Is the Reformation Over?

Gregg R. Allison

Having recently taught a course in contemporary Roman Catholic theology at both my former school, Western Seminary (Portland, OR), and my current institution, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY), my interest was piqued when Is The Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism was sent to me as a book review editor for JETS. As an evangelical who has worked closely with Roman Catholic theology and practice at the University of Notre Dame (South Bend, IN), in Rome (Italy), and at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary (Mundelein, IL), I have an approach to the subject that combines both fascination with and suspicion of the Roman Catholic Church and the current evangelical-Catholic dialogue. This perspective carries over into my assessment of Noll and Nystrom's book.

The authors make a significant contribution to the growing number of books authored by Protestants that reflect on Roman Catholic theology and practice. To take just one example--Protestant reflections on Mary--a sample of books includes: Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of God (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995); Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., Mary: Mother of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004); Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Cynthia L. Rigby, Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary (Louisville: Westminster, 2002); Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson, Mary: A Catholic--Evangelical Debate (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003).

Is The Reformation Over? "is intended as an evangelical assessment of contemporary Roman Catholicism, with special attention given to the dramatic changes that have taken place since the Second Vatican Council" (p. 13). Specifically, the authors intend "to use the classic ideals of the Protestant Reformation to measure contemporary Catholic Christianity. Sola scriptura (the Bible as supreme authority), sola fide (salvation by grace alone through faith alone), and the priesthood of all believers (as a corrective to corruption of the priesthood)," along with the recognition that "God, instead of humanity," must be "recognized as the center of the spiritual universe," are the authors' stated criteria for their "assessment of the contemporary Catholic Church" (p. 15). A secondary but not incidental purpose of Noll and Nystrom's assessment of Roman Catholicism is to "enable evangelical Protestants to understand themselves more clearly" and thus "help them to grasp, internalize, and proclaim the essential principles of the Christian gospel that were at issue in the Reformation itself" (p. 15).

Chapter one traces the thawing of tensions between Protestants and Roman Catholics beginning about 1960. As the authors thoroughly document, "things are not the way they used to be." Chapter two rehearses "the way things used to be" prior to this thawing of tensions and clearly establishes that Protestants and Roman Catholics were at a total standoff at the mid-point of last century with regards to theology, politics, the papacy, and the like. Of course, this belligerency was the product of centuries of hostilities between the two groups, and Noll and Nystrom trace succinctly the historical development of this conflict beginning with the Reformation.

Chapter three proposes several answers to the question, "Why did things change?" For the authors, "The final answer to this question must be that God willed the changes to take place" (p. 59), but they follow this declaration with a few answers derived from empirical research. These are nicely broken down into several categories (with corresponding examples): (1) changes within the Catholic Church (the Second Vatican Council, a new ecumenical spirit, a growing importance of the laity, Pope John Paul II); (2) changes in world Christianity (the expansion of a non-European Christendom that lacks the historical intolerance between old world Catholics and Protestants, the burgeoning charismatic movement, the growth of evangelical youth movements with their non-ecclesiastical goals, the increasing prominence of women); (3) changes in American politics and society (Catholic Kennedy's election as president, "the ecumenism of the trenches"); (4) changes in the exercise of personal agency (official Vatican meetings with evangelicals, Billy Graham's evangelistic efforts, Evangelicals and Catholics Together); and (5) changes within evangelicalism (a growing dissatisfaction within the ranks of evangelicals, the "drift toward Rome").

Chapter four summarizes thirty-five years of official Catholic-initiated dialogues with eight Protestant groups, the natural outflow of the changes identified in the previous chapter. These eight partnerships were between Roman Catholics and Anglicans, Methodists, Pentecostals, Reformed, Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, (generic) Evangelicals, and Baptists. Noll and Nystrom note several areas of (limited) agreement that emerged from these dialogues: the place of the church in salvation, apostolic succession, the priesthood of all believers, salvation, the sacraments, and memories (of past conflict). Though achieving some agreement on these issues, the dialogues nevertheless highlighted important continuing differences between Catholics and Protestants, and our authors discuss these: Mary (Protestants continue to reject any role of co-redemptrix for Mary), authority (Protestant sola Scriptura versus Catholic Scripture, tradition, and magisterium), the structure of the church (Baptist congregationalism versus papal hierarchicalism), acceptable practices (Protestant acceptance of birth control and [in some cases] the ordination of women versus outright Catholic rejection of these practices), and baptism (Baptist believers baptism versus baptismal regeneration). Noll and Nystrom conclude this chapter: "Even granting a certain artificiality to what the dialogues accomplished--even, that is, recognizing that good will may have occasionally triumphed over hardheaded realism--the cumulative results of these dialogues record a momentous shaking of once-settled ground. On the basis of the ecumenical dialogues, can it be said that the Reformation is over? Probably not. But a once-yawning chasm has certainly narrowed" (p. 114).

With chapter five's treatment of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), our authors "offer a charitable but also self-consciously evangelical reading of what the Catechism reveals about modern Catholicism" (p. 14). Several surprising comments serve to tease Protestants as they open this chapter: "Evangelicals or confessional Protestants who pick up the Catechism will find themselves in for a treat. Sentences, paragraphs, whole pages sound as if they could come from evangelical pulpits, including passages on topics such as the nature of Scripture or the meaning of grace and faith...Finding information, they [Protestant readers of the Catechism] may also find themselves (as we have done) stopping to pray....We estimate that evangelicals can embrace at least two-thirds of the Catechism" (pp. 116, 119). As with the chapter on the history of Catholic-Protestant dialogues, this chapter is divided into areas of agreement (common orthodoxy, common devotion to God, and common understanding of holy living) and areas of disagreement (authority, Mary, baptism, salvation by works or grace, celibacy and saints, sacraments and worship).

In chapter six, Noll and Nystrom undertake a description of the unofficial and ad hoc movement known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together. They present excellent summaries of ECT 1: "The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium;" ECT 2: "The Gift of Salvation;" ECT 3: "Your Word is Truth" (with a particular look at four essays by Timothy George, Avery Cardinal Dulles, J. I. Packer, and Francis Martin); and ECT 4: "The Communion of Saints." In particular with reference to ECT 1, the authors underscore the firestorm of reaction to this cooperative initiative. They conclude: "The four existing ECT documents to date have examined critical areas and have found common ground on important issues such as co-belligerency, evangelism, justification by faith, and Scripture. The ECT process has helped both to clarify differences and to enhance mutual respect. Criticism from evangelical conservatives seems to have abated" (p. 183).

Chapter seven offers the authors' discussion of the various current reactions of evangelicals to Roman Catholicism. On the one hand, of course, some evangelicals continue unabatedly their historic open antagonism toward Catholicism; others, however, have moderated their criticism. On the other hand, some evangelicals have opted to cooperate with Roman Catholics on at least some fronts--"social-political co-belligerency, the affirmation of 'mere Christianity,' common enjoyment of historic roots, the sharing of mission and ministry, and agreement on spiritual formation" (p. 192)--while acknowledging continuing theological differences. Amazingly, some of these evangelicals "make the next big step. They go 'home to Rome.' Then, as so often with converts, some become zealous advocates of the church they once opposed" (p. 200). Included in our authors' list of these converts are Thomas Howard, Dennis Martin, Peter Kreeft, Scott and Kimberly Hahn, and John Michael Talbot. Relying on Scot McKnight's groundbreaking article "From Wheaton to Rome: Why Evangelicals Become Roman Catholic," JETS 45 (September 2002), Noll and Nystrom set forth several important reasons why people make the decision to leave their evangelical background for the Catholic Church: certainty (the Church offers the infallible interpretation of Scripture, leading to certainty); history (the Church provides Protestants with a sense of rootedness with the past); unity (the Church appeals to Protestants disenchanted by seemingly endless church factionalism and splitting); and authority (the Church trumps rampant Protestant individualism, democratization, and subjectivism).

In the final (eighth and ninth) chapters, Noll and Nystrom attempt "to sort out the current situation by analyzing the position of evangelicals and Catholics with respect to main themes in American history" (p. 209) and "to take the measure of modern Catholicism, evaluated from the perspective of evangelical history and theology" (p. 229). According to their historical assessment, our authors conclude that "civil politics have always loomed large in Catholic-evangelical encounter and that, while political realities exacerbated the tension between evangelicals and Catholics in the first century and a half of United States history, during the last half century, political realities have eased the way to a more propitious relationship" (p. 228). According to their evangelical history and theology assessment, Noll and Nystrom conclude "there now exists a broad and deep foundation on the central teachings of Christianity...."(E)vangelicals and Catholics affirm together the Trinity, the sinfulness of humanity, the saving love of God extended to sinners in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the redeeming power of the Holy Spirit to change men and women into servants of God, and wholesome integrity of God's law. Whatever differences may still exist...are infinitesimal when compared to differences between traditional Christianity...and modernist Christianity of all sorts. Differences...fade away as if to nothing when compared to secular affirmations about the nature of humanity and the world "(p. 230).

Still, our authors also underscore the major differences that continue to separate the two groups. These include the interpretation of Scripture, the nature of Christ's presence during the eucharistic celebration, justification by faith, and the other differences listed in earlier chapters (the papacy and magisterium, Mary, the sacraments, mandatory priestly celibacy, etc.). To be sure, "the central difference that continues to separate evangelicals and Catholics is...the nature of the church" (p. 237). While discussing various explanations for why these differences exist, Noll and Nystrom end up with an answer that seems to reflect the (later) linguistic philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein ("language games") and George Lindbeck's postliberal cultural-linguistic approach as articulated in The Nature of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology. This leads directly back to the title's question: Is the Reformation Over? According to the authors, their book places evangelicals in a proper and better "position to consider whether the Reformation is over" (p. 251). Not surprisingly, then, Noll and Nystrom answer their own question: "Yet asking whether the Reformation is over may not even be the most pertinent question. It may be more to the point to ask other questions: Is God truly going to draw people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation--and major Christian tradition--to worship together the Lamb who was slain? Can he really make of them--all these tongues and peoples and traditions--a single kingdom united in the body of his Son Jesus Christ? Should believers in an all-powerful, all-merciful God doubt that such signs and wonders might still take place?" (p. 251).

There is much to commend about Is The Reformation Over? First, this work is to be highly commended for its exhaustive research and excellent documentation; no book of this length covers as much historical ground and presents it in such a readable manner as does this work. The "Further Reading" section is an invaluable bibliography for all who want to study these issues more. Second, the authors' summaries of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the official Catholic-initiated dialogues with eight Protestant groups, and the four ECT statements serve as an excellent orientation for evangelicals who wish to do primary source reading in contemporary Roman Catholic theology and evangelical-Catholic dialogue. Third, the criteria set forth by the authors for their assessment of contemporary Catholicism--sola Scriptura, sola fide, the priesthood of all believers, and a theological (rather than anthropological) starting point--are some of the most important fundamentals of Protestantism/evangelicalism for evaluating Catholicism. Fourth, generally speaking, many evangelicals will agree with Noll and Nystrom's lists of agreements and disagreements between evangelical and Catholic theology and practice. Fifth, the book's emphasis on several recurring themes in contemporary Catholicism that (rightly) cause concern for evangelicals--the triadic shape of authority (Scripture, tradition, the magisterium), baptismal regeneration, Mary as co-mediatrix--is right on target. These and other positive elements highly commend this book.

At the same time, I wish greater attention had been paid to and different conclusions drawn on several critical issues. First, I generally concur with the authors' conviction that "the central difference that continues to separate evangelicals and Catholics is...the nature of the church" (p. 237). It would seem, however, that such an evaluation should lead to a more extensive and sophisticated critique of Catholic ecclesiology. Noll and Nystrom descriptively treat this subject in their discussions of the Catechism and ECT 4: "The Communion of Saints." But in their evaluative section, the authors devote as much attention to the ecclesiastical differences that divide Protestants from one another as they do to the ecclesiastical differences that divide Protestants from Catholics. Furthermore, the authors admittedly oversimplify the differences between Catholic and Protestant understandings of baptism and the Eucharist as they move to a more fundamental point of divergence: the nature of the divine action in and through the sacraments and their ministers. For Noll and Nystrom, the essential difference here seems to be that, "For Catholics, the church and its officers are essential as the institutional prerequisites for the sacraments in a way that they are not for evangelicals" (p. 236). But certainly a robust discussion of the Catholic idea of the sacramental economy--Jesus Christ, who as Redeemer accomplished salvation through his Pascal mystery that occurred in history and that gave birth to the Sacrament of the Church, continues as High Priest to accomplish salvation through the Church with particular reference to the apostles and their successors, the bishops, who teach, govern and sanctify the Church through the gospel and the seven sacraments--would help both evangelicals and Catholics understand the immense chasm that ecclesiologically separates the two. No Protestant denomination or evangelical church has an ecclesiology that even remotely resembles this Catholic idea of the sacramental economy; indeed, any commonalities are only superficial. Unfortunately, far too many evangelicals see these superficial resemblances and, as outsiders to Catholicism, draw the wrong conclusion. Noll and Nystrom perpetuate this habit.

Second, though the authors rightly draw attention to the fundamental difference between Protestantism's sola Scriptura and Catholicism's Scripture, tradition, and magisterium, I'm concerned that they don't emphasize adequately the tragic results of this triadic structure of authority in the Catholic Church. I offer two examples: Redemptoris Mater (Pope John Paul II; March 28, 1978) sketches a biblical theology of Mary but at points pays little attention to the text of Scripture itself; this results in affirmations about Mary that are clearly contradicted by the Bible. For example, in Luke 1:26-38, Mary's response to Gabriel's announcement--"Let it be done to me" (genoito moi)--is optative, not imperative as the papal exposition takes it; thus, Mary is not expressing her fiat (i.e., her authoritative decree to Gabriel/God) but she expresses her wish to submit to God's will that has been communicated to her by Gabriel's final words, "nothing will be impossible with God." This text is not about Mary; it is about the power of God to effect the incarnation of his Son. And nothing that Mary does--not her faith, her obedience, her courage, or anything else--is "decisive on the human level" in contributing to this miracle. A second example: At the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11), Jesus' courteous reproach of his mother ("O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come"), followed by Mary's order to the servants ("Do whatever he tells you"), can in no way be taken as Mary acting as intercessor and mediatrix between human needs and the power of her Son. If the triadic structure of authority leads the Church this far a field from responsible biblical interpretation and theology in the case of Mary, should we not suspect it does so in (many?) other areas? Every other doctrine and practice of the Catholic Church--justification, sanctification, perseverance, baptism, transubstantiation, original sin, imago Dei, apostolic succession, the priesthood of all believers, church government, clerical celibacy, etc.--deserves such close scrutiny. Noll and Nystrom need to underscore this with fervor and urgency.

Third, the authors' discussion of the "expanding area of agreement" between Protestants and Catholics on justification (e.g., the Lutheran-Catholic "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification") is quite disappointing. To conclude regarding justification by faith that "many Catholics and evangelicals now believe approximately the same thing," and "on the substance of what is actually taught about God's saving work in the world, if not always on the exact terminology used to describe that saving work, many evangelicals and Catholics believe something close to the same thing" (p. 232), goes far beyond the minimal evidence for such agreement set forth in the book. And the failure to note the dissention within Lutheran ranks (e.g., the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) over the Lutheran World Federation's endorsement of the "Joint Declaration" is an inexcusable lapse.

A final point of dissent with Is The Reformation Over? concerns the authors' method of assessment of contemporary Roman Catholicism. At times, the authors do a reversal and offer an assessment of contemporary evangelicalism posing as a thinly veiled assessment of contemporary Catholicism. Though a secondary purpose of the book is to help evangelicals understand themselves more clearly, a critique of the current state of evangelicalism cannot substitute for an assessment of contemporary Catholicism and a direct answer to the question posed by the title of the book. Thus, I am deeply disappointed with the conclusion to chapter five: "And so once again, after reading the Catechism, it is pertinent to ask, Is the Reformation over? The Catechism proclaims a deeply Christian faith, and it does so with grace....Is the Reformation over? Maybe a better question we evangelicals should ask ourselves is, Why do we not possess such a thorough, clear, and God-centered account of our faith as the Catechism offers to Roman Catholics?" (p. 150). This assessment of the Catechism is far too positive (and superficial, and naïve), and this is not an answer to the title's question. In the last chapter, Noll and Nystrom again sidestep the question with, "Yet asking whether the Reformation is over may not even be the most pertinent question." Such a postmodern dodging of the title's question, which may make sense with the authors' postliberal, cultural-linguistic approach to their own inquiry, leaves us ultimately dissatisfied after two hundred and fifty pages of text.

I am both fascinated with and suspicious of the Roman Catholic Church and the current evangelical-Catholic dialogue; similarly, I am both fascinated with and suspicious of this book. On both accounts, Is The Reformation Over? is must reading for scholars, seminarians, pastors, and educated lay people who pose that question in light of the contemporary thawing of tensions between Protestants and Roman Catholics.

Editor's Note: This review originally appeared in JETS (Vol 48, No. 4, December 2005) and is used here by permission.

Mark A. Noll & Carolyn Nystrom - Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005
Review by Gregg R. Allison