Protestant Author Asks: Is the Reformation Over?

Mark Noll on Catholics and Evangelicals’ Improving Relationship

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WHEATON, Illinois, OCT. 5, 2005 ( From antagonists following the Reformation to allies in recent years, Catholics and evangelical Protestants are forming new bonds and identifying points of common Christian affirmation.

So says Mark Noll, the McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, senior adviser to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, and co-author of «Is The Reformation Over?: An Evangelical Assessment Of Contemporary Roman Catholicism» (Baker Publishing Group) with Carolyn Nystrom.

Noll shared with ZENIT how he thinks Catholics and evangelicals are bridging the gap — and what may still stand in the way of Christian unity.

Q: What evidence have you seen of an increasingly warm relationship between Catholics and evangelicals recently? Could you briefly describe what has been the relationship between the two groups in the past?

Noll: Historically, evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics were antagonists.

From shortly after the beginning of the Reformation in the 1520s until the 1960s, the standard Protestant picture was that the Catholic Church had perverted Christianity, and the standard Catholic picture was that Protestants had wrecked Christianity.

Although it is possible to find views with more nuances in the intervening centuries, things began to change seriously only in the 1950s and 1960s. Evidence of those changes abounds on every side.

More and more evangelicals and Catholics take part in ad hoc or para-church religious movements such as Alpha.

More and more contacts for cooperation have been made in political matters, especially between culturally conservative Catholics and culturally conservative evangelicals, but also on some questions between culturally liberal Catholics and culturally liberal Protestants.

There is more evangelical respect for leading Catholics such as Mother Teresa and John Paul II and more Catholic respect for leading evangelicals such as Billy Graham.

Many evangelicals in academic life benefit from instruction or models from Catholic intellectuals such as Alasdair MacIntyre or Charles Taylor, and at least a few Catholic academics benefit from the work of Protestant intellectuals such as Alvin Plantinga.

In many local neighborhoods, home Bible studies — usually organized by women for women — draw in both Catholics and evangelicals to study the Scriptures together.

Formal dialogues, as initiated by the Vatican after the Second Vatican Council, have helped reduce tensions, as have a large and growing number of opportunities for Catholics and evangelicals to dialogue more informally in many different settings.

Informal but visible movements like Evangelicals and Catholics Together also have spotlighted opportunities for cooperation.

Q: What issues in particular are bringing evangelicals and Catholics together? Perhaps concerns about same-sex marriage and the rising hostility toward traditional marriage?

Noll: High-visibility political issues such as opposition to abortion-on-demand and to same-sex marriage have definitely played a role.

My co-author, Carolyn Nystrom, and I feel, however, that seismic changes in religious matters may be even more important.

We have seen evidence for at least some Catholics and some evangelicals to identify points of common Christian affirmation — on the Trinity, on the work of Christ in redeeming sinners, on the truth-telling character of the Bible — and then, on that basis, to advance in dialogue concerning remaining differences, but also cooperation in a wide number of social and religious matters.

Q: To what extent have long-standing hostilities of evangelicals toward Catholics been really overcome?

Noll: The best answer, I think, would have to be «to some extent.» Just today I received two e-mails within minutes of each other.

One was a review in a Canadian paper in which the author more or less celebrated the breaking down of former hostilities between the two camps. The other was a long list of about 30 Bible passages that the compiler, an ex-Catholic who had become an evangelical, was presenting to demonstrate how wicked and dangerous the Catholic Church remained.

I think these two e-mails would represent poles of evangelical attitudes toward Catholics, but it would be possible to find positions at every intermediate point along the spectrum between these two poles.

Q: Is there anything in particular that evangelicals find attractive about the Catholic Church? Its social doctrine? The magisterium of John Paul II?

Noll: Evangelical churches tend to be populist and not overly intellectual, but among evangelical academics I think there is growing respect for Catholic intellectual traditions like the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas or the social teaching of Leo XIII.

Certainly it is the case that many evangelicals admired John Paul II for his courageous life of service under the Nazis and communists and also for his obvious Christian piety as Pontiff.

Carolyn Nystrom and I both have quite a few personal acquaintances who also have come to value tradition more highly, to stress the corporate dimensions of Christian faith and to enjoy Christian literature from the whole of the Church’s past.

In all of such folk there is almost inevitably more respect for at least some aspects of Catholic tradition and some leading exemplars in Catholic history.

And it goes almost without saying that on many hot-button cultural-political issues such as opposition to abortion-on-demand, many evangelicals have been greatly stimulated by Catholic leaders.

Q: What is the general feeling of evangelicals toward Mary? Are they warming to her? What obstacles remain?

Noll: Mary remains a sticking point for a number of reasons. With our strong focus on Christ as the only redeemer of sinners, we evangelicals are nervous about any talk concerning Mary that makes her sound like a savior.

Practically speaking, what I think most Catholics consider devotion to Mary is perceived by evangelicals as worship of Mary.

In addition, evangelicals by and large do not grasp what is spelled out about Mary pretty clearly in documents such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Mary stands as first among the faithful in the Bride of Christ.

That is, the centrality of Mary in the Church and the identification of the Church with Christ are Catholic convictions that most evangelicals do not understand. Such issues are very sensitive because they combine refined doctrine and popular practice.

On such issues, some progress has probably been made through the efforts of Catholic leaders to spell out carefully what Catholic tradition really does and does not affirm about Mary.

Evangelicals who take the time to study such careful statements come away reassured, as least somewhat, about Catholic practice, but attitudes toward Mary remain a major difference between the two traditions.
Especially among earnest lay believers — who know very well what practices they treasure, or fear, but cannot offer sophisticated theological explanations — potential for mutual suspicion remains high.

Q: What is the significance of current Catholic-evangelical interaction in today’s divided Christendom?

Noll: Christian believers, whether Catholic or evangelicals, who believe in «the communion of saints» should be heartened by new levels of discussion, mutual instruction, and dialogue that had not been achieved since early in the 16th century.

My own sense is that, as Western cultures become increasingly secular, it is easier for believers of different types to affirm together basic Christian teachings — on the Trinity, on Christ as Word of God, on the Scriptures as authoritative revelation from God — while nonetheless still being able to recognize that serious differences still separate the major
streams of Christian tradition.

From another angle, as the Christian faith advances so rapidly in parts of the world that did not pass through the Reformation and Counter-Reformation — much of Africa, Asia and the Pacific — these newer Christian movements do not have the same investment in old religious quarrels as Western Catholics and Protestants.

They are more concerned about Christian faith in response to difficulties today and far less concerned about historical differences. When this attitude spins back to the West, ancient antagonisms fade in importance.

Carolyn and I came to the conclusion as we worked on the book that because both the Catholic Church and the evangelical world are both facing rapid changes, it is hard to predict the future.

It is likely, however, that connections between a certain type of evangelical and a certain type of Catholic will continue to expand and deepen, although I don’t think we would make that prediction for all evangelicals and all Catholics as a whole.

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