Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Is the Reformation Over?

Is the Reformation Over?: An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom. Baker Academic, 2005. ISBN: 0-8010-2797-7.

I was not sure what the book was about by reading the title. Were they saying the issues of the Protestant Reformation no longer exist. I am not assuming that there was only one reformation by using it in the singular. I understand that there were many Reformations: Catholic, Zwinglian, Lutheran, Calvinian, AnaBaptist, British. Do the issues that that divide the Chucrh no longer exist. This made me interested in what this book might want to say.

The subtitle provides a little more information: "An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism." What does that mean? So I picked up this book not sure of what I would get. One thing I did know is one of the authors of the book. Mark Noll is well-known as an excellent and thorough scholar. He recently wrote, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. My respect for Noll grew after reading this book. I think he shows great understanding and charity in evaluating Roman Catholicism according to evangelicalism. Some evangelicals might thought he went too far in his charitable view. I know some evangelicals who have told me that Noll is too Catholic which would surprise Noll. Please forgive me for not mentioning Nystrom more, but I am unfamiliar with her work and am not sure how much this book is shared by the two authors. All the book said that she was a freelance writer.

I found it interesting that the book is dedicated to J. I. Packer. It would be difficult to doubt the evangelical credentials of Packer. He, however, has received criticism with his work in Catholic-Evangelical discussions. An interesting part of the book is some of the responses by more conservative evangelicals like R. C. Sproul.

Is the Reformation Over? is a historical work which Noll is greatly qualified to accomplish with the knowledge of his historical work in other writings. It was very surprising how relations between Protestants have changed so much since World War II and Vatican 2. It was also encouraging to see Catholics and Protestants working together instead against each other. The authors in this book basically argue that relations between Catholics and Protestants are not like they "used to be."

The authors state that "by asking if the Reformation is over, we mean 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 . . . were Protestant rallying cries" (15). The authors state that this book is intended to evaluate contemporary Roman Catholicism based on this criteria. In the conclusion the authors argue that the question of the book is not an easy question to answer.

The book includes an introduction and nine chapters. Chapter one offers historical evidence that the relations between Roman Catholics and Protestants have changed. For example, they participate in mission efforts together. Chapter two looks at the conflict between the two groups in the 1950s. The authors suggest reasons why the situation has changed more recently in chapter three.

The next four chapters is meant to "inform" the readers of many of the dialogues and agreements between Protestants and Catholics since Vatican 2. Chapter four gives a history of these ecumenical dialogues. Chapter five provides a guide and commentary on the Catholic Catechism. This was a most helpful chapter. It showed the core beliefs of Catholics and how much of this can be accepted by evangelicals. The authors believe that the Catechism "is the best pace to look when seeking to understand what the Catholic Church teaches and what Catholics believe. As mentioned earlier, much is the Catechism would be supportive of the evangelical tradition. In addition, the authors show what teachings Evangelicals can accept and others they will have problem accepting.

Chapter seven informs the reader of negative reactions to the ecumenical dialogues and agreements. After describing evangelicals less informed about what Rome teaches. The authors describe leading evangelicals who should know better. For example, the authors state that after the first Evangelicals and Catholics together was signed, R. C. Sproul said, "I am convinced as were the Reformers, that justification by faith alone is essential to the gospel and that Rome clearly rejects it" (187). This is after different groups of Protestants and Catholics have agreed on the definition of justification. There were also pressure put on evangelical signers of the document. Some of these signers later removed their names from the document. Noll even notes that he was one of the signers.

An additional bonus to the book is that it included an annotated bibliography. This would be helpful for someone who wants to go deeper in the subject. In the last chapter the authors wrestle with their question, "Is the Reformation over?" Their answer is it basically depends. They answer both yes and no. In addition, they suggest that this might not be the most important question.

I loved this book. It is one of the best books I have read on Roman Catholicism from the perspective of an evangelical. I admire Mark Noll's skills even more after reading this book. This book is well-researched and the authors make extra effort in being as objective as possible. A similar book that addresses the issues of this book from a Catholic perspective is William M. Shea's The Lion and the Lamb: Evangelicals and Catholics in America.   

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