Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism
Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom. Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005. 272 pp. $24.99.
Since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in December of 1965, there has been a steady flow of commentary on each of the Council documents as well as related literature emerging from Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant scholars as well as other interested observers. One of the liveliest sides of this literature has concentrated on ecumenical conversations, especially between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestants from a rather wide diversity of confessions. Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom have addressed issues related to Catholics and Evangelical Protestants, particularly in terms of the North American discussion. Noll as an historian is positioned to contribute to this ongoing conversation because of his familiarity with long-standing debates stemming from the Reformation. Furthermore, it is probably not insignificant that he recently relinquished his chair at Wheaton College to take up a post at the University of Notre Dame. And one cannot read such a book (let alone review it) without comparing it with similar treatments already available.
This book is not interested in engaging in the sort of polemic for which such literature is notorious. Rather, the authors engage us in a lively history of how all of this has come about. Right up front, it should be said that a lot of necessary background is covered in a very helpful way, beginning with the admission that things have changed rather substantially in the last forty years. The causes of the changes are explored and will certainly open the eyes of the reader who is interested in the development of the relationship between the two Christian communities. Furthermore, the tone of the book is positive and encourages all who read it to reconsider their attitudes and perspectives toward more constructive dialogue.
Each of the chapters provides the reader with helpful historical and theological information and developments, including the following: global changes allowing such discussions to take place; a history of the bi-lateral dialogues during the post-Vatican II period; an evaluation of the recently published (1992) Catechism of the Catholic Church; a detailed history of the Evangelicals-Catholics Together conversations and publications; illustrations of the trajectory of Catholic-Evangelical engagement, citing a gradual thawing process from “antagonism to conversion”; and a final chapter indicating the intention of the attempt “to take the measure of modern Catholicism.”
The disagreements between Evangelicals and Catholics are not ignored; theological areas of agreement are highlighted and seen as positive proof that the dialogues should continue with much higher expectations.
Since this reviewer is not without considerable experience in these matters, it can be said this book helpfully contributes to the growing literature and is unique because of its irenic tone, if not a fully positive expectation of structural unity anytime soon. It would have been a more balanced treatment if the authors would have cited evidence that the conversions of evangelicals with the Roman-Catholic church was not a oneway street; for every evangelical who converts to the Catholic church, one cannot ignore the traffic in the other direction. Evangelical church attendance and membership statistics indicate a steady stream of Catholics visiting Protestant churches, with many joining the membership rolls. The first “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” document ran into some well-deserved criticism over just this point. There was an attempt by some in the drafting committee to suggest that a sort of moratorium should prevail between the evangelical community (churches) and members of the Catholic community as they attempt to announce and clarify the biblical gospel to one another. And to hear that it might even be illegitimate to do so strikes at the heart of the message of one of the most powerful of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, viz., Dignitatis Humanae, which addresses the challenges of religious freedom.
One of the most helpful contributions of this book is the 13-page appendix “Further Reading.” And I was happy that the editors chose to use the almost forgotten practice of footnotes instead of the clumsy endnotes so common today.
Finally, this reviewer will allow Professor Timothy George to have the last word regarding the book’s provocative title: “The Reformation is over only in the sense that to some extent it has succeeded” (from the dust jacket of the book).
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Copyright Trinity International University Fall 2006
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