This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume29, number4 (2006). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
Mark A. Noll is the McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, a widely read author, and is considered to be an expert on the history and character of the evangelical church in America. His current work, Is the Reformation Over? coauthored with freelance writer Carolyn Nystrom, takes aim at a vital question: Given the developments in dialogue between various Protestant groups and the Roman Catholic hierarchy since Vatican II (1962–1965), can we say with all honesty that the Reformation is over? For those who look to the Reformation as an act of God’s grace, the question is timely and pointed.
The work provides extensive discussion and documentation not only of the past history of relationships between Roman Catholicism and American evangelicalism, but of the many ecumenical dialogues that have taken place since Vatican II. The first four chapters of the work provide the historical background and a summary of the conclusions and joint affirmations between Rome and various denominations that are generally identified as “evangelical.” The fifth chapter focuses on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), the sixth, on the documents that have come out of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement, and the seventh, on the reactions of evangelicals to the changes, from strong rejection of them (e.g., R. C. Sproul, John MacArthur) to adoption of them, that is, conversion (e.g., Peter Kreeft, Scott Hahn).
The final chapters answer the question contained in the title. Focusing on a highly selective reading of the Catechism and nondogmatic documents such as “The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” Noll and Nystrom conclude, “If it is true, as once was repeated frequently by Protestants conscious of their anchorage in Martin Luther or John Calvin that…justification is the article on which the church stands or falls…, then the Reformation is over” (p. 232). The continued differences are not about Scripture, justification, the papacy, Mary, the sacraments, or clerical celibacy, the authors assert, “but the nature of the church” (238). They add, “If relatively important theological differences still divide Catholics and evangelicals, nonetheless, the contemporary world needs to hear more about what Catholics and evangelicals share in common than about their legitimate disagreements” (248). The book exhorts evangelicals to “come and see,” that is, to follow Nathanael’s example (John 1:46–49) and “look at the situation as it has actually come to exist in the Roman Catholic Church” so that they can be in the proper position to “consider whether the Reformation is over” (251).
This work is indeed a milestone, but it is one in the movement away from the Reformation that is seen in wide segments of evangelicalism today. The book is tremendously imbalanced. It displays imbalance against evangelicalism in almost every aspect of its presentation. The fifth chapter is a glowing endorsement and promotion of the Catechism, and though a small effort is made to note “differences,” these caveats are hardly sufficient to mask the authors’ clear bias toward the Catechism. Likewise, when discussing almost any historical interaction, they paint Protestants in poor light. The book gives the idea that Catholicism is the rich, intellectual tradition, whereas evangelicalism is barren and shallow. It repeatedly praises G.K. Chesterton, while ignoring the likes of John Calvin, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, J. Gresham Machen, and B. B. Warfield.
The fifth chapter’s imbalanced review of the Catholic Catechism is outdone by the seventh chapter’s discussion of the reaction to changes since Vatican II. Before introducing a few comments by R. C. Sproul, without their context, the writers opine, “But rejecting Catholicism is not limited to evangelicals who are paranoid or ignorant” (187). Noll and Nystrom present men like Sproul and MacArthur in a clearly different light than their more broad-minded Catholic counterparts. The authors take much space to criticize the conservative defenses of the Reformation. They then give each of an entire string of converts to Roman Catholicism—including Thomas Howard, Peter Kreeft, Scott and Kimberly Hahn, John Michael Talbot, and Robert Sungenis—space to present his or her primary arguments. They do not report one word of response, however, nor do they include a single discussion of Catholic converts to Protestantism. Noll and Nystrom make wildly controversial statements, such as “Christians of the early centuries were Catholic,” without even attempting balance. The final portions are a thinly veiled plea for ecumenical abandonment of the central tenets of the Reformation itself.
In summary, the work proves that although the Reformation may be over for many who are not Roman Catholic, for those who love the key truths of sola scriptura, sola gratia, and sola fide (“scripture alone,” “grace alone,” and “faith alone”), the work is ongoing, and just as vital today as it ever was.