Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The 16th century Reformation claim was that the doctrine of justification is the article by which the Church stands or falls. The Joint Declaration between the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican, plus the statement by Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), “The Gift of Salvation,” claim that church-dividing differences on justification have been resolved.

If so, the title of the book by evangelicals Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over? , naturally follows. Noll and Nystrom say, and Geoffrey Wainwright in his F IRST T HINGS review of the book (see ” An Indifferent Reconciliation ,” October) agrees, that the great difference now is over ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church.

Collin Hansen, associate editor of Christianity Today , reflects on the discussion of the question posed by the Noll and Nystrom book title and concludes with this:

The uproar a decade ago over ECT was significant, but not new. “We should confront each other not as representatives of the same faith, but as representatives of quite different faiths,” Methodist minister C. Stanley Lowell wrote in CT in 1960. “Protestants should confront Roman Catholics in dialogue much as they would confront Jews.”

That’s why Noll and Nystrom argue that the visible theological and political cooperation of leading evangelicals and Catholics shows that times have changed. “The growing recognition of how deep and firm such common doctrinal affirmations are represents a great historical reversal,” Noll and Nystrom write. They cite shared doctrines including the Trinity, original sin, and the Holy Spirit’s power to transform. “Although agreement on foundational Christian teachings has always been present . . . only in recent decades have the depth and significance of these doctrinal affirmations been visible. This alteration of perspective should indicate to anyone of a historical cast of mind that we still live in the age of miracles.”

So is the Reformation over? Eyeing the serious differences that remain, Noll and Nystrom are not prepared to go that far. But they do explain why the question is now on the table.

I believe it is correct to say that the great question now is ecclesiology, and that question has many parts. But it should not be overlooked that, as a consequence, there is a qualitative change in the relationship between Catholics and evangelicals. When the decisive difference was justification, it was a difference over the ultimate question of salvation.

From the Catholic perspective, ecclesiology also entails that degree of ultimacy. The Second Vatican Council teaches that, if one believes that the Catholic Church is what she says she is, then one cannot be saved except by entering into and remaining in full communion with the Catholic Church.

There is in that teaching a very big “if.” The non-Catholic Christian who thinks of the church (usually lower case) as a voluntary association of believers—whether local or connected with other such voluntary associations—can, in the Catholic understanding, certainly be saved. Saving and sanctifying grace is certainly present in such associations or “ecclesial communions.” They are not unrelated to the Church, the Body of Christ apostolically ordered through time, but neither are they that Church.

Because of its more comprehensive understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ fully and rightly ordered through time, the Catholic Church cannot let go of the ecumenical quest for full visible communion with other Christians. The Catholic Church recognizes that she is wounded by our present divisions in a way that other communities do not understand themselves to be wounded by division. It is because of her very self-understanding that the Catholic Church knows, as John Paul II and Benedict XVI have regularly repeated, that the ecumenical commitment is “irrevocable.”

The old ecumenical movement dating from Edinburgh in 1910 was guided by the motto that the 20th century was to be “The Century of the Church.” An essentially Protestant ecclesiology, however, could not follow through on that motto, and that ecumenical movement ended up in its present state of disillusionment and disarray. It is one of the striking ironies of history that—as Noll, Nystrom, Wainwright, and many others now recognize—the success of new ecumenical initiatives, such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, depend in large part on whether the 21st century can be the century of the Church.

At its annual meeting in Houston, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the main agency of Reform Judaism, passed a resolution strongly condemning U.S. policy in Iraq. Marc Gellman, a Reform rabbi on Long Island and the Jewish half of ABC’s “God Squad,” writes in Newsweek :

The Jews of Europe are now the Kurds of Iraq, and the Shiites, and the Marsh Arabs. The point of war is not only to defend one’s own country from attack but also to free from the jaws of death millions of innocent human beings who lack the military means to secure their own freedom. This may not be a universally supported political or military view of war, but it is a religious view of war, and it is my view of this and other wars.

I do not know a single Kurd or a single Marsh Arab or a single Iraqi Shiite, but I do know that they have been slaughtered by the thousands, and because of this war they are now free. The Iraqi killing machine has been destroyed. I also know, and every person of even moderate intelligence also knows, that if our troops withdraw now, before victory has been fully achieved they will be slaughtered again. When I say never again in memory of the Holocaust, I don’t mean “never again Jews,” I mean “never again anyone.”

It matters not one wit to me that they are not Jewish nor even that they may not be grateful to America. All that matters to me is that they are made in God’s image and their lives are no longer held tight in the bloody maw of a genocidal dictator. The Jews of Europe and the Kurds of Iraq may both have been outside the strictly delimited aims of the war in Europe or the war in Iraq, but their cries must reach some listening ears and sensitive souls. It is deeply disappointing to me to know that people in my movement of Judaism with whom I share a belief that my daughter deserves the same spiritual horizons as my son cannot feel the need for freedom of those victims of genocide whose cries reach God even if they often do not reach the front pages of the morning papers.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles