“Is the Reformation Over?” by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom

Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005).

Sounds like a good question, doesn’t it? This is certainly a question that must be asked with some regularity. Of course, we also have to ask more strictly theological questions such as ‘What would it mean for the Reformation to be over?’ and ‘What was the point of the Reformation?’ But, I don’t intend to undertake that extensive task here! What I do intend to do is give you the shape of this volume and then reflect upon it a little bit.

The Book’s Shape
  • Introduction
  • The introduction is primarily composed of anecdotes and statistics, precisely the stuff that interesting social history treatments are made of. The focus is on similarities in piety and culture between contemporary evangelicals and Catholics. This focus on shared piety / culture seemed to set the stage for the whole volume.
  • Chapter 1: Things Are Not the Way They Used to Be
  • The focus on this chapter was on cooperation between Catholics and evangelicals, with Billy Graham as the flagship example. Evangelical respect for Pope John Paul II, as well as cross-pollination in contemporary Christian music and the Vatican’s (limited) endorsement of the ‘Alpha’ course, are brought forward. It is further noted that many of the anathema’s of the Reformation have been set-aside.
  • Chapter 2: Historic Standoff
  • An introductory history of the Reformation is offered, and contemporary communication and cooperation are emphasized. The Council of Regensberg (1541) is brought up, about which we will have more to say later.
  • Chapter 3: Why Did Things Change?
  • Vatican 2 is the superstar here, and it shows us that the Roman Catholic church can change (about which we will have more to say later). Furthermore, the Roman Catholic church is not a monolith, even though they all share fellowship with the pope (about which we will have more to say later). The ‘Joint Declaration’ is discussed (about which we will have more to say later), and the pentecostal / charismatic movements are show to blur boundaries.
  • Chapter 4: Ecumenical Dialogues
  • The ‘Joint Declaration’ comes up again, as do many other of the Roman Catholic church’s ecumenical dialogues. Indeed, this chapter is a helpful index for these activities. Particular issues are discussed in terms of agreement and disagreement.
  • Chapter 5: The Catholic Catechism
  • The content of the official Catholic catechism is discussed in terms of agreement and disagreement. The authors, while recognizing differences in teaching on salvation, think that both sides accept that we are saved “by grace through faith” (142), about which we will have something to say below in our discussion of the ‘Joint Declaration’.
  • Chapter 6: Evangelicals and Catholics Together
  • Here we find primarily historical discussion of the ecumenical discussions between evangelicals and Catholics. This chapter lays the foundation for the following two, so read it well.
  • Chapter 7: Reactions from Antagonism to Conversion
  • Critics and supporters of the discussions previewed in the previous chapter are discussed, as are their arguments, etc. The chapter ends with short biographical vignettes of some evangelicals / protestants who have converted, with some discussion as to why they converted. This last bit is interesting reading.
  • Chapter 8: An American Assessment
  • This chapter is something of a continuation of the previous and deals with issues specific to the American context. Topics such as the recent Catholic sex scandals are discussed.
  • Chapter 9: Is the Reformation Over?
  • I want to say a little more about this chapter. While this should have been the payoff chapter, instead it proved to be the most frustrating. Why? Because the authors provide no answer to the title question of the volume. The reader is taken along in an enjoyable (because of all the anecdotes and stories), informative (because of all the historical discussion), and fair-minded exploration of the question only to be left at the end without an answer. Or, to form their own answer, the author’s might counter. What we are left with is an admonition: “Look around. Listen. It is happening right before our eyes and ears” (251), ‘it’ being the process of communication and cooperation that will eventually (God willing!) lead back to church unity. But, this raises a very important question…
  • Further Reading
  • This chapter is a particularly helpful resource and highlights the volume's usefulness as a guide to the various ecumenical discussions.


(1) This volume was, from the beginning, set up in such a way as to make cultural / social and pietistic issues primary, and doctrinal issues secondary (although I do not wish to imply that doctrinal issues were not discussed or were not discussed well – much to the contrary). The sum of this book’s argument seems to be: “Catholics and Protestants used to hate each other. Now, not so much. Heck, we can even get along. Some of our side (Protestant) have switched over to their side. We’re not really that different. We agree on a lot of things, and are those other things really that important? Why don’t we try to get to know each other better? Who knows where this relationship might go!” I know that I’m over-simplifying, but this seems to be the dominant strand. And this strand is fine so far as it goes. I am perfectly happy to treat Catholics like brothers and sisters in Christ, I am happy to partner with them in ministry, etc. But all this means is that history has progressed to such a point that we are all willing to be nicer to each other. It does not imply that the Reformation is approaching the end of its course. In other words, what about doctrine?

(2) The authors discuss the Council of Regensberg of 1541, but they don’t get a couple things exactly right. They rightly note that Calvin was there, and thought it remarkable that the Catholics conceded as much as they did, but the authors didn’t mention that after Regensberg Calvin basically lost all hope of reunion with Rome. Why? Because both the Pope and Luther rejected the results (the authors fail to mention this). Furthermore, the Catholics involved in the discussion weren’t representative. Rather, they were very reform-minded Catholics (Contarini, for instance, who was well known for his work toward reform from within the Catholic system). And, this leads us to questions about the Roman Catholic church.

(3) We are told by the authors that the Roman church can and has changed. This is true in a lot of ways. Certainly aspects of medieval piety have been surpassed and, since Vatican 2, doctrine much more acceptable to Protestants has been introduced into the Catholic teaching (cf. the Catholic catechism). But, in what sense does the Roman church ‘change’? The answer: by augmentation. Once a particular teaching is affirmed by a council or by other due process of the magisterium, or even once it has been common belief for a significant period of time, the Roman church cannot jettison it. It can explain things in very interesting and imaginative ways. It can ignore things. But they cannot be ‘deleted’, as it were. They can only be ‘burried’ under new statements and formulations. You can see this for instance in the discussion of ‘real presence’ in the eucharist in the Catholic catechism (1994). You get this really nice discussion, but then at the end you find all the Tridentine stuff. It’s still there (they can’t get rid of it!), but it’s buried. Indeed, the subtitle of this volume concerns itself with ‘Contemporary Roman Catholicism’, something that may exist from a social / historical perspective (‘contemporary’ is a temporal category after all), but doesn’t fit well with theology that takes the communion of the saints and the Christian tradition as seriously as does Rome.

(4) The authors tell us that the Roman church is not a monolith, even though they all share fellowship with Rome. But, what seems to slip through the cracks is that fellowship with Rome is constitutive of being part of the true church for Catholics. Sure, since Vatican 2 they have been willing to talk about the rest of us as ‘separated brethren’, but fellowship with Rome is still the decisive point in their ecclesiology.

(5) The ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’, a product of Lutheran / Catholic ecumenical talks (accepted in 1999 if I recall properly) is mentioned with some regularity, and assertions are made concerning the congruence of Protestant and Catholic belief on salvation. What we think on this point is central, as the authors point out, because: “If…both groups can agree (as they appear to) that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, evangelicals and Catholics can welcome each other as brothers and sisters of the family created by God’s grace, regardless of whatever else either may want to say” (142). Now, I am perfectly willing to admit the possibility that there are Catholics (and probably even the Catholics involved in discussions with evangelicals) who do think of salvation in more Reformational modes. And, perhaps even the official Catholic teaching of the present day (cf. point #3 above) can be interpreted this way, but is it actually the case that there is agreement? I am not convinced that there is agreement. My study of the ‘Joint Declaration’ has led me to largely discount it as significant basis for agreement. Perhaps I’ll post about that at some point.

(6) Though I won’t elaborate here, I think that the Marian dogmas and the Roman ecclesiology are much more important barriers to any sort of official communion with Rome than the authors seem to believe. These points come up and are discussed as barriers, but I would want to press these things much more strongly.

In conclusion, I want to be perfectly clear that I have the utmost respect for Mark Noll. As a Wheaton alumnus, Noll’s life and work has influenced my own through personal, institution, and intellectual avenues. But, I don’t think the Reformation is anywhere near over. And no amount of liturgical cross-pollination or singing of Michael Talbot songs is going to make me change my mind. Do I think that we could achieve eucharistic sharing in the near future? It is possible. In fact, I'm in favor of it. But, you won’t find me converting.


millinerd said…
Thanks for this clear analysis Travis. I too was puzzled by the volume and you helped me see why.
WTM said…
Glad to have helped, Matt. I'd love to hear more about your (previous?) puzzlement...
millinerd said…
The book helped me see how history is able to illuminate issues where abstract approaches cannot. Yet thanks to your post I now see the corollary is that no stand was taken, just a happy blending that appealed to "lets get along" instinct, which didn't dawn on me until your post.

Elsewhere Noll appeals to "deeply personal" reasons for staying Protestant, which is fine, but idiosyncratic.

I did find Noll's linguistic analogy (Greek, Latin, European, African) at the end rather helpful. Especially the idea of their being "bilingual" options. It seems to be a popularization of Lindbeck's linguistic approach to doctrine, which at its best is genuinely "Pentecostal," at its worst leads to muddy ambiguity.

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