IS THE REFORMATION OVER?
Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom evaluate the Catholic/evangelical detente
in Is the Reformation Over?
Reviewed by Collin Hansen an associate editor of Christianity Today
Is the Reformation Over?: An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism
by Mark Noll and
Baker Academic, 2005
272 pages, $24.99
It shows how much things have changed that Wheaton College historian Mark Noll and freelance writer Carolyn Nystrom need to remind readers what Catholic/evangelical relations used to look like. Evangelical polemics lack the bite of yesteryear, as illustrated by this 1873 quote in the introduction: "The most formidable foe of living Christianity among us is not deism or atheism, or any form of infidelity, but the nominally Christian church of Rome."
But anyone who has read Luther or Calvin and cringed at their stinging rebukes of Roman "papists" recognizes that we don't live in the reformers' days. Political cooperation in America and the moral leadership of Pope John Paul II have prompted these historical Christian rivals to temper their rhetoric.
Such a bold title promises much, but Noll and Nystrom are quick to point out that there is no simple answer to their question, "is the Reformation over?" Rather than offering a grand thesis, therefore, they survey the historical territory of Catholic/evangelical relations and measure contemporary Catholicism by the criteria of classic Reformation ideals. In doing so, they have produced an excellent guide to the ecumenical strides already taken and the serious doctrinal differences that remain.
From Top to Bottom
Noll and Nystrom cover familiar historical ground in showing how Catholics and evangelicals battled—sometimes literally—during and since the Reformation. From there the authors draw together various events and movements to explain why the battles have largely calmed. The most important change took place within the Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Noll and Nystrom identify four key developments there: The council referred to non-Catholics as "brothers," encouraged lay Catholic piety, emphasized Christ's unique role as mediator, and accepted limited blame for inciting the Reformation.
Events since the Second Vatican Council compose the bulk of the authors' analysis. Noll and Nystrom provide ample descriptions of official Protestant dealings with the Catholic Church. Most notably, they recount "The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification," signed by the Lutheran World Federation and Catholic representatives in 1999. A key Reformation debate cooled with the declaration's hallmark line: "Our new life is solely due to the forgiving and renewing mercy that God imparts as a gift and we receive in faith, and never can merit it in any way."Such developments encouraged other ecumenical efforts like Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which Noll and Nystrom also carefully document.
Such top-down edicts have been significant, but no more so than 20th-century grassroots changes around the world. The growth of Christianity outside the West during the last century has challenged the Western monopoly on Christian leadership. Thus, Noll and Nystrom divide Catholic/evangelical relations into areas where traditional Western religious divisions remain strong (southern Europe and Latin America), areas where traditional Christianity has been confronted by strong post-Christian elements (North America and parts of Africa and Asia), and areas where European Christianity never took hold (most of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific).
This analysis helps explain why most Christians in Africa and Asia don't suffer lingering Reformation tensions and why Latin American Christians still do. Those who didn't experience Western history don't recognize the same theological distinctions that originated in Europe. Charismatic worship further deemphasizes the Reformation legacy as experience, rather than doctrine, provides the rallying point.
Noll and Nystrom provide reminders of the painful schism and point to hopeful and shocking potential for reconciliation. Yet while much has changed, Catholics and evangelicals have come no closer in their understandings of the church. As they analyze the Catholic Catechism, Noll and Nystrom discuss the main issue still dividing Catholics and evangelicals: the relationship of Scripture to the church.
Protestants can't fathom why the Catechism approvingly quotes Joan of Arc saying, "About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they're just one thing, and we shouldn't complicate the matter." This is the crux of the matter, as Noll and Nystrom explain: "If Christ and his church are one, then a great deal of Catholic doctrine simply follows naturally. In a word, ecclesiology represents the crucial difference between evangelicals and Catholics." The Reformation legacy hinges on the doctrine of the church: Was this challenge to Roman authority a necessary purification of the wayward church or "an attack on Christ himself"?
But ecclesiology isn't the only thing that prevents Noll and Nystrom from answering their book's title with "yes." It's one thing to delineate the implications of 18th-century events. It's quite another to explain the significance of something that happened in the last couple decades, as the authors themselves admit. "Unfortunately, historians can only look backward," they conclude, "and therefore it falls to practitioners by their actions to show if the Reformation is really over."
Noll and Nystrom's book balances hopeful excitement with realism. They don't gloss over lingering points of contention such as the growth of Mary veneration in the third world, which John Paul II heartily encouraged. At the same time, they find many reasons to be enthusiastic about Catholic/evangelical agreement on basic Christian beliefs such as the Trinity, original sin, and the Holy Spirit's power to transform: "The growing recognition of how deep and firm such common doctrinal affirmations are represents a great historical reversal. 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."
It is far too soon for a careful historian like Noll and thoughtful writer like Nystrom to proclaim the Reformation over. Still, as they contrast what we know from history with what we have witnessed in the last few decades, we learn that the question is now appropriate.
Collin Hansen is an associate editor of Christianity Today
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