Christian moral thinking has always had to harmonize with New Testament texts such as “the love of money is the root of all evils,” and “blessed are the poor.” At the same time. Christian morality is incompatible with the kind of spirituality that decries the material world and all that pertains to it as either not quite real (Platonism) or morally inferior (Manichaeanism). In the responses to this tension, it sometimes seems that money questions are the root of all folly.

Most of the published work on this issue nowadays impales itself on one horn or the other of this dilemma. On the one hand, the grinning faces of the Mammon society assure us that God wants us to be prosperous and that prosperity therefore carries with it the mark of divine favor. Consequently, we should join the strivers of society and enjoy our big bucks and their attendant perks. On the other hand, we’re told that God favors the poor, that if we’re not poor we’re rich and therefore ipso facto contributors to the misery of the oppressed. We have here the tawdry remnants of a degenerate Calvinism confronting the tawdry remnants of a degenerate Anabaptism. We have also the implicit convictions of a multitude of those who mistakenly think they are emancipated from all theological positions.

Who better to cut through the fog, we might think, than Jacques Ellul, former resistance fighter against the Vichy government in World War II, retired professor of law and social institutions in the University of Bordeaux, and author of some 40 books, including such triumphs of prophetic insight and plain good sense as The Betrayal of the West and The New Demons. But wait; he’s also the author of The Technological Society, a massive Luddite tract decrying the prevalence of technology in modern life. Is that book to be the perspective informing his investigation of the moral implications of the use of money? Alas, yes.

Ellul’s treatise on technology concluded that we’re unable to use it responsibly because its very presence changes our environment in such a way as to make it impossible to behave as human beings ought. Using machines to accomplish tasks, we’re captured by the ethos of technique and thereby sacrifice uniquely human considerations on the altar of efficiency. There is in this analysis no consideration of how we might use technical means more responsibly; that is out of the question. Ellul’s position in the present volume, a freshly translated version of the work originally published in French in 1954 and revised in 1979, is of the same order. Money, which he artificially separates from essentially economic goods and processes, is necessarily corrupting in its influence, and therefore to speculate on its responsible use is a waste of time. The only way to avoid the evil of Mammon-worship is to desacralize money, and the way to do that is to give it away.

Thus the temptation to allow money to become a god is for Ellul the certainty that one will do so if one keeps it. This means that savings are impermissible. All economic transactions are tinged with evil because they necessarily subordinate either buyer or seller, employee or employer. Profit, it goes without saying, cannot be countenanced. For one who has this point of view. Mammon is not only the deification of material wealth but also its very use. We can only flee in horror from it, give it away, wash our hands of it.

Although Ellul is critical of Manichaeanism and the false spirituality of scorning money, his own work leads the credulous reader to those positions. This suggests the basic trouble with this book, which is also true of the more valuable Ellul efforts: his consciously “dialectical” approach continually falls into contradictory statements. Indeed, Ellul could point to passages in Money and Power that seem to refute almost every assertion made in this review. David Gill’s foreword excuses this tendency too gently by saying that “Ellul has never been one to place a high priority on systematic neatness and the resolution of all ambiguity.”

The tragedy in this and all quasi-Manichaean explanations of wealth is that it provides no guidance for the responsible use of money and possessions. It makes impossible the biblical idea of stewardship even when it makes liberal use of the word. In ascribing such vast powers to the bare possession of money, it paradoxically takes from it one characteristic that is crucial to our understanding: its power to do good as we use it responsibly. In repudiating the mad pursuit of wealth, Ellul offers no plausible alternative.


[Money and Power, by Jacques Ellul (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press) $5.95]