A book review by Dr. Herbert Samworth
Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism. Baker Academic, 2005
Why take the time and effort to review a book that was published nearly six years ago? Events have moved on and there are certainly more current issues that demand our attention. The reason for the review is that Is the Reformation Over? is an extremely important book and the questions that it raises are pertinent today.
The title of the book is worthy of our attention. What do the authors mean when they ask the question concerning the Reformation? Do they mean that the Reformation is over because it has accomplished its objective? Could they possibly mean that the Reformation is over because it has failed? The tone of the book remains rather coy regarding the answer to the question. Perhaps the sub-title of the book can aid us in formulating an answer to the authors’ question. The book is an evaluation of the contemporary Roman Catholicism by two pronounced Evangelicals. We can note that even the subtitle carries an implied question. It has been the glory of Roman Catholicism that the Church is always the same: semper idem. If the Roman Catholic Church is, and always has been, the same, there would be little reason for the qualifying adjective. Although one does not wish to give a final judgment, it appears that the authors believe that both the Roman Catholic Church and Evangelicals have changed. We will give reasons for this opinion later in the review.
The authors have written the book to chronicle some of the changes that have occurred in Catholic/ Protestant relations over the past years. According to their analysis, the differences in the current situation have been the result of three significant events.
The first is Vatican II that was convened in 1960 by Pope John XXIII. This was the first general council since Vatican I that took place in 1870. There was a new openness about the church and things were questioned that would have seemed improbable just a few years before. This new attitude of openness caught the attention of Protestant observers who attended the sessions. Perhaps the most intriguing thing was that no longer were Protestants considered to be non-Christians. Indeed, they were called “separated brethren.” To be sure, Roman Catholics are of the conviction that Protestant Churches lack the Petrine office that the Lord had instituted while on earth and considered necessary by Roman Catholics to constitute the true Church. To be considered true brethren they would have to be churches united under the Papal office. However, the admission they could be brethren was revolutionary, especially in light of the decree of Unam Sanctum promulgated by Boniface VIII in which he declared that there was no salvation outside of the Roman Church.
Another reason for the difference in the relationship between the churches was the Pontificate of John Paul II. He assumed office in 1985 and proved to be one of the most charismatic individuals who occupied the seat of Saint Peter. Many Evangelicals were captivated by his openness and friendliness toward them.
The third reason for the difference in the climate between Catholics and Protestants was the disintegration of Western Culture. Concerning the disintegration of Western Culture, there was little doubt, especially in Europe. It is not necessary to chronicle all the changes that had occurred but there were signs that Western Civilization was on the verge of collapse. In light of this dire situation, it made no sense for those who held shared values concerning morality and the sacredness of life to fight with one another. The danger was so great that ecclesiastical differences need to be put to one side in order to deal with the more pressing problems.
It is one of the strengths of the book that these changes in attitude are well documented and very few persons would disagree with the authors’ assessment there has been a sea change in how Protestants and Catholics view one another.
The authors then go on to document the changes between Evangelicals and Catholics that have taken place over the nearly fifty years since the convening of Vatican II.
One of the real changes noted by the authors has been a calming of the rhetoric between the two sides. Rather than shrill accusations that speak past one another, there has been open dialogue between the parties to note the differences that still remain. Noll and Nystrom provide as evidence of this new spirit of dialogue the various discussions that have been held between the Catholics and the Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Charismatics. Although it appears that only one definitive document between the groups has been reached, that between the Catholics and the Lutherans on the doctrine of justification by faith, the very fact that such discussions were even conducted is a very positive sign.
There has also been a new spirit of co-operation between the parties. The authors tell of groups, including Campus Crusade for Christ and Inter-Varsity, working side by side with Catholic organizations to reach students with the message of the Gospel. They relate the experience of a missionary who went to France to establish an Evangelical Church who, after analyzing the situation, came to the realization that an Evangelical Church was not the pressing need of the people. He concluded that it was better to work with Catholics to strengthen the established Catholic Church than to begin a new church. While much of this evidence of co-operation is given in anecdotal stories of individuals who acted on their own initiative rather than on a formal alliance of Evangelicals and Catholics, such evidence does exist and bolsters the claim of the authors that a new climate of co-operation rather than competition is factual.
The third proof of a change in Protestant /Catholic relations was the establishment of the group known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). This initiative has been the work of Charles Colsen and Richard John Neuhaus. As of the writing of this review, this initiative is still in force and some seven joint statements on issues including justification by faith, the Word of God, the need for holiness, the sanctity of human life and others have been issued.
The Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative has garnered both praise and criticism. Much has been written on this attempt to resolve the differences between the groups and it is impossible to reproduce all the various views. However, it appears that two main criticisms have been leveled against this attempt by critics. The first is, despite the claim to the contrary, doctrinal issues have been blurred in order to reach agreement where none truly exists. The second criticism deals with Ecclesiology or the doctrine of the Church. The discussions have revealed that Evangelicals are very weak when dealing with the doctrine of Ecclesiology. Evangelicalism is, by default and its very nature, reduced to what has been called “mere Christianity” and cannot speak to the germane issues of the doctrine of the Church. This is because Evangelicalism is not a formal association of churches with agreed confessional statements but individuals who are united on the basic issues of how one becomes a Christian. For further elucidation on this point, see the critique by Professor Carl Truman of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, who has written a trenchant review of the book and elucidated the point made above in more detail.
The final evidence put forth by the authors for the changed conditions between Protestants and Catholics emphasizes the number of Evangelicals who have converted to Rome. As a side note, it is interesting that the authors highlight the pilgrimage of Evangelicals to the Roman Catholic Church while they say very little about individuals who come the other way.
There have been a number of prominent Evangelicals who have “crossed the Tiber” to Rome. They include Thomas Howard, former teacher at Gordon College and a member of a prominent Evangelical family, Peter Kreeft, and Scott and Kimberly Hawn. The book was published before Francis Beckwith, past President of the Evangelical Theological Society, announced his return to the church of his fathers.
Although the outward circumstances were different for each individual, there are some common factors that drew the person toward the Roman Catholic Church. These factors include the impression that Rome offers more security than Protestantism, the worship and tradition of the Roman Church are more meaningful, and the individuals experience a sense of fulfillment they found sadly lacking in the Evangelical churches. To the reviewer’s knowledge, he has not read of anyone who converted to Rome solely on doctrinal grounds. It seems that those who have returned to Rome are convinced that whatever doctrinal differences may exist between the two communions, they do not present an insuperable obstacle to conversion.
We will continue our analysis of this book in a further article. The reviewer believes that this is a very important book and suggests that it be purchased and read carefully. He would welcome any criticism or correction of errors in the above article. As a disclaimer, he has no interest in “proving” a case or triumphing over any person. However, he remains convinced that the issues between the Churches ultimately deal with one’s relationship with God and can only be settled by appeal to the Word of God and its testimony.