Tuesday 12 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.”


Anonymous said...

thanks for this review and notice. i will be sure to look into this book, especially as an American raised in the evangelical world with a keen interest in contemporary Catholicism. And to heap more praise, continue with the fine work in your theology for beginners series.

Fred said...

I've heard of the book, but didn't realize that it included an analysis of the CCC. I wonder if they noticed Section 4, on Prayer, written by an Eastern Rite Catholic.


Guy Davies said...

Im not so sure that the Reformation is over just yet. There are still serious differences between Roman Catholic and Evangelical Protestant teaching. Many of the issues that divided the Reformers from Rome in the 16th Century remain unresloved. There are still honest disagreements over the relationship between Scripture and tradition, the doctrine of transubstantiation, justification by faith alone, the role of Mary as "co-mediatrix" and so on.

Thanks for the review, though. Looks like an essential read for anyone who would like to keep abreast of Evangelical and Catholic dialogue.

Binx said...

Protestantism is a religion of reason not revelation. Every Protestant, Bible in hand, is his own pope. There are theoretically, and more and more existentially, as many Protestantisms as there are Protestants.

Sola Scriptura is human theology, not God's teaching.

The problem with the Protestant movement is that it cannot be criticized, because it continually morphs. Destroy sola Scriptura and Protestants abandon defending it in favor of more human theology.

Point out that the Nicene creed is normative for Christian Faith and they redefine the meaning of the words in the Creed to suit their pressuppositions.

Point out that whatever the Church was in the 1st century is Apostolic in authority and they deny that the Church was led by Bishops everywhere that it existed by the end of the 1st century.

Point out that the Scriptures proclaim that 'the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth' and they say nobody is the pillar and foundation of truth. Or they redefine church in a way that is a half truth when compared to the Apostles understanding and use of the word.

There are as many interpretations of the Bible as there are interpreters. Protestantism is manifestly theological and doctrinal anarchy and division. Is that the means Christ left for his Church? I think not.

There isn't a man out there who would come to Protestantism who wasn't born in it or came to it in almost complete ignorance of Catholicism. Ask yourself this question: How old was I and what was my capacity for perception and discernment when I made the choice for Protestantism? Understanding precedes judgement. How much did you understand when you judged?

J said...


You wrote, "There isn't a man out there who would come to Protestantism who wasn't born in it or came to it in almost complete ignorance of Catholicism."

On what grounds can you make such a claim?

Anonymous said...

Happily, Tarwater's understanding of Protestantism is not representative of the way most Catholics feel!

Ben Myers said...

Yes, Fred, they speak very warmly about the section on prayer -- this section is discussed on pp. 122-24.

"Throughout this section, Protestants and Catholics alike will find ways to deepen their praying. All Christians longing to move prayer out of the rut of self-serving petitions will find much to reorient their hearts to the character and purposes of God" (p. 122).

Anonymous said...

Tarwater, you torch straw men with the gusto of the inquisition. I would imagine that your own bishop, to whom you owe obedience, would be horrified at your intemperate allegations.

crystal said...

It's possible to find common ground between Protestants and Catholics - I'm Catholic and belong to a group blog made up of Quakers :-)

David Williamson said...

"There isn't a man out there who would come to Protestantism who wasn't born in it or came to it in almost complete ignorance of Catholicism."

What about Martin Luther?

e said...


In Barth's lecture 'the theology of the reformed confessions' he lays out the idea that during the Reformation while the differences between Reformed and Lutheran theologies is played out most heatedly in the debate about the Eucharist the real difference revolved around their Christology and the ideas of mediation and revelation. Perhaps in a similar way even though the differences between Protestants and Catholics seems to get played out most visibly in their ecclesiologies today, the root of these differences is still tied more specifically to their ideas of grace and mediation--their doctrines of God and Christology (major theological differences from the beginning)? Perhaps the change has more to do with the personal respect and affection that Noll mentions than a theological shift? Just wondering.

tchittom said...

Have to say I'm rather dissapointed. There is a lot of smoke around Protestant-Catholic reappraisals of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, but little fire. We can back slap each other and defend the unborn, the elderly, and the poor all we want, but until both parties clearly and almost creedally redefine the central definitions surrounding justification in an honest, clear, and systemic way, and in a way that is willing to overturn previous symbols, including Trent, then little real and lasting progress can happen (aside from an emotional progress of pragmatic ignorance, which, in the name of downplaying doctrine, actually empties it of all real meaning).

michael jensen said...

I think Balthasar's impact in all of this is perhaps missed... it is said that JPII's rather Barthian sounding encyclicals owe not a little to Balthasar's channelling of Barth: which certainly makes them more palatable reading for Protestants. The turn to the Bible is one of the most impressive and refresing things in them...

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