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Has The Reformation Ended? An Interview with Dr.
Mark Noll | September 24, 2005
Mark Noll is the Carolyn and Fred McManis Professor of Christian Thought
at Wheaton College. An Evangelical Protestant, Noll is widely regarded
as one of the finest Christian historians writing today. He has authored
numerous books, including Americas God: From Jonathan Edwards
to Abraham Lincoln, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, A
History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, The Rise
of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys,
and Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity.
Dr. Noll graduated from Wheaton as an English major and matriculated from
Vanderbilt with his Ph.D. in the History of Christianity in 1975. He has
been on the Wheaton College faculty since 1979 and is the co-founder and
present director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals
at Wheaton College. In recent years Dr. Noll has been a visiting teacher
at Harvard Divinity School, University of Chicago Divinity School, Westminster
Theological Seminary, and Regent College of Vancouver, B.C.
His most recent book, co-authored with Carolyn
Nystrom, is titled Is
The Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman
Catholicism (Baker Academic, 2005).
Carl E. Olson, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com, recently
interviewed Dr. Noll and spoke with him about his new book.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What was the main objective in writing Is The
Reformation Over? Who is it primarily meant for?
Dr. Mark Noll: Carolyn Nystrom and I were trying to combine historical
analysis and theological explanation with a little in-house exhortation.
The prompt was what appeared to me (an observer of current events and
a long-time teacher of courses in the general history of Christianity)
as remarkable changes underway for about forty years and as a crying need
to provide some assessment of these changes. The main audience was evangelical
Protestants who may not have been fully alert to recent changes and their
meaning. (As a sign of the times, it is necessary to specify "evangelical
Protestants" since there are now a fair number of self-designated
"evangelical Catholics," both in the U.S. and abroad).
IgnatiusInsight.com: What might a Catholic gain from reading the book?
Noll: A Catholic would certainly find out how two evangelical Protestants
perceived and evaluated their religion and its practice in the current
moment. A Catholic might also find out a little bit more about the Catholic
faith, either by self-consciously disagreeing with what we had to say
about Catholicism or by following us as we studied documents like the
of the Catholic Church that (maybe) some Catholics have not perused
as extensively as we did in preparing this book.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Comparing Catholic-Evangelical relations in the 1950s
to those of today, what significant differences can be found?
Noll: There are several differences:
Much more political cooperation between Catholics and evangelicals
as determined by left-right political designations (i.e., conservative
Catholics and conservative evangelicals cooperating, liberal Catholics
and liberal Protestants, etc.)
Much more evangelical respect for at least some Catholic leaders,
primarily Pope John Paul II, but also Mother Teresa or (among academics)
Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntryebut many more as well.
Many more opportunities for ordinary religious connection, primarily
(I think) in neighborhood Bible studies conducted by women.
Many more ad hoc or parachurch activities, like the Alpha
Program, that draw Catholics and evangelicals together in common work
for common goals.
Quite a bit more formal cooperation (as the Evangelicals
and Catholics Together initiative) and many more occasions of dialogue
(as those sponsored by the Vatican, but many more less official ones as
Much more awareness among at least some evangelicals of Catholic
writing (as with InterVarsity Presss "Ancient
Christian Commentary" series).
IgnatiusInsight.com: How much did cultural/social changes in the 1960s
and 70s positively affect Catholic-Evangelical relations? From an
Evangelical perspective, what impact did the Second Vatican Council have
on Catholic-Evangelical relations?
Noll: We make the case in the book that changes stemming from the
Second Vatican Council are the deepest changes and the ones that will
likely have longest-lasting religious effects, but also that some of the
cultural-social changes of the 60s and 70s (opposition to
Roe v. Wade, "Catholics for Reagan", etc.) were and probably
remain more visible, at least to the general media.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Many Catholics are (understandably) confused by what
distinguishes Fundamentalism from Evangelicalism. How much of the difference
comes from different attitudes toward ecumenism in general and the Catholic
Church in particular?
Noll: This has become a tricky question since at least some self-described
"fundamentalists" have become militant culture warriors, and
when that happens conservative Protestants of whatever kind generally
begin to look to some politically conservative Catholics with respect.
In general, however, I think it would be fair to say that among self-described
"fundamentalists" one is more likely to find views about Roman
Catholicism shaped by post-Reformation polemics (e.g., Rome as the whore
of Babylon or the Anti-Christ). By contrast, among self-described "evangelicals"
there is more likely to be a willingness to find areas of agreement, like
on the Trinity or the sanctity of life, even though among self-described
evangelicals there still would be a wide range of opinions on Catholicism
ranging from considerable suspicion to open appreciation.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You write: "If Christ and his church are one,
then a great deal of Catholic doctrine simply follows naturally. In a
word, ecclesiology represents the crucial difference between evangelicals
and Catholics." While many Evangelical theologians clearly understand
this, how well do you think this is understood by the average Evangelical?
Would most Evangelicals consider Mary, or the Eucharist, or the Papacy
as more of a stumbling block than different understandings of the nature
Noll: Since Carolyn Nystrom and I did not come to this conclusionor
at least see it clearlyuntil wed been working on this book
for about a year and a half (and after Id been teaching a whole
lot of Catholic history for thirty years), I would have to say most evangelicals,
of whatever degree of education, probably would not put it as we did.
For most evangelicals, the problem with Catholics and Mary would be the
direct suspicion that Catholics seem to insert Mary into the Trinity rather
than that Mary (as first of the faithful) stands for the Body of Christ
in the world and so deserves the respect she is accorded. Likewise, for
most evangelicals the problem with the papacy is over-reaching in claims
for papal infallibility rather than defining the pope as vicar of Christ
as so head of Christs Body on earth.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Almost all of the theological issues (Marian doctrines,
the sacraments, the ordained priesthood, ecclesiology, etc.) that Evangelicals
find troublesome about Catholicism are also areas of disagreement between
Evangelicals and Eastern Orthodox (and the ancient Oriental churches).
What sort of challenge does this pose to an Evangelical assessment of
the historical validity of core Evangelical beliefs such as sola fide,
sola scriptura, and total depravity?
Noll: There is a growing wedge of well-informed evangelicals very
aware of the implications of this question (those working on the InterVarsity
Press series mentioned earlier, for example, or Daniel Williams of Baylor,
a Baptist who has written two books challenging evangelicals to value
tradition much more highly). And there have been a steady trickle of converts
to Orthodoxy from evangelical churches over the last quarter century (including
two young men from my own congregation of the Evangelical Presbyterian
Church). But by and large, Eastern Orthodoxy remains terra incognita
to the huge mass of evangelicals and so the nice theological challenges,
as youve posed them, have barely begun to register.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Is The Reformation Over? contains a section
about former notable Evangelicals (Scott
and Kimberly Hahn, Thomas Howard,
Peter Kreeft, etc.) who have
become Catholic in recent years. Although they offer criticisms, they
have a very ecumenical attitude toward Evangelicalism. Are there counterparts,
so to speak, within Evangelicalismformer Catholics who became Evangelical
because of serious theological reflection and who now engage in ecumenical
dialogue with Catholics, either formally or informally?
Noll: Im sure there must be, but most of the ex-Catholics I
know or know about tend to be pretty severe on their Catholic past. Most
ex-Catholic evangelicals of my acquaintance were not well catechized,
and often their Catholic experience was nominal, mechanical, or (in some
instances) abusive; by contrast, many ex-evangelical Catholics reasoned
themselves into Catholicism from articulate evangelical positions. That
difference helps explain the contrast in "ex"s (if, in fact,
my experience speaks to a general situation).
IgnatiusInsight.com: Your book outlines Evangelical criticisms of the
Catholic Church, but it also contains strong criticisms of Evangelical
weaknesses. What are some of those criticisms, what do you hope they might
accomplish, and do they carry on in some way the work of internal criticism
you engage in your controversial but widely acclaimed book, The Scandal
of the Evangelical Mind?
Noll: The quick answer is "yes." In The Scandal of the
Evangelical Mind I implored evangelicals to value tradition more highly,
to combine communal with individual approaches to society, to think of
intellectual life as a possible vocation, and to expect affectional Christianity
and intellectual Christianity to support each other. For each of these
goals, Ive found some Catholic influences or models quite helpful.
And since I really do believe in "the communion of saints,"
I expect different streams of Christian tradition (or different "languages"
as I tried to define them in the book) to be instructive to other streams.
IgnatiusInsight.com: If you had to hazard a guess, what might Catholic-Evangelical
relations look like in another fifty years?
Noll: Historians make awful prophets, but also sometimes rush in where
angels fear to tread. So
.I think there will be a growing "evangelical"
element within the Catholic church, with whom some Protestant evangelicals
will have deepening connections. I do not expect, however, that this evangelical
element within Catholicism will become dominant in the Church. I expect
more pluralism to develop within Catholicism, which opens up broader possibilities
for social, educational, and political cooperation between many evangelicals
and a fairly broad swath of conservative and moderate Catholics. But I
also expect other Catholicssome moderates, most liberals, and some
pre-Vatican II conservativesto become even more nervous about contact
with evangelicals. Putting things another way, Catholicism and evangelicalism
are both fairly fluid at the present time; depending on how things develop
in each of these communions will go a long way toward saying whether mutually
instructive contact expands or contracts.
Christianity Todays review
of Is The Reformation Over?
Thomas Howard and
the Kindly Light | IgnatiusInsight.com
Obstacles, Acceptance: An Interview with J. Budziszewski | IgnatiusInsight.com
Thomas Howard on
the Meaning of Tradition | IgnatiusInsight.com
Peter Kreeft | IgnatiusInsight.com
Thomas Howard | IgnatiusInsight.com
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