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

Numerous times over the last few years I have heard both Roman Catholics and Protestants express a desire for a new Reformation. For traditional Catholics, Francis's papacy has brought a chilly realism to bear upon the legacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Moreover, the ongoing and ever-intensifying abuse scandal has yet to have its full impact upon the Church of Rome—both in terms of institutional confidence and public image. Among orthodox Protestants, divisions on social justice issues and debates over the Trump presidency are driving erstwhile allies apart even as denominational numbers stagnate or decline. 

As regards theological and ethical issues, the picture is no brighter. The pope sounds dangerously ambiguous on ethical issues such as homosexuality, while his role in the abuse scandal seems disturbingly murky. Despite an elaborate Catechism, Rome exhibits a dogmatic timidity—which some see as a studied pose that provides cover for more mischievous developments. Suddenly, with nobody noticing, liberal Protestantism has apparently found a comfortable home at the heart of the Vatican.

Orthodox Protestantism also faces conflicts of its own making. While the authority of Scripture has gripped the Evangelical imagination for much of the last century, mischief has been done to other Christian essentials. Recent years have revealed that some of the most influential Evangelical theologians of the last few decades were not even Trinitarian in the catholic, creedal sense. Vital classical doctrines such as divine simplicity, impassibility, and immutability are now at a premium, redefined beyond recognition or rejected out of hand. Errors that cost lives in the sixteenth century have been laughed off as minor blemishes on otherwise revered individuals and august institutions—a trivialization that reveals a terrible historical ignorance of both the creeds and the Reformation itself. The Socinian biblicism of Cracow, and not the magisterial Protestantism of Wittenberg or Geneva, seems to be the order of the day.

Historically, of course, the anniversary of the Reformation is a time for remembering the divisions between Catholics and Protestants on questions of authority, salvation, and sacraments. But that is not the only framework for reading the differences in the Christian world. John Henry Newman emphasized the importance of dogma to true Christianity, with non-dogmatic approaches being by implication inferior and even unChristian. Similarly, but perhaps more provocatively, Presbyterian leader J. Gresham Machen messed with traditional boundaries by arguing that supernaturalism was the hallmark of truth. Thus, orthodox Presbyterianism and Roman Catholicism were Christian (even as the differences between them were significant) while liberal Protestantism, with its rejection of the supernatural, was another religion entirely.

In light of the above lamentations, we might add a few further thoughts that bring orthodox Catholics and Protestants closer together while dividing them from the heterodox in their own ranks. For it seems odd that Protestants tolerate erroneous teaching on God and the Trinity (toleration of which was most definitely not a Reformation distinctive, as Servetus could testify) simply because of agreement on justification. Reformation Protestantism did not give anyone a free pass on a deviant doctrine of God merely because he rejected the Mass and claimed to believe in justification by grace through faith. And on the other side, it is strange to Protestant eyes that orthodox Catholics are increasingly willing to express concern about the current pope without taking the obvious next step of seriously considering the Protestant critiques of papal authority from the sixteenth century onward. Is the problem the pope or the papacy?

What does it mean for orthodox Protestants to find that they agree with Roman Catholics on the Trinitarian doctrine of God, his simplicity, his immutability, his impassibility—all the things their historic confessions simply took from the great catholic creeds—and disagree with major Evangelical voices on these matters? Does that have ecumenical implications? And what does it mean for orthodox Catholics to find that they too agree with orthodox Protestants on these matters even as their own leaders sideline dogma and promote the sociological mush which suffused the Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod on Youth? Does that too have ecumenical implications? 

If there is hope for the church today, it lies in two things. First, there is a welcome recovery in certain areas of the Protestant world of the pre-Reformation Christian tradition: the creeds, the Fathers, and the medieval schoolmen. Second, and ironically, the chaos of the Francis papacy is driving many faithful Roman Catholics to rethink the ultramontanism that came so easily during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Perhaps this will gain orthodox, Reformation Protestantism an unexpected new audience.

We do need a new Reformation. Protestants need to better understand the catholic roots of their thought and be less blasé in reinventing the Christian faith each week on the basis of their own narrow biblicism and skewed view of history. Roman Catholics need to better understand the concerns that motivated the Reformers' ecclesiological critiques, and thereby examine some of the problems that created the Francis pontificate. In the end, I suspect we may still face insuperable disagreements, but those disagreements will at least have been set within a proper historical and theological context. The choice may, in the end, still be between Luther and Bellarmine, but at least it will be a choice informed by a proper understanding of what is at stake.

Carl R. Trueman is a professor in the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters at Grove City College, Pennsylvania.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebooksubscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

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



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles