What is the Christian’s “cultural mandate”? According to Jacques Ellul, it is merely a human construct. Far from picturing it as God’s original intent for his image-bearers to develop creation, Ellul argues that culturally productive endeavours were born only of necessity, after the fall into sin.
Ellul was a convert to Christianity and a member of France’s L’Église réformée. But he would come to reject Calvinism, due in large part to the tradition’s emphasis on the Christian’s cultural mandate.
In his 1960 essay “Technique and the Opening Chapters of Genesis,” Ellul locates the inevitable tendency of man to shape the physical world, not in the original order of creation, but in the “order of the fall,” that is, in a kind of second-best order that can only retard the effects of sin but comes well short of God’s initial intent.
Any notion that God originally wanted his human image-bearers to draw out latent potentialities in creation is misguided because, in a pre-fallen world, there can only be a plenitude of perfection in that creation. Man’s calling in the Edenic state was simply to live within that perfection and not to develop it further. Only after the fall did man’s perfect freedom give way to necessity, thus requiring him to apply tools to the fragments left over.
All this, of course, raises the ancient issue of the relationship between creation and fall into sin, and especially the latter’s ongoing impact on the former. Many Christians misunderstand the meaning of total depravity, a doctrine strongly associated with John Calvin and his later followers. Although total depravity is sometimes thought to imply that sin has cancelled out the very goodness of creation, it should more properly be understood to mean that nothing that God’s human creatures do, including the huge variety of cultural enterprises, is entirely free from the taint of sin, whatever their undoubted merits, which may be considerable.
This misinterpretation is supported by Ellul’s understanding of the relation between creation and sin, because it posits too sharp a discontinuity between the original good creation and its post-fall manifestation, a tendency that seems to be typical of the spiritual heirs of Barth, including John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas and others.
Even if in our present situation we recognize the value of law in ordering our society, Ellul believes we cannot thereby read this back into a pre-fallen existence, where “[t]here was no law, but an order—the very order of the freedom of God.” Constraint, obligation, duty and law, though not sinful themselves, are nevertheless inconceivable apart from the effects of sin. Resting as it does on myriad technical operations, the entire edifice of human civilization cannot be what God had wanted from the beginning for his image-bearers.
None of this would have happened without sin?
Needless to say, any notion of a normative differentiation of society, as found in the writings of Herman Dooyeweerd and his followers, can have no place in Ellul’s thought, given that such differentiation necessitates a radical departure from the pristine wholeness he associates with the Edenic state.
Differentiation means that, as human beings live in the creation and discover for themselves its latent possibilities—everything there is to do within it, ranging from agriculture and the building of primitive shelters, to the development of art, music, literature and the sciences—there is an inevitable and proper tendency for them to anchor these activities within distinct institutional settings. Families raise children. Schools teach. Businesses draw economic possibilities out of the creation. Labour unions protect the rights of workers. Governments judge rightly and care for the common patrimony of their citizens. Churches and synagogues celebrate their respective liturgies in worship of God.
Yet none of this would have happened, Ellul seems to say, if it were not for the first sin of our parents in the garden. For him differentiation is nothing less than fragmentation of a pristine wholeness originally intended by God and now irreparably lost.
There are at least three difficulties with Ellul’s approach.
First, it is based on a dubious tendency to view freedom and law as dialectical polarities. Freedom thus comes to be understood in an antinomian sense. Yet from the very outset of humanity’s residence in Eden, God commands the man and woman to refrain from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If this is not an obligation, a constraint, a law placed upon them, then what is it? Ellul shows himself to be a typical modern—indeed an heir of the Kantian project—in identifying freedom with autonomy, something which human beings are in danger of losing to Technique. By contrast, Scripture tells us repeatedly that perfect freedom is found only in obedience to God’s revealed will for his image-bearing creatures, the opposite of which is enslavement to sin.
Second, it is far from clear that Ellul believed that his fanciful Edenic state ever actually existed. At one point he admits that the account in Genesis 4:17-26 of the origins of human culture may have been “an etiological myth such as the Kenite tribe came up with, etc., although that would change nothing about its truth.” This suggests that for Ellul the truth of the early Genesis accounts may be something other than that of a series of historical events, a conclusion enabling him to engage in flights of fancy that needn’t be measured against anything that might actually have occurred. This is not much different from Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature or John Rawls’s original position of equality in which human beings hypothetically choose the principles of justice from behind an equally hypothetical veil of ignorance.
Third, if Ellul is correct in his view of creation and sin, then it is not clear how we can go about living the Christian life, either as individuals or as communities. Given that the fall into sin introduced something ontic and unprecedented into creation—and not merely its misdirection in the Augustinian sense—redemption cannot be the restoration of that creation. It does not reorient the totality of our life in this world in an obedient direction, because, as Yoder puts it, “we have no access to the good creation of God” this side of the fall into sin. It is structurally impossible for us to live in accordance with the pristine wholeness of the original creation, because it no longer exists. All that remains for us is to fall back on the Bible as the sole source of direction for our “spiritual lives” while grudgingly accepting—what else can we do?—the imperatives of the larger world in so-called secular life, or, to try, with Kant, to reclaim islands of moral autonomy within the noumenal realm while working to limit the expansiveness of the phenomenal realm as best we can.
Taking both goodness and redemption seriously
Ellul’s influence will hardly encourage Christians to immerse themselves in culturally transformative activities aimed at restoring, say, labour, politics, marriage, family or education to conform to God’s creative intent for them. There can be no cultural mandate as such, only stop-gap efforts to live with and underscore the inevitable tensions arising between human persons and the constraints imposed upon them, even by a supposedly benevolent authority figure or institution.
To be sure, we must inevitably engage in the full range of ordinary activities making up human life, but we must eschew the constantinian conceit that we can somehow capture the commanding heights of culture for the greater glory of God. For Ellul the tension between the church and the larger world will always be present, and we must live our lives accordingly.
Yet if Ellul’s account of the relationship between creation and fall is deficient, as I argue here, then we need an alternative approach taking seriously the goodness of creation and Christ’s redemptive work as the restoration of that creation, along with the mundane and not so mundane activities that are part of it. The best antidote I can think of for “recovering Ellulians” (or, perhaps more broadly, recovering Barthians) who have come to see the inadequacy of their vision is to read Al Wolters’ Creation Regained (now in a revised second edition) or Paul Marshall’s Heaven Is Not My Home.
Institutions will always fail
by Brian Janaszek
Dr. Koyzis, you’ve stirred a bit of a hornets’ nest.
You say that our cultural mandate (Genesis 1:26-28)—to fill the earth and subdue it—means we are called to create society and its institutions, and to develop technology from the materials at hand. You contrast this with Ellul, who believes that the Eden was not originally created with Technique—the always-forward progression of technology or institutions. Ellul considered Technique to be how we, as fallen humans, deal with the effects of sin in the world.
Reading Ellul has been challenging for me, and has caused me to rethink my positions on what proper Christian action should be. While I agree with you that Ellul’s vision of Eden may not be theologically sound, I want to challenge the neocalvinist faith in institutions and progress as vehicles for the work of Christ.
Ellul was distrustful of institutions. Like his contemporary Ivan Illich, Ellul believed institutions simply become corrupt over time, as a result of sin. While God can always accomplish his purposes in, for example, the State, the cycle of corruption always repeats itself.
For Ellul, true Christian action was to be found in the face-to-face work of rolling up one’s sleeves and helping those closest to you (Ellul first presents this approach in his Presence of the Kingdom). In Ellul’s life, this took the shape of working directly with “troubled” youth and fighting for the preservation of the French sea coasts. Christian action begins with a supple heart, always ready to hear the call of Christ. And when that call comes, the Christian is simply asked to act, to help, to serve.
Ellul offers no programs, policies, or specifics on what such action should be—in fact, he is clear that such things can work against proper Christian action. This approach is, obviously, a bit antithetical to the goals of many neocalvinists like you. Because you focus on building institutions, Christian action often takes the form of policy and programs, as work is done to restore institutions to do the proper work of Christ.
I’m not a Luddite or an anarchist, but I think we absolutely must acknowledge that progress, whether institutional or technological, comes at a price. While Technique may discover latent possibilities in the Created Order, such progress has also damaged our culture and, more importantly, the state of our souls.
Neocalvinists need to be attentive to Ellul’s critiques of contemporary culture. Yes, Technique (whether in the form of technology or institutions) may bring about good, but its comfort often comes at a price.
The goal of an organization like the Work Research Foundation and Comment is good and proper, and its work to bring a proper biblical perspective to vocation is sorely needed in today’s rat race. But in the work, one must realize that sin will always be present, and we will always fall short.
Institutions will always fail. Technology will always threaten to enslave us. If we do choose to work with these things, we must do so with an ear to the critiques of thinkers like Ellul.
We Need More Than Good Intentions
by David T. Koyzis
Brian, you argue that neocalvinists don’t take seriously enough the criticisms of Ellul and Ivan Illich aimed at institutions. You’ve missed the point of my critique.
I make no claim that well-meaning Christians will inevitably succeed in reforming all the institutions in which they find themselves. Like every human effort, there will be successes and failures. Moreover, the successes will always be tainted by the effects of sin, and the failures will never land outside God’s common grace. Kuyper and Dooyeweerd would certainly affirm this Augustinian insight. In a fallen world it could hardly be otherwise.
My own critique of Ellul is that while he correctly pinpoints the destructive potential of modern technology under the guise of an autonomous Technique, he is wrong to view it as uniquely destructive or as a source of evil in the world.
Surely we must admit that institutions are not the unique repositories of sin? Sin is located in the human heart’s rebellion against God’s ways. Disobedience cuts through every human endeavour and relationship, whether these take the form of abstract institutions in a national capital city or of face-to-face friendships within the context of the rural village.
Why be distrustful of institutions and not of the next-door neighbour? Why distrust technology and not your own motives in desiring to fulfill your life aspirations? To be sure, institutions are capable of being abused, but so is everything for which human beings are responsible before God. Institutions are no more caught up in sin than any other element of human life.
If there is a moment of truth in Ellul’s argument, it is perhaps in recognizing that, because of their impact on such large numbers of people, institutions may be more quantitatively destructive than a simple friendship going awry in a small town.
As for meeting immediate human needs, face-to-face action and the formulation of policies and programmes are by no means antithetical; each has its proper context. If a friend comes to your door in the middle of the night indicating that his family has been flooded out of their house, it’s not necessary to call a committee to come up with a general policy for dealing with domestic deluges. On the other hand, in the context of the state, or political community, the lack of carefully researched and worked out policies can be fatal to the public interest. Recent history is littered with failed Christian attempts to enter the political arena armed with good intentions and little else. This is not responsible political action.
I am grateful that during his life Ellul was involved in concrete efforts to help his fellow human beings in obedience to the gospel. But I am a political scientist looking for policies serviceable to doing justice within the larger institution of the State, and I simply do not find Ellul all that useful. Distrust of the State may be warranted in specific circumstances, but as a general principle it will leave us high and dry.
This is why I believe that the neocalvinist vision behind the WRF, the Center for Public Justice and other likeminded organizations makes for a far better alternative.
Inadequate methods for dealing with fallenness
by Brian Janaszek
David, you wonder why the sort of personal action Ellul espouses is better than institutional action, given the pervasiveness of sin in the world. This is a valid question, but requires that we examine Ellul’s other work.
In his Presence of the Kingdom, Ellul examines very specifically the role of the Christian in the world—that is, how believers are to be the presence of God’s kingdom. He sees that there are several problems with intellectual endeavours during the 20th century, and these can be distilled to two primary issues: the imposition of Technique upon intellectual activity, and intellectual communication that speaks about humanity rather than to it. He writes, “There has never been a time when people have talked so much about Man: there never was a time when so little was said to Man.”
Only by knowing his neighbors and community can an intellectual expect to be effective in helping them. Intellectual communication (and here Ellul eyes political scientists and theologians) has ceased to reach the very people it is supposed to help. Ellul’s distrust of societal institutions like the State is rooted in this particular problem. The State often works only in the abstract, and while its policies and programs may have the best of intentions, without being rooted in the reality of ordinary lives, they are ineffective.
So what of institutions, specifically the State? As I have mentioned before, I am not in agreement with Ellul’s assessment of pre-fall Eden. Certainly one can believe that without the Fall, families and communities would flourish—they are not simply ways in which we deal with the effects of the Fall. But can the same be said of the State, or labour unions?
Certainly we could perhaps imagine a role for the State in Eden, but for what exactly? Maintenance of the infrastructure? Perhaps, but couldn’t people living in the absence of sin do the same? And what of labour unions? Without the ravages of sin, what protection would they need to afford workers? (I could, however, see the guild as a growing institution.)
Ellul is cautioning us to remember that institutions like the State are methods for dealing with the fallen state of the world, and, therefore, inadequate methods. Yes, sin exists even in personal relationships, but it’s much more easily confronted and reformed in those circumstances.
Even virtue requires coordination and authority
by David T. Koyzis
Brian, you note that “The State often works only in the abstract, and while its policies and programs may have the best of intentions, without being rooted in the reality of ordinary lives, they are ineffective.” Once more, if your neighbour is in immediate need, you must undertake to help her as well as you can with the means at your disposal. On the other hand, there are certain tasks which only the state, with its abstract policies and programmes, can accomplish.
Before we dispense with this basic institution too quickly, try to imagine life in society without the larger political and legal frameworks which we take for granted. The Apostle Paul writes that the political ruler is “God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13:4). Peter writes that governors are “sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right” (I Peter 2:14). John Calvin writes of government that “its function among men is no less than that of bread, water, sun, and air; indeed, its place of honour is far more excellent” (Institutes, IV.20.3).
There can be no doubt that much of this function of government is remedial in that it undertakes to compensate for the effects of human sinfulness. When a theft occurs, it is right and proper that neighbours should come to our assistance. Yet if public justice is to be done in righting this most basic of wrongs, government’s role is necessary and irreplaceable. Neighbours can be vigilant in helping each other to prevent crime in their own community, but they should never become vigilantes and attempt to avenge the crime on their own.
That said, government’s function is not merely remedial. Even in a hypothetical unfallen society, where people lack sin, some sort of authority would be needed to coordinate their shared activities. A bicycle-manufacturing enterprise run anarchically would have workers making too many frames relative to the wheels, handlebars too large for the frames, and no workable bicycles. All the virtue in the world would not change this without an overall coordinating agent—even if that agent consists of the majority’s consent to agreed-upon rules. Even virtuous persons have limited knowledge and capacities requiring something more than spontaneous good intentions.
Finally, one need not entertain utopian expectations of government to recognize that it has a crucial role to play in ordering human society in all its complexity. Ellul’s approach undoubtedly has merits with respect to encouraging people to do what they can to help those in immediate need. Yet if we are to formulate a satisfactory public philosophy that addresses, among other things, life in political community, we will necessarily have to look beyond Ellul towards something much more comprehensive.
Agreeing on at least this much
by Brian Janaszek
While you and I have outlined our differences over institutions, specifically the State, let’s see where we might agree, David.
First, as I’ve mentioned before, as a Calvinist I am not terribly comfortable with Ellul’s vision of life in the Garden. And like you, I agree that the State does not simply serve a remedial purpose for society—just as we respect the authority of the Church in spiritual matters, we respect the authority of the State in societal matters. But following the footsteps of Ellul and other Christian anarchists like Ivan Illich and Dorothy Day, I would prefer to see government remain as small and decentralized as possible.
You are correct that we should not become vigilantes—but I say let the State maintain order, and let the Church (that is, the Body of Christ) do the work of caring for the under-privileged. It is also worth noting that your example of bicycle manufacturing is not antithetical to the goals of Christian anarchists like Ellul or Day (the history of the Catholic Worker is proof of this).
Additionally, unlike Ellul, I see other institutions, particularly the family and the community, as likely being a part of the created order. Despite his rhetoric in the essay on Genesis, Ellul was himself a localist, committing his life to Bordeaux, spending even his last days among his friends and family there. It would also be difficult to believe that Ellul would see the university as an unnecessary institution, given his vocation as a professor. And while I find Ellul’s critiques of Technique compelling, he offers little in the way of alternatives. If technology is not itself sinful, how then shall we manage it? Ellul offers little explanation, at least in this particular essay.
So what should the neocalvinist do with Ellul? As far as practical political advice goes, David, you are correct—we must look elsewhere. We should not, however, dismiss Ellul’s warnings about Technique and its effects on our souls, regardless of Ellul’s theological source. In the discussion following the initial posting of your essay on the Comment website, someone noted the work of neocalvinist Egbert Schuurman, whose own critique of technology echoes Ellul’s. While Schuurman proceeds from a neocalvinist understanding of the Cultural Mandate, he understands the potential threat of technology. It seems fitting to close with his warning:
It needs to be understood that contemporary technological development in alliance with economics fosters materialism, threatens Christian spirituality, and renders life, including cultural life, shortsighted and shallow. There is little sensitivity, consequently, for the actual threats.
Let’s keep talking
by David T. Koyzis
Brian, both you and I are aware of the dangers of an excessive dependence on and faith in technology. There can be little doubt that our society is in the grip of an idolatrous ideology teaching that all manner of social ills will be solved by the expansion of technical capacities. This allows ordinary people to avoid looking at the ways they live their own lives and to assume that, whatever choices they make—whether these be related to marriage, family, the workplace or the physical environment—any possible negative consequences will be compensated for by technical means. That this is a false faith is becoming increasingly apparent to anyone with eyes to see.
In this respect, the cultural mandate itself can be misdirected by such a faith. As human technical power expands, we are tempted to believe that we are masters of our own fate and, more to the point, to believe that our world belongs, not to God, but to us to fashion as we please. In other words, the norms for technical development have been lost, supplanted by the quest to fulfil our material desires.
In my Political Visions and Illusions I identify the most recent stage in liberalism’s development as the “choice-enhancement state,” in which the mere right to choose becomes so paramount that government is increasingly called on to step in to compensate for the destructive effects of such choices. The very idea that freedom of choice must trump all would be inconceivable apart from the startling and unprecedented advances in technological “progress” that we see all around us and that make such an infinite expansion of choices seem superficially plausible.
Finally, for those who put their faith in their own devices, the psalmist has this to say: “Some boast of chariots, and some of horses; but we boast of the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7).