Is the Reformation over? an Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism

Article excerpt

Is The Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism. By Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005, 272 pp., $24.99.

Having recently taught a course in contemporary Roman Catholic theology at both my former school, Western Seminary (Portland, OR), and my current institution, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY), my interest was piqued when Is The Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism was sent to me as a book review editor for JETS. As an evangelical who has worked closely with Roman Catholic theology and practice at the University of Notre Dame (South Bend, IN), in Rome (Italy), and at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary (Mundelein, IL), I have an approach to the subject that combines both fascination with and suspicion of the Roman Catholic Church and the current evangelical-Catholic dialogue. This perspective carries over into my assessment of Noll and Nystrom's book.

The authors make a significant contribution to the growing number of books authored by Protestants that reflect on Roman Catholic theology and practice. To take just one example-Protestant reflections on Mary-a sample of books includes: Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of God (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995); Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., Mary: Mother of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004); Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Cynthia L. Rigby, Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary (Louisville: Westminster, 2002); Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson, Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003).

Is The Reformation Over? "is intended as an evangelical assessment of contemporary Roman Catholicism, with special attention given to the dramatic changes that have taken place since the Second Vatican Council" (p. 13). Specifically, the authors intend "to use the classic ideals of the Protestant Reformation to measure contemporary Catholic Christianity. Sola scriptura (the Bible as supreme authority), sola fide (salvation by grace alone through faith alone), and the priesthood of all believers (as a corrective to corruption of the priesthood)," along with the recognition that "God, instead of humanity," must be "recognized as the center of the spiritual universe," are the authors' stated criteria for their "assessment of the contemporary Catholic Church" (p. 15). A secondary but not incidental purpose of Noll and Nystrom's assessment of Roman Catholicism is to "enable evangelical Protestants to understand themselves more clearly" and thus "help them to grasp, internalize, and proclaim the essential principles of the Christian gospel that were at issue in the Reformation itself" (p. 15).

Chapter one traces the thawing of tensions between Protestants and Roman Catholics beginning about 1960. As the authors thoroughly document, "things are not the way they used to be." Chapter two rehearses "the way things used to be" prior to this thawing of tensions and clearly establishes that Protestants and Roman Catholics were at a total standoff at the mid-point of the last century with regard to theology, politics, the papacy, and the like. Of course, this belligerency was the product of centuries of hostilities between the two groups, and Noll and Nystrom trace succinctly the historical development of this conflict beginning with the Reformation.

Chapter three proposes several answers to the question, "Why did things change?" For the authors, "The final answer to this question must be that God willed the changes to take place" (p. 59), but they follow this declaration with a few answers derived from empirical research. These are nicely broken down into several categories (with corresponding examples): (1) changes within the Catholic Church (the second Vatican Council, a new ecumenical spirit, a growing importance of the laity, Pope John Paul II); (2) changes in world Christianity (the expansion of a non-European Christendom that lacks the historical intolerance between old world Catholics and Protestants, the burgeoning charismatic movement, the growth of evangelical youth movements with their non-ecclesiastical goals, the increasing prominence of women); (3) changes in American politics and society (Catholic Kennedy's election as president, "the ecumenism of the trenches"); (4) changes in the exercise of personal agency (official Vatican meetings with evangelicals, Billy Graham's evangelistic efforts, Evangelicals and Catholics Together); and (5) changes within evangelicalism (a growing dissatisfaction within the ranks of evangelicals, the "drift toward Rome"). …