Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism
(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 272pp.
Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom
One of the highlights of having taught in the department of Bible, Theology, Archaeology and World Religions at Wheaton College was the annual Theology Conference, typically held in April. The conference was established by the late Timothy Phillips and Dennis Ockholm (now of Azusa Pacific College) and was co-sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
I mention this because I will never forget the 2002 conference (April 11-13), the theme of which was “Catholics and Evangelicals in Conversation”. J. I. Packer was excellent, as was Richard John Neuhaus. But nothing could quite match the electricity caused by my former colleague Mark Noll who concluded his presentation with the statement: “The Reformation is over!” The buzz throughout the auditorium was palpable and the discussion that followed all over campus was heated.
So, needless to say, I know the answer to the question posed by the title to this new book. At least, I know what Mark Noll would say because he’s already said it.
The major goals of this book are clearly stated in the Introduction. First “it 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. It deals primarily with conditions in the United States but not to the exclusion of evidence from Canada, Latin America, Europe, and elsewhere in the world” (13). The authors “do not propose a final, universal, or dogmatic assessment of Roman Catholicism” (13). The second goal is “to provide evangelical interpretations, grounded in both classical Christian theology and the broad history of Christianity, of what we see in the contemporary Catholic Church” (14).
Let me begin with a brief summary of the contents of each chapter and then follow up with a few observations as to its strengths and weaknesses.
Chapter One, titled “Things Are Not the Way They Used to Be,” is a survey of developments in Catholic / Protestant relations in the past fifty or so years. The authors chronicle Billy Graham’s journey from hostility toward Catholicism to his welcoming of Catholic leaders on crusade platforms. The chapter presents countless examples of individuals, publishing houses, and other evangelical organizations that have moved from suspicion to sincere embrace of those they now regard as their Catholic “brothers and sisters” in the body of Christ. A few instances of Catholic affirmation of evangelicals are also cited. Their point is simply that the antagonism between Roman Catholicism and Protestant evangelicals, once “an apparently permanent fixture” (35), has largely disappeared. “Since 1960 a new age has dawned” (35).
In Chapter Two (“Historic Standoff”), Noll and Nystrom chronicle the relationship (or lack thereof) between the two groups from the time of the Reformation to the post-WWII-era. To illustrate the tensions they cite a wide array of folk, including John Foxe and his Book of Martyrs, George Whitefield, the Wesley brothers, fundamentalist leader Carl McIntyre, Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan, Reformed author Loraine Boettner, the editorial comments of Moody Monthly, and pastor Donald Grey Barnhouse, just to mention a few.
So, “Why Did Things Change?” asks the title of Chapter Three. The final answer to this question, they suggest, “must be that God willed the changes to take place” (59). That, of course, is precisely the point of dispute. Many will contend that the changes reflect a weakening of evangelical conviction that borders on moral compromise, something of which God would thoroughly disapprove. Others, Noll and Nystrom, to be sure, see these developments as the work of divine providence in healing a breach that is offensive to the sort of spiritual unity God desires of all his people.
They first cite changes within the Catholic Church itself, something that assuredly will catch a number of evangelicals by surprise. After all, one of the long-standing myths embraced by Protestants is that Catholicism, given its position on the authority of tradition and papal infallibility, cannot change. They focus extensively on the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the declarations of which led such a staunch Reformed evangelical as David Wells in 1972 to conclude that the vast majority of Protestant analysis of Catholic doctrine is “obsolete” (60). The council placed an obligation on Protestants, said Wells, “to revise their thinking about Rome” (60).
The authors also point to changes in world Christianity, such as “the shift to the south in the center of gravity for world Christianity” which they believe has “relativized the antagonism inherited from European church history” (63; see Philip Jenkins book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity for documentation of this trend). Another significant factor is the charismatic movement which “blurred lines of distinction between Protestants and Catholics as they sang common worship songs, spoke in tongues, developed a ‘personal relationship with Jesus,’ and praised God together “(65). The “new music, affective worship, and expressive spirituality” (65) of charismatic renewal often trumped the age-old theological barriers between the two groups. Evangelical youth movements such as YWAM and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship also promoted positive interactions between Catholics and evangelicals.
The changes in American politics and society have contributed to the emergence of what Timothy George called an “ecumenism of the trenches” (68). Increasingly evangelicals have found themselves on the same side of the road as Catholics on numerous moral issues such as abortion, traditional family values, repudiation of pornography, etc. The long-standing evangelical fear of Catholicism as a civil threat has largely disappeared. Of the many changes within evangelicalism one may cite a growing appreciation for the Catholic emphasis on ecclesiology, tradition, intellectual life, the role of the sacraments, and aesthetics, especially in worship, again just to mention a few.
Chapter Four focuses on the many “Ecumenical Dialogues” that have transpired since Vatican II. The authors provide a survey of the discussions between Catholics and, among others, Anglicans, Methodists, Pentecostals, the Disciples of Christ, Reformed, Lutheran, and Baptists. The primary discovery was that the doctrine of the church, or ecclesiology, remains central in all such dialogues.
They briefly discuss the many theological issues on which broad agreement may be possible as well as those topics that are still an obstacle to any hope for reconciliation. The latter include such controversial themes as the place of Mary and the honor accorded her, the issue of authority (especially as it obtains in the relationship between church and Scripture), the structure of the church, and the salvific efficacy of the sacraments. On the basis of such ecumenical dialogues, can it be said that the Reformation is over? “Probably not,” they conclude. “But a once-yawning chasm has certainly narrowed” (114).
The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (1994) is the subject of Chapter Five. Here Noll and Nystrom provide a superb summary of the Catechism and its fundamental teachings. This document, they argue, “is the official teaching of the Catholic Church, and it speaks for everyone within the church. . . . If something is not in the Catechism, it is not Catholic teaching. If something is in the Catechism, it is official Catholic doctrine” (116). Evangelical Protestants who read the Catechism “will be surprised by how much of it they can affirm” (119). I certainly found this to be true when I had my students at Wheaton read it for the course “Roman Catholic Theology”. Most of them were shocked at how evangelical much of the Catechism sounded. The Catechism
“upholds God as Trinity, Jesus as wholly human and wholly divine, born of a virgin, crucified for our salvation. It speaks of justification by grace through faith – and entirely as a gift from God. It speaks of Christ’s physical resurrection from the dead and the new life (both temporal and eternal) this resurrection brings to his people. It promises Christ’s return, anticipates a final judgment, and calls on the people of God to spread the good news of the Christian faith, as did those who first heard it” (121-22).
Noll and Nystrom aren’t in denial of the many remaining problems such as the use of the rosary, relics, prayers to and from the saints, devotion to the Eucharist, the immaculate conception, perpetual virginity, and bodily assumption of Mary, the necessity of baptism for salvation, papal authority, transubstantiation, and affirmation of indulgences (minus the medieval abuses, of course). But none of this prevents them from concluding that the “The Catechism proclaims a deeply Christian faith, and it does so with grace” (150). For many evangelicals it is precisely the former issues, together with a few more, that prohibits concluding that the Catechism, and Roman Catholicism in general, is a legitimate expression of true Christian faith.
“Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” the project of Catholic Richard John Neuhaus and Protestant Charles Colson, is the subject of Chapter Six. The authors provide an extensive discussion of the creation, rationale, and response to ECT I (“The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium”), ECT II (“The Gift of Salvation”), ECT III (“Your Word is Truth”), and ECT IV (“The Communion of Saints”).
Perhaps the key issue addressed by this organization(?), conversation(?), movement(?), is that of justification and the nature of Christian salvation. As Noll and Nystrom point out, “if evangelicals or Catholics view the other as not redeemed, then the biblical Great Commission mandates evangelism. But are active, wholehearted practitioners of the other faith tradition actually lost or simply viewing salvation from a different angle?” (179). The following paragraph is an apt summary of the state of the debate:
“Reformed or Calvinistic evangelicals, as well as a few Lutherans, who want to see an explicit statement of forensic justification (or salvation defined strictly as God’s act of imputing Christ’s righteousness to the repentant sinner) will remain disappointed. By contrast, Arminians and other evangelicals who do not stress imputation as strongly find little difficulty with the theology of salvation expressed in the ECT documents. This reality points to a basic though subtle difference between Reformed and Catholic teachings on salvation. Catholics emphasize justification as a heart change that gradually shapes a believer into the image of Christ. Reformed Protestants see justification as an external legal (forensic) declaration of God that pardons a sinner and then leads to growth in holiness” (179).
The authors go on to suggest that “debate on the exact definition of justification may not be as important as it seems” (180). They cite J. I. Packer’s comment that “What brings salvation, after all, is not any theory about faith in Christ, justification, and the church, but faith itself in Christ himself” (180). For those who insist, following Luther, that justification remains the article by which the church either stands or falls, this will probably not suffice.
In Chapter Seven the authors describe “Reactions from Antagonism to Conversion.” Among the more antagonistic cited are the inflammatory cartoon booklets of “Jack Chick”, the spirited writings of R. C. Sproul, “The Cambridge Declaration” (1996) of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and John MacArthur. But they also cite many evangelicals who, “though aware of continuing theological differences, are ready, as a response to Christ’s prayer for unity among his people, to partner with Catholics on many fronts. These fronts include social-political cobelligerency, the affirmation of ‘mere Christianity,’ a common enjoyment of historical roots, the sharing of mission and ministry, and agreement on spiritual formation” (192).
People and organizations who are on board with the latter include Keith Fournier, Pat Robertson, J. I. Packer, Richard Foster, John Armstrong of Reformation and Revival Journal, John Green (a Catholic and a Wheaton graduate who operates Emmaus Ministries, which cares for sexually exploited men in the inner city of Chicago), Logos Ministry (in southern California and Arizona), Campus Crusade for Christ, Young Life, YWAM, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
Among the Protestant evangelicals who have converted to Catholicism, the authors single out Thomas Howard (formerly professor of English at Gordon College and brother to Elizabeth Elliot), Dennis Martin (formerly a Mennonite, now professor at Loyola University), Peter Kreeft (formerly a Dutch Reformed Calvinist, now professor of philosophy at Boston College), musician John Michael Talbot, and Scott and Kimberly Hahn (Scott now teaches theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, and on occasion spoke at Wheaton as an invited guest).
The authors do make an important confession. “This chapter,” they note, “treated only evangelical to Catholic conversions. Were it a different book, it would be important to hear from the many who convert from Catholicism to various branches of Protestantism” (207). I suspect that many who are reading this review have been waiting for precisely this discussion. Needless to say, they will be quite bothered by its omission. Many will contend that the Catholicism out of which they converted (or, as many would say, out of which they were “saved”) bears little resemblance to the “evangelical and orthodox” version describe by Noll and Nystrom.
Chapter Eight, “An American Assessment,” is the least helpful chapter of an otherwise good book. In it they seek “to sort out the current situation by analyzing the position of evangelicals and Catholics with respect to main themes in American history” (209). I suspect that many who read the book will be able to skip this chapter without great loss (although it is here that the authors briefly address the fallout from the sex-abuse scandal of the last decade).
The final chapter (9) asks the question again, “Is the Reformation Over?” They begin by pointing out that “there now exists a broad and deep foundation of agreement on the central teachings of Christianity” (230), listing several that were discussed in the chapter on the Catechism. When I read this, I wrote in the margin, “But these agreements existed in the 16th century too!” In the next paragraph, the authors acknowledge this point, but contend that “only in recent decades have the depth and significance of these common doctrinal affirmations been visible” (231).
They contend that Catholics and evangelicals “trust equally in the full inspiration and final authority of the Bible” (231). I find this hard to swallow, given the Catholic affirmation at the Second Vatican Council that “both sacred tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence” (Dei Verbum). In what meaningful sense can Scripture have “final authority” if “sacred tradition” is to be accepted and venerated with equal loyalty and reverence?
They also acknowledge that significant differences remain on how to interpret the Bible (given the Catholic emphasis on the voice of tradition and the formal teaching Magisterium of the papacy). It would appear that Noll and Nystrom do not believe that the differences over the nature of justification present an insurmountable barrier to reconciliation between the two. They believe the most serious obstacles revolve around the nature and authority of the church itself, especially as seen in the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility and the Magisterium. Certainly, the evangelical fear that Catholic devotion to Mary occasionally borders on idolatry is cause for concern.
In the end, they suggest that “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?” (251).
Let me close with a few observations. First, I was disappointed that Noll and Nystrom did not address the primary obstacle the Roman Catholic Eucharist poses. Contrary to what they say, it is not the question of transubstantiation or the “real presence” of Christ in the elements of the table (which isn’t to say that isn’t an important issue!). It is the issue of Catholic belief in the “propitiatory” efficacy of the Mass as a “sacrifice” of Christ.
The Council of Trent (16th century) issued the following declarations concerning the sacrifice of the Mass:
"And since in this divine sacrifice, which is performed in the Mass, the same Christ is contained, and is bloodlessly immolated, who once offered Himself bloodily upon the Cross; and the holy council teaches that this sacrifice is propitiatory [emphasis mine], and that by its means, if we approach God contrite and penitent, with a true heart, and a right faith, and with fear and reverence, we may obtain mercy, and grow in seasonable succour. For the Lord, appeased by the oblation of this sacrifice [emphasis mine], granting grace and the gift of repentance, remits even great crimes and sins. There is one and the same victim, and the same person, who now offers by the ministry of the priests, who then offered Himself upon the Cross; the mode of offering only being different. And the fruits of that bloody offering are truly most abundantly received through this offering, so far is it from derogating in any way from the former. Wherefore, it is properly offered according to the tradition of the Apostles, not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other wants of the living, but also for the dead in Christ, who are not yet fully purged" (Session 22, chp. 2).
"If any one shall say that the sacrifice of the Mass is only a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, or a bare commemoration of the sacrifice made upon the Cross, and that it is not propitiatory, or that it profits only the receiver, and that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for their sins, pains, satisfactions, and other wants -- let him be accursed" (Session 22, Canon 3).
This obviously raises the question of whether Rome teaches that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is “repeated” in the Eucharist. Much depends on the meaning of the word “repeated”. Here is what the Catechism says:
“At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again . . .” (1322; emphasis mine).
“The Holy Sacrifice, because it makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior and includes the Church’s offering” (1330; emphasis mine).
“When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ’s Passover, and it is made present: the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present. ‘As often as the sacrifice of the Cross by which Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out” (1364; emphasis mine).
“The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit” (1366; emphasis in original).
“The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice” (1367).
Does the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist undermine or question the sufficiency or finality of the redemptive work of Christ on the cross?” Peter Kreeft insists that it does not. He writes:
“Christ offered himself once for all on the Cross. He said, ‘It is finished’ (Jn. 19:30). The Eucharist does not repeat this sacrifice, but re-presents it to the Father. The sacrifice that was accomplished on Calvary is offered again in each Mass. It can be offered now only because ‘it is finished’, perfected, ‘a perfect offering” (Catholic Christianity, 326-27).
So, too, writes Alan Schreck, in his book Catholic and Christian:
“The Catholic church has never [!] taught that in the Mass Jesus is ‘re-sacrificed’ or offered up to suffer again. The Catholic Mass is called a sacrifice because it ‘re-presents,’ ‘re-enacts,’ or presents once again before us, the one sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. Jesus Christ was sacrificed once, but God, in his mercy, makes present to us once again the one sacrifice of Christ through the Mass so that we human beings can enter more deeply into the reality and significance of that sacrifice. . . . What Jesus did in the past – his death on the cross – is present to God. God can make this sacrifice present to us when Christians gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist in his memory. Therefore, Catholic Christians believe that Jesus is not ‘re-sacrificed’ in the Mass, but that his one sacrifice on Calvary is made real and present to us by God, so that we can enter into this central mystery of our faith in a new way” (133-34).
Are Kreeft and Schreck providing us with an accurate interpretation of Trent and the Catechism?
And what of the role of Indulgences and the Communion of Saints? Note again the Catechism on such matters:
“An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints. An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead” (1471).
“In the communion of saints, ‘a personal link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.’ In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others” (1475).
“We also call these spiritual goods of the communion of saints the Church’s treasury . . . [which] is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. . . . This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God. In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission the Father entrusted to them. In this way they attained their own salvation and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body” (1476-77).
Thus, one obtains an indulgence when the Church opens for a believer
“the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins. . . . Since the faithful departed now being purified are also members of the same communion of saints, one way we can help them is to obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted” (1478-79).
Do such doctrines undermine the finality and sufficiency of Christ’s saving death and resurrection? Obviously, such questions beg loudly for clear and definitive answers.
And what of the doctrine of Purgatory? The Catechism defines it as follows:
“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (1030-31).
According to Peter Kreeft, purgatory “refines and purifies those who at the moment of death are neither good enough for an immediate heaven nor bad enough for hell. . . . Purgatory is like heaven’s porch, or heaven’s incubator, or heaven’s wash room” (149).
Thus purgatory is the means or mechanism by which Catholics believe God applies the merits and atoning sufficiency of Christ’s death to believers. My question is this: “How is it that the sufficiency of Christ’s suffering for sin is applied by requiring Christians themselves to suffer for sins? Was not the former designed to eliminate the latter?”
Until these matters are addressed with more honesty and depth, I’m not prepared to say Yes in an unqualified way to the question posed by this book’s title. But I suppose you will have to read it for yourself and answer it according to your convictions. And I do strongly recommend that you read it. It is extremely well-written and well-researched and will contribute much to the on-going dialogue between Catholic and Protestant.