Speaking this past weekend at Sanctuary, I wondered into some of my thoughts on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. With that in view, I got to thinking about this stunning excerpt from Jacques Ellul's The Subversion of Christianity on how the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is "against morality." I've never quite got over it, and in context of some of those larger ideas, it felt worth sharing today. It is as provocative, disturbing, and undeniably, prophetically true now as it was when Ellul wrote it in 1986:
First, in the Hebrew Bible the Torah is not a book of morality, whether as constructed by a moralist or as lived out by a group. The Torah, as God’s Word, is God’s revelation about himself. It lays down what separates life from death and symbolizes the total sovereignty of God. Similarly, what Jesus says in the Gospels is not morality. It has an existential character and rests on a radical change of being. Again, what Paul says in the exhortations in his letters is not morality but consists of practical directions by way of example. Second, there is no system in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. There are no moral precepts that can exist independently in some way, that can have universal validity, and that can serve the elaboration of a moral system. Third, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is against morality. Not only is it honestly impossible to derive a moral system from the Gospels and Epistles, but, further, the main keys in the gospel – the proclamation of grace, the declaration of pardon, and the opening up of life to freedom – are the direct opposite of morality. For they imply that all conduct, including that of the devout, or the most moral, is wholly engulfed in sin.
As Genesis shows us, the origin of sin in the world is not knowledge, as is often said (as though God were interdicting our intellectual development, which would be absurd); it is the knowledge of good and evil. In the context knowledge means decision. What is not acceptable to God is that we should decide on our own what is good and what is evil. Biblically, the good is in fact the will of God. That is all. What God decides, whatever it may be, is the good. If, then, we decide what the good is, we substitute our own will for God’s. We construct a morality when we say (and do) what is good, and it is then that we are radically sinners. To elaborate a moral system is to show oneself to be a sinner before God, not because the conduct is bad, but because, even if it is good, another good is substituted for the will of God.
This is why Jesus attacks the Pharisees so severely even though they are the most moral of people, live the best lives, and are perfectly obedient and virtuous. They have progressively substituted their own morality for the living and actual Word of God that can never be fixed in commandments. In the Gospels Jesus constantly breaks religious precepts and moral rules. He gives as his own commandment, “Follow me,” not a list of things to do or not to do. He shows us fully what it means to be a free person with no morality, but simply obeying the ever-new Word of God as it flashes forth. Similarly, Paul attacks what might seem to be morality in Judaism, rules and precepts laid down by men and not coming from God at all. The great mutation is that we have been freed in Jesus Christ. The primary characteristic of free people is that they are not bound to moral commandments. “All things are lawful,” Paul twice proclaims. “Nothing is impure,” he teaches. We find the same message in Acts. We are as free as the Holy Spirit, who comes and goes as he wills. This freedom does not mean doing anything at all. It is the freedom of love. Love, which cannot be regulated, categorized, or analyzed into principles or commandments, takes the place of law. The relationship with others is not one of duty but of love.
When I say that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is against morality, I am not trying to say that it replaces one form of morality with another. (How many times, alas, we read that Christian morality is superior to all others. This is not even true. We find honest and virtuous people, good husbands, fathers, and children, scrupulous and truthful people outside Christianity, and more perhaps than there are Christians.) Revelation is an attack on all morality, as is wonderfully shown by the parables of the kingdom of heaven, that of the prodigal son, that of the talents, that of the eleventh-hour laborers, that of the unfaithful steward, and many others. In all the parables the person who serves as an example has not lived a moral life. The one who is rejected is the one who has lived a moral life. Naturally this does not mean that we are counseled to become robbers, murderers, adulterers, etc. On the contrary, the behavior to which we are summoned surpasses morality, all morality, which is shown to be an obstacle to encounter with God.
Love obeys no morality and gives birth to no morality. None of the great categories of revealed truth is relative to morality or can give birth to it; freedom, truth, light, Word, and holiness do not belong at all to the order of morality. What they evoke is a model of being, a model of life that is very free, that involves constant risks, that is constantly renewed. The Christ-fixed duty has to be done no matter what course life may take. Morality always interdicts this mode of being. It is an obstacle to it and implicitly condemns it, just as Jesus is inevitably condemned by moral people.