White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Countdown to Reformation Day: Is the Reformation Over?

Release date:

May 24, 2017

Michael Horton Q & A with Mark Noll

Mark Noll is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame and author of multiple books, including The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1995) and Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Baker Academic, 2008) with Carolyn Nystrom, which is the subject of this interview.

One of the questions you probably expect curmudgeonly Reformation-oriented folks like us to ask is how exactly you’re defining “Reformation” here when you ask,”Is the Reformation over?” It seems that the basis for recent Protestant-Roman Catholic cooperation has been the culture wars and shared political sociocultural concerns. Do you really think the Reformation is over if it’s defined in doctrinal terms?
That’s a very pertinent question, because not only since 2004, but actually for decades, there was a great deal of what I think Francis Schaeffer used to call co-belligerency between culturally conservative evangelicals and culturally conservative Catholics. So, yes, your concern about doctrine is really what we’re focusing on, and in defining the Reformation, we did not use any of the formulas of the sixteenth century, but rather we’re looking for Christ-centered, Bible-centered, grace-centered religion. Of course, as wishy-washy historians, we don’t really actually ever answer our question in the book; but I think our conclusion would be that all Protestants, even those who pride themselves on being the strongest representatives of Reformation Christianity, need to be more Christ-centered, more Bible-centered, and more grace-centered. Yet, on the other hand, many manifestations of the Roman Catholic Church have moved in the past forty or fifty years toward more obviously stressing the Bible, Christ, and grace in their presentation of the Christian faith.

What would you say to a critic who might argue that by going back to the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation and those definitions—rather than focusing on whether there is a Christ-centered emphasis, a Bible-centered emphasis, a grace-centered emphasis—you would reveal something completely different? Certainly the Reformers would never have said that Rome wasn’t Christ-centered or that they didn’t believe in grace or in the Bible.
I do remember reading Martin Luther’s great tracts of 1520, particularly the tract on the pope in Rome in which he calls the pope the antichrist, and the reason he calls the pope the antichrist is strictly spelled out. It’s not that the pope claimed to have authority over all Christians, or that the pope claimed to be descended from the apostles, but because the pope violated the mandate of the church to present Christ to the people. So to Luther the pope was the antichrist because he stood in the way of Jesus Christ working with the people. I do think that the more general definition we propose is one that, while not strictly fitting with the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation, is more or less in line with that sixteenth-century teaching. I should hasten to add a footnote that one of the books I enjoyed working on most in my academic life was preparing Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation (Regent College, 2004) for use by students.

I’m pressing this a little further because I’m thinking of the solas in the hallmarks of the Reformation. It wasn’t because the Reformers didn’t think Rome believed in Christ, grace, faith, or Scripture, but that Rome didn’t believe in Christ alone as the basis for the believer standing before God, or grace alone as the moving cause, or faith alone as the instrumental cause. For instance, you write: “The Catholic catechism provides a substantial outline of Christian orthodoxy; it upholds God as Trinity, Jesus as wholly human and wholly divine, born of a virgin, crucified for our salvation.” But then you add, “It speaks of justification by grace through faith, and entirely as a gift from God.” That doesn’t seem, at least according to my reading, to be an innovation. The really difficult thing between Rome and the Reformers was that qualifier “alone.” Not that we’re justified by faith and grace, but alone. Am I right?
I’m not going to contest your interpretation of the sixteenth century, because I know I’m walking among experts here. But when I read statements such as, “Believing in Jesus Christ and in the one who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation; faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man,” I’m hearing something that sounds more like sixteenth-century formulations of Christian salvation than many formulations to be heard from Protestants today—not necessarily always Protestants in the Lutheran and Calvinist traditions, but many others. When I see that kind of declaration compared with the anathemas of Trent, I see a change.

You’re familiar with the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation, which remains a controversial document. What they jointly assert is,

Together we confess by grace alone by faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works. Faith is itself God’s gift through the Holy Spirit who works through word and sacrament in the community of believers and who at the same time leads believers into that eternal renewal of life, which God will bring to completion in eternal life.

That statement, which has been approved by the Vatican as part of the Joint Declaration, may not be crossing every t and dotting every i of what Luther would have done, but it is much closer than anything that Protestants could have expected to hear from Catholics between the Council of Regensburg in 1541 and the present.

And we are certainly looking for every sign of encouragement. In my own comments about the Joint Declaration, I thought it really did display some surprising moves on Rome’s part. Didn’t it also, however, show some surprising moves on the part of the Lutheran World Federation when they defined faith as obedience or faith as love?
It is defined as love, but only after it’s defined as belief in Christ. I’m a Calvinist who likes Charles Wesley, so I’ve never felt that faith active in love is a bad formula. I think the trade-off of the Joint Declaration was for a stronger statement from the Catholics than the Protestants might have expected on sola fide and sola gratia, and a stronger statement from the Lutherans on the necessity of faith being active in love.

Let me ask, for clarification, do you mean faith active in love as a formula for sanctification or for justification?
You put your finger on what is a legitimate difference, because as you know in the Catholic tradition that important distinction between justification and sanctification was worked out, I think, more clearly by Calvin than even by Luther. That distinction is not a strong one historically in the Catholic Church, so I think there still needs to be some bringing together of vocabularies. But I do think it was quite clearly spelled out in the Joint Declaration and spelled out at greater length in the Catholic catechism. You do have a statement of salvation by grace through faith, and it comes close to grace alone, and it certainly states explicitly that faith is not a human work by which the gospel is apprehended; faith is a gift itself of the gospel, by which the gospel is apprehended. Maybe that wouldn’t have been quite an A+ in Geneva or Wittenberg, but that’s very good in the United States of America in our day.

That’s one thing that struck me as I was reflecting on your comments in Is the Reformation Over? Tell me if this is correct: it is easier for us to see and applaud similarities between Reformation and Catholic positions on some of these matters in light of the virtual Pelagianism of American religion. In America’s God (Oxford University Press, 2005), you explain something that is unfortunately true about American revivalism when you write, “It is not an exaggeration to claim that this nineteenth-century Protestant evangelicalism differed from the religion of the Protestant Reformation as much as sixteenth-century Reformation Protestantism differed from the Roman Catholic theology from which it emerged.” I think that’s profound, but aren’t you really saying, then, that a Pelagian American religion (or what has been called “Protestantism without the Reformation”) doesn’t look that different from contemporary Roman Catholicism, which is at least semi-Augustinian?
I would actually say that, but that’s not how I would say it. I don’t think I would imply the kind of concession I hear you implying. But yes, I do believe that given the state of modern religion, something nearly Augustinian is really very good. I would hate to say that the standards for sixteenth-century Protestant orthodoxy would need to be scrutinized.

But what about the sections, for instance, side by side with some of those you quoted? I’m thinking of sections I’ve read in the Catholic catechism that say that our first justification is by grace alone, we have an increase of justification as we cooperate with grace, and then our final justification is through grace and merit?
Right. I actually think what’s happening there is that Catholics use one word for what over the past five centuries Protestants have talked about in terms of justification and sanctification. Scholars have written some sharp things on the developments in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council, and have made very clear that some confusion between Catholics and Protestants is due to the fact that Catholics use the term “justification” for the entire process of salvation, whereas classical Protestants divide up faith as defined by justification and sanctification.

Do you think this is just a terminology problem?
I think the quotation you cite is. I actually think there are some harder things to accept for Bible-believing, Christ-centered Protestants in the catechism than the statements about justification.

Merit as a category—that is, human merit as playing an essential role in our justification—is not, you would say, a church-dividing issue?
I don’t think I would say that. You’re pushing me beyond areas of my competence, but I actually think the vocabulary of merit had become so corrupt by the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that it became impossible for Protestants to shape or express any part of the Christian faith with the vocabulary of merit. In the Catholic tradition, there were better and worse uses of the vocabulary of merit; and in the better uses, what was happening was what I would call a legitimate missiological expression of Christian faith in the categories of the Middle Ages. I’m actually glad the Protestants jettisoned the vocabulary of merit, but I think there’s a more benign strand that’s always used in Catholicism in the use of the vocabulary of merit.

What are you hoping is the outcome of this book?
I’d like particularly evangelical Protestants who have been aware of developments in Catholicism to take a closer look at those changes. We are ambiguous at the end about answering the question of our title, Is the Reformation Over? The key point I want to accomplish with the book is better awareness by evangelicals of what is happening in the Catholic Church, and what possibilities now exist for fruitful dialogue and cooperation, not just on cultural matters but on matters coming much closer to the heart of the Christian faith.