Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Trueman Review of Noll's Is the Reformation Over?

I want to keep the discussion on baptism going (from the two earlier posts), but I have also just come across a really good article that deserves the attention of pastors and church leaders (as well as many others). Mark Noll’s latest book, Is the Reformation Over?, raises important questions about the continuing validity of the Reformation, and the difference or lack thereof between Evangelicalism and Catholicism. I have not read the book but have read an excerpt in Books and Culture and been in a number of conversations concerning the book. I have ended up concerned with what appears to be the thesis of the book. Thus, I was excited to see that my friend Carl Trueman had written a review of the book. The review is not short, but it deserves reading. Trueman is a careful scholar (church historian), sound theologian and a churchman (i.e. one who thinks all of this must be lived out in the local church and loves the church). Thus, his thoughts are significant to me.

Trueman, while conceding a number of strengths in the book, finds himself in disagreement with the basic argument of the book. I appreciated the discussion because I find myself increasingly uneasy with how many evangelicals seem to embrace Rome. While I appreciate the conservative Catholic affirmation of absolutes in the arena of truth and morality (e.g. abortion), significant problems remain with official teachings like purgatory, penance, indulgences, mass, etc. which reveal deep seated differences in how we understand the gospel.

Here is the concluding paragraph. I hope the heart of the matter comes across from this passage:

It Ain't Over 'Till the Fat Lady Sings A Review by Carl Trueman

When I finished reading the book, I have to confess that I agreed with the authors, in that it does indeed seem that the Reformation is over for large tracts of evangelicalism; yet the authors themselves do not draw the obvious conclusion from their own arguments. Every year I tell my Reformation history class that Roman Catholicism is, at least in the West, the default position. Rome has a better claim to historical continuity and institutional unity than any Protestant denomination, let alone the strange hybrid that is evangelicalism; in the light of these facts, therefore, we need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic; not being a Catholic should, in others words, be a positive act of will and commitment, something we need to get out of bed determined to do each and every day. It would seem, however, that if Noll and Nystrom are correct, many who call themselves evangelical really lack any good reason for such an act of will; and the obvious conclusion, therefore, should be that they do the decent thing and rejoin the Roman Catholic Church. I cannot go down that path myself, primarily because of my view of justification by faith and because of my ecclesiology; but those who reject the former and lack the latter have no real basis upon which to perpetuate what is, in effect, an act of schism on their part. For such, the Reformation is over; for me, the fat lady has yet to sing; in fact, I am not sure at this time that she has even left her dressing room.

His point is well taken, that, in fact, the Reformation is over in many churches. But, this is something to be mourned rather than celebrated. He argues at various places that one reason why there is sometimes more agreement today between evangelicals and Rome is that Rome knows her clearly defined positions but evangelicals often lack such definitions and have forgotten their history.


Joseph Gould said...

Dr. Van Neste,
Thanks for making known this helpful review. I have been in conversation recently with a Catholic/open theist over the Protestant/Catholic split. He has studied under Greg Boyd and is constantly referencing Mark Noll in his argument that there are no major issues left between Protestants and Catholics. I think this review will be helpful to reference him to. Thanks!

BTW, the two recent posts on baptism have been very encouraging.

Ray Van Neste said...

Thanks, Joseph. It is encouraging to know the posts are helpful.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that in conversation concerning the specifics of Catholicism and Protestantism as well as differing views among a meld of denominations, I have found that the differences are often down played as non-essentials to our faith. The common response that I have heard sounds like this, "All these debates and disagreements over differing doctrines and such really don't matter that much. What matters is the Gospel of Jesus Christ." Of course I am summarizing within my quotation but I am sure you are familiar with this response. Indeed all things should point to the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. I guess the problem for me comes from the disconnect between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and doctrine. I would agree that there are certain issues that are non-essentials and unclear to some degree. But Tozer states it well by saying that our view of God shapes who we are as Christians and what we believe. A correct view of God results in correct doctrine. The two are directly connected. That means that these differences are quite important to who we are as Christians because they are tied to our understanding of the Gospel. This should challenge each one of us to dig deeper into the Scriptures in order that we may know God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I think I might have gone on a little rabbit chase. Oh well, I always enjoy a good stroll. :)

Ray Van Neste said...

Good to hear from you Jeff!

Dan Sullivan said...

I've been reading Noll's book and have been studying the Catholic/Protestant/Orthodox situation for about four years. The point raised by Jeff Lash raises the next question, who decides which doctrines are "essential". Noll's point is that on the Authority of Scripture and Justification by Grace through faith, Rome has moved most of the way to the Protestant position. Luther felt those were the essential points of disagreement, so our situation today is entirely changed.

As for how to determine what is essential, I am a big fan of Thomas Oden. His discovery of Vincent of Lerins' dictum "Always, everywhere and by all" seems very sensible. Instead of all of us reading scripture for ourselves, by reading it in the company of the whole of church history and exegesis we avoid a lot of the rabbit trails - and in my mind, Marian doctrines, purgatory and transubstantiation can be seen as developments of the middle ages and not as "essential".

Catholics are moving toward a more Biblically dominant approach in some ways and Protestants are rediscovering the patristic fathers. Both developments are a good thing.

Ray Van Neste said...

Thanks for commenting, Dan.
My mainpoint of difference is that I do not think "Rome has moved most of the way to the Protestant position" on justification ans scripture. The official statements of Rome remain opposed to sola scripture and the historic Protestant understanding of justification.
To decide that "Marian doctrines, purgatory and transubstantiation" are not essential isfine but they are integral to the Roman view. Therefore I cannot accept the ROman view. Anoutsider cannot determine for Rome what she will hold as essential. Rome has not allowed the sidelining of transubstantiation and its view of mass.