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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Is the Reformation Over?

From a conservative Catholic perspective, the answer to the question above is obvious: no, the Reformation isn't over. The Reformation won't be over until all of Christendom is united in one visible body. A Post-Reformation Church might be composed of different Churches with their own unique disciplines and worship styles, but all these Churches would, like the various members of the Catholic Communion today, be united in their diversity through a central college of bishops, among whom the Bishop of Rome would be, at least, "first among equals." (Well, okay, that's my dream for church unity. You might have another one!)

Not surprisingly, given the above vision, Mark Noll and Caroline Nystrom see ecclesiology as the largest remaining barrier to Catholic-Evangelical unity. Their book Is the Reformation Over? suggests that if we could get Catholics and Evangelicals to agree on what the Church is and what it does, the Reformation might be over. But as they point out, it take considerable humility on both sides and a great deal of change of heart and mind to achieve this point. It may not be possible in the foreseeable future. If it happens, it will be a miracle, a gift from God.

But Noll and Nystrom also suggest that there are some ways in which the Reformation is over. In what might be the book's most controversial paragraph, they claim that:

. . . 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 concious 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. (232)

Whether or not readers agree with this assessment of the justification issue probably determines whether or not readers liked Noll and Nystrom's assessment of Catholic-Evangelical relations. There are, apparently, plenty of Evangelical critics of the book who feel Noll and Nystrom have compromised the Gospel. There may be Catholic readers who think they have white-washed the differences in soteriology. Personally, I think they are substantially correct about the level of agreement on the basic issue of how we are saved- but I think that there are some key phrases that need to be highlighted.

First of all, when we talk about what is "actually taught," we mean in official catechisms and confessions, not what is taught in RE, CCD, or Sunday School classes. What is officially taught by a denomination does not, sadly, always correspond to what is actually believed by large numbers of its members. (Though I have in mind the flagrant failure of Catholic education when I say this, I don't mean to imply that the problems are one-sided. I rather suspect that they are not.)

Secondly, the point about using different languages is a vital point which must not be forgotten. No matter how much they agree, Catholics and Evangelicals just don't talk about or -I would argue- even think about salvation in the same terms. Catholics today often talk and think about justification in terms of adoption or in terms of a sharing of life in Christ. We use organic metaphors drawn from Johannine literature or the homely metaphors of the Synoptic Gospels more often than the courtroom language of Paul. And really, the fact that Bible includes the Gospels as well as the writings of Paul ought to have clued us all in to the fact that there is no one reigning model of justification in the New Testament. Despite that, the issue of forensic metaphors versus organic or familial metaphors may be one of the largest barriers to discussions on justification. Perhaps part of the problem is that we forget that these are metaphors for salvation, not detailed, scientifically accurate descriptions of what happens when we are saved.

Even if Noll and Nystrom are right about the degree of agreement on justification, this agreement is far from universal. Before we tackle the "next step" of talking about what the Church is, we may have to do some extra work to disseminate the results of recent ecumenical dialogue on the subject of salvation. Noll and Nystrom's book, though it is not focused only on this issue, may be a step in that direction. As such, I highly recommend it.


Blogger Kevin Jones said...

To what point can an Evangelical church actually claim to be part of the Reformation in the first place? As far as I know, contemporary Evangelicalism can't be nailed down into the Calvinist or Lutheran or Anabaptist categories. Evangelicals are generally spin-offs of spin-offs, right?

I feel the old-line Reformation churches should be the first ones to answer Noll's question, rather than the Evangelicals.

10:53 PM  

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