Is The Reformation Over?

Article by   November 2005

Mark Noll is well-known both within and without evangelicalism as an outstanding scholar, a gracious and thoughtful commentator on religion and America, and one of the most significant public religious intellectuals of the last decade. Indeed, disagreeing with him is not something that one does lightly; and I confess I am less than eager so to do. Yet reading the recent book which he has co-authored with journalist, Carolyn Nystrom, I find that I must register my dissent on a number of key issues.

As one would expect from any book which carries Mark Noll's name on its cover, the work is meticulously researched, very clearly written, and exhibits a generosity of spirit that will be disarming even to its critics, among whom it will be clear I number myself. The insights it contains are also fascinating. For example, as a foreigner on American soil, I found the book extremely useful in outlining and explaining the history of Catholic-Evangelical relations in US society. It is, after all, puzzling to an outsider that as late as 1960, a presidential candidate's Catholicism was seen as an electoral liability, particularly with reference to the conservative Protestant sections of the electorate; and it is arguable that Kennedy won the election despite his religion and then only because he managed successfully to distance himself somewhat from it; yet in 2004, it was John F. Kerry's perceived failure to be a consistent Catholic on issues such as abortion and sanctity of life-related matters which was seen as the electoral problem, particularly with that same, conservative Protestant core. Much of the answer to this conundrum, of course, lies with Roe vs. Wade and the way in which the abortion debate in America has polarized society, politicized the judicial process, placed moral issues at the center of politics, and driven religious conservatives, Catholic and Protestant, into an unlikely alliance which fifty years ago would have seemed inconceivable. Now it seems (at least to an outsider) that much of the evangelical hopes, culturally and politically, hang on the decisions of Catholics such as Roberts and Scalia on the Supreme Court. Indeed, if, as this change perhaps implies, evangelicalism functions for some, or perhaps for many, of its adherents not so much as a statement about God but rather as an idiom for protesting the moral chaos in America, we can expect to see yet more rapprochement and maybe even significant numbers of conversions from evangelicalism to Rome, especially given the potential for clear moral leadership by the Catholic Church under the pontificate of Benedict XVI.

The story is, of course, more complex than just Roe vs. Wade, and, after an opening chapter which highlights the change in attitude of evangelicals to Rome, Noll and Nystrom proceed in the next two chapters to describe in more detail how the change took place, highlighting wider social and more narrowly ecclesiastical and institutional changes. This is followed by chapters on the various formal dialogues between mainstream Protestant denominations and Rome, on the Catholic Catechism, on the series of dialogues and documents known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, on the various reactions, positive and negative, to ECT, and on the specific American situation relative to evangelical-Catholic relations. The conclusion borrows the title of the book "Is the Reformation Over?" and offers a generally - though not entirely - affirmative answer to that question. As a guide to the "state of the art" as regards Evangelical-Catholic relations, both in terms of history and wider context, the book is an invaluable must-read for all thoughtful Christians.

As I read the book, however, the words of a song by Rainbow (another 70s rock combo, I'm afraid) came repeatedly to mind: "I can't let you go, even though it's over!" There is indeed a sense in which this book demonstrates that the Reformation is over; but I would argue that this end to the Reformation has come about for many of the wrong reasons and represents not so much the final rapprochement between Catholicism and Protestantism but the problematic nature, if not crisis, of evangelical identity at the start of the twenty-first century. I'm afraid I for one can't let the Reformation go doctrinally, even though for many the curtain already appears to be coming down on the final scene.

The major problem with the book, and one which significantly skews some of the analysis, is the central place it accords to the relationship between Catholicism and evangelicalism. Thus, at the outset, we have an institutional church, with clearly defined authority structures, creeds, and an identifiable history - in other words, a self-conscious identity - being discussed in relation to a movement which lacks all of these things and is really only unified by a somewhat nebulous and ill-defined field of family resemblances - and family resemblances which have, over the years, become increasingly vague. This is at its most obvious, and acute, in the ECT discussions. In these, while both groups of participants were arguably self-appointed, the Catholics did at least stand as representatives of a church and knew for whom and for what they stood; whom exactly were the evangelicals representing? From their very inception, therefore, the ECT discussions were built upon an important category mistake: Catholics came to the table committed by church affiliation to a clear set of doctrinal principles; that commitment gave them a place to stand from which they could engage. The evangelicals had no such thing, no place to stand, nowhere from which to engage. This probably goes a long way to explaining the fact that, in terms of doctrinal agreement, the discussions appeared to achieve so much but actually did little more than demonstrate the "mere Christianity" perspective to which an eclectic, parachurch movement like evangelicalism inevitably tends; and thus they exposed the inability of such a movement to be truly distinctive when faced with a coherent, comprehensive, and self-conscious church body.

Take, for example, the touchstone issue of justification by grace through faith by the imputation of Christ's righteousness. In the account given here, the issue is all but laid to rest, and that on two grounds. First, the various ecumenical agreements are presented as indicating that there is no remaining substantial disagreement between Catholics and Protestants on the issue; and, second, the authors argue that few evangelicals still hold to the classic Protestant understanding of justification as being by the imputation of Christ's righteousness, and that by grace through faith.

Numerous lines of critique suggest themselves at this point. First, it is significant that, with the exception of the agreement between the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholics in 1999, none of the ecumenical documents have any official church status, either in Rome or in the respective Protestant denominations; and, as indicated above, the ad hoc nature of the ECT makes these documents in particular of no real ecclesiastical significance.[1] So what exactly has been achieved in terms of real institutional rapprochement based on officially acknowledged substantial theological agreement? Not much at all.

Second, it is important to understand that the dispute at the Reformation over this issue of justification was not one of total disagreement at all points. Indeed, there was a certain amount of common ground shared by Catholics and Protestants even in this most contentious of areas: both agreed that justification was on account of Christ's righteousness; both gave a place to faith; and both saw justification as being by grace. The disagreements touched on whether Christ's righteousness was imputed or imparted; whether faith was the sole instrument of justification; and whether saving grace was, among other things, operative or co-operative, a quality of God or something dispensed by the sacraments. Now, the polemics of the sixteenth century inevitably tended to obscure the common ground, even in the most calm confessional formulations, as each side defined itself over against the other; when identities are at stake, dividing boundary markers are inevitably accented; but this common ground was really there on some issues, even in the sixteenth century; and thus any ecumenical discussion is likely to focus on this pre-existent commonality and not on the real points of dispute in the Reformation. A question of emphasis, maybe, but when the common Christological basis of justification is accented, the serious and very real disagreements over justification that do exist between confessional communions can be quite effectively marginalized; and this has arguably been done, most notably in the ECT statement on the same. Sure, the words can be agreed upon by both sides: but this represents, on one level, simply an acknowledgment of pre-existing common ground which was never disputed; at another, a deployment of a common Pauline-Augustinian vocabulary which can be understood in a variety of different ways, some mutually exclusive. Agreements of such a verbal nature are reminiscent of the seventeenth century debates about grace between Dominicans and Jesuits which were so brutally satirised by Blaise Pascal in The Provincial Letters. And it is an ecclesiastical-theological fact, not a pedantic historical detail, that Trent's teaching, anathemas and all, remains in force to this day; Catholicism has conceded nothing of that ground; and confessional Protestantism, Lutheran and Reformed, found Trent unacceptable then and, indeed, regarded itself as clearly and decisively anathematized in its declarations. There is little room for manoeuvre here: either Trent was and is wrong, or confessional Protestantism was and is wrong, or they were and are both wrong. No other option presents itself; and each of these positions has obvious implications for everything from church affiliation to preaching.[2]

Third, the doctrine of justification does not stand in structural isolation from the rest of theology. On the contrary, it stands in positive connection to an understanding of the sacraments, ecclesiology, etc., etc. To bring out just one issue here: the Roman Catholic insistence on purgatory. Now, it is true that Protestants believe that those who die in the Lord still need to be actually perfected; but this is an eschatological point of little systematic significance. In Roman Catholicism, however, Purgatory is not simply a point of eschatology but is closely connected to the Church's penitential system, the understanding of saints, and the treasury of merits. This is made clear in the Catholic Catechism which argues that prayers, penances, and, supremely, masses offered by the living on behalf of the dead help to purify those who are in purgatory and expedite their access to the beatific vision (Catechism, para. 1032); and which explicitly maintains the link between penance, purgatory, indulgences and the treasury of merits (1474-1479, 1498).[3] If there is agreement between Protestants and Catholics on justification, if the points in dispute at the Reformation were simply monumental misunderstandings or only relatively important compared to the points held in common, then why does purgatory, and all the doctrinal, penitential baggage it carries with it, still exist in Catholic theology? Its very persistence speaks a different understanding of the appropriation of Christ's righteousness, of the instrument, or instruments, of justification, and, one might add of justification itself - indeed, of the whole Christian life, before and after death - to that which Protestantism, even in its most attenuated forms, has typically held. And lest one dismiss this complaint as hyperdoctrinalism or as abstract criticism by an ivory-tower academic, spend a moment reflecting upon the different pastoral strategies which will be deployed, depending on whether or not one believes in purgatory, with all its penitential connections and implications. This should surely be taken into account when assessing how to act on claims such as that expressed by James Packer on page 180, that evangelicals and Catholics have `sufficient account of the gospel of salvation for shared evangelistic ministry.' Purgatory surely remains one of the main elephants in the room when it comes to Catholic-Protestant agreements on justification.[4]

Fourth, it may well be true that most evangelicals no longer believe in the Protestant doctrine of justification; but that may not necessarily represent a point of strength or a valuable ecumenical opportunity; might it not rather be a sign of the problem of the theological identity of evangelicalism itself? Indeed, a very cynical and perhaps uncharitable Protestant response to this argument might be to conclude that Catholics and Evangelicals can therefore agree on justification simply because Catholics understand Catholicism while Evangelicals either do not understand Protestantism or do not care about it. That is certainly not the case with the authors of this book; but there is nonetheless an obvious problem here. Perhaps a more generous reading might suggest that this marginalizing of the historic Protestant understanding of justification is indicative of how evangelicalism as a coalition movement has moved from its historic Protestant roots to something less well-defined in terms of doctrine. And this again goes to the heart of the problem with which I started: the meaning of evangelicalism relative to its theological content is not a given; and that derives in part from the minimal doctrinal commitments or "mere Christianity" which its transdenominational nature requires.

This connects to another area in which the authors offer a positive assessment of Catholicism in comparison to evangelicalism: the Catholic Catechism. True enough, this is an impressive document which offers a pretty comprehensive account of the Catholic faith, and evangelicalism certainly has no equivalent. But evangelicalism has no equivalent for the simple reason that it is not an ecclesiastical institution but a broad-based, eclectic movement of various churches and individuals, bound together by "elective affinities," to use Geoffrey Wainwright's phrase, not all, nor even many, of which are doctrinal. As such, it is by definition incapable of producing a comprehensive theological document of a kind with the Catholic Catechism. To use a political analogy: the Communist Party could have a positive manifesto, because it was a party with a comprehensive political philosophy; popular-front socialism could have no equivalent document because it was a collection of disparate left-wingers bound together only by a shared dislike of capitalism, a doctrinally minimal point which could scarcely form the foundation for elaborating a comprehensive, positive political philosophy. Evangelicalism is a popular front movement, too, and subject to the same basic problem.

Of course, if one turns from the nebulous concept of evangelicalism to a more concrete, confessional form of Protestantism, then there is some significant creedal heritage upon which one can call for a relatively well-defined statement of what it is to be a Christian. Lutherans possess The Book of Concord, and the richness of the Reformed confessional heritage is evident from the collection of confessions and catechisms in E F K Müller's Die Bekenntnisschriften der reformierten Kirche (Leipzig, 1903). The problem is that if one works from a broad non-confessional and non-ecclesiastical theological base which almost by definition requires no clear consensus position on important matters such as predestination, justification, sacraments etc., then such documents are more of a source of embarrassment than of strength, in that they emphasize distinctives and precision, not a fuzzy openness and breadth. Indeed, at one point the authors pose the question in these terms:

Is the Reformation over? Maybe a better question we evangelicals should ask ourselves is, Why we do not possess such a thorough, clear, and God-centered account of our faith as the Catechism offers to Roman Catholics? (p. 150)

The answer, I would suggest, is very simple and straightforward: one cannot abandon elaborate theology as a point of principle in order to build a transdenominational movement and then hope to produce something akin to the Catholic Catechism which, by definition, requires an elaborate theology to express; it simply cannot be done. And that takes us back to the problem at the heart of the discussion as set up in this book: we are comparing apples and oranges--a self-conscious church body, which feels no shame over its history and its clear doctrinal positions, and a transdenominational movement which cannot agree on more than the merest of Christianity.

This historical and intellectual coherence and depth in Catholicism is something which the authors highlight, along with liturgical aesthetics, as providing much of the context for evangelical conversions to Catholicism. Here, I find myself in sympathy with the problems described as part and parcel of some trajectories of evangelicalism (the reinvention of Christianity every Sunday, the consumer-oriented worship styles, the overall intellectual superficiality and banality of evangelical approaches to theology, to history, to tradition, and to culture); yet I still disagree with those individuals who see conversion to Rome as the answer. I would want to argue that conversion to confessional Protestantism is at least worth a glance as another option before deciding to throw one's whole lot in with Rome. Confessional Protestantism has a historic, creedal integrity; it takes history seriously; it refuses to assume that the latest pulp evangelical primer on postmodernism is an adequate basis for ditching the whole of its tradition; and it wants to take seriously what the church has said about the Bible over the centuries. As the work of scholars such as Richard Muller has indicated, confessional Reformed Orthodoxy, for example, has theological moorings in an intelligent interaction with, and appropriation of, the best theological and exegetical work of the patristic and medieval authors, as well as the correctives of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Yet this careful scholarship is so often aced in the evangelical culture by popular potboilers which tell a very different story. Thus, post -conservative evangelicals may take the worst bits of Hodge, read them back into Turretin, mix in a faulty understanding of scholasticism as an adumbration of Enlightenment rationalism, repeat, Mantra-style, superficially learned and portentous phrases such as "Cartesian dualism" and "modernist mindset," and extrapolate from there to dismiss the whole of confessional Reformed Orthodoxy; but that is just one more example of the cod-theology which passes for scholarship in some evangelical quarters. In fact, as I repeatedly tell my students, if you hold to Reformed Orthodoxy, you can quite legitimately interact with and appropriate the best theology, West and East, from the Apostolic Fathers down to the present day, in your articulation of a truly catholic orthodoxy.

The tragedy of Protestantism, therefore, is not so much the historical and theological poverty of its confessional traditions, but the intellectual and scholarly poverty of much of what is spoken from evangelical pulpits, taught at evangelical seminaries, and published by evangelical presses (even those who claim the title "academic"), and which passes from there into pop-evangelical culture as the final word on the subject. Of course, in this context, no-one has done more than Mark Noll to alert evangelicals to the seriousness of the situation. In book after book, by both precept and example, he has gently but firmly exposed the scandal of the evangelical mind and offered superlative examples of what real scholarship should look like. His own work is thus a testimony to the fact that work of the very highest scholarly caliber can be done within the context of evangelicalism, and the evangelical world is deeply in his debt; yet there are antihistorical impulses within evangelicalism itself which seem to militate against such truly impressive historical work really having a formative impact upon the way that theology is understood within evangelical ranks, and the way in which history and tradition can inform the life of the evangelical church.

To cut to the chase: what is evangelicalism? It is a title I myself identify with on occasion, especially when marking myself off from liberalism, another ill-defined, amorphous, transdenominational concept. But in a world where there are "evangelicals" who deny justification by faith as understood by the Protestant Reformers, who deny God's comprehensive knowledge of the future, who deny penal substitutionary atonement, who deny the Messianic self-consciousness of Christ, who have problems with the Nicene Creed, who deny the Chalcedonian definition of Christ's person, who cannot be trusted to make clear statements on homosexuality, and who advocate epistemologies and other philosophical viewpoints which are entirely unprecedented in the history of the orthodox Christian church, it is clear that the term "evangelical" and its cognates, without any qualifying adjective, such as "confessional" or "open" or "post-conservative," is in danger of becoming next to meaningless. And, even when one qualifies the noun in these ways, it is not immediately clear that one is then talking about subsets or modifications of a single, overarching, coherent movement. Indeed, there are many ways in which I, as a confessional, Reformed Christian, have far more in common with many Roman Catholic theologians than others who routinely claim the title of evangelical. After all, there are evangelicals who repudiate almost all the cardinal points of faith which Protestants and Catholics at the Reformation held in common and which were never disputed. Mark Noll is obviously not such, and his own vision of evangelicalism is clearly a gracious, thoughtful, orthodox and in many ways attractive one; but I am not convinced that the definition of evangelicalism which underlies this book is strong enough to enable the realization of that vision or to allay my fears about the movement as a whole, if indeed it is meaningful to speak of it as a single movement.

The key to understanding evangelicalism in relation to Catholicism seems to me to lie in part in understanding the crucial difference between the Catholic Church as an institution with clearly defined doctrinal commitments, and evangelicalism as a broad, trans-institutional movement with a vested interest in framing its doctrinal commitments at the level of complexity which the coalition can sustain. The result is that evangelicalism as a movement will always tend towards an ideal of mere Christianity. And that is fine, providing it is understood that this will in turn always tend to attenuate evangelicalism's connection to the past and thus limit its capacity to draw coherently upon that past. In this context, one might add that the current predilection in some evangelical quarters for using the language of postmodernism for revisioning or reconceptualising theology seems less a radical revolution in evangelical thinking and more the appropriation of the latest academic idiom for playing the well-established traditional evangelical game of non-dogmatic, lowest-common denominator, mere Christianity.

When I finished reading the book, I have to confess that I agreed with the authors, in that it does indeed seem that the Reformation is over for large tracts of evangelicalism; yet the authors themselves do not draw the obvious conclusion from their own arguments. Every year I tell my Reformation history class that Roman Catholicism is, at least in the West, the default position. Rome has a better claim to historical continuity and institutional unity than any Protestant denomination, let alone the strange hybrid that is evangelicalism; in the light of these facts, therefore, we need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic; not being a Catholic should, in others words, be a positive act of will and commitment, something we need to get out of bed determined to do each and every day. It would seem, however, that if Noll and Nystrom are correct, many who call themselves evangelical really lack any good reason for such an act of will; and the obvious conclusion, therefore, should be that they do the decent thing and rejoin the Roman Catholic Church. I cannot go down that path myself, primarily because of my view of justification by faith and because of my ecclesiology; but those who reject the former and lack the latter have no real basis upon which to perpetuate what is, in effect, an act of schism on their part. For such, the Reformation is over; for me, the fat lady has yet to sing; in fact, I am not sure at this time that she has even left her dressing room.

Mark Noll - Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005
Review by Carl Trueman


[1] The text of the Lutheran-Catholic agreement, along with related documents, is available online at http://www.elca.org/ecumenical/ecumenicaldialogue/romancatholic/jddj/index.html; ECT documents, and some commentary, can be found at http://www.firstthings.com/collections/coll-ECT.html, the website of the thoughtful Catholic journal, First Things, edited by former Lutheran turned Catholic, Richard John Neuhaus, who, along with Charles Colson, did much to pioneer the discussions and the agreements.

[2] The rather stark alternatives I have outlined here raise the obvious question of whether the Lutheran-Catholic agreement on justification is not simply being disingenuous when it declares the anathemas of the sixteenth century no longer to apply. In fact, Avery Dulles has addressed just this issue in a typically honest and thoughtful response to the document and attempted to explain the Magisterium's rationale in signing on; yet his argument would seem to amount ultimately to the rather pragmatic position that, in a time when the church in the West stands on the verge of collapse, the enemy of my enemy necessarily becomes my friend: see his `Two Languages of Salvation: The Lutheran-Catholic Join Declaration,' at http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft9912/articles/dulles.html.

[3] The Catechism is available via the website of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops at http://www.usccb.org/index.shtml.

[4] In this context, I am also reminded of the argument laid out by post-Christian feminist theologian, Daphne Hampson, to the effect that Catholic-Protestant ecumenism fails to take account of the fundamentally different understandings of what it is to be human, with the former assuming a substantial definition of humanity, the latter a relational/status understanding; and that any agreement to a form of words which does not deal with this basic underlying difference (which underpins the differences in understanding what justification is - is it a process or a status?) is doomed to failure. Yet the ECT agreement on justification does not even approach such a level of theological/anthropological sophistication and signally fails to address such an issue. See Daphne Hampson, Christian Contradictions: The Structures of Luther and and Catholic Thought (Cambridge: CUP, 2001).

 



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