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Is the Reformation Over?: An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism [Paperback]

Mark A. Noll , Carolyn Nystrom


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Book Description

1 April 2008
For the last few decades, Catholics and Protestants have been working to heal the wounds caused by centuries of mistrust. This book, a Christianity Today 2006 Book Award winner, provides an evaluation of contemporary Roman Catholicism and the changing relationship between Catholics and evangelicals. The authors examine past tensions, post Vatican II ecumenical dialogues, and social/political issues that have brought Catholics and evangelicals together. While not ignoring significant differences that remain, the authors call evangelicals to gain a new appreciation for the current character of the Catholic Church. Written by Mark Noll, one of the premier church historians of our day, and Carolyn Nystrom, this book will appeal to those interested in the relationship between evangelicals and the Catholic Church.

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An overall assessment of the current dialogue, and a thorough historical analysis. Superbly researched, documented and engagingly argued.

'Here is superb theological journalism ... A landmark resource for exploring the thelogical questions that Roman Catholic reconfiguration raises. This is an important book.' J.I. Packer, Professor of Theology, Regent College, Vancouver. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Mark A. Noll (Ph.D.,Vanderbilt University) is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of many books, including A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and Turning Points. Carolyn Nystrom, a freelance writer, is based in St. Charles, Illinois.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
66 of 71 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I don't know of a better book on the history of Evangelical and Catholic relations 8 Oct 2005
By Michael Dalton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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 `not the way they used to be.'" Billy Graham is an example. During the 1950's 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 1980's 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 Graham's 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. That's not to say that significant differences between the two groups don't remain. The book looks at areas of agreement and differences primarily from a historical point of view. My guess is that you won't 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 God's 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 material - broadly covering a wide variety of issues with great detail. This is must reading for those who want to seriously study Evangelical and Catholic relations.
25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly Recommended 26 Mar 2006
By Spacemouse - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Noll and Nystrom's analysis of Catholic-Evangelical relations is one of the best such works currently available, in that it is both scholarly and charitable. (Other authors on this subject could stand to learn a good deal from Noll and Nystrom's advice about incorporating the three theological virtues in study of Catholic-Protestant differences.) The tone is balanced and fair. The authors are not afraid to offer criticism of Roman Catholicism, but they are strong enough to point out problems within Evangelicalism as well. At times they take quite literally the Biblical injunction to remove the log from one's own eye before pointing out the specks in others.

One caveat to the readers who may be looking for something different: the subtitle may be something of a misnomer. The authors are not so much assessing Roman Catholicism as they are assessing the relationship between Catholics and Evangelicals. This is not a book focused on theological analysis of the remaining doctrinal differences, and it may disappoint readers who are looking for such analysis. Some such analysis does occur in chapters 5 and 9, but as it is brief, it doesn't do justice to many of the issues. (Catholics, for example, will be confused to find so much emphasis put on clerical celibacy, which is not even a matter of doctrine, while the description of the Catholic view of sacraments seems inadequate in several respects. Evangelicals, for their part, may wonder why issues that seem serious are simply passed over briefly.)

What the book does best is offer a history of the changing relationship between the two religious campus and a thorough analysis of how the situation now stands. Noll and Nystrom are also interested in how political views have shaped Evangelical responses to Catholicism, and they do a good job of gesturing towards some of the past history which may be unknown to today's Christians. The book is focused largely on American history and American strands of religion. On the one hand, this allows Noll and Nystrom to be very specific about the historical forces which have shaped Catholic-Protestant relations; on the other, it may leave readers wondering what the situation looks like outside of the United States.

On the positive side of the ledger, one of the greatest strengths of the book is the authors' awareness that Evangelicalism itself is not a uniform whole. Whereas many Evangelicals critique Catholicism solely from the vantage point of their own tradition, Noll and Nystrom indicate the breadth of different Evangelical opinions on such subjects as the nature of the church, the role of sacraments, and soteriology. As they astutely point out, the truth is that different groups of Evangelicals will find themselves in agreement with different aspects of Catholicism. Arminian Evangelicals will not react to the Catholic view of salvation in the same way that Calvinists would, for example. This may seem obvious, but I suspect that there are many Catholics out there who are not aware of the degree to which Evangelicals themselves disagree about many of the issues which divide Protestants and Catholics. This aspect of the book is one which may be very helpful to Catholic readers.

Catholic readers may also be intrigued by the chapter outlining recent ecumenical dialogues. The results of these dialogues, while limited, are still impressive, and I suspect that the average Catholic reader may be ignorant of much of this progress. Noll and Nystrom deserve credit for bringing concise but thorough summaries of official dialogues to a wider range of readers.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to either Catholic or Protestant readers interested in learning about the current state of Catholic-Evangelical affairs. Readers who are interested in doctrinal issues will likely want to read more, but fortunately, Noll and Nystrom include a strong guide to further reading from both Protestant and Catholic perspectives.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Takes its place in ecumenical dialogue 30 July 2005
By A Regular Joe - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In the spirit of Unitatis Redintegratio, these authors have embarked on a search of Christian history since the Reformation and how the evangelical Protestant view of Catholics has transformed through three major events: The election of John Paul II and his role in the collapse of communism, the Second Vatican Council, and the 1973 Roe v Wade decision that placed Catholics and Evangicals in America on the same team praying and working towards and end to the horrors of abortion.

The book does not serve to be overly biased towards Protestants or Catholics, but remains very fair in its assessment of the history of both groups and where we stand today. I believe it should take its place on any bookshelf of readers who have a concern for ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Protestants. Two thumbs up!
140 of 168 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One is tempted to just say . . . 24 July 2005
By Jan P. Dennis - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Yes.

That's the simple, if too glib, answer. And the authors, who have taken a good deal of time and care to carefully examine the question, deserve a better response than that. Still, as a former Protestant Evangelical who entered the Catholic Church on the Easter Vigil of 2005, that's the conclusion I came to.

I came to the Catholic Church because I arrived at the point where I could affirm her self-understanding. This came about through a thirty-year process where I looked at the questions dividing Evangelicalism and Catholicism from the point of view of history, theology, and practice. Since Mark Noll is a historian, he seems especially attuned to the strength of the Catholic position, and the weakness of the Evangelical position, vis-a-vis history. Anyone who looks closely at the history of the Church in the first few centuries following Christ's resurrection will see clearly that it very early on takes on a Catholic appearance. From Clement of Rome through Ignatius of Antioch through Polycarp through Justin Martyr through Iranaeus--that is, from about the end of the first century through the end of the second century--the Church increasingly comes to resemble its present shape, in its structure, ecclesiology, liturgy, theology, and sacramental understanding. This is so clearly established that no one, except Protestant liberals like Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, questions it anymore. The difficulty for Protestant Evangelicals is that they accept the theological developments but not the structural, ecclesiological, liturgical, and sacramental developments. The question arises, why accept the one and reject the others? How is it that the same Church that is developing proper Trinitarian and Christological understandings, as well as determining the canon of Scripture, can be right in the one area and wrong in the other areas? What principal is at work here? The problem with Protestantism is that there are no historical antecedents for it. That is, it can't be shown to have existed before the 16th century. The question then arises, If Protestantism is true, why did it take the Church 1500 years to find it out? For some strange reason, Protestants seem to have seldom asked themselves this question. Indeed, as recently as 1953 we have the noted Protestant theologian and historian Oscar Cullman writing: "We, on the Protestant side, are beginning to understand the immense wealth that is contained in the writing of the Church Fathers and are beginning to rid ourselves of that strange conception of the Church's history that claims that, with the exception of a few sects, there was a total eclipse of the Gospel between the second and sixteenth centuries." The remarkable thing to me about this quote is that it acknowledges that it took Protestantism 400 years to discover it had no heritage, except the writings of the Catholic Church, which it initially rejected.

On the theological side, N. T. Wright (along with Ed Sanders and Ben Meyer) has definitively shown in What St. Paul Really Said and in The Climax of the Covenant that Paul can't be made to have said what the Reformers said he said, namely, that Justification should primarily be understood as the divine imputation of Christ's righteousness to the sinner, taking place under some heavenly juridical circumstances. Indeed, as Noll acknowledges, Protestants are coming to understand the difficulties in sustaining a Reformed understanding of Justification, just as they are coming to realize that Catholics have always affirmed that it is God who Justifies sinners. The dispute really hasn't been about Justification as much as it has been about what Faith means. For Protestants, Faith has traditionally meant assent to the Gospel message; for Catholics, Faith has meant not only assent to the Gospel message but also entrance into the Body of Christ and faithfulness to it and its Head, Jesus Christ. From a Catholic perspective, it appears that the authors have a fairly adequate understanding both of the Catholic position and what still prevents full acceptance of it by Evangelicals, but they seem insufficiently aware of the erosion to the classic Protestant position that has occurred as a consequence of the work of Wright and as a result of a better formulation of the Catholic position by its theologians.

The authors do seem to have grasped the idea that what most deeply and significantly divides Protestant Evangelicals and Catholics is a different concept of the Church. But even here, I'm not sure they've really put their finger on it. For a Catholic, the unvarying record of Scripture and early Church writings establishes beyond a doubt that Jesus Christ intended not only to establish the Church as a visible, institutional continuation of his ministry, but passed on to it some of the divine prerogatives of his ministry (always, it must be remembered, acting in His name, He Himself being the Real Minister), such as the keys, the forgiveness of sins, and the consecration of the Eucharistic gifts. Protestants do not believe the Church has been given such prerogatives, nor do they believe it was established by Christ, despite the fact that Catholic understandings about the Church, its structure, sacraments, and ministry arose very early and without dispute within the Church itself. For a Protestant the Church is a consequence of the believer's Justification by God by divine decree. It is the fellowship of all those who share this experience of Justification. The problem with this position is that it reduces Christianity to a theory of how Atonement works. The Catholic position, on the other hand, is rooted in an understanding that Christianity is the coming to fruition of God's eternal plan worked out in history in the person of Jesus Christ and continued in his divine/historical Body, the Church.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Reformation is Finally Beginning 29 Jan 2006
By Daniel E. Sullivan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"Is the Reformation Over" has as its subtitle "An Evangelical Assessment of Roman Catholicism". Readers should keep in mind that it is a historical assessment and not primarily a theological one. And as a historical assessment, it is a worthy read.

No doubt most laypeople in both the evangelical and Roman Catholic traditions are largely unaware of the long dialog that has been occurring between the Vatican and representatives of various Protestant traditions, usually initiated by Rome. Noll does a service to all by providing a brief synopsis of those dialogs, including the points of agreement and disagreement. This is the most helpful portion of the book in simply raising awareness of how committed John Paul II was to seeking Christian unity and how much progress has been made since Vatican II in at least discussing the issues that have separated Western Christians for four hundred years.

The section on the history of Protestant and Catholic relations in the United States are also very helpful in understanding why acrimony has long existed and why the political climate has aided recent dialog and built alliances.

Many reviewers have pointed to the statement of early reformers that the reformation stands or falls on justification by faith, a point Noll himself makes. And in light of the Joint Declaration on Justification worked through with Lutheran representatives as well as other Protestant/Catholic discussions and documents, it would appear Rome has moved significantly toward the Protestant view, and that Protestants better understand the Catholic position. Though Catholics define both grace and faith somewhat differently from Protestants, the fact that there is agreement on the words themselves is a tremendous milestone.

But if theology of salvation is no longer a significant obstacle to fellowship, Noll's view is that the main remaining hurdle is ecclesiology. While many Protestants believe Catholic doctrines about Mary and the saints, Purgatory and the Papacy are the prime objects of contention, Noll's point is that those doctrines remain a result of differing views of the nature of the church. To Catholics, it is the church that is the source of truth and the church that defines essential doctrine, even though Catholics today place even the teaching magisterium of the church under scripture in theory. As long as Rome sees itself as the official interpreter of scripture and the key defender of apostolic tradition, it will be difficult to have a ground for discussion of those particular topics.

Protestant ecclesiology is admitted by many Protestants to be thin, still it is unlikely Protestants will ever accept doctrines as essential which have little clear Biblical support merely on the word of certain bishops, and even if the worst fears about some Catholic doctrines are the result of misunderstanding and misinterpretation, the implications of many Catholic doctrines trouble Protestants still. But Noll's point is well taken, that the central issue is the nature of the church and the question "who defines essential doctrine?" must come before the discussion of the doctrines themselves.

Noll does not conclude that the Reformation is over, but considering the significant, though not perfect, agreement on justification and the place of scripture, it is certainly the case that the Reformers' pleas have at least been heard in Rome.
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