Wednesday, 13 September 2006

Is the reformation over? Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom

Thanks to Baker for sending me a review copy of the recent book by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom: Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 272 pp.

This is a fascinating historical and theological report on the developing ecumenical relationship between evangelicals and Roman Catholics in North America. Although the book doesn’t aim to provide a sustained theological analysis, it offers a wealth of valuable information about this important aspect of American church history, and it situates recent ecumenical developments within the broader contexts of North American social and political history.

The book’s theological analysis centres on Chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4 reports on the various evangelical-Catholic dialogues that have taken place since the 1960s—dialogues which have fostered not only theological understanding, but also attitudes of personal respect and affection, thus helping to displace the polemical attitudes that have been so deeply ingrained in North American Protestantism (although, alas, “in the world of ordinary, unlearned evangelicals, atavistic anti-Catholicism remains as colourful ... as ever” [p. 187]).

In Chapter 5 the authors analyse the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church. They praise its devoutness, clarity and theological content, and they highlight remaining areas of contention between evangelical theology and the teaching of the Catechism. On the basis of the Catechism, they rightly conclude that “ecclesiology represents the crucial difference between evangelicals and Catholics”—and they point out that evangelicals will never understand Catholic teaching without first grasping the Catholic doctrine of the church (pp. 146-47).

At the end of the book, the authors illustrate evangelical-Catholic differences by comparing the major Christian traditions to different languages (pp. 245-49). “Like languages, the Christian traditions are handed down unselfconsciously from generation to generation as complete systems of belief and practice.” Since Vatican II, the Catholic and evangelical languages have moved much closer towards each other, but they still remain different languages, “different ways of approaching, internalising, articulating, and expressing the Christian faith.” These systematic differences are “both a problem and a gift”—a problem for communication and understanding, but a gift that opens our eyes to the God who transcends the limits and boundaries of our own particular church structures.

And anyway, ask the authors, will not differences in language continue also in heaven, albeit with mutual understanding? For the time being, though, let us be content to be “like ents and hobbits” (p. 251)—“not yet speaking the same language and certainly misunderstanding much that the other says, but nonetheless communicating quite well and actually learning from the apparent idiosyncrasies of the other tongue.”

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