French writer Jacques Ellul’s large oeuvre is a goldmine. His work is always head-turning, including that which is more focussed on biblical material, as with On Freedom, Love, and Power (Uni of Toronto Press). This is a transcription of Bible study sessions on Genesis, Job, the parables and the Gospel of John. The editor Willem Vanderburg tells us that many group members became Christian as a result of these studies, but warns that the material is not always ‘safe’ for the church, as Ellul is never afraid to critique taken-for-granted but erroneous doctrine. Here he takes us back to the Jewish way of seeing things, against later Platonic distortions, which has implications for interpretation and doctrine.
The Bible is, as Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson is fond of saying, the story of a journey of a people, narrated in various styles. It is not, like the Koran, a book of laws dropped from heaven, or a philosophical treatise. And, interestingly, Ellul suggests that the fact that it is God’s message to us in imperfect human language, in ‘weakness’, shows that God doesn’t impose his will on us, but offers us the freedom to accept or reject his message. The parables, Ellul explains, are examples of Jesus’ way of not dictating but offering food for thought which people are free to ponder or ignore. Tied to this freedom is the freedom to live with questions that don’t have an immediate answer. Ellul suggests that in the church, and unlike in the Bible, we reach too easily for conclusions.
Ellul reminds us that we read the Bible through the prejudices of our culture, and that while we must be aware of this, God can use these for his purposes, just as he uses imperfect human beings in general to achieve his purposes. And God uses the variety of humans, as is evidenced by the variety of styles in the Bible.