Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism
by Mark A. Noll
Baker Academic. 272 pp. $24.99
The character of this friendly book by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom is best captured by its subtitle: “An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism.” The book offers—from an evangelical perspective—an historical account of the shift that has occurred over the last fifty years toward a more mutually sympathetic attitude between some Protestant evangelicals and some Roman Catholics. The book's geographical center of gravity lies in North America, and particularly in the United States.
For this reader at least, the literary and rhetorical difficulty for such a book consists in locating within a single frame of discourse the respective partners in the changing relationship, and this difficulty itself points to the theological and ecclesiological problem that the authors rightly sense underlies their title question: “Is the Reformation Over?” On the one hand, the Roman Catholic partners in the recent rapprochement always know that they belong to an ecclesial body that understands itself to be one, and in which the sole Church of Jesus Christ “subsists.” On the other hand, self-identified evangelicals are linked among themselves by a set of elective affinities, while belonging to a potpourri of Protestant denominations that display only a limited and variable concern about their own existence in institutional separation from one another, let alone from the Roman Catholic Church.
The recent shift in attitudes between some evangelicals and some Catholics naturally involves a reexamination of the doctrinal topics on which basic and continuing agreement between classical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism has sometimes been obscured—as well as a reexamination of those topics that were divisive in the sixteenth century and have remained controversial ever since. The shift also reflects some broader social and political developments. Finally, one cannot explain the change in attitudes without referring to the sometimes unacknowledged achievements of the ecumenical movement that began with the twentieth century and to which many self-styled evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church itself were latecomers. Noll and Nystrom weave their substantive doctrinal discussion together with some of these contextual factors.
They begin impressionistically with some symptoms of popular change: the growing acceptability among Catholics of the iconic Baptist evangelist Billy Graham, the adoption by Catholics of the Alpha courses initiated at Holy Trinity Brompton, the inclusion of hymns by Protestant authors in Catholic hymnals, the welcome afforded by many evangelicals to the witness and writings of Pope John Paul II, a favorable review by the star evangelical intellectual J.I. Packer of a book titled The Born-Again Catholic (1983), and so on.
Mutual polemics between Catholics and Protestants in general go back to the sixteenth century. Dating at least from the declaration of the Evangelical Alliance at New York in 1873 that “the most formidable foe of living Christianity among us is . . . the nominally Christian Church of Rome,” the particular “historic standoff” between evangelicals and Catholics lasted, as our authors show, in virtually unmitigated form until the late 1950s. The “rapid about-face” began in the early 1960s under the impulse of the Second Vatican Council and “its willingness to address non-Catholic Christians as ‘brothers,' to acknowledge that blame lay on both sides for the ecclesiastical ruptures of the Reformation, to stress the unique role of Christ as mediator between God and humanity, and to urge ordinary lay Catholics to live lives of practical Christian holiness.” Especially important in the United States was the accommodation between the religious claims of the Catholic Church and the American passion for civil liberties, an accommodation symbolized by the election of the Catholic John F. Kennedy as President in 1960 and by the Vatican II declaration on religious liberty, which owed much to the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray.
Noll and Nystrom next survey the international bilateral dialogues on matters of doctrine that followed in the wake of Vatican II between the Roman Catholic Church, on the one hand, and the various “world confessional families” or “Christian world communions,” on the other. They note the theological agreements registered by the diverse bilateral commissions and the remaining differences and problems acknowledged by them. Curiously, Noll and Nystrom do not stop to ask why the Catholic Church launched precisely this pattern of multiple bilateral dialogues, nor why the various Protestant bodies so readily entered into these dialogues. Significantly—and this may point to an ecclesiological blind spot on their part—Noll and Nystrom fail to remark that the reports of such dialogues have not so far been adopted into the official teaching of either the Catholic Church or of the participating Protestant denominations. The exception is the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed by the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation on October 31, 1999. The authors recognize the substantive importance of this text but not the ecclesiological significance of its official adoption.
Even more strangely, Noll and Nystrom ignore the doctrinal work done in multilateral dialogue through the World Council of Churches, and particularly its Commission on Faith and Order. The classic Protestant bodies were the chief initiators of such multilateral ecumenism from its modern beginnings, and since
1968 twelve of the Commission's official members have been Roman Catholic. Several of these theologians contributed significantly to the 1982 Lima text on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, to which the official response of the Catholic Church was very positive. Ignoring the convergences registered and acknowledged in the Lima text, Noll and Nystrom seem to assume that historic differences in sacramentology between Catholics and Protestants—and indeed among the latter (including evangelicals)—remain basically unchanged. Their lack of attention to Commission on Faith and Order proves a liability when the authors come to their more systematic discussion of such questions as Scripture and Tradition, and (crucially) the doctrine of the Church.
After their survey of the bilateral dialogues, Noll and Nystrom examine the universal Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992; English 1994). “Evangelical or confessional Protestants who pick up the Catechism will,” they say, “find themselves in for a treat.” The “depth of scholarship, worn quite lightly” is appreciated, as well as the “strikingly pastoral tone.” The Catechism's substance is approved at many points, and “in the areas where Protestants and Catholics are likely to disagree (for example, the sacraments, pope, Mary, purgatory), it expresses official Catholic teaching clearly,” so that Protestant readers may at least “come away with a better understanding of why Catholics think as they do on such subjects.”
Next up is the informal American phenomenon of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which was sparked in the 1990s by the perceived need for a common witness on current social issues (“cobelligerence”). Later, the group also considered more fundamental theological matters, such as the doctrine of salvation and the ecclesiological questions implied in different understandings of the relation between Scripture and Tradition and of “the communion of saints.”
The following chapter describes some individual reactions to apparent Catholic-evangelical rapprochement, which range from antagonism through criticism and partnership to conversion in one direction or the other. The authors disarmingly look for lessons that can be drawn by evangelicals from the reasons given by former evangelicals who have gone “home to Rome”: a richer worship, a greater depth in history, a religious certainty, an identifiably united Church, a firm teaching authority. In turn, evangelicals have some justified criticisms to address to historic and contemporary Catholicism. Mutual admonition is the order of the day.
In the last two chapters, the authors make their concluding assessment: first in social and political terms by analyzing the positions of evangelicals and Catholics with regard to main themes in American history; second in more biblical and theological terms as they seek to answer the question they set themselves in their title. They take pride in the contribution of Protestantism to liberal democracy.
No mention is made of the heresy of “Americanism” that was condemned as a form of modernism by Pope Leo XIII at the very end of the nineteenth century. Noll and Nystrom seem less perturbed than they might be by the ways in which the individualism endemic to Protestantism may have contributed to the contemporary “dictatorship of relativism” castigated by Joseph Ratzinger on the eve of his election as Pope Benedict XVI.
Biblically and theologically, the authors welcome some convergence between the parties on the doctrine of salvation but rightly recognize the doctrine of the Church as “the crux of Catholic-evangelical disagreement.” Although they cite the Baptist theologian Timothy George in a way that shows his awareness of the ground-breaking work of the World Conference on Faith and Order at Montreal in 1963 on “Scripture, Tradition, and traditions,” Noll and Nystrom make no systematic use of his insights; they also neglect to note the phraseology of Pope John Paul II when he called for further study on “the relationship between Sacred Scripture as the highest authority in matters of faith and Sacred Tradition as indispensable to the interpretation of the Word of God” (Ut Unum Sint, 79)—a formulation that I think may hold the best promise of resolving the question since the sixteenth century. Nor do the authors pick up on the same pope's astonishing invitation of the leaders of other churches and their theologians to a “patient and fraternal dialogue” to help find ways in which the pastoral and doctrinal ministry of Peter might be differently exercised in the service of universal Christian unity—a move that opened the prospect of a “reformed papacy” such as Luther, at least, was willing to contemplate.
Disappointingly, our authors seem to acquiesce in the false opposition often drawn between the Lausanne Covenant of Evangelicals in 1974 and the Catholic Catechism of 1992: “For Catholics, the Church constitutes believers; for evangelicals, believers constitute the Church. For Catholics, individual believers are a function of the Church; for evangelicals, the Church is a function of individual believers.” Most serious of all, our authors share the regular inability of evangelicals to grapple with the necessary tangibility of ecclesial unity. This tangibility was given its classic description by the Commission on Faith and Order, approved by the New Delhi Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1961, and recently taken up again in the Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, In One Body through the Cross (2003). The unity that is both God's gift and our task
is being made visible as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Savior are brought by the Holy Spirit into one fully committed fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith, preaching the one Gospel, breaking the one bread, joining in common prayer, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all and who at the same time are united with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages in such wise that ministry and members are accepted by all, and that all can act and speak together as occasion requires for the tasks to which God calls his people.
The vision of Noll and Nystrom does not rise above “cooperation” between Catholics and evangelicals; it is innocent of the category of “degrees of communion” introduced by the Vatican II decree on ecumenism that opened the way to a dynamic growth towards the full “reintegration of unity” in the one Body.
Instead, they seem to acquiesce in the continuance, at least on this side of the city of God, of evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism as two “linguistic systems,” which are at once partially compatible and incommensurable.
Geoffrey Wainwright holds the Cushman chair of Christian Theology at Duke University.