Is the Reformation over?

Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom contend that because differences between Roman Catholics and evangelicals have lessened,the Reformation is basically over. Are they right?

Is modern Roman Catholicism different from the animal against which Martin Luther protested in the 16th century? If so, can Protestants and Catholics call an end to their disagreements? Evangelical historian Mark Noll and freelance writer Carolyn Nystrom have co-authored a book that seeks to shed light on this issue. It is provocatively entitled, Is the Reformation Over?, and it is a work of special interest for evangelicals—not least because of Noll’s credentials as a penetrating historian of Evangelicalism.

What are Noll and Nystrom’s aims? Firstly, they examine the relationship that now exists between many evangelicals and Roman Catholics in comparison to the antagonism of a distant era. Secondly, Noll and Nystrom evaluate this changed relationship without presuming to make their conclusions exhaustive or final. The authors also acknowledge their particular focus on the North American situation without ignoring other parts of the world (pp. 13-14).

The thesis of the book is this: since the 1960s, changes have occurred that mean Roman Catholics and evangelicals are now close enough theologically to join hands in mission. The authors do not deny that significant differences do still exist. However, Noll and Nystrom are convinced that both Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism contain enough common gospel truth to be partners in Christ:

Among evangelicals and Catholics who are open to cooperation there now exists a broad and deep foundation of agreement on the central teachings of Christianity. […] Whatever differences may still exist between such Catholics and evangelicals with respect to the foundations of Christianity are infinitesimal when compared to differences between traditional Christianity […] and modernist Christianity of all sorts. (p. 230)

The authors argue their thesis in nine chapters. In Chapter 1, they examine the evidence for changed relations between evangelicals and Roman Catholics— for example, Billy Graham’s shift from having no Catholic attendance at or involvement in his crusades in the 1950s to the reverse by the 1990s. In Chapter 2, Noll and Nystrom recount a brief history of Roman Catholic and evangelical relations from the Reformation to the present— from antagonism to general acceptance, at least in the USA.

Why the sea change? Chapter 4 provides the reasons. There have been mutations in Catholicism itself (especially in and through Vatican II [1962-65]), world Christianity (as its centre of gravity has shifted from the West to the global South), American politics and society (seen especially in the election of John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic), and finally Evangelicalism (as it has learned to be self-critical).

Chapter 5 then turns to the many ecumenical dialogues between Catholics and a variety of Protestant denominations. Here Noll and Nystrom attempt to show that, despite stubborn differences, many mutual anathemas have been annulled and much common ground has been recognized. Chapter 6 continues the ecumenical dialogue with a discussion of the four ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ (ECT) documents. In Chapter 7, Noll and Nystrom examine the four current evangelical stances on Catholicism: antagonistic, critical, in partnership and converted. The last two chapters attempt an evaluation of the current situation: Chapter 8 does this from the perspective of American history and politics, and Chapter 9, from the perspective of the Bible and theology. The authors conclude that the Reformation would appear to be over.

Noll and Nystrom are a good example of how to graciously listen to a tradition not their own. James 1:19 tells us to be quick to listen and slow to speak, and the authors have respected this principle. They have attempted to interact with Roman Catholicism itself, not simply with portrayals of it from fellow evangelicals. Moreover, Noll and Nystrom have collected a good deal of fascinating information about relationships between Roman Catholics and evangelicals, especially in North America.

Why the Reformation still exists

However, the book is disappointing in its analysis of the theological differences between Catholics and evangelicals. The authors fail to recognize that, while there has been something of a change in Rome since the ’60s, the church has not rescinded any of her teaching on the issues that caused the Reformation. It is true that much ecumenical dialogue has occurred between Protestants and Catholics in the last 40 years. However, of all the ecumenical documents in which Roman Catholics have been involved, only one has been officially accepted by them: the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed on 31 October 1999, by the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation.

Since both sides in the Joint Declaration affirmed “justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ”, Noll and Nystrom conclude that evangelicals and Catholics “now believe approximately the same thing” about justification (p. 232). But it is by no means that simple, and the Joint Declaration was hardly a full renunciation of Rome’s position on salvation. The words ‘justification’, ‘faith’, and ‘grace’ have very different meanings to Catholics than to evangelicals.

Noll and Nystrom believe that the major theological difference between Catholics and evangelicals is not salvation but church (ecclesiology). So the great points of difference— the papacy, Mary, the sacraments, mandatory celibacy of priests, etc.—all concern a different understanding of church. But, again, it is not that simple; the differences regarding church are manifestations of the deepest difference of all: an understanding of the gospel.

We need to examine why Catholics and evangelicals agree on some of the words but disagree over the gospel.

Christ alone

The fundamental difference between Catholics and evangelicals concerns the death of Christ. Noll and Nystrom simply do not address this issue and, as long as the atonement is ignored, the incompatibility of Catholicism with Evangelicalism will be misunderstood. Following Anselm, Catholics believe that Christ’s death did not win a complete salvation for humans. This is because Christ died for sins (abstract things) not sinners (actual people). The traditional Catholic understanding of the atonement is that Christ’s death won an infinite amount of merit (or ‘grace’). Catholics call the unlimited grace that Christ earned the ‘treasury of merit’. Grace is a spiritual power that, when applied to people, gives them forgiveness of various sins and purifies their souls.

What this means for Catholicism is that if Christ’s death only produced a treasury of merit, salvation for humans was made possible but was not completed. Something more is needed than simply Christ’s work on the cross. The implication for Catholics is that salvation is never complete; it is a lifelong process which depends on our works.

In contrast, the evangelical view of Christ’s death comes not from Anselm but the Reformers. The crucial difference is that evangelicals believe Christ’s death won a complete salvation (Heb 10:12-14). The completeness concerns a person (Jesus), not a treasury of merit. Christ’s death did not produce an impersonal repository of grace (Catholicism) but a personal and complete saviour (Evangelicalism).

The reason why salvation is found in a person (Jesus) and not an abstract storehouse is precisely because Christ died for people (sinners) not things (sins): “by your blood you ransomed people for God” (Rev 5:9). This personal aspect of the atonement is especially found in the notion of substitution: Jesus was a substitute for real people in his death. As our substitute, Jesus was punished in our place, paying the whole penalty for our sin. This is the classic evangelical doctrine of penal substitution which Roman Catholicism denies.

Therefore, Catholics and evangelicals differ fundamentally over the death of Christ. According to Scripture, to deny that Christ’s death won complete salvation is to deny the very gospel itself: “if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal 2:21). Such a different understanding of Christ’s death implies a very different way of Christian living. Let’s see what this entails.

Faith alone

How do we receive the blessings of Christ’s work individually? The answer to this question shows how vast the chasm is between Catholicism and Evangelicalism. For evangelicals, because Christ’s work is complete, salvation must be a gift. A gift, by definition, can only be received. Moreover, if Christ’s salvation is complete, it can only be received all at once. So how do we receive compete salvation? By faith and faith alone (Eph 2:8-10).

Faith cannot be accused of being a work that earns salvation; faith is simply the way in which we receive the completed gift. Let’s say someone gives me a box of chocolates. When I receive it, I am not earning it. But if I don’t receive the present, it’s not mine. It’s the same with salvation: faith is simply the way we receive it.

How can our salvation be complete when we haven’t yet reached heaven? It’s because salvation is found in the person of Jesus Christ. Faith unites us to Christ so that we are spiritually connected to and united with the saviour (Col 3:1-4). He is the vine and we are branches (John 15:5), and when we are connected to him by faith alone, we enjoy “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3). All works in the Christian life are the fruit of our salvation.

How do Catholics receive the benefits of Christ’s work on the cross? There are two elements to this answer. Firstly, as we noted above, the Catholic must continually apply Christ’s merits to themselves because Christ only produced a store of merit. Secondly, the application of merit is mediated to people through the ritual activity of the priesthood (the mass, baptism, penance, sign of the cross, etc.). So human salvation is inextricably bound to the institution of the Catholic church.

Now we can see the gravity of difference between Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism. If I deny that salvation is received by faith alone, I am denying that Christ’s death was complete. As I have already noted, to deny the completeness of Christ’s death is to deny the very gospel itself (Gal 2:21). In other words, ‘faith alone’ safeguards the more important idea of ‘Christ alone’. No wonder Paul was stirred to white hot anger over the false teachers in Galatia who denied justification by faith alone (Gal 1:1-10)!

So the Roman Catholic understanding of church is directly dependent on its understanding of the gospel. The ritual activity of the priesthood denies the completeness of Christ’s work on the cross. If the Catholic church truly agreed with penal substitution, all their ritual activity would cease. While it continues, Catholicism is incompatible with Evangelicalism.

Grace alone

In denying ‘Christ alone’, Catholicism not only denies ‘faith alone’ but also ‘grace alone’. Catholics claim to believe in salvation by grace alone, but they have a different understanding of the word ‘grace’. For them, grace is a spiritual blessing that Christ won which we continually apply in our pilgrimage towards salvation.

The word ‘grace’ is used in a number of senses in the New Testament. It’s a state (Rom 5:2), it’s the work of God’s Spirit in us (1 Cor 15:10), it’s Christ’s work (Titus 2:11), and it’s God’s gift to believers (Rom 12:6). However, all of these uses derive their meaning from the gracious attitude of God which has provided complete salvation for sinners (Eph 2:8-9; Rom 11:6). The fundamental meaning of grace is God’s attitude of unmerited favour toward sinners.

Therefore, in the biblical texts that speak of salvation being by grace, the meaning of grace is God’s unmerited favour towards humans (Titus 3:5). If Christ’s work on the cross is complete, then salvation must be a gift of God’s grace because he gives it free of charge. The inclusion of human works as a necessary requirement for salvation is a denial of God’s grace (Gal 2:21).

Why the Reformation must continue

The Catholic church is full of people who do not affirm what their institution still officially believes and teaches, and so we will find truly converted people within it. But this does not mean that the institution or its hierarchy have become evangelical. The perpetual difficulty when dealing with Catholics is their use of identical words with different meanings: statements they make may sound evangelical, but hidden beneath them is a system which denies Christ alone, faith alone and grace alone. Would that the Reformation were over! But while traditional masses are still said, gospel differences still exist.

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