Mark Noll and Caroyln Nystrom’s book, Is the Reformation Over?, with this post is now over for the immediate future. Without getting into every chp, and there were some good chps left, I do want to offer what I see as a fundamental problem with the book:
I begin my critique by asking a question that I asked in a previous post, and then I will answer it with a few observations.
Here’s the question I propose to you regarding Noll and Nystrom’s book, Is the Reformation Over?: How significant are ecumenical dialogues for (1) the RC Church as a whole and (2) for lay level understandings of the RC faith? Here’s another way of putting it: If the local Dean at St Mary of the Lake Seminary and I got a group of Catholic theologians and evangelical theologians together to discuss our views of the sacraments and learned to say things a little more delicately in light of one another’s genuine contributions, how much impact would that have at Willow Creek Community Church or Santa Maria del Popolo Church? Put directly, what influence do ecumenical dialogues have on denominational statements of faith and lay level comprehensions of the faith?
The problem I see with the book is that it focuses on what ecumenical dialogues contribute to reality, and I’m not sure — however much I like such things — ecumenical dialogues accomplish all that much except for (1) those involved and (2) those who are close to the minds of those involved. What happens at a local church when some ecumenically-minded theologians get together and come to some agreement?
Here’s what I mean in this case: I don’t see that typical, lay-level (and ordinary priests I bump into) Roman Catholics understand justification the way Protestants do, at least in any meaningful sense. I study conversion stories, and right now I’m doing some research on why Catholics become Evangelicals. What I see is that, while the theologians might be able to articulate at a profound level the subtle differences that mean the differences are not as substantial as once thought, the lay folks are not hearing that. Hundreds of former Catholics are baptized each year at Willow Creek. In fact, if you study the fast-growing churches in the USA you would find that many of the “converts” are former Catholics. Evangelical conversions to Catholicism are noisy, but the number is nowhere near as high as the other direction.
As I read Noll and Nystrom, I kept asking myself this: If there is a growing rapprochement between Catholics and Protestants why are we not seeing it at the grass-roots level more than we are? Is it still in the ivory tower that this is happening?
There’s another issue: it is well and good to see Evangelicals and RCs discussing justification and to point out that there are more similarities than we really believed. That’s not the issue: the issue is the place of justification in Protestantism and in Roman Catholicism. For RCs it is not as central as it is to Evangelicals. One ought to compare Prot views of soteriology/justification to RC views of Church to get the real tension point.
Yet another point: the gospel of evangelical Prots is overwhelmingly individualistic, and justification is set within that matrix by evangelicals, but the gospel of RCism is overwhelmingly corporate, and justification is set in that matrix. It is not — critics listen up — that evangelicals don’t ever venture into a more corporate sense of justification or that RCs don’t ever do the individual thing. It is about emphasis. Those emphases make a big difference.
Now a final point: I see the most hope for genuine rapprochement with the “evangelical Catholics” we hear now so much about. I do think they have recovered the Protestant sense of personal faith, and when I’m with such folks, I really do sense that we are at one in much more than a “it’s PC to say so, isn’t it?”. A place to see some of is Colleen Carroll’s The New Faithful.
But, until the grassroots level is hearing this, and this will come about only by a massive shift in the American seminaries where priests are trained — and evangelical Catholics have said this to me numerous times, the emphasis on personal faith as the entry point into the conversion point will remain the central stumbling block to any kind of genuine dialogue and unity.
Final point: yes, I do think there has been great progress in the discussions. I really do believe this. And from that angle, some of the Reformation is over. But, when I listen to the lay level discussion, the Reformation is not over. It is alive and well.