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The Politics of God and the Politics of Man

In a comment on a recent post my good friend Justin posed the question, “Does God allow population growth?” when he said, “if God allows population to progress further and put strain on the earth then I have faith in His purposes.” The perpetual problem of humanity’s freedom to choose and God’s ultimate sovereignty is one that has troubled me (not to mention humanity) for a while now. This problem among Christians tends to devolve into two camps (very generally) those who insist on protecting the sovereignty of God and those who insist on protecting the freedom of human beings (again generallythese are Calvinists and Arminians).

687-1.jpgI tend to shy away from these arguments and shelve my own opinion since I don’t have a strong one and usually find the question kind of boring. This is probably because I find the argument dualistic and therefore missing the point. It also seems very loosely tied to the theme of this blog and overly theological and possibly esoteric. But with a title like, The Politics of God and the Politics of Man, there’s bound to be a connection. Jacques Ellul carves out an interesting third way between these two options that intrigues me. Ellul analyzes several stories from 2 Kings as a way of addressing how the will of God is worked out in the midst of free human beings.

Thus in this vision of God’s action there can be no question at all of cutting down God’s sovereignty over history and events, but rather of showing that this sovereignty is multiple, supple, and living, not mechanistic or metaphysical. God has condemned Ahab. God has chosen Jehu as king. But God leaves it to man to find ways and means. He leaves it to man to determine his acts himself in so far as he is responsible. God opens a door as it were, and the passion of man is unleashed. (102)

In the stories the prophet does not act; he only speaks. This is how Ellul reconciles God using Assyria, or Cyrus of Persia, as his instrument of judgment on Israel and at the same time condemning them for doing what is, in effect, God’s will. God passes judgment on Israel and the door is opened for Assyria or Cyrus or Nebuchadnezzar to act. The means with which they judge Israel or interpret the word of the Prophet is not necessarily God’s will, only the truth spoken by the Prophet. In this way humans are always responsible for their own actions. God’s truth is proclaimed and God’s will accomplished through the imperfect means of free human beings.

Like Abraham, one may say, Jehu is set outside the morality which God established. But Jehu is not Abraham. In fact Jehu is a man who, faithful to God and knowing his will, comandeers this will and makes it his own. He identifies his own cause with God’s design. He thus sets out to shape history in the name of God but also in the place of God. (112)

As a reminder, Jehu is the king who killed a ridiculous amount of people in an attempt to cleanse Israel of idolaters. He tricked all the Baal worshippers into congregating in one place, claiming he would be more of an idolater than his predecessor (prophetic words), and then ordered his men to kill all of them. The words of Elisha were fulfilled by Jehu, but God did not provide the means. Jehu did. This is where Ellul clearly begins to demarcate the territory of God’s politics from the territory of human politics. Confusing the two has been the source of much trouble in the history of the church and the world.

The tricky part is that we hear an authentic word of God. We do catch glimpses of God’s truth, but like Jehu we grasp for it. We want to own it. We want to possess it. While we think we grasp God’s will, we set out to shape the world in the image of what we have discovered only, in the end, to find that we have tried to shape the world in our own image.

The sin of Jeroboam was precisely that he made theological and religious decisions regarding the true God for political reasons, thus subordinating the spiritual life of the people to political necessity… What we have here, then, is not an idolatrous state, but a political power which creates a state religion or which uses the truth of God, the revelation of God, and the work of God for political ends. It subordinates the will of God, not to its own will, but to the greater good of the nation or the state. It integrates God’s work into the imperative of a realistic policy. (125)

The sin of Jeroboam is referred to over and over again as a sin to which the kings of Israel continually succumbed. Ellul spends more time explaining the sin of Jeroboam than I can here. Suffice it to say that although Jeroboam and Jehu are very different figures, they both commit essentially the blunder. They confuse their own political means and ends for God’s. Jehu and Jeroboam both intended to help God’s people and strengthen the worship of the true God, but they thought that their own political means could accomplish this. In the end this leads them to see their own actions as ultimately God’s will. This sort of idolatry is subtle which makes it all the more insidious.

We have simply to be, and we can only be a question put within the world and to the world, a question invincibly confronting it. This is our efficacy. It is the efficacy of the question, a question which society and sociological movements cannot assimilate… It is not at the level of works and their results that this efficacy may be seen; it is at the level of inassimilability. Whenever the church thinks it has succeeded and become great, it is to that degree unfaithful… Our only guarantee of efficacy is the achievement of nonconformity.” (141)

Here Ellul questions our effectiveness and our insistence on this as the measure of the church’s success. Ellul’s third way between the sovereignty of God and the freedom of human beings undermines all of our human projects for building the kingdom. Even the ones that sound right and true. Whether it’s purity of doctrine or faith or the achievement of peace and social justice, in the end we have heard a word from God and then in turn crafted a vision of the world in our own image. How difficult it is to be led by the Spirit!

In our human endeavors to embody and live out the kingdom of God whether it’s through justice, peace, sustainable agriculture or contemplation, we tend towards extremes of thinking it all depends on us or there’s nothing we can do. The truth that Ellul illuminates liberates us to speak the prophetic word without needing to guide the process, to embody the reality of the kingdom the best we can in our sphere and trust that we are not alone.

In spite of all that can be said, in spite of every secular argument to justify money and the state and science and technology, to show that we are right to use these things, it is quite unbiblical to appeal to these agents of political power. (147)

Now, I might be only including this because of its connection to conversations here about the role of property in the Bible. I do think that it reveals something about the argument Ellul is making. It reveals something about our own trust in these things. These things cannot and should not be justified by Scripture. God weeps when Israel rejects the judges for a king. The relationship with money and possessions described in Scripture is uneasy at best. Science and technology are in some ways simply extensions of money, possessions and the state, but more in that when we talk about the book Sharing Possessions.

[The Church] has never to say to the state: This must be done. It has rather to tell it on God’s behalf what will in effect be done, what the state on its own initiative will undoubtedly be led to do. (85)

This recalls Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement that the church is the “conscience of the state.” How often are we telling the state what to do? How often are we trying to coerce the state (or others) to do what we think is God’s will? Ellul and King both reveal that our job is actually to reveal the truth about what the state really is. This is the prophetic word that is spoken. It does not predict the future. Instead, it only reveals the truth of the nature of the kingdoms of this world. It says, “This is how Empires behave. This is their nature and you are no different.”

If you’ve made it this far you might be wondering how this ties back into the question about whether or not population growth is God’s will. The problem with the dualistic answers to this problem is that we’re left with either fatalism or an uninvolved God. So, to say that population growth is God’s will simply because it has or is happening denies any real relationship between God and ourselves. It also does exactly what Ellul describes as the sin of Jeroboam by confusing our own desires and actions for the will of God.

On the other hand, we could be left only with the freedom of individuals to make their own decisions and be responsible for them. I have good friends who are satisfied with this. Perhaps they find hope in the community of humans and hope that this will be enough to guide us into a better future. I believe that the prophetic word of Elisha and some today speaks a truth into our world today tat the world could not see without it. The word of God is a word of hope and a vision of a future beyond what it reveals of this world to a deeper reality, a greater possibility.

3 comments on “The Politics of God and the Politics of Man

  1. These comments are off-the-cuff, fwiw:
    Some of the examples above deal with interaction of church and state, but worldwide we’re not under one unified government. So, worldwide population isn’t under the control of any state which makes it more problematic to address. That said, it also struck me that at multiple times in history God directly causes populations to rise and fall, most notably the flood.

    I’m not trying to be fatalistic, just wanted to raise a question. Your more recent post reminds me that in Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation we’re promised massive ecological disaster in massive wars and judgment breaks out. We see 1/3 of the world’s waters poisoned, 1/3 of the world’s population wiped out in one swing, etc. We know that this will happen just as all the OT prophecies of Jesus’ coming were fulfilled as He promised. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work for peace or work to be good stewards of our environment– just that we should be mindful of what the end looks like b/c not everyone is going to repent and be obedient to God. God clearly tells us He’s bringing those judgments on the earth as a result of sin. So, I think our response should be to repent, but not be fatalistic. But trying to limit population growth may be like trying to end all wars–maybe it’s a good idea but we should be humble about our ability to do so. Tackling one of those seems like tackling a symptom rather than the disease–sin.

    With population worries specifically, I see two problems:
    1. Not everyone agrees that it’s a problem to be concerned about, on both the political/religious left and right.

    2. The ways generally promoted to tackle population growth are quite un-Christian:
    a. abortion seems to be the primary means promoted. If you believe abortion is murder, that’s problematic.
    b. One-child policies like China’s. These may work but cause a ton of distortions– see China’s very skewed ratio of boys to girls and the problems it’s causing. As well as equally problematic infanticide.
    c. Sterilization. How do we decide who should reproduce or not? Promoters of eugenics seem to think sterilization is a good idea.

    What are the alternatives? Do the benefits outweigh the costs?


  2. The funny thing is it seems like your comment was only really the launching point for me talking about this book, which does have an interesting take on the problem of free will vs. God’s sovereignty. I didn’t really address the problem of population growth so much as the aforementioned theological conundrum.

    The three solutions to population growth you mentioned have obvious problems, but it seems quite narrow that these are the only three. Do you mean they’re the only three being implemented (in which case China’s policy is the only one of the three I know is meant to address population issues)? Or do you mean that they are the main three you’ve heard about? It seems to me that there are other possibilities out there. Perhaps they’re not often mentioned or too obscure (that not being a comment on their worth).

    I would propose that a reasonable solution to the population problem (assuming that it is and I know that you don’t), would not be the kinds of draconian measures you mentioned. Instead I would imagine it would be more like a shift in the way we think about the needs of human beings and the needs of the earth. If I’m right, then we will have to deal with this issue one way or another. A proactive approach would not have to be drastic and destructive, but more gradual. If we slow down production first (since we already produce more than we need) and focus those energies instead on the distribution problem, then we can also begin to work towards things you have previously mentioned that seem tied to population decline (Education, real democracy, health, sanitation, etc.). I don’t find it so far fetched that, given population growth is a problem, we can find measures that are much healthier and life-giving than the measures you mentioned. It does mean a better understanding of what population growth is, what causes it and how it works. Again, I’m not an expert, but given my assumptions it seems possible.

    Did I just sound hopeful? Oops.


  3. I just mentioned those three as the ones either most commonly advocated for or in use most widely today (China’s policy affects a wide swathe of the world since a wide swathe lives in China). I do agree that there are better ways.

    And I agree that there are multiple wills in God. John Piper is one of the foremost Calvinists of our day and in a couple of his books he delves rather deeply into that idea. In the end I always come back to the fact that His wisdom/thinking is infinite and mine is quite finite, so I’ll never understand the complexity of His nature. I don’t mean to tend toward the extreme of “there’s nothing I can do or it’s all up to me or else,” my point about Revelation in the comment above is that it’s a challenge to do all we can do but realize the ultimate end has already been predetermined.

    This is unrelated but I ran across this quote last week. It goes back to our previous discussion about whether Leviticus 25 allows one to say property rights are God-ordained or not. It’s from Piper’s book Momentary Marriage, a chapter on divorce:
    “there are laws in the Old Testament that are not expressions of God’s will for all time, but expressions of how best to manage sin in a particular people at a particular time. Divorce is never commanded and never instituted in the Old Testament. But it was permitted and regulated—like polygamy was permitted and regulated, and like certain kinds of slavery were permitted and regulated. And Jesus says here that this permission was not a reflection of God’s ideal for his people; it was a reflection of the hardness of the human heart. ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.'”

    I thought that re-stated your comments on Lev 25 pretty well. Jesus is calling us to a higher level of obedience in all areas. Kinda like: “Yes, property rights are governed in the Law but I’m calling you to give up that which is rightfully yours.”


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