my
because the book of Jonah is a prolepsis of Jesus Christ, the book is
fragrant with hope and quickens hope in readers.
To be sure, signs of grace come and go in all of us – even as
grace never disappears. (Recall
the gourd given to provide shade for Jonah, even as the gourd soon
withered.) While God’s
people frequently and foolishly clutch at the sign instead of trusting
the grace therein signified, the day has been appointed when the sign is
superfluous as faith gives way to sight and hope to its fulfilment.
At this point the “miracles” that were signs of grace for us
will be gathered up in “the sole miracle, Jesus Christ living
eternally for us”.(p.67)
The note of hope eschatologically
permeating the book of Jonah (and Ellul’s exposition of it) recalls
the conclusion to The Meaning of
the City. There Ellul
invites the reader to share his vivid “experience” of finding
himself amidst a wretched urban slum in
yet “seeing” the city, the
Ellul’s “exegesis” of the book of Jonah will be regarded as
idiosyncratic in several places, its strength is its consistent
orientation to the One who remains the “open secret” of the world
and of that community bound to the world.
decades Ellul’s own life illustrated a statement he made in Judgment
concerning the prophet Jonah: “Everything circles around the man who
has been chosen. A tempest
is unleashed.”(p.25) Ellul’s
writings indicate passim that
as much characterizes all who discern their vocation and pledge
themselves to it without qualification, reservation or hesitation.
of Systematic and Historical Theology,
& Seminary, Toronto