On October 31st 1517, Martin Luther is said to have nailed 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenburg in Germany (although some say he simply sent them to the Archbishop). Those Theses provoked what is known today as the Protestant Reformation.
Since the time of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians have been at the centre of the theology and preaching of the Protestant churches, the “Pole Star” around which the rest of the Bible’s stars and galaxies have revolved, the yardstick against which the rest of the Bible has been interpreted. In an age when no other explanation for the existence of the Universe was conceivable than that an all-powerful God was its Creator, our relationship (or lack of it) with that God was clearly of supreme importance. And for that the Medieval Church gave a clear answer: belong to the Church Christ created and follow its instructions, and salvation is assured.
But such an answer could not satisfy Martin Luther. “We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” says Paul in Romans chapter 3, verse 28. And in Galatians 2, verse 16: “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” The constant struggle to fulfil what the law of God demands is replaced by the glorious assurance that what is needed is simply trust and faith in the gift of God offered in Christ.
The same was true for John Wesley some two centuries later. On Sunday evening May 24th 1738 at a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, he heard a reading from Luthers’ “Preface to the Epistle to the Romans”, and “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” For nearly two hundred years, as “Christian Europe” expanded throughout the world, this seemed the answer to all the world’s problems. If only people would become Christian in that way, the world would be transformed.
But by then Europe had plunged into the 20th century’s abyss of World War, economic depression, Fascism and Stalinist Communism. The Lutheran-Wesleyan understanding of faith seemed, not wrong, but strangely unable to meet these challenges of the new century.
In fact, of course, there is far more in the New Testament than Romans and Galatians, which Paul wrote to meet a specific and thorny question in the life of the early church, namely whether Gentiles who became Christian must keep the whole Mosaic law, including circumcision. To this question, Paul’s answer was clear: everyone’s relationship with God is based on faith, whether you are Jew or Gentile. It was true for Abraham and it is true for everyone now. The Mosaic law was given to the people of Israel for a specific purpose- that they should become a signpost for the whole world to bring all people and all nations to faith in the justice and love of God. That law cannot be imposed on other nations, however- in fact it would be a denial of God’s purposes to do that.
Having dealt with that question, other parts of the New Testament can turn to other important matters. Ephesians, for example, says:
“God raised him [Christ] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come.” (chapter 1, verses 20 and 21)
“So that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” (chapter 3, verse 10)
“For our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (chapter 6, verse 12)
“In him [in Christ] all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers.” (chapter 1, verse 16)
”See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fulness in him who is the head of every ruler and authority.” Chapter 2, verses 8 and 9)
And the First Letter of Peter talks about Jesus Christ:
“Who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities and powers made subject to him.” (chapter 3, verse 22).
This perspective is very different from Romans and Galatians (though it appears in, for example, Romans 8:38), which has led may scholars to conclude that they could not have been written by Paul. Whatever the truth of that it is clear that the New Testament regards the overcoming and subduing of these “authorities, rulers, powers and dominions” as being a central and crucial part of the Gospel and of the work of Christ.
But what are these powers?
People in the ancient world were very aware that human life and history was powerfully influenced by forces that no-one could ignore, not even emperors and kings. People in the ancient world described these forces as “gods”, and sought to placate and understand them to secure their help and ensure the safety and prosperity of the community. In our modern “scientific” culture we are inclined to regard all this as “primitive superstition”, but that ignores the reality that our lives are indeed strongly influenced by many powerful forces: the quest for material security and prosperity, a sense of racial and national history and identity, our sexuality, to name only three.
The New Testament does not regard any of these forces as intrinsically destructive or “evil”- they are an integral part of God’s Creation, and so cannot be anything but good in themselves. The problem comes when human societies adopt any of these as their “ultimate good” (or, to use the language of the ancient world, as their “god”). Then they become enslaving and destructive. We have seen plenty of evidence of the way this works in our recent history, for example in Nazi Germany and in the development of a globalised economy that acknowledges no relevant standards of justice other than the laws of “supply and demand”.
The early Church and the New Testament was well aware of the destructive impact of “principalities and powers” on human life. But it also knew that what God had done for the world in Christ could break their chains and set humanity free. It is this understanding of the Gospel that we need in our modern world- the Lutheran/Wesleyan understanding has its proper place within this, but not as an independent and dominant interpretation.
Understanding the Gospel from this perspective can also change the way we see other New Testament themes. The “kingdom of God” in the Synoptic Gospels ceases to be just a matter of growing the community of faith by winning more and more people to faith in Christ- it expresses the way the power of God’s love breaks into our world to change human life and society. “Eternal life” in John’s Gospel is not only “life after death”- it is the life of God’s “New Age”, transforming both the present and the future. Both in their different ways tell us of the justice of God in Christ which overcomes the powers of death and destruction, offering good news to the whole world.