Friday, March 02, 2007

Is the Reformation Over?

Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Catholicism,
by Mark A. Noll & Carolyn Nystrom, Baker Academic, 2005.

In the last decade, Evangelicals have engaged in unprecedented ecumenical dialogue with Roman Catholics. They have studied together, discussed their differences and sought to find new avenues of cooperation. The focus of this rapprochement has been the Evangelicals and Catholics Together dialogues, which began in America in 1994. A number of well-respected Evangelicals have been involved in ECT, including Charles Colson, J. I. Packer and Mark Noll.
In this book, Noll and Nystrom seek to trace the developments in both Evangelicalism and Catholicism that made ECT possible. Evangelicals and Catholics once viewed each other with mutual hostility and suspicion. Evangelicals viewed Catholicism as a tyrannical sub-Christian religion headed by the Pope as the great Anti-Christ. Meanwhile, Catholics denounced Evangelicals as uppity, individualistic heretics. But, the last few decades, things have begun to change. Vatican II instigated reforms in Catholicism that led to a renewed interest in Bible reading and lay ministry. The Council also encouraged Roman Catholics to enter into respectful dialogue with people from other Christian traditions. At the same time, Evangelical attitudes were softening. Billy Graham, once a staunch anti-Catholic began to involve Catholics in his evangelistic crusades. Charles Colson and others recognised that Evangelicals and Catholics share common concerns over issues like abortion, euthanasia and the secularisation of American Society.
But has official Catholic doctrine changed enough to make mutual recognition and cooperation possible between Evangelicals and Catholics? Is the Reformation really over? The authors chart the course of high profile ecumenical dialogues between Catholics and Anglicans, the Reformed, Lutherans and others. Some agreements have been reached and misunderstandings have been cleared up. But serious differences remain over the relationship between Scripture and tradition, the meaning of justification by faith alone and the doctrine of the Church. The book examines the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church and finds many things that would delight the heart of Evangelicals such as clear teaching on the Trinity, an orthodox doctrine of Christ and an emphasis on grace as "free and undeserved help". But, this official document leaves unaltered distinctive Catholic doctrines such as apostolic succession, the role of Mary as co-mediatrix, the intercession of the saints and baptismal regeneration. According to the Catechism, justification is received in baptism and is transformatory as well as a forensic declaration. The Pope remains head of the visible Church with the ability of make infallible rulings on Church doctrine and practice.
Although these serious differences remain, ECT I entailed a commitment to joint evangelistic and social mission. It seems that the Catholic representatives were most concerned with Evangelicals stealing their "sheep", especially in South America where tensions between Evangelicals and Catholics run high. Evangelicals are often subjected to persecution in some Catholic dominated South American countries. But is joint evangelistic mission really an option? No doubt there are true believers in the Roman Catholic Church, but much of her official teaching is palpably unscriptural. Is it right for Evangelicals to commit themselves to joint evangelistic mission when there is no real agreement on what constitutes the evangel?
ECT II to IV considered "The Gift of Salvation", "Your Word Is Truth", and "The Communion of the Saints". Common ground was discovered, but real differences remain over justification by faith alone as an exclusively forensic declaration, Scripture and tradition and the doctrine of the Church. The book examines the findings of these various ECT dialogues in some detail. Reactions to ECT from other Evangelicals from hostile to welcoming are treated fairly and objectively.
Is the Reformation over, then? Noll and Nystrom think not. For them, the big dividing issue is the doctrine of the Church. In a way, that is right. Evangelicals cannot accept the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Magisterium or agree that the Church dispenses grace through the sacraments ex opere operato. The Catholic doctrine of the Church affects not only ecclesiology, but the authority of Scripture and justification by faith alone. So long as Evangelicalism is committed to the gospel encapsulating Solas of the Protestant Reformation, we cannot engage in evangelistic cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church. Neither can we stand side by side with Rome in the ecumenical movement, the aim of which is to reunite Christendom with the Catholic Church. As it stands, ECT is in danger of further fragmenting Evangelicalism as leaders openly clash over the venture. Many feel that ECT has conceded far too much ground to Rome. Where should our loyalties lie, with people committed to the Biblical evangel of the Reformation, or with Roman Catholic Church?
It is right to engage in respectful dialogue with Roman Catholics. Where we agree on social issues we should act together as co-belligerents. But we must be clear that some aspects of official Roman Catholic teaching are tantamount to another gospel, which is no gospel at all. The Reformation is not over yet!


Anonymous said...

Let the "Counter Reformation" continue!

michael jensen said...

I would add to this, that it would be great to sit down and study the Bible together with Roman Catholics... I think the new interest in the Bible over that side of the fence is a great opportunity!

Guy Davies said...

Oh, a secretive anonymous person scheming for Counter Reformation - I smell a dastardly Jesuit plot.

Yes Michael, I agree.