From the September, 2007 issue of Touchstone

Luther’s End by Carl E. Olson

Luther’s End

Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism
by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom
Baker Academic, 2005
(272 pages, $24.99, hardcover)

reviewed by Carl E. Olson

Nearly half-way into Is the Reformation Over? the authors assert that the “most serious differences” between Catholics and Evangelicals today are not found in Marian beliefs, sacraments, the communion of saints, or views about justification, but are “rooted in ecclesiology, contrasting versions of what the church is and how it functions.”

This point is reiterated even more directly forty pages later: “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.”

This belief shapes Is The Reformation Over? and is, I think—I write as a Catholic—its most important contribution to Catholic-Evangelical relations.

The question posed by the title “appears straightforward,” write the authors, but “is not by any means a question to be answered simply.” They “do not propose a final, universal, dogmatic assessment of Roman Catholicism,” but an assessment made through “the classic ideals of the Protestant Reformation to measure contemporary Catholic Christianity,” including sola Scriptura, sola fide, and the priesthood of all believers.

This raises difficult questions: To what degree are American Evangelicals true heirs of the Protestant Reformation? How comfortable would Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli be in mostEvangelical churches today? And, given the diverse and fragmented nature of Evangelicalism (a term nearly as slippery as “liberal” and “conservative”), can an “Evangelical assessment” even be made of Catholicism?

These counter-questions are not so much critical as practical, highlighting the difficult task taken on by Noll and Nystrom. To their credit, they—Noll, who now teaches at Notre Dame after a long career at Wheaton College, and Nystrom, a prolific freelance writer—examine deep and difficult matters with care and moderation, only occasionally stumbling when attempting to summarize positions or arguments that defy short summary.

Is the Reformation Over? is most successful as a systematic, historical documentation of a complicated and often contentious relationship. This is to be expected of Noll, whose outstanding works of church history are marked by careful research and well-measured opinions. And it is not surprising that he would write such a book: Ten years ago he was a prominent Evangelical endorser of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT).

The End of the War

The book begins with the ecumenical efforts of Billy Graham and Pope John Paul II, the often unnoticed grassroots efforts of Catholic and Protestant lay people, and recent advances in Evangelical relations with the Vatican, before going into the history of the “Evangelical-Catholic polemic,” showing that well into the 1950s it appeared unshakeable, although “signs of peace” did exist during that lengthy “time of war.”

Four major events changed this, the authors argue: the Second Vatican Council, the charismatic movement, shifts in the political-social climate—-including the election of John F.Kennedy and an emerging (if uneasy) Catholic-Evangelical alliance on moral issues—and the growth of “vigorous self-criticism” among Evangelicals about their history and theological identity. The authors are correct in pointing out that Vatican II was the most important of these events.

But they overlook, I think, the fact that the council was not only Christo-centric but ecclessio-centric. It flowed from a revitalized Christo-centrism and an ever-deepening awareness that the church has the task “of bringing all men to full union with Christ.”

This dual (and unified) emphasis was expressed in one of the council’s key documents, Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which stated in the midst of a lengthy biblical reflection on the church that “through the Church, we abide in Christ, without whom we can do nothing (John 15:1–5).”

Also overlooked is the fact that the council’s ecumenical thrust did not simply involve producing certain documents, but writing them using biblical and patristic language that facilitated constructive dialogue with Protestants and Orthodox, neither of whom were comfortable with neo-Thomisticformulations.

After summarizing and assessing the changes in ecumenical relations between Catholics and Protestants since the 1960s, which includes providing overviews of the Catholic dialogues with Protestant denominations and summaries of the doctrinal issues they addressed (extended attention is given to the issue of justification), the authors offer an intriguing assessment of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Here the authors’ opinions reveal just how differently an Evangelical can read the Catechism compared to a Catholic.

“The Catechism,” write the authors, is “a treat,” and Evangelical readers will “find themselves (as we have done) stopping to pray.” However, it is not “an evangelical document.”

The chapter concludes with a lengthy section on “Catholics and the Church,” which ends with this lament: “Why do we [Evangelicals] not possess such a thorough, clear, and God--centered account of our faith as the Catechism offers to Roman Catholics?”

The historical section of the book ends with a summary of the ECT project and the antagonism it provoked in certain Evangelical circles, a discussion of critics of recent ecumenical endeavors, and the stories of several Evangelicals who have become Catholic.

The Central Issue

Is the Reformation Over? ends with lively analyses of the historical and political situation and the theological issues still being discussed (and, in many cases, strongly disputed), including the role of Mary, the sacraments, and the priesthood.

The theological discussion will raise the eyebrows of Catholics, who believe that their distinctive doctrines have biblical and historical roots. For example, a short section on clerical celibacy ignores the biblical, theological, and historical arguments for this discipline and flatly concludes that “priests are celibate because the church says so. No other reason is needed.”

The book would have benefited from some references to Catholic-Orthodox and Evangelical-Orthodox dialogues. Those references would have posed the difficult but necessary question of why the early forms of Christianity are in such close agreement about liturgy, sacraments, soteriology, Mary, the ordained priesthood, and ecclesiology.

This would have further reinforced the authors’ assertion that ecclesiology is the central issue dividing Christians in the twenty-first century. The authors conclude, “If it is true that justification is the article on which the church stands or falls, then the Reformation is over.” If that is true, their book strongly suggests that the pressing question is now this: Upon what does the Evangelical understanding of the church stand or fall?

Carl E. Olson is the author of Will Catholics Be ?Left Behind?? (Ignatius), and co-author, with Sandra Miesel, of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius).

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