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The Reformation Over?
(An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism)
Author: Mark A. Noll & Carolyn Nystrom
Publisher: Baker Academic
As an evangelical Protestant I have often wondered what to make of Catholicism. How am I to view it? Am I to side with those who are virulent in their denunciations of it, or should I join with those who try to build bridges to those they see as their brothers and sisters in Christ?
The authors admit that those who tend toward the extremes will not be satisfied with this book, since the authors seem to favor the approach of those who choose dialogue and understanding rather than hostility.
Right from the start the book makes the contention and provides ample evidence "that both in the Roman Catholic Church and in relations between evangelicals and Catholics things are Ďnot the way they used to be.í" Billy Graham is an example. During the 1950ís Catholics were discouraged and in some countries even forbidden by their leaders to attend his meetings. Graham was just as strong in his stance against Catholics. By the 1980ís Catholic leaders were participating in Crusades, and Graham even began to send decision cards of professed Catholics to the local Catholic archdiocese. In the year 2000, 15 Catholic delegates were officially sanctioned by the Vatican to attend Grahamís Amsterdam conference to promote world evangelism.
This is one of many examples in the book given to support the idea that much has changed since the Second Vatican Council. Thatís not to say that significant differences between the two groups donít remain. The book looks at areas of agreement and differences primarily from a historical point of view. My guess is that you wonít find a better book on the history of evangelical and Catholic relations. Other books probe doctrinal differences more fully, but none that I have read give such a broad and detailed overview of how things have changed.
If this book has a weakness, it may be that some of the historical analysis will probably be too much for the average reader, especially the section dealing with dialogues between the Catholic Church and individual denominations. Discussions that most of us probably were unaware of have been going on for years.
One of the most fascinating sections for me was the chapter devoted to the Catholic Catechism. I did not realize that if I want to know the official Catholic Church teaching on a subject, I can consult the updated _Catechism of the Catholic Church_, which was published in English in 1994. Interestingly, the authors estimate that evangelicals can embrace at least two-thirds of this 756-page book. They state that the theology is presented in such a worshipful manner that "Christians of all stripes will find paragraph after paragraph leading to worship and prayer." Amazingly enough, right about the time I was reading this section I found a good copy of the Catechism in a thrift store, which will make an excellent reference book.
Another excellent chapter examines the four joint statements produced by Evangelicals and Catholics Together. It goes into considerable detail on how individuals on both sides wrote about long-standing differences.
The Chapter titled "Reactions From Antagonism To Conversion" takes a fascinating look at the wide variety of evangelical response which ranges from outright rejection through theological criticism to acceptance and partnership. Jack Chick is mentioned among the more extreme responses but no mention is made of Dave Hunt, a well-known outspoken critic of the Catholic Church. Particularly fascinating are the abbreviated stories and reasons why some have converted to the Catholic Church. The list includes: Thomas Howard, Dennis Martin, Peter Kreeft, Scott and Kimberly Hahn and John Michael Talbot.
Is the reformation over? The authors early in the book conclude that on the basis of ecumenical dialogues the answer is "probably not." However, near the end of the book they provide the following viewpoint. "On the substance of what is actually taught about Godís saving work in the world, if not always on the exact terminology used to describe that saving work, many evangelicals and Catholics believe something close to the same thing. If it is true, as once was repeated frequently by Protestants conscious of their anchorage in Martin Luther or John Calvin that iustificatio articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae (justification is the article on which the church stands or falls), then the Reformation is over."
They do acknowledge however that an important difference remains over the means through which God provides his grace for justification. They also point out that serious disagreements remain over questions of the church. Differences over the papacy and magisterium, Mary, the sacraments and mandatory celibacy for priests are in some ways all church-related issues.
The authors display a mastery of the materialóbroadly covering a wide variety of issues with great detail. This is must reading for those who want to seriously study Evangelical and Catholic relations.