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Filling the void: on Luther and a new Reformation, part 1 of 2
I took a class on salvation with the Brethren in Christ a few weeks ago, and I got into a lot of interesting conversations about soteriology. That is, the study of the religious doctrine of salvation.
Normally, I don’t prefer to get into heady conversations about theology, because I think we, as Western Protestant Christians, might do it too much.
Which is why, of course, I’m glad we are part of the Brethren In Christ—started by a bunch of German farmers in rural Pennsylvania (as opposed to being started by scholars in urban centers in Europe). We value relationships more than we value making sure we develop a perfect theology about God. Followers of Jesus can sometimes overemphasize how our supposedly sovereign God works so much so that we fail to allow Him to be sovereign over our ideas of him.
But I am interested learning that actually understanding what I believe and think about God is really important. Furthermore, it is important for us to deconstruct myths about God, and actually determine how to understand Him.
My fear is that if we don’t develop a good theology, the void that we create will be filled by someone else who is shouting about theirs. I’m not sure the loudest shouters are appropriately influencing people—so I want to counter them, not directly, but by merely offering another interpretation of the narrative.
Around me, there are plenty well-meaning people who uphold doctrine that simply does not work in out context and would make us ill-equipped in reaching the generation that we want to reach. So let’s use a little bit from Paul, the often misinterpreted and misunderstood writer of the Bible. Let’s read from Ephesians. He’s writing Ephesians to people that live in modern-day Turkey. To me, the thesis statement of Ephesians is in the first chapter of the text:
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. Ephesians 1:7-10 (NIV)
Paul is brilliantly writing here. He is telling us that the mystery of God’s will was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and we now able to actually enact his will on earth. God’s purpose, which he accomplished through Jesus Christ, was to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. Our Greco-Roman view of God, how culture has influenced our belief of heaven, makes us either not believe in heaven at all or think it is some far off land.
Paul is telling the Ephesians that eternity starts now, and that the Kingdom of God begins now. In Circle of Hope, in your cells, particularly, your example of eternity starting now is critical.
Under the reign of Christ heaven is both here and it is coming. He wants to reinforce this basic point throughout the text. Keep this in mind as we work through these ten verses whose historical interpretation and application are, in a word, irrelevant, to this generation.
Here he is in the second chapter of Ephesians. Here’s what he tells them.
For me, this is an incredibly encouraging piece of writing and I am often encouraged by Paul. Ephesians, of course, is a challenging book to venture through in a contemporary context because Paul says some things that can easily be misinterpreted. I’m not sure that the historical Protestant interpretation of this works for our context, but it may have in a different one.
And so when I say I’m offering a different theology, I’m not necessarily saying that the one I’m going to deconstruct is wrong, I’m saying it doesn’t work in 2013 in Philadelphia. That’s what I’m talking about. And if we think our theology needs to be timeless, we are of course confusing our theology with God himself. God is eternal, our ideas about him are not. So what worked in the 1500s may not work now. That’s OK, right?
Here’s an idea that worked then (and it still works now, just not what it has been morphed into).
Martin Luther, was a Catholic priest, who wanted to change the ways things were going in the Church. At the time, Catholic bishops and officials, including the Pope, were being a high status as holy men, and Luther didn’t believe that individuals should receive such holy praise—he thought that was reserved for God. We’re all sinners, he would say. Some of our equality comes from that basic idea. You can see some of the root of this thinking in the verse Ephesians 2:1-4. We were all dead in our transgressions and sins—we are equal in that sense.
Moreover, the increasingly corrupt Church, was forcing people to pay money for forgiveness of sins, in example, He taught that salvation was achieved through faith alone, as a free gift of grace from God. You can see how this might have been developed in this chapter, specifically in verses 4, 5, and 8.
You can imagine Luther’s positive impact as a result of this, but I do want to note that these relatively important ideas which combatted bad theology in the Catholic church, have been morphed—primarily by reformed theologians—into concepts that may not be helpful in understanding the bigger point of what Paul is talking about.