This book’s title might baffle those familiar with the Reformation era and attuned to current American realities. Open the yellow pages and look under “Churches.” Or drive down the streets of any American town and note the variety of Christian places of worship. Of course the Reformation isn’t over-look at how divided Christians are among themselves!

Such realities are not lost on the authors, respectively a leading historian of American Protestantism and a freelance writer who has written on Thomas à Kempis for evangelical Protestants. Yet their useful, sympathetic book compiles evidence for the extent to which relationships between evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, particularly in the United States, have changed dramatically over the past half-century, and offers “an assessment of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church” based on “the classic ideals of the Protestant Reformation” (sola scriptura, sola fide, and the priesthood of all believers).

Accordingly, the study is part historical, part sociological, and part theological. On the basis of opinion polls, sociological studies, comments by church leaders, shared activities, and joint statements from the formal, Catholic-initiated ecumenical dialogues, the authors make a very strong case about how a relationship characterized mostly by mutual antagonism between the sixteenth century and the 1950s has largely become one of mutual respect and even “partnership” in recent decades. (American evangelical Protestants surveyed in early 2004 had a more favorable opinion of Pope John Paul II than of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson.) Hence the book’s title. Noll and Nystrom attribute the change to a number of factors, including: Vatican II and especially its Decree on Ecumenism; the waning of the relative importance of European Christianity in a global context; charismatic and student Christian movements; increasing secularization and moral permissiveness in American society; individual initiatives to promote respectful interactions; and evangelical appreciation for aspects of Roman Catholicism. The authors’ own appreciation for official Catholic teaching is apparent in their extended reading of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which they praise for its clarity and thoroughness, with “paragraph after paragraph leading to worship and prayer.” Notwithstanding criticisms, they “estimate that evangelicals can embrace at least two-thirds of the Catechism.” How many Catholics have even read one-third of it?

Particularly in their chapters on ecumenical dialogues, the Catechism, and “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” the statements organized by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Charles Colson, Noll and Nystrom balance recently acknowledged agreements with remaining disagreements, rightly noting that “ecclesiology represents the crucial difference between evangelicals and Catholics.” Indeed, they articulate well the foundational importance of Catholic ecclesiology for the whole of Catholic teaching and life.

The authors are doubtless correct in noting the dramatic change in tone and collegiality in the relationship between many Catholics and evangelical Protestants in the past half-century. But what is its character? As a Reformation scholar, I view it less as a change in doctrinal substance (at least thus far) than a radical shift in attitude. Whereas in the Reformation era Protestant and Catholic controversialists alike stressed doctrinal differences notwithstanding their many shared convictions, today the situation is precisely reversed: Catholics and Protestants, including evangelicals, buffeted by massive secularization in Western society since the 1960s, inhabit “an atmosphere predisposed to maximize agreement and minimize difference.” Traditional doctrinal differences seem much less significant than shared resistance (“cobelligerency”) toward troubling societal trends.

Yet this dramatic, attitudinal about face means that some of the purported breakthroughs in recent ecumenical dialogues may more accurately be regarded as at most a slight move beyond the mutual recognition of doctrines that in fact have been shared through centuries of antagonism. Traditionally, since the sixteenth century Catholics have held along with Lutherans, Reformed Protestants, and Anglicans, for example, that the Bible is the Word of God, that God is triune, that Jesus Christ is the Word incarnate and is the risen Lord and Savior, that the Holy Spirit is active in the church, that there is no salvation without faith and God’s grace, and so forth. So it is hardly surprising that variations on these shared convictions show up in ecumenical declarations.

Mutual affection and good will is certainly preferable to antagonism, and shared convictions are obviously a more promising foundation for ecumenical progress than are long-divisive, divergent beliefs. Yet the hypernuanced, sometimes tortured, language characteristic of many ecumenical documents cannot but make those familiar with Western Christian theology and history since the Reformation wonder about the nature and force of such “agreements.” Catholic and Lutheran theologians also reached a temporary, tentative joint statement on justification at the Regensburg Colloquy of 1541, but not on issues that remain divisive today. Whatever the nature of formal agreements and ecumenical statements, though, the current situation is an advance beyond mutual hostility and frequent willful misrepresentation. As the authors write, “In the current reality of a fragmented body of Christ, believers should thank God for openings leading to engagement, dialogue, and cooperation.” Amen.

The book’s principal weakness derives from the ambivalence of the term “evangelical” that runs through it. Noll and Nystrom repeatedly refer to wide variations among evangelical beliefs and practices in various “churches and parachurches,” and yet often write as though “evangelical” had an identifiable referent. So too, their references to “the Reformation itself” as though it were a coherent movement and to “the Reformers” of the sixteenth century as though they agreed with one another, is deeply problematic, doubly so insofar as today’s evangelicals are said to include, for example, “Augustinian evangelicals” and “Arminian evangelicals” (a coupling that would have baffled and horrified Reformed theologians of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, not to mention orthodox Reformed theologians today), as well as evangelicals who practice infant baptism and others who reject it (a difference inseparable in the Reformation era from the essence of being a Christian, and dividing Anabaptists from Protestants who cooperated with political authorities). The problem is not simply ecclesiological, but also ecclesial and doctrinal, an issue not simply of a theology of the church but of its very being and of the content of Christian truth. What is the church? What is Christian truth, and how are Christians to live? In a context of divergent scriptural interpretations, recourse to the authority of Scripture as a standard of orthodoxy simply begs the question. Whose interpretation? Why this one among all the others? At the end of their chapter on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Noll and Nystrom state that rather than asking whether the Reformation is over, “Maybe a better question we evangelicals should ask ourselves is, Why do we not possess such a thorough, clear, and God-centered account of our faith as the Catechism offers to Roman Catholics?” The answer is plain: it is unclear to whom “we evangelicals” refers, what the content of “[their] faith” is, who would write such a document, and what authority it could have.

Published in the 2006-01-13 issue: View Contents

Brad S. Gregory is associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Harvard University Press).

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