Is the Reformation over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism
The title of this post comes from that of a book by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom and published by Baker Academic in 2005. The first author is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College while the second one is freelance writer, based in St. Charles, Illinois. The title itself explains the content of the book. It first summarized chronologically history of conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. The authors noted these two communities in the past regarded each other with the gravest suspicion. This started to change from early 1960’s – “Things Are Not The Way They Used to Be” is the title of the first chapter.
Based on anti-Catholic literature, the authors summarized common Protestant’s view on Catholicism, i.e. they think the Catholic Church:
taught that people earned their salvation by doing good deeds
- prevented common people from reading the Bible and from taking their guidance for life from Scripture;
- manufactured extra-biblical saints, festivals, and rites that substituted human imagination for biblical pattern of worship;
- took away glory from Christ by making Mary a coauthor of salvation;
- wantonly corrupted Scripture by forcing new doctrines onto people merely at the whim of popes and councils whose supposed authority was no more than the imperialistic expression of their own selfish ambition; and
- promoted a corrupting, despotic hierarchy that stripped the faithful of their proper status as priests before God.
On the other hand, according the authors, Catholics view Protestants as those who:
- offered a “salvation” by faith that denied the need of holiness before God;
- abandoned the Bible to the interpretation of every Tom, Dick and Mary (no matter how bizarre those interpretations might be) and, by so doing, effectively stripped the Bible of normative, authoritative meaning;
- denied the ability of the Holy Spirit to work through ongoing teaching officers in the church as the Spirit had earlier worked to bring the church into existence;
- scandalously neglected God’s gracious help provided to humanity in the person of the blessed Virgin Mary and the exemplary saints;
- rejected the apostolic authority of bishops, councils, and popes and so abetted the rising Western tide of rationalism, secularism, and moral anarchy;
- foolishly neglected the seven sacraments that brought God’s grace to every crucial point in a person’s life; and
- forsook genuine ecclesiastical leadership of the God-given community of faith in favour of a political free-for-all in which authority was reduced to individualism as a principle and individualistic manipulation as a practice.
In chapter three the authors analyzed the reason why there was a change in the relation between Catholics and Protestants. From Catholic side there was Vatican II council that declared non-Catholic Christians as “brothers” and acknowledged both sides were to blame for ecclesiastical rupture of the Reformation. In other words the Catholic Church started becoming ecumenical after Vatican II. The authors listed a number of ecumenical dialogues between Catholic Church and various Protestant (and non-Catholic) denomination in Chapter 4. The so-called ECT (Evangelical and Catholics Together) is discussed separately in Chapter 6. Near end of chapter 4 four un-reconciled differences are listed. They are (1) ecclesial authority of the Church, (2) Tradition and Scripture as Authority, (3) Sacraments and (4) small but practical unresolved differences (they are: devotion to Mary, celibacy of clergy, birth control, saints, marriage and divorce, and women in ordained ministry). Interestingly they wrote that ‘Catholics and Protestants agree that it was the church exercising its authority that defined the present canon of Scripture.’
Chapter 5 deals solely with Catechism of the Catholic Church. The authors estimated that evangelicals can embrace at least two-thirds of the Catechism (page 119). They noted that evangelicals will not be able to embrace all areas of Catholic devotion as outlined in the Catechism. Rosaries; relics; sacred places; pilgrimages; prayer to and through the saints; devotion to the elements of the Eucharist, to Mary, to a crucifix, and to Scripture itself (page 124). The explanation is simple – with few exceptions Protestants and “Bible only” Christians are not accustomed to sacramental principle, i.e. that God can use material or ritual to channel His Grace; because of this they tend to associate all those practices with idolatry. As for (prayer to and through) Mary and saints (in heaven) the difference comes from different understanding of what is called communion of saints. To Catholics it means we have interaction between saints on earth, those who are in heaven and in purgatory – this is why we can ask saints in heaven to pray for us, just as we ask saints on earth to do the same. Here the authors made a mistake when they wrote ‘Since evangelicals speak of saints as all true believers in Christ, they are mystified as to why Catholics set apart certain people for their designation (page 143). Had they checked the Catechism more thoroughly they would discover that it explicitly declares “The Church, then, is “the holy People of God,” and her members are called “saints.” (# 823) Nevertheless the authors wrote that evangelicals will find much to approve Catechism declaration on issues like respect for human life and sexual ethics. They correctly explained that Catholic Church is sacramental church: the Eucharist is the high point of the Mass that all other aspects of worship point toward or flow from. By contrast, evangelical tradition has given the sermon pre-eminence in worship. They also noted that Catholic worship does not disregard Scripture. Indeed, long passages of biblical text are read aloud in each service, covering much of the Bible every year – resulting in far more public hearing of Scripture than in almost any Protestant denomination (underlined emphasis is added). Chapter 5 ends with a question to evangelicals: Why do we [evangelicals] not possess such a thorough, clear, and God centered account of our faith as the Catechism offers to Roman Catholics? If I may answer this question, as former evangelical, it will be: there is no unity within evangelicalism – they may agree and disagree in many aspects of faith; under such circumstances it is impossible to define a unified catechism for all evangelicals, thoroughly detailed as the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The authors themselves noted that evangelicals themselves are divided on what the sacraments are and how they should be used (page 235). Are they only remembrances or are they events when God on his own initiative does something of saving significance to and for his people (page 236)? Other issues like whether our salvation is assured or conditional, human freedom and predestination also divide evangelicalism, though not many are aware.
In the last chapter the authors wrote that the central difference that continues to separate evangelicals and Catholics is not Scripture, justification by faith, the pope, Mary, the sacraments, or clerical celibacy – though the central difference is reflected in differences on these matters – but the nature of the church. For Catholics, the visible, properly constituted, and hierarchically governed church is the principal God-ordained agent for the work of apostolic ministry. For evangelicals, the church is the body of Christ made up of all those who have responded to the apostolic proclamation of the God-given offer of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ (page 237). In other words evangelicals view church as community of believers while to Catholics the Church is both community of believers and institution with God-given authority. Near the end of their book the authors wrote: asking whether the Reformation is over may not even be the most pertinent question. It may be more to the point to ask other questions: Is God truly going to draw people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation – and major Christian tradition – to worship together the Lamb who was slain? Can he really make of them – all these tongues and peoples and traditions – a single kingdom united in the body of his Son Jesus Christ? Should believers in an all-powerful, all-merciful God doubt that such signs and wonders might still take place?